Thursday, 29 May 2008
We need to develop adaptability. It is a quality of our ancesteral past and the reason why we are a successful species. Fighting is taxing. Fighting is stressful. Fighting is sometimes mental and often physical.
That is not to mean that we should give in, roll over or submit. It is possible to fight without effort. To do this you need to be able to adjust. You need to flow.
Thursday, 15 May 2008
At the time of writing, the Food Standards Agency offers tips on healthy eating and living, amongst which is the advice to "Get active and try to be a healthy weight". It goes on to suggest that you should:
- only eat as much food as you need
- make healthy choices - it's a good idea to choose low-fat and low-sugar varieties, eat plenty of fruit and veg and whole grains
- get more active.
Only eat as much food as you need! Can you believe how vacuous this statement is? How many people out there think "You know what, I have eaten as much as I need, but I reckon I will eat some more?". If this is the reason for people being overweight, then, given current obesity levels, people would have to be coming to the "I've Had As Much Food As I Need But I'm Going To Eat Some More" conclusion regularly.
The one thing the FSA does not answer is HOW to identify that you have eaten 'as much as you need'. The answer is simple. Appetite.
Appetite is a desire for food which manifests as hunger. Appetite serves to regulate adequate energy intake sufficient to maintain our metabolic needs. The question is, why does this regulator of how much we eat seem to work so poorly, such that we can eat ourselves in to a state of immobilisation? Why can't we trust our appetite to regulate our consumption?
Think about it. What percentage of your diet comes from refined foods? (By refined, I mean anything that you could not eat in a raw form.) Now imagine that you are on a large desert island with no modern tools (including lighters or matches). What would you eat? You could fish and trap game. You could gather seasonal fruit, salad, vegetables and nuts. All could be eaten raw if need be. If you found a particularly supply, you would likely eat until you were full (as indicated by appetite), but no more - just as we eat now - until our appetite is sufficed.
It is unlikely you would eat grains or potatoes as the former require much effort to gather as they grow disparately and both require processing to make them suitable for human consumption. Without some form of settled agriculture, refined carbohydrate would not feature in the diet. By all accounts, you exist in a rather carbohydrate scarce environment. Honey would be available, but wild bees would fiercely defend it - so you would have to decide if obtaining it was worth the risk?
With this 'island diet' in mind, what percentage is carbohydrate? More importantly, compare this carbohydrate percentage to that with your modern day diet. Notice a difference?
Now this harvest would require some modest energy expenditure to gather but, save for lugging the harvest back to camp, nothing too physically intense.
Now throw in a mix of apex predators, maybe a bear or some big cats. It would pay to be able to run fast, to climb, maybe to fight (especially if there were another hostile survivor on the island). These fight or flight responses would require intense activity and would be periodically tested. Other skills might be to swim (but speed would be an important quality of your swimming given the predators in the water). Once you have burned a load of calories this way, you need to replenish your body's energy stores!
Anyone lacking speed, agility, strength, power would not last in such an environment. Anyone who regularly ate 'more than they needed' and became obese would lose speed and agility in particular. In this situation, you become a snack for Mr Apex.
Dinner at Mine; A Question
Stay with me, I am coming to my conclusion! The FSA's advice basically boils down to 'Eat Less, Do More'. Now if I were to invite you to my house for a four course meal with all the trimmings and said 'bring your appetite', how would you develop your appetite? You might skip breakfast (i.e, eat less), and/or you might go for a big walk or for a swim (i.e, do more).
Does it therefore strike you as somewhat curious that the very thing the FSA is advising as a means to control your weight (eat less, do more), is the very thing most of us would do to increase our capacity to eat food?
Our desert island survivor above would not be eating a diet based heavily on carbohydrate. He would be eating minimal (if any), refined carbohydrate. If he was one of a tribe, over thousands of years, evolution would ensure that his offspring could regulate their dietary consumption using appetite. Those who were unable to do this would be picked off by other predators.
Given these factors, and the scarcity of carbohydrate in our ancestor's environment:
- Would it not make sense for us to gorge on carbohydrate when we found it? Especially as carbohydrate is a fantastic energy source and hunger is a massive driver of our behaviour.
- What better way for our body to ensure we stock up on such a rare and rich energy source than by offering a 'disconnect' between our appetite and the 'prize' we have found? (Given the carbohydrate scarcity there is little chance of 'over consuming' it.)
- If carbohydrate was scarce, how could we ever develop the appropriate metabolic controls to deal with it?
So there you have it, a reasonable explanation of why we are compelled to gorge on sugar, bread, pastries and potatoes. Eat more, do less? No way! For a start, simply eat right.
Tuesday, 13 May 2008
But is this productive? Well if you could distill all training advice down to a single word it would be 'specificity'. You will specifically adapt to a particular stimulus - so if you want to be good at running marathons then ultimately you need to run marathons. Of course you can experience a cross training effect from other activities, but specificity is king. So, our treadmill athletes will be good at running at a 'medium' intensity for an hour or so on a level surface.
Is this beneficial? Well two things that strike me about the people who engage in these regular cardio sessions:
- Most of them are fat (if not fatter than when they started), with poor muscle definition;
- Several of them whom I know to have been training for around five years are carrying significant recurring injuries.
The first point always amuses me. I see people who have been training their 'cardio fitness with the aim of fat-burning' for several years, and yet they are still fat (and of those I have conversed with, I KNOW that one of their goals is to lose weight). If you had been on a weight loss program for several years and you were still fat, then wouldn't you start to question the program? Not these guys. The latter point saddens me - why should exercise lead to premature wear and tear?
How should we exercise? A simple question with obvious answers if we look at evolution. My personal faith in 'evolutionary patterns' stems form the fact that homo sapiens are an incredibly successful species - adapted to many harsh environments in which there are other exceptional specialist apex predators. It is here I personally draw my answer from.
We evolved on the plains of Africa. A place with fast apex predators. To escape such predators you would need to run fast using several bursts of sprinting at top speed with perhaps several changes of direction. You would need to climb up trees or scramble over rocks and other uneven terrain to elude capture. You could also include jumping and throwing in this mix. You might occasionally need to escape across water - another environment where faster predators reside.
What if you were doing the hunting? Even when killing prey using persistence/exhaustion hunts, you would not jog for extended periods. Most of your movement would be walking with bursts of speed - evidenced by modern ethnographic studies of hunter-gatherer societies. Analysis of Kalahari bushmen suggests average speeds of 6km/h over a 5 hour hunt - but natural obstacles and the overhead of tracking the animal ensures that the hunter's work rate is anything but 'steady state'. The 'kill' would have to be carried to camp, and camp itself would be carried from place to place. Hard days are followed by easy days.
On a human level there would likely be need for combat skills (striking and grappling) in our ancient past whilst a final source of exertion would come in the form of procreation ;)
Here then are some clues to those activities and movement patterns that shaped our very being. Conversely, can you imagine hunter-gatherer doing a 'cosmetic workout' - crunches to improve his abs or a set curls for his biceps? I thought not! If any ancestor did aim to develop a bodybuilder's cosmetic physique (which is a form lacking function as their goal is form NOT function), who do you think would end up being a meal for Mr Sabretooth?
I have a couple of kids. They have already taught me more than I can ever teach them. I have watched them learning - reaching out to the next challenge in their physical development. From simple tasks requiring a bit of hand-eye coordination to walking, they are incredibly inspirational with their willingness to learn despite the pain of failure (although falling on a nappy when learning to stand probably doesn't hurt that much!). But the keep stretching themselves - always a little further.
My eldest is at pre-school. The kids here do lots of running and jumping. There a lots of games of 'tag' and general chasing going on amongst the lot of them. Obstacles are climbed on/into. Balls are thrown and kicked. The movement is erratic, intense, stop/start and generally complex. The movement pattern here is unadulterated by adult concepts of exercise. Their play is free-form and 'natural'. In fact we have this in common with other mammals (think of those documentaries about lions - the youngsters in the pride are always playful, chasing one another, play fighting and generally sharpening their survival skills).
I Like To Move It Move It
So looking at the picture above, the steady state movement of the treadmill athlete and gym-biker seems to have more in common with the prey in a persistence hunt than that of either the evolutionarily shaped movement of hunter gatherers or the intuitive movement of children.
Hunter gatherer and infant movement actually follow a 'power law'. Short and repeated burst of highly intense activity. It is complex movement using chains of muscles. Transporting the body (speed, agility and quickness), balance, lifting the body, carrying a weight, lifting a weight from the ground to a position overhead, fighting. These are the skills, qualities and movements we are inclined to make and adapted to respond to. These should therefore from the basis of our exercise.
There are other qualities we can discern in the life amongst wild predators, and even the games children play. In both cases there are elements of adventure, novelty, fear, excitement, exhilaration. Have you ever wondered why children play chasing games involving imaginary monsters/wolves/sharks/bears? Could this be an evolutionary adaption?
These then are the movements that inform my training - with an emphasise on quality activity (following the principles above), and quality rest. Less is more!
The diet industry is the closest you can get to the commercialisation of failure. If a diet succeeds and a dieter loses weight, the industry 'wins'. If a dieter does not lose weight, or regains it, the individual is blamed for his/her weakness. The weight industry can point to their successes (regardless of the individual cost of that success), and say "our diet works, our products work, if YOU have not lost weight then YOU must be to blame. YOU have failed". But what is failure and how should it be appropriated?
In truth, there is no failure, only feedback.
Think of your body like a river. It is in a state of flow. You cannot stop this flow, but you can influence the path it takes - principally by diet and exercise. Fat accumulation and loss are however, mainly an issue of diet. Commercial diets tinker around the shores of the river. The following guidelines enable you to bore out a new channel!
My top 10 nutrition guidelines:
1. The food group to draw from is defined by the ability to eat a particular foodstuff raw. If you can eat it raw, you can include it in your diet! (This does not mean you HAVE to eat it raw!) . Viewed another way, if the foodstuff can still hurt you when it is newly killed/freshly dead- DON'T EAT IT! If the food is marketed aggressively- DON'T EAT IT! If the food has the same name in several languages - DON'T EAT IT!
2. Eat seasonally and source locally (as much as possible).
3. Eat foods that go rancid quickly, but consume them in as fresh a state as possible. This tip is to guide you away from food engineered to have a long shelf life.
4. Eat foods in as unprocessed a state as possible (processing includes any form of curing and juicing but excludes simple cooking). If you are thirsty then water is as good as it gets! As above, this tip is to guide you away from food engineered to have a long shelf life.
5. Let colour and texture be your guide. Aim for around 3-4 different colours and/or textures per meal (emphasis green vegetables but limit peas and artichokes; moderate other coloured vegetables and restrict white vegetables) . You can eat starches, but the percentage of your diet should be primarily meat and secondarily coloured veg.
6. Relax about eating. Eating is essential and natural and should NOT be a battleground. There should be no room for guilt or war at the dinner table.
7. Emphasise meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, salad and nuts (in that order). Enjoy the fat content that comes with these foodstuffs - do not avoid it as it satiates appetite (a case where literally you are NOT what you eat). Moderate intake of fruit, particularly bananas, melon, pineapples and grapes (keep it seasonal). Enjoy berries seasonally. Moderate consumption of dairy produce - particularly milk, and avoid all grains, refined sugars and seed/plant oils.
8. Once comfortable with this way of eating, do one or two 24 hour fasts a week ideally from supper to supper, one, two or three days apart (intermittent fasting). Eat episodically throughout any given day. Occasionally fast before and/or after a period of exercise. Experiment with 'feeding windows' (such as 8/16). Cyclical Ketogenic Diets are another way of combining elements of overfeeding, underfeeding, fasting and CHO intake.
9. Listen and respond to your hunger. Try to 'tune in' to it and let it guide you. Stop eating when you feel full, but not before - and certainly not after! If you can 'respond to your hunger' amongst periods of intermittent fasting (IF), and occasional, intense exercise, you are home and dry. Hunger should make you move - so exercise fasted.
10. Ignore dietary advice to persist in a chronic state of hunger. The solution to excessive fat accumulation will not be found by saddling up with one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Famine!). (Chronic calorie restriction is not the same as IF!)