The Trouble with Superheroes

Exercise, Training, Consistency, Everyday, Movement

Who wants to be “super”? Who doesn’t?

Full disclosure time: I read comic books. I watch TV shows and movies about superheroes. I enjoy that tremendously. I also read “real” books, some that aren’t science-fiction or fantasy, or even about fitness and health. I also watch other types of movies (but watch very little TV in general).

This topic is coming about through serendipity: On the one hand, I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit since visiting the JFK Museum a year ago, where I was struck by the Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy initiative for health and fitness back in the 1960s. On the other hand, I’m currently enrolled in a course on edX called The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture.

Yes, I also take courses from time to time. Also, the latest Avengers movie recently came out. And they were my favorite superheroes when I was a kid. That’s quite enough disclosure for now.

It’s a simple, fairly well known observation that comic books and stories about superheroes are a great form of escapism. Not just for kids. They are fun distractions from the daily grind. They manage to make us dream a little. We sure need that once in a while.

In some cases, they inspire us to accomplish much. Many have pursued dreams of becoming athletes, scientists, journalists, doctors, soldiers, and other occupations (though probably never lawyers and politicians) based on the stories they read in comic books as children.

And that’s great.

Or is it?

Yes, actually, it is. Being inspired like that is a good thing. That’s one of the prime benefits of fiction. But not everyone reacts the same way, both consciously and sub-consciously, to fiction. Especially to fiction about, or featuring, superheroes.

Allow me to explain.

Becoming a Superhero

Here’s where I think there is a problem with superheroes in particular, and the stories, be they in comic books, on the television, or on the big screen, that feature them: There’s always a secret sauce, a previously unknown causation device (known as a “ghost in the machine” in the jargon) that comes from outside the characters and without which there is simply no story.

In the case of superheroes, the main such plot device is about how they became “super.” It is a pernicious plot device because, no matter how much one tries, no matter how much effort one puts into preparing, the outcome is, ultimately, up to chance alone. But how often do normal folks acquire special abilities as a result of an accident? (Answer: Never. On the contrary. And too many have tried, so don’t.)

Stories, Training, Exercise

Inspiration, but also sub-conscious lessons.

I dare you to find a single superhero character that did not become “super” by some freak accident (of birth, of being bitten by something, of having something radioactive spilled on him or her, etc.) or that does not benefit from being extremely rich (typically by birthright) or extremely intelligent (innate trait). Or a combination thereof.

Basically, I dare you to find a (major) superhero that became that way through long years of training, without any money, just barely making do with minimal support and resources.

No, Batman does not count: Yes, he trained hard and for many years, or so the story goes, but he’s super-rich, and can afford lots of cool gadgets which he did not have to invent. Similarly for Green Arrow. Ironman is a combination of super-smart and super-rich, without any effort. Etc. You get the gist.

And those who were born on Krypton or elsewhere, or were given powers by mysterious extra-terrestrial entities, etc., simply abound in the same direction.

Let’s face it, the message superheroes propagate is that one does not train to become super; it is simply something that happens to you. Or that you are born into.

Which begs the question:

If I’m not super (or fit, or an athlete, or really really smart already), why should I bother work at it? Why should I train my body or my mind to become better? Might as well just drink beer and watch football on TV… – Anonymous

Superpowers, not Supertraining

In fact, I think I noticed a troubling trend that amplifies what I’m talking about.

Even when the story talks about training, it if often after one becomes a superhero. As maintenance. And when the story relates the training that took place before becoming a superhero, it used to be (in comic books) that it took a really long time (e.g. Batman again); but now, in TV and films, it seems mere months, when not just weeks, of training will turn someone of no skill (and precious little fitness) into a tough crime-fighting vigilante (e.g. TV series The Arrow).

Take another example of the same thing, but from another realm of fiction, and quite similar: In the Star Wars series, we are made to think it takes training from childhood to become a Jedi as an adult. Yet Luke Skywalker is able to achieve it with a few months of discovering his powers (the Force, in this case) and at most a few days of training with Yoda.

No wonder consistency, long practice, and the respectful following of a coach’s instructions is so under-valued nowadays.

C’mon, I want to be a sub-10 hours Ironman triathlete, and I want it now. Gimme a training program that will take me there in 6 weeks, and, by the way, I’m going to listen to every other bit of advice I can find out there, and try lots of different things at the same time… – also Anonymous, but a different one

As a coach, it makes you want to dunk the athlete in radioactive, mutagenic goo. Whatever that is. With an extra-dose of magically enhanced plant enzymes for good measure. Whatever that does.

I Need a (Super)Hero

Seriously again. When it comes to fitness and health, the subconscious message we get from these superhero stories is two-pronged:

  1. Most of what you are, what you are capable of, is innate. Or the result of freak accidents. That’s just the way the world works.
  2. If you train, you should expect results to be both very quick, and very dramatic. No need for long years of honing skills and becoming fit. Fitness, more often than not approximated by weight loss, should be almost instantaneous. Or take no longer than the duration of a TV show’s season.

It makes us look for quick fixes. At the very least, it makes us believe those who tell us their 90 days program, their 60 days program, their 4 weeks program, etc., will get us looking and feeling fantastic. (Like one of the Fantastic 4: stretchy and nimble, or hot like fire, or bulky-muscular like The Thing.)

In the end, we are looking for a silver bullet, for a hero, to save us from poor health. Just because it seems to work that way. We are thus constantly looking for that super solution; the next one must be the right one. We enter a vicious cycle; a kind of prison of the expectations. A prison of our own making.

The Truth Shall Set You Free

What is the truth that shall set you free? It is this: It takes time, and effort.

Just how much time, and how much effort, depends on each person’s genetic make-up, as well as on whether the person gets helped by a coach or not.

So, in a sense, some of it is innate. It does come easier for some. We each have some predisposition for some types of activities. I’ve touched upon that before.

But all of us can become much better everyday athletes, to the point of being true heroes of our own health, families, and society around us, by exercising regularly, consistently.

So move, train, and exercise more. That’s the ticket. After all, the extra weight and the shortness of breath when trying to run for a minute did not come all of a sudden; they happened gradually over many years of too little activity.

And when you need to rest, because training requires proper recovery, I know just what you can do to spend a bit of quiet time: Pick up a comic book, and let your mind dream a little. It won’t hurt, as long as you remember that it is pure fantasy.

Training, Exercise, Regularly, Everyday

You want a piece of me? You’d better train hard. And eat a lot of… gamma radiation.

Images from Pixabay.

P.S.: Regarding the dare, a couple of superheroes come to mind, but I wasn’t about to let that get in the way of the argument’s flow. Besides, they are fairly minor, and don’t have “super” powers: Black Widow and Hawkeye, two so-called “master assassins.” I wish we had more stories about how they trained, and how long it took, for them to become what they are in the Avengers’ world. But keep in mind that they also use super gadgets, which they must have had someone finance for them… Just sayin’…

How do you measure success?

Exercise, Success, Everyday, Psychology, Training

Winning. Is it everything? Is it even all it is cooked up to be?

I’ve written about this before. Or perhaps I just talk about it so much that I think I’ve written about it before. But seeing as the Boston marathon was just a few weeks ago, that quite a few people I know ran it, and that with summer around the corner, there’s lots of talk of running and races, why the heck should I not repeat myself?

Especially on such an important topic.

The Tired Old Way

How do you measure success in endeavors such as running, cycling, cross-country skiing, swimming, or, of course, triathlon (to name just a few of those highly competitive “timed” sports)? Your answer is likely to be along the lines of “very simply: by whether one wins the race or not, duh!”

Indeed, if ever there was an area where measuring success, or performance, seems very straightforward, it is in events that are objectively measured by duration. (This post is therefore not about any of those “sports” where style, form, technique, and other subjective aspects are being scored. They might be very difficult to master, highly demanding, and quite enjoyable things to watch, but I’m not going to talk about them.)

If you’ve ever participated in a race of some sort, I bet you’ve been asked by at least one person (who was not joking about it) whether you won or not. It seems a natural thing to ask about in our society that celebrates victory and watching winners take all. But is that really the only way of evaluating the success of people taking part in such physical activities?

Allow me to have strong doubts about it, and a few minutes to try to convince you. Because, as much as it is commendable to strive hard and win races, being obsessed with winning is not healthy. You only have to observe the number of times people have cheated in order to qualify for Boston, even cheated to win it (or other races), to see that the winning obsession brings out the worst in us. (It is to the point where, either from misplaced pride or jealousy, fellow performance runners become very skeptical of anyone who claims to qualify for Boston. For instance, this recent article from the Runner’s World blog. But that is both very interesting in its own right, and a topic for another post.)

Valid Alternatives

So what else might there be? Here are a few possible answers:

Why not “going past our own limits”? To train hard, sacrifice much time and money to get into better shape, and finally be able to go farther, last longer, and feel better than we did. Surely that is a form of success worth celebrating. That we must celebrate, in fact.

How about being able to cover a certain distance in less time than previously possible? Measuring, in pure objectivity, an improvement in performance, even if said performance is not of a winning races type, that is surely a form of success for an athlete. And if one starts slowly enough, and improves slowly as well, it becomes possible to have success repeatedly over a long period of time…

For amateur athletes in sports like running, there appear to be many yardsticks, entirely arbitrary, that offer good alternatives: A half marathon in under two hours, a marathon in less than 4, etc. They are pretty good objectives to have, precisely because they are entirely… objective. It can provide a better frame for friendly competition, instead of the binary “winning or losing.” As long as one remains reasonable about said objectives, keeping in mind that we are all physiologically a little different.

Especially for marathon runners, to continue in that rich vein, there is of course the long shadow of the Boston Qualifier (BQ). It is like a badge of honor for runners, and as a personal objective it can be highly motivating. But since it is not necessarily a reasonable objective for everyone, it can indeed become a dark and cold place. Many start down that road with good intentions, and reasonable personal goals like those mentioned earlier, but then, at a bad turn, find themselves in the ditch of performance stress. However, if managed carefully, and as long as the goal is not to do better than others, it can be a very good measure of success.

Which brings me to the crux of the matter; to what I think is really the best measure of success of an athlete: Becoming a better human being.

The Best, So to Speak

Consider, for instance, an acquaintance of mine who just recently completed her second Boston Marathon. She trained hard, and long, to get there the first time. She suffered a great deal to reach that goal (and probably caused a bit of suffering to her husband in the process). But as a person, running has brought her tremendous benefits. She has grown, as much in personal health as in her capacity to do good around her.

Moreover, for years now she has used that energy to good ends; by being a mentor and a coach to folks who participate in the Team in Training fundraising program of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Thus, she is also serving a much greater cause, which is to fight against blood cancers (and cancers in general).

When she qualified for Boston the first time, she did not win the marathon she had entered. I know; I was there: I was her personal pace bunny. But that performance required her to go well beyond what she was previously capable of doing, running-wise.

And in doing Boston, she also did not win. But the more she runs, the more she grows, and the more she gives around her.

Success should be measured by being the best. The best human being you can be, that is.

So forget about being fast, about winning at all cost, about “qualifying” as the only worthwhile goal. Let those who seek only those things, and generally think only about their own persons, wallow in their narrow-minded attitudes. (If they have not yet driven you away because of their frustration at not quite having BQed at their latest races.)

The only yardstick that should matter is simple: Does it make you a better person?

Triathlon, Exercise, Everyday

Heck, at times, just “adding to my race bling collection” would appear a good objective. If it keeps you moving…

So move, everyday, by any means you enjoy, and pursue your own objectives. As long as it makes you better, and helps others around you more than it annoys them…

Image credits: Pixabay

Don’t let “the future” turn into “too late”

Exercise, Brain, Daily, Purpose, Future You

The forward march of evolution? Perhaps we missed a fork in the road…

Yes, we’ve come a long way. And despite the difficulty to perceive it, we are still evolving as a species. Though perhaps not as fast as our capabilities to harvest (exploit) the natural world around us. Or the structure of our society.

But it is not all bad, because our brains are also quite capable of adapting when our bodies have not yet done so. It is not all gloom and doom. Really.

Which is not to say our brains don’t need all the help they can get. Signposts, so to speak, on the evolutionary road.

A short while ago, I talked about how a big part of what’s holding a lot of us back from exercising regularly is that, despite all the evidence we have, we tend to discount the future too much for our own good.

In that post, I ended up suggesting a strategy for reducing the strength of that effect, to help our brains deal with it: Having frequent good looks at ourselves. Not in a mirror, because it is not about how we look today; instead, we need to look at what some refer to as the “Future Self,” the person you want to be when you get old(er).

Even that, however, does not always suffice. Because there are strong forces aligned against our regular exercising.

No, there is no great conspiracy or big money interests in fattening us up. Just plain human nature: Mainly, a tendency to want to make money (a proxy for controlling reproductive resources), which drives most business activities, including the food industry; also, a propensity to not understand just how optimistic we tend to be about the future.

It is this latter part that I want to talk about today.

The Lure of the Future

Perhaps you’ve had a chance to watch the talk I mentioned in that previous post. If so, then what I’m about to say will already be familiar. If not, I still urge you to watch it, even though I’m about to give you another big chunk of knowledge I gleaned from it.

At the same time as we discount the future benefits of being active and healthy, we tend to overestimate how much more willing to exercise we will be tomorrow. Like last time, I have a few pictures, also shamelessly lifted from the excellent talk by Dr. Whatshername, to bring the point home…

Exercise, Daily, Everyday

The present eventually turns into the future. But is it the future we had anticipated?

In a nutshell, today you might say “I’m tired, and I have a lot to do, so I’ll rest today and exercise tomorrow.” (Note: This can be quite alright, given that it is the exception, and that you do, in fact, regularly exercise. Rest is often a good idea, and listening to your body when it asks for it is always in good order.)

But what happens the next day? And the day after that? Without a strong commitment device (a Purpose, ideally, or perhaps some other mechanisms to help us in the short term), many of us simply overestimate how willing they will be to exercise in the future, and mainly fail to do it in the present.

It is called the “Present Bias,” but it could also be called “Procrastination.” I like to think of it as boundless optimism about the future, because what it comes down to is precisely that: An optimism about how much more willing and capable to exercise we will be tomorrow.

Admit it, you’ve felt that way. I sure have, all too often.

What’s wrong with that?

Exercise, Fitness, Health, Everyday

Today is the day. Everyday.

Well, when tomorrow comes, it is no longer “tomorrow,” but again “today.” And guess what? “Today” we feel just like we did on the “today” which was “yesterday.”

Confused yet?

Don’t think about it too much. Just keep this in mind: Today is the only time you have to make the right choices.

And there is a strategy to help your brain with that as well.

No-brainer Decisions

Yup, you guessed it (probably): The trick is to not think about making that decision, and just do what you know you need to do.

Don’t consider what you feel like doing tomorrow. Consider that exercising is the right thing to do today.

That’s a big part of the reason why I chose “No-brainer Fitness” as the name for this blog. I recognized a long time ago that many of the decisions we agonize over should not be agonized over. They need to become automatic. No-brainers. Because that is a good way to follow one’s Purpose on a daily basis.

By the way, the same applies to food as well. In everything I wrote about exercise, in this post and the previous one, you can substitute “eating right” and get the same result:

Diet, Exercise, Daily, Everyday, Health, Fitness

Exercise and diet, diet and exercise; two parts of the same future discounting and present bias.

It all comes down to the choices we make on a daily basis.

Those choices are the signposts of your own personal evolution towards fitness and a long, active life.

Being able to imagine the future, thinking about Future You, is a powerful tool. But too much optimism about the future, only just a day away, is also a dangerous procrastination device. It is not called a “double-edged” sword for nothing.

Hence my recommendation: Keep Future You in mind as you go through each day, and don’t consider what you might do tomorrow. Decide, each day, to work towards that Future You.

Perhaps more importantly, don’t even make the decision. Just exercise. It’s a no-brainer! Or it has to become one…

_____________

Image credits: All images in this post were shamelessly lifted from an excellent lecture given by Michele Belot, Professor of Economics and Director of the Behavioural Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh (BLUE), as the third lecture in the 2014 Our Changing World series, entitled “Behavioural Economics and Health Behaviours“. It is a really good lecture, about which I have spoken in a previous post.

The secret to a bright and yummy morning

Food, Eating, Health, NOT FOOD

Look at those colours!

Wanna know the secret?

Here it is: There is no secret.

Just like for healthy eating, the kind of eating that allows your body to optimally do what it evolved to do. There is no secret that will make you healthy.

There are just a bunch of things we tend to forget in the hectic pace of our modern lives.

So this morning, as I was reminding myself of some of them, I thought I might as well write them down.

No, there won’t be a recipe. See below to figure-out why.

The things we forget about eating in a way that allows our bodies to be healthy

Don’t worry, it’s actually a short list. And it should look familiar.

  1. Cook food at home. Meals you actually prepare, not eat at a restaurant or order in, or take out of a box to pop in the microwave oven. (Nothing wrong with the microwave oven, by the way.) And while you are at it, make some extra to take to work as your lunch the next day, instead of hitting the food court. (That’s where the microwave oven comes in.)
  2. Start from real, whole ingredients, that have not been processed into some barely recognizable version of something that grows or moves of its own volition. Mix and match as you feel, letting the natural flavours do the job.
  3. It is not the specific ingredients that matter. For instance, good stuff like what I had for breakfast this morning (eggs, kale, onions, garlic, turmeric, red peppers, coconut oil) are just that: good stuff. No magic involved, no super food.
  4. Take the time to sit down and eat. It is when we rush that we make the most eating mistakes. Lack of time means bad decisions like food that has been processed, but as well an added stress to our entire bodies, making it harder to process the food properly.
  5. Minimize the NOT FOOD part of your daily intake. That’s just common sense, but the problem is that we often mindlessly put stuff (and by “stuff” I really meaning things that just take space without providing nutritional value) into our mouths.

That’s it. If you keep this in mind, you’ll let your body do its job with minimal impediment.

And you’ll be having a lot of bright and yummy mornings as well. Especially if you exercise regularly, either before or after breakfast. Enjoy!

IMG_1065P.S.: In case you were wondering, there is no recipe in this post. This is not a blog about food.

Photos by me. This morning.

Take a good look at Future You

Exercise, Future You, Sedentary, Movement, Daily

When something is done well, you might as well use it. But make sure to credit the source.

Why don’t we exercise enough?

Is it because we are too lazy? Not disciplined enough? Unable to stay motivated?

If you’ve read my most recent post, you know those are essentially the questions we were left with at the end. Because we have all the evidence we need about why we should exercise.

If you’ve read anything else on this blog in the past, you know the answer is not in motivation or discipline, two strategies that will fail you eventually, or drive you (and many around you) nuts.

It is pretty clear that only the strongest Purpose can keep us going in the long term. Yet for most this sense of Purpose remains elusive.

So while it seems we have tendency to be lazy, the truth is slightly different. You could say we are “wired” to be lazy, to economize our efforts, and only the strongest of wills can hold firm on their self-commitments.

By the way, this is not a figment of my imagination, or some wild theory I just came up with. It comes from research in behavioural economics, which others could probably explain better than I can.

But I’m going to explain it to you in my own words. With the help of visuals from a really good talk I recently watched on YouTube. (Even if you think you don’t have time, if you are serious about understanding fitness and long-term health, you should be watching that talk. After reading this post.)

The Truth

Most of us have a strong discounting rate when it comes to our “Future Selves”. (That’s a term borrowed from economics, and it is highly accurate in meaning. However, most of us are not bankers and economists, thankfully. So…) To put it more simply, I hope, the problem is as follows: when you think about the way Future You will be, the possibility of a healthy and active Future You is not seen as important enough because it is too far into the future.

Even though you want to be healthy and fit (who doesn’t?), the Future You is too remote, too distant, too hard to see clearly. The present, and very near future, occupy all that your mind can really consider and act upon. No, I’m not saying we live only for the present, but we have a strong bias in favour of the short-term instead of the long-term.

Those of us who have a much stronger Purpose typically enjoy a stronger sense of that Future Self. In essence, to them it is easier to keep their eyes on the prize. (Back to our economics/finance terminology, a stronger sense of the Future You comes from having a much smaller discounting rate). In other words, a strong Purpose can be understood as considering the distant future as equally important, or even more important, than the present or near-future.

Let’s see how this works

Look again at the image at the top of this post.

You have two pictures of Future You: one that is healthy and fit, and one that is frail and, probably, suffering from some illness(es). The road to each Future You is a series of short-term actions, choices that happen everyday, with their specific consequences:

Exercise, Daily, Health, Fitness

Two images of Future You…

Although there is no absolute certainly about the outcome, we know for sure what the odds are:

Exercise, Fitness, Health

Feeling lucky, punk? It is all about playing the odds… I know what my money is on.

Take a good, hard look at those two Future You. Can you see them well? Which do you want to really be Future You? I bet I know.

So what happens? Why is it still not a complete no-brainer to exercise regularly?

Well, each of us considers those futures against the present. It is a decision process in which you pit Present You against Future You. At least in terms of enjoyment:

Health, Fitness, Exercise, Daily

If the future appears not important enough, you are likely to pick doing nothing.

Conversely, if the Future You is clear enough, and important enough, your choice would be otherwise:

Health, Fitness, Exercise, Daily

If Future You is “important” enough in your mind, you will act accordingly. Most of the time. Well, often enough.

That’s basically it. How well you can see Future You, and how you manage to keep Future You in mind on a daily basis, influences how you behave. How much you are eager to exercise regularly.

This works whether Future You is simply a healthy and active Old You, or an incredibly fit and muscular Two Years From Now You, or Winning A Race in 6 Months You. Future You is what you envision yourself to be like at some point in the future. Personally, the only Future You I think is truly worth having in mind, having as a Purpose, is Healthy And Active Old You. Which should make You exercise regularly, and in a reasonable way…

Future You, which becomes the source of your Purpose, is not the only contributing factor to exercising regularly, as we’ll see next time. But it is a necessary beginning. Without it, you must fall back on motivation, or worse, on discipline.

The good news is that you can improve how Future You influences Present You. You need to look at Future You regularly.

So keep a picture of Future You where you can take a good look at it everyday, just as you head out to exercise…

_____________

Image credits: All images in this post were shamelessly lifted from an excellent lecture given by Michele Belot, Professor of Economics and Director of the Behavioural Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh (BLUE), as the third lecture in the 2014 Our Changing World series, entitled “Behavioural Economics and Health Behaviours“. It is a really good lecture, about which I will talk again in my next post. And from which I will shamelessly lift more images.