Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Workout Outdoors


What I like about the paleo model is that it gives us a handle on a variety of issues with only only simple knowledge of the framework. These 'handles' are based upon our ideas of what we believe our ancestors did and what they experienced in their day-to-day of times past. From these ideas we make assumptions and draw conclusions about what is healthful. I guess most of us finds that this works. Paleo allows us to keep it simple - and if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

The simplicity of paleo is in contrast to modern dietary advice - particularly for fat loss. If you follow a calorie counting diet you have to maintain some form of running total throughout the day. You have to have some knowledge of portion sizes, trying to assess whether a potato is the size of your fist and so forth. I have trouble remembering phone numbers and names so having to go through a day with yet another ever-changing figure in my head is a bit of a no-no.

Similar problems exist with 'traffic light' systems indicating the sugar, salt and fat content of foods. Although I am aware of the concept I could not tell you how many portions of food with a 'green' rating for salt is equal to a single 'red' portion. Nor can I tell you how many portions of food with a 'red' rating one is able to eat in a day. This system also suffers from the 'running total' problem of having to remember the number of portions of different foodstuffs you have consumed each day for each classification of sugar, salt and fat....unless you can eat 'green' indicators with impunity. Who knows?

In fact, if I step back and observe how calorie counting and traffic lights have crept in to nutrition, I have one thought- what a nonsense!

So to cut to the chase, the paleo model ignores all counting and volumes. It involves no traffic-lights nor scales. In paleo eating, if you chose from the rich and bountiful 'real' food groups then simply follow your appetite. Easy!

The Simplicity of Paleo
Along with uncomplicating eating/nutrition and diets, the paleo model is easily extended to other areas of life. A good example of applying the paleo filter to other areas of life can be found is in relation to vitamin D and Parkinson's Disease.

The BBC recently posted an article (found here) which suggests a link between Parkinson's and a lack of vitamin D. For me there are several worrying aspects to this article. The first is the emphasis of vitamin D supplementation and the second is the observation that "people with Parkinson's may be particularly vulnerable because their condition limits the amount of time they spend out of doors".

Run to the Pills
Two things strike me about the BBC story. The first is the mentality that leads us to 'Run to the Pills' (with apologies to Iron Maiden).


First a disclaimer - I am no doctor. I have no medical training. I am an avid 'armchair physician/athlete/nutritionist' but would probably be qualified as a 'quack' by most anyone in the medical profession as I draw my conclusions from personal experience and like those of like minded people meaning my ideas are not open to peer reviewed criticism and also that I am subject to confirmation bias. But in my defence I am fit and athletic and the paleo model has been the easiest way I have found of achieving and maintaining such health. I digress.

Despite my intellectual limitations, I do know that vitamin D supplementation is not without its problems. Whilst your body can moderate vitamin D levels when generated from sunshine, in a pill form, the body has little control over its levels. At high doses it is toxic and being fat-soluble, can reside at high doses in the liver.

My second point is that if Parkinson's is related to an absence of vitamin D, and if the deficiency is related to patients being housebound, and if vitamin D can be obtained from sunshine, then why help to get the patients outside a bit more?

Is this because vitamin D from sunshine is too cheap? Is it because getting the patients outside would present to them the stimulation and visual splendour of the natural world. Is it that the physical act of pottering around a garden or park would be too much of a novelty? Maybe the benefits of the physical exertion of getting out and about are sooooooo much greater than atrophying in a chair inside a room that smells of urine. Who knows?

I am sure there are cases where a patients dependence on medical equipment or the geography of the establishment mean that patients cannot get out and about - but to me that is the most terrifying situation - imprisoned inside. I recall my grandfather in a home for the elderly and the smell of the place (urine) and the general lack of stimulation really depressed me. I rarely saw him get outside other than with family members, and once in the home his mental and then physical demise was swift. There was talk of an 'escape committee' amongst some of the folk there but the only way people seemed to leave was on 'Air-Reaper' (first class).

Wider Implications
Another thing that strikes me about the story is that although the scientists and doctors noted that vitamin D deficiency is possibly related to an absence of time spent out doors, no consideration is given to the implication of sun cream. Even a cursory visit to a holiday website or chemist is witness to the marketing hysteria about the sun and the damage it can wreak. From 'Slip, Slap and Slop' to 'Splat, Hat and Wrap' we are encouraged to shy away from letting our body feel the natural rays of the sun.

And why is this the case. I mean we need the sun - not least for vitamin D. Better still, we have our own inbuilt sun protection mechanism - tanning.

Ask yourself this, when was the last time you were almost naked outdoors in the sun? The answer will be 'on your last summer holiday'. You probably doused yourself in suncream on that self same holiday.


Again from my 'armchair quack' position, I can see that people from northern latitudes are paler than those who originate closer to the equator. Notwithstanding migration this appears to be a pretty linear relationship. This leads me to conclude that the body evolved a mechanism to handle varied sun strength at latitude. It then raises the question of what is the implication of us spending so much time covered up and under cover away from the Sun's rays?

Sun Worship
I have often wondered why so many of us are 'sun worshippers'? In the UK if you get a hot day, particularly at the weekends, there will be acres of flesh on display and the beaches and parks are full of people enjoying the sun. (I read somewhere that the sales of convertible cars in the UK is the highest in all Europe, despite our wet climate!)

Our ancestors must have spent much of their time in the sun, and its pull upon modern humans is obvious. Evolution has brought with it a delicate interaction between the skin, kidneys and liver to provide us with a sufficient vitamin D.

From a paleo point of view, our lives would have been spent outdoors in the sun. The sun would have blessed our skin every day. In the modern world, most of our skin is covered up from the sun most of the time. The times it is exposed to the sun, such as on holidays, it is covered with a film of oil that in itself can cause harm. Without 'raw' exposure to the sun, this evolutionary reaction cannot occur and we cannot create vitamin D

I wonder if any of these scientists in the article have thought to look in to the long-term consequence of applying sun cream - particularly on growing children? Also sun creams often block predominantly UVB - and not UVA which you will be prolonging your exposure to and which is (as I understand it), potentially more harmful.


The Paleo Model
So how does the paleo model help us here? Well, paleo dude spent most of his life outdoors and for much of his evolution would have worn crude clothing and no Piz Buin. Thus his body would have been regularly exposed to the sun. How can suited and shirted modern man bag a similar amount of 'tan-time'?

For me the answer is to expose myself as much as possible to the sun (down to a pair of shorts and no less!), up to the point that my skin slightly reddens. Under no circumstances do I go beyond this point and I certainly avoid burning. I do this even in winter.

One particular way of doing this is to workout outdoors! At my local gym we have a courtyard in which we can train. Most of my exercise is conducted in this courtyard, rain or shine. If it is sunny, I will train only in shorts. As long as you are sheltered from the wind, this is comfortable even on a clear day in winter.

This means I never have 'blue leg' (that colour as worn by sun-averse Caucasians in northern latitudes). It also means I regularly allow my body to top up on vitamin D.


By logically extending the paleo model we are in a position to draw benefits that might well future proof us in our old age. Easy!

2 comments:

Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later said...

Nice rant - like most media agencies the BBC tends to parrot unquestioningly the prevailing, drug/supplement-centric perspective on health issues. Journalists who ask the tough questions appear not to gravitate to the health desk...

Asclepius said...

The media are absolute dimwits when it comes to tackling science. Ben Goldacre's excellent 'Bad Science' tackles this issue in depth.

When the popular media isn't repeating some health-myth or offering opposing arguments simply on some notion of balance (rather than the opposing argument having any 'quality'), it is involved in the 'medicalisation' of life supported my the infomercialisation of a 'solution', underwritten by celebrity endorsement.

It is a fucking mess.