Thursday, 19 June 2008

Mind Matters

Confucious observed that, "When nature exceeds training, you have the rustic. When training exceeds nature, you have the clerk. it is only when nature and training are proportionately blended that you have the higher type of man."

Confucious draws our attention to both physical and cerebral pursuits. As armchair-atheletes many of us will have read up on approaches to training. Others will have delved in to the science of nutrition and so forth. Such material offers suitable intellectual challenges.

There are other sides to this the mental aspect of training. Just as it is important to follow a hard day of physical training with a day of easy training or rest, so it is that I commit myself to periods of mental rest.

All to often, simple physical rest is construed as mental rest, but how often do you consciously try to clear you mind? Often we have issues buried away in the back of our mind that stop us from truly relaxing on a mental basis.

I like to take 'time out' to reflect. Sometimes I employ diaphragmatic breathing exercises - attempting to slow and control my breathing, enlarging my abdomen with each breath rather than my chest. When done in peaceful environment it really can allow me to 'recharge'. The resultant feeling is one of mental refreshment.

There are times in my life when I find it hard to relax, particularly if I am working on something complex at work. In these cases I will review those things in my life that cause me stress or anxiety and seek to mentally address and manage them. Often I find the size of a problem is largely governed by how big I allow it to become on a personal level, rather than of a dimension determined by it's importance.

Exercise is a great way of mentally relaxing. The natural endorphin release after a physically exhausting workout is a fantastic relaxant. This also offers a perfect time to focus on finding inner tranquility.

So that is how I approach a mental rest. What of a 'hard' mental workout? Mentally taxing challenges are a feature of life. Most of life involves problem solving at some level. This might be fixing a computer or balancing household expenditure.

I enjoy throwing in some other challenges to my mind particularly those that involve mental creativity. Learning new pieces of music on the guitar is one approach. This can be a rather therapeutic pursuit but also devilishly challenging - especially if the piece is complicated.

I have other pursuits that are purely mental (and delightfully pointless). It also makes me stretch my mind in a visual capacity; remembering a pack of 52 shuffled playing cards. It takes me about 10 minutes to remember the pack, but I have performed the trick with no mistakes several times now. I only try it once or twice a week - and with more regular practice, reckon I could halve this time. The secret to this trick is rather simple and will form the basis of a later post.

Like the rest of your body, there is a 'use it or lose it' contraint on your brain. As an infant, your world is constantly stimulating - a place of wonder. And with your "beginner's mind" the opportunities to learn are numerous and the inclination to learn, to understand what is around you is inate. With time come familiarity and an attendant fall in stimulation. Seek out new challenges and with each success your self esteem and confidence will soar.

Whilst watching the Discovery channel will be informative, it is not participatory. You are going along for a ride with little control over the pace and content (even with Sky+ !). TV has its place but a more appropriate stimulation may come from reading a book, a musical pursuit or learning a skill (physical or mental) or a new language.

The goal is to pitch yourself against a range of challenges that vary in difficulty. And make sure you throw in the odd period of mental rest. Train yourself to relax mentally.

Force your brain to find new gears.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008


I have been reading about cereals. I don't eat cereals myself as they cannot be eaten raw and so break the first of my nutritional ten commandments (search the site for the complete list). Basically, if I cannot eat something in a raw and unprocessed state then I do not include it in my diet. I am not totally strict on this - the occasional beer is consumed! But, as a general guide, it serves me well.

Refined carbohydrates are essentially sugar. It that were not enough, processing strips out most of the nutrients that would benefit humans. These and other additional nutrients are often added back in to the cereal towards the end of the manufacturing cycle - often with a whole lot more sugar just for added taste and crispness.

With heavy marketing including inferences of 'natural goodness', earthy imagery of nature and 'active people' for 'adult cereal', and a mixture of fun and cartoon characters for childrens cereal, the cereal market has somehow managed to convince people that it is actually good for us.

If you watch the adverts carefully, they usually carry the vague message that the cereal is beneficial to weight or general health as part of a balanced diet (whatever that is). But I guess cake and cardboard are 'beneficial to weight or general health as part of a balanced diet'. The get-out clause here is 'balanced diet'.

An Industrialised Diet
Let take a step back for a moment. Cereal is highly processed food. From your body's perspective, such highly refined carbohydrate is largely indistinguishable from sugar and will elicit a similar response in your insulin levels. Cereals usually contain high levels of additional sugar and salt. Further vitamins and fibre may be then be added. Does this sound remotely natural or healthy? Is a bowl of sugar REALLY a good start to the day?

Furthermore, cereal contains high levels of the carcinogen acylamide. This has caused such concern that the European Commission and the Confederation of EU Food and Drink Industries (CIAA) hosted a workshop to discuss the how to reduce acrylamide levels in baked goods. I can tell you how to avoid acrylamide in three words - home cooked meals.

De-industrialise your diet and you will reap the rewards.

Industrialised Exercise
Whilst posting this, images floated in to my mind of battery hens (I buy free-range eggs, poultry, meat and fish). I then thought about exercise - and the industrialisation of exercise. I can walk in just about any gym in the UK and, rain or shine, I will see the obese sweating it out on row after row of machine. The machines might be powered and contain flashing lights and displays testifying to how hard the user is working. The machines might be passive, and simply seek to limit exercise to specific range of motion (leg curls anyone?).

On hot days in particular I want to grab some of the people in my gym and say, "Come outside, come to the real outdoors. Let's run and jump! Feel the sun on your body and the wind against your skin." FFS, you can get a REAL workout with just your bodyweight and some space.

I know they wouldn't follow me. Like processed grain, what they do is stripped of much of its benefit. Presumably it will get added on at the end by a period on the sun beds or in the sauna.

Industrialised Lifestyle
I once heard a comment that all a man needs is a library and a garden. This thought left a deep impression upon me. Sure, friends and family are important - man is gregarious. But family are a given and friends come with time. What else could you want in life?

For me I have settled on a library, a garden and a guitar, next to a shoreline, a forest and a mountain. Not totally HG, but enough to let me explore both inwards and outwards.

I obviously have a computer, and have the usual collection of hi-tec gadgets such as a PDA/mobile phone and cable TV, but these are side orders. My main course comes courtesy of my own creativity and that of nature.

Friday, 6 June 2008

I am NOT the Messiah, naturally!

I am not the Messiah! The title of this blog is purely tongue-in-cheek. I chose a title that would reflect the profound influence that trying to apply 'natural' concepts has had to my life. Let me expand this idea...

...Several years ago I was training hard. I am in to weight dependent sports such as climbing and to a lesser extent, kickboxing (where weight determines the division you fight in). I used to do about three runs a week - each of which lasted up to an hour. In addition I would be in the gym for up to three or four hours a week lifting the iron. On top of all that were three climbing sessions a week. The training was periodised and I would always take care not to over train. I would vary my routines and always looked to use compound exercises and emphasise 'movement'.

My diet was high in wholewheat and wholegrain carbohydrate, with lots of fruit, vegetables and protein. It was also low in fat. I was a vegetarian so I guess the protein was not of optimal quality.


One thing that always puzzled me was why, given the amount of exercise I did and the minimal amount of fat I ate, were my bodyfat levels always around 10%?

This might seem quite lean, but I wanted to see how I could manipulate it (let me just say, I was happy with my physique at the time, I just like to experiment). So, I upped my running and really cut back on the fat.

The results were that any gains would be short-lived and I would quickly feel run down. Out of curiosity I persisted with tweaks to my diet - particularly fat levels and caloric consumption - and with the exercise volume and intensity. It was a struggle and I started to have issues with fatigue and hunger.

It was then that I came across the concept of how would someone survive on a desert island. I put a lot of thought in to what they would eat and how they would move. This idea fascinated me. It was a massive and immediate revelation; utterly compelling in its simplicity, and lead to me looking in to hunter-gatherer concepts and the whole paleo-diet philosophy.


I had heard of the Atkins Diet and had always been dismissive of it as it challenged conventional dietary advice and I had developed an athletic physique from following this conventional dietary advice. I could see how Atkins was built upon the paleo-diet idea - so it occurred to me that maybe it wasn't to be dismissed.

After 10 years of vegetarianism (three of which were as a vegan), I headed off to get some lamb chops from the local store. I wanted to experiment!

I felt awkward eating that first meal. It was odd not eating refined carbohydrates. A meal did not seem complete without rice, pasta, potatoes or bread. Eating lots of red meat and fat seemed to go against everything I knew. After a few days of 'adjustment' however, I settled in to my new eating pattern.

After a week I really noticed an improvement in muscle definition, particularly in my abs. I quickly dropped a few jean-sizes. By week two my shoulders and upper arms were much more defined.

As a vegetarian I used to get a lot of hunger shakes. Cooking the evening meal, I would be chomping on toast and fruit. Within the two weeks, these shakes had disappeared. I had a greater control over my appetite. There was no going back.

Action Stations

I was still consumed by the idea of paleo-movement, and by the end of week two I decided to adopt shorter and more intense exercise sessions. I was always a fan of basic lifts and often implemented sprints.

An interest in climbing meant that I conscientiously developed a thorough upper body workout in the gym that strengthened traps, lats, pecs, delts, rotator cuff, you name it....but there was a bit of an iron-head in me that demanded that I use a lot of isolation exercises (like crunches and curls), to make sure EVERY muscle was hit over the course of a week.

My thoughts on paleo-movement and the success of a paleo-diet gave me the confidence to let go of this way of thinking. I rejected the curls and crunches. Sure I would keep the heavy lifts and sprints, but now I would throw in more diverse playful activity - handstands, hand walking, jumps, pistols. Bodyweight exercise seemed largely the way to go.

I got some gymnastic rings which, in addition to my climbing, would really work out my upper body in multi-planar movement over a full range of motion. (Yeah, yeah. I know that Paleolithic man didn't use rings, but I wanted to emulate his likely range of motion when doing something like throwing a spear).

Paleolithic man would have exercised as a matter of survival. His exercise would have been diverse, adventurous and intense. The narcissistic, uninspiring and sterile world of the gym suddenly lost its grip on me. Climbing always gave me adventure and heart-stopping moments, but now my other strength and fitness sessions did the same. I might work out with logs in the local woods. Carrying a loaded back pack around. Jumping on to, and then running along fallen trees. I just started to really mix things up. I was motivated and inspired.

The handstands were a real revelation. Hand walking seems to have really strengthened up my shoulders. I can walk on my hands for over a minute (I am now tinkering with the idea of a hand-walk obstacle course), and am working towards static handstands of 20 seconds. This is nothing to a gymnast, but to an armchair athlete like me - this is serious progress.

My Conclusion

I don't think I am particularly vain but clearly look at my physique in the mirror on occasion! One thing I have noticed is that I maintain my leaness and muscle mass for longer during breaks from exercise. I feel that in general, I am in great shape.

I was clearing out some files on my work PC and noticed a spreadsheet of by sick absence from work. I averaged about two sick days a year. Since eating and exercising the 'paleo way' I have NEVER had a day off sick. We are talking several years here of excellent health. I recall that 'pre-paleo' I used to regularly get colds. They were seldom bad, but I got them nevertheless. Not anr more! My previous training regimes or particularly my vegetarian diet may have caused this so simply adding meat to my diet might have been beneficial.

I never worry about my fat levels - they are lower than they were and it is effortless to maintain it. I respond to my hunger. As long as I follow my dietary principles I outline below ("If you can eat it raw you can eat it"), I eat what I want without worrying about fat of calories. Physically I feel great. Workouts are attractive propositions as they offer fun and adventure.

I must add that my eldest child is also a massive inspiration on my training. We play on her climbing frame using plenty of static holds (isometrics are perhaps not strictly 'paleo'), balancing tricks and jumping. We finish laughing and exhausted.

This is how a work out should feel. This is how eating should feel. This is how life should feel.