1.40 – Why We’re Supposed To Stand At Our Desks

 If you work at an office, you probably know someone who has a desk with a sit/stand option. This person eats kale salads and bikes to work. He takes the stairs instead of the elevator. He has a gadget on his wrist for tracking his heart rate and a garden at home where he grows the vegetables that he and his family just love to eat. You probably don’t like being around this person. Something about his preternaturally positive attitude just gets under your skin. I know. I don’t like being around him either.

I’ve done some digging and I believe I know what spawned these annoyingly effervescent people. They are doing something that Ben Greenfield describes as ‘ancestral living’ in his book, Beyond Training. Mr. Greenfield explains the science behind building endurance. There are two ways to do it: (1) long, slow aerobic training and (2) high intensity interval training (HIIT). Doing HIIT is a bio-hack: it builds up the density of mitochondria, which is what improves endurance, without the need for a ridiculous number of hours of running, biking or swimming every week.

But we still need aerobic activity in our lives, because it has some benefits that we cannot get from HIIT alone. The solution? Stay active throughout the day. This combination of HIIT workouts and low-level aerobic daily activities mimics the lifestyle for which our bodies were developed over hundreds of thousands of years before we all got desks, computers and corporate overlords:

An ancestral approach to training is based on the theory that we are naturally designed to perform lots of low-level physical activity with occasional bursts of very high intensity, which builds endurance without significant physical and metabolic damage. Living and training in this manner means respecting our ancestors and critically considering how the environmental and training stresses we place on our bodies affect our health in positive or negative ways.

Excerpt From: Ben Greenfield. “Beyond Training.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/beyond-training/id850443941?mt=11

This is no doubt where treadmill desks and the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” originated. These modern cultural adaptations and esoteric pieces of wisdom have their roots in the science endurance training.

I have been adapting an ancestral approach for about a month now. I must say that I actually like it. Walking to work feels more like a fun excursion into town than a commute to a desk job. Standing at my desk is harder than it sounds, but I’m building the capacity for longer times on my feet without getting a stiff back or tired legs. It may be the placebo effect, and it is definitely anecdotal, but I feel more energetic.

I am now the coworker with a stand-up option at his desk. The guy who comes into work flush from an invigorating walk and bops around the office looking positively jazzed to be doing paperwork. I don’t even like being around me at the office anymore. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to see about getting a plot at the community garden this summer so I can grow my own vegetables.

1.39 – Maintenance is for Machines

 I am now four years into CrossFit and I have reached a place that could very easily become a plateau. I could keep doing CrossFit five or six times a week, eat healthy and just enjoy the community and health that I have gained in the last four years. How do I feel about that? I want more. I want to delve deeper into the world of fitness and nutrition. I want to apply that knowledge to my WODs. I want to attain higher levels of fitness, to get stronger and build a better engine. I want to keep growing, developing, striving.

Accepting that I have hit a plateau does not square with my view of life. I don’t think that I would actually be able to maintain what I have achieved without continuing to strive for new knowledge and new goals. For me, there is really no such thing as maintaining a level once it has been achieved. If maintenance is your goal, then you are not actually living. Maintenance is for machines; living requires something more. I think that living implies a continual striving to become my best self. When I am in a museum, I judge art from the starting point that without the art there is still a blank wall. Then I ask myself, ‘how amazing is it that some artist created this and it is now on this this wall?’ For me, life is like that blank wall, and I am compelled to keep imagining something amazing and trying to create it for that space.

And why focus on CrossFit when there are so many other things in this life that I could pursue? Because moving and eating well is what gives me a sense of wellbeing. If I feel good in my body, then I can go on to the other things that matter: connecting with others and living with purpose. CrossFit is a pursuit that allows me to make all of this happen. I connect with so many people in the pursuit of healthy food and exercise that it provides me with the community and sense of purpose that I am wired to seek.

This formula for a meaningful life has its origins in the deep history of our species. Our ancestors hunted and foraged in tribes that ventured throughout a vast and unknown world. Their bodies were built for long journeys and intense struggles; their souls found completion in the companionship born of pursuing common goals. As their descendants, we have largely abandoned this framework for living, but it still lives deep within us. CrossFit activates these instincts in a way that the other offerings of modern life – office work, cell phones, schedules and the like – do not.

Our ancestors were magnificent physical specimens as a result of living as hunters and adventurers. Today the hunt for supreme physical conditioning and astounding athletic accomplishment provides the best context for deeply satisfying pursuits. Our ancestors had the hunt; we have CrossFit. Our ancestors painted on cave walls with ochre and pigment to sanctify their journeys. I use electronic ink to express what is meaningful about mine.

1.37 A Prescription for Diet Discipline

A man goes to see his primary care physician. She diagnoses him with metabolic syndrome and tells him that he is at risk for Type II diabetes, which could cause coronary disease and an early death. She tells him that he must change his diet and stop eating processed and sugared foods. He says he understands the gravity of the situation and promises to eat better. The physician goes on to her next patient. The man gets into his car and, on the way home, hungry and tired, orders takeout. He continues his bad eating habits, destined to repeat the pattern until it is too late.

There are some questions missing in this exchange. The man should have asked, “How do I do that? How do I consistently make better food choices? How do I put myself in the best position to achieve my goal of eating healthy?” Had he asked, the physician would have had no ready answer: There is no prescription she can write for healthy eating habits.

Perhaps it is time that we wrote one.

What I am about to suggest may be radical, but it rests on basic, uncontroversial principles. Most importantly, it addresses the foundational problem of obesity, diet discipline. It is not an easy fix, but it is a lifelong solution. It takes on the system that has made America obese without the need for political action, surgery, drugs or billions of dollars. It just requires people to develop what they know they want – a vibrant community – and gives them the tools to do it.

We should reorganize our lives to source, prepare and eat in small communities dedicated to healthy food choices. We need to create spaces where groups of people develop their meal prep and eating habits together. One could imagine spaces with a number of kitchen areas and a common dining area. This would allow for small groups to do meal prep and for larger groups to eat meals together. Members could come every day for a “Meal of the Day,” or they could just come two to three times a week, each time prepping a few days worth of meals.

These spaces could become an integral part of the lives of their members. The main activity would be the classes during which people would prepare their food. Just as people go to yoga or CrossFit to exercise under instruction, they would come here to prepare meals. They would be doing it at a place dedicated to health and wellness, where they would learn what to cook and how to cook for a lifetime of health.

These spaces would provide a powerful added stimulant to eating healthy: the sense of well being that comes from working with others toward a common goal. Preparing food as part of a class would positively reinforce healthy eating habits with healthy social connections. People would join to eat healthy, but they would stay – and develop good eating habits – for the sense of community that would nourish them at a deeper level.

This would be a holistic and evidence-based approach to healthy eating habits. Members could track their health indicators, their meals, their exercise and other factors related to health and fitness. The spaces could track data from members (on a voluntary basis), which could be used to determine the effectiveness of the program and to make evidence based changes. They would be able to show results, over time and across diverse demographics. They could also source their food directly, from local producers or well-vetted companies, to suit their ethical, environmental and health concerns. They could even have their own gardens, so that members could have a closer relationship to food than is typically afforded in our modern world.

Such a program would be born of the recent neuroscience suggesting that cooking and community can drive healthy eating habits. It would be built on the supremely successful CrossFit model of providing an atmosphere in which community spontaneously arises. It would create vibrant communities founded on healthy goals. Finally, it would leverage the tools of social media and technology to give its members a tribal experience in the modern world.

 

*This is the fourth in a series of four articles

1.36 The A$$holes Poisoning Us and How To Beat Them*

We have a growing health crisis in America. Millions of us are chronically ill because of all the sugar and processed foods we eat. The food industry makes billions of dollars a year in profits by producing, marketing and selling foods that make us sick. They have a vested interest in continuing business as usual. The healthcare industry treats the sick, not the healthy; and it now represents almost 20% of the American economy. It would be foolhardy to wait for Healthcare leaders to develop wellness programs.

It is up to us to change the way we eat. Food is the basis of community and culture. It is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of our daily lives. We eat or we die, it’s that simple. Our relationship to each other and to our planet therefore begins with food. When such a foundational aspect of our existence is damaging the health and lives of millions, and when those responsible for it cannot or will not solve the crisis, we as individuals are compelled to do what we can to make it right.

It is apparent that very few of us as individuals can avoid the unhealthy choices with which we are bombarded every day. To find the power to make better choices, I would suggest, we should seek to live as members of thriving and healthy groups. We could then leverage the power of community and science to collapse the present, corrupt structure.

Dr. Robert Lustig has written a book explaining the science that allows our food industry to keep us eating poorly, as well as the science that could help to beat the food producers at their own game. Here’s how he does it: He explains the difference between happiness and pleasure in terms of neuroscience. Happiness is the feeling of contentment that comes from things like connecting with others. It is chemically driven by the release of serotonin. Pleasure, by contrast, is the short-lived feeling derived from getting what we want. It is chemically driven by the release of dopamine. When that system gets out of whack, it causes addiction. We want the addictive substance more and more and derive less and less pleasure from it when we get it.

Dr. Lustig shows us that the food industry sells us foods laced with sugar, which triggers the dopamine system and leads to addiction for millions of us. The result? They become rich while we become chronically ill. But he also points us to a way out. We can do the things that drive our serotonin instead of our dopamine. He gives us his “four C’s”: Connecting with others, cooking for others, contributing to the lives of others and coping with life by exercising, practicing mindfulness and taking adequate rest.

Unfortunately, Dr. Lustig doesn’t suggest a model that could help people to do this on a large scale. Here is where CrossFit can close the gap. The CrossFit model is fundamentally tribal, which is to say, it is an approach driven by the power of a community to positively impact the lives of its members. At CrossFit, we show up more often, we work out harder and we feel so much better because we are building connections with people as we become fit. CrossFit gets results by building community instead of addiction. It is an elegant solution because it does not require directly taking on the countless corporate products that keep us sedentary. It just gives us what we want and need at a deeper level – it increases our serotonin instead of spiking our dopamine – which over time dampens the temptations of unhealthy pursuits.

A community based model for creating healthy food habits could do for food what CrossFit has done for exercise. It could give people the power to overcome addiction by participating in a vibrant community. Our challenge is to offer healthy eating habits in a way that is powerful enough to overcome the unhealthy choices marketed to us by the food industry. The model pioneered by CrossFit just may be that powerful. The result could be a fundamental shift towards healthier food and healthier communities. Given the stakes and given the opportunity, I cannot think of a better use of our time or a more fundamentally healthy model for promoting positive change.

 

*This is the third in a series of four articles.

1.35 – The Community Hypothesis*

Most of us don’t exercise often enough or intensely enough to keep fit over a lifetime. Most CrossFitters do, because there is something about CrossFit that keeps members coming to their boxes and doing WODs. But exercise is only one half of fitness. When it comes to the other half – our diets – it is the same story: most of us don’t have the will power to consistently eat healthy foods. Unfortunately, there is nothing analogous to CrossFit when it comes to making good food choices. We know what we should eat, but we can’t stay away from the junk. There is a huge opportunity here: if we can identify the secret ingredient that makes CrossFit such a successful fitness program, perhaps we can use it to keep ourselves eating well.

Here is a hypothesis: CrossFitters exercise more intensely and more consistently because they have the support of the CrossFit community. Here’s how it works, as described on the CrossFit webpage:

CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity … … By employing a constantly varied approach to training, functional movements and intensity lead to dramatic gains in fitness…The community that spontaneously arises when people do these workouts together is a key component of why CrossFit is so effective… Harnessing the natural camaraderie, competition and fun of sport or game yields an intensity that cannot be matched by other means.

https://www.crossfit.com/what-is-crossfit. It is true that a sense of community spontaneously arises when people do CrossFit together. And once that sense of connection and belonging forms, it becomes a powerful, added stimulant for us as athletes. As a species, we are hard wired to seek and participate in a community for mutual support and protection, and we light up when we find it. We find it at CrossFit, and the more we do it the more we feel a sense of well being that tells us we are doing something healthy for ourselves. We start CrossFit primarily for fitness, but the fulfillment of this other, primal need drives and sustains our commitment to intense exercise.

If community is the secret ingredient that keeps CrossFitters exercising, then perhaps it can also be used to encourage healthy eating habits. A program dedicated to healthy eating out of which a community arises could strengthen our resolve to maintain healthy eating habits. CrossFit made exercise into a social event and people have been thriving in it. If we do the same with healthy eating, then maybe people will thrive in that more supportive environment too.

The more I ponder healthy eating, CrossFit and community, the more I see a mutually reinforcing triumvirate. We are designed to eat a particular diet and have found it increasingly challenging to do so. We are built to maintain a certain level of fitness, but again we find our modern world distracting us from what we know we need. We are programmed to solve our challenges collectively and find deep satisfaction in working together for mutual benefit. Eating well, moving well and connecting well are vital to a healthy life, and we can do all three in conjunction with each other. Eat. Move. Connect. Three core concepts for creating the best versions of ourselves.

The programs that we see today – diets, blueprints, weight loss clinics, whatever – are not delivered with any answers to the biggest challenge to healthy eating: how to overcome the temptation to eat junk food and make eating healthy a habit. Perhaps the hypothesis suggested here gets to the root cause of our poor eating habits and points the way to a community based solution.

 

*This is the second in a series of four articles.

1.34 The Holy Grail of Healthy Eating*

Imagine a phenomenon so powerful it can challenge big agra and the entire processed food industry and win. Something so strong that it breaks our cravings for sugar and salt, soda and chips. Something so game-changing that, if properly implemented, would collapse the food industry and reorient our culture toward eating and moving well. Imagine that there is a holy grail of healthy eating, and that we can implement it right now.

Fitness is the result of two things, diet and exercise. Our lives today are largely sedentary as compared to our hunting and gathering ancestors. Or modern work doesn’t require us to move in a way that keeps us fit. Keeping fit therefore requires us to engage in exercise multiple times per week, so that we give our bodies the physical work for which they were designed and used for eons. Maintaining our natural physical capacity, in other words, is a choice.

Food today is abundantly available without having to hunt or forage for it. For all of prehistory we lived with food scarcity. Over that time we developed a biological desire to consume sugar and fat wherever and whenever we found it, and the more the better. In a world where calories were hard won, this was a great biological adaptation. But today we can drive to the grocery store and forage the aisles for whatever we want, any time want. Worse, that food is processed, packaged and marketed to be addictive. Eating well has also become a choice, and a difficult one at that.

Knowledge isn’t enough: we can know everything there is to know about exercise and healthy eating, but it won’t do us any good if we can’t actually get ourselves to implement that knowledge. Yes, there are debates about the best exercise program and the ideal diet. But those arguments are purely academic if we don’t have the discipline to implement whatever we believe is optimal for our health.

The CrossFit model solves the challenge of exercise discipline. In a world where exercise has to compete with television, social media and video games for our time, our exercise program has to inspire us. Otherwise we won’t get off the couch. Herein lies the genius of CrossFit: it’s an incredibly intense, grueling exercise program, and yet people do it five and six times a week. Voluntarily. CrossFit is the holy grail of exercise.

There is no comparable model that solves the challenge of food discipline. We have gurus, we have doctors, we have diets, we have cookbooks, we have food delivery services. We have grocery stores filled with nutritious food. But is there an approach that turns eating healthy from something that taxes our will power into something that adds joy and energy to our lives? Is there anything that moves the needle in America away from our susceptibility to junk food and toward a healthy, sustainable diet? If there is, I don’t see it.

I suspect that there is a way of fostering food discipline based on the CrossFit model. I think that we can leverage community, friendly competition and accountability, and a no nonsense, evidence-based, data driven program to transform people’s eating habits. There is a holy grail of eating healthy. It is out there, waiting to be devised and implemented.

 

*This is the first in a series of four posts

1.32 Olympic Lifting for Mannequins

I tend to be a minimalist about technique in the world of CrossFit. I just like to get after it. The fun is in the doing, so once I can do something I try not to stress myself out about making my technique perfect. But Olympic lifting requires practice and refinement of technique; otherwise, you can spend years or decades slowly hurting your body because of bad form. So, grudgingly, I am now attempting to learn Olympic lifting. Meh. Sassuum. Hurrumph. Grrrrhhhuh. Fine. But I don’t have to like it. And nobody has to know about it.

Olympic lifting is tricky. There isn’t much that happens, but there’s so much going on. Getting a heavy weight from floor to overhead requires the recruitment and coordination of a number of different muscle groups.   The transition from getting the bar past the knees through the opening of the hips and driving the bar up before dropping back under it for the catch is vexingly simple, yet difficult. It is referred to as the scoop and second pull or the ‘second knee bend.’

The power of that second pull doesn’t and shouldn’t come simply from taking the back from a bent-over-at the-waist position to a vertical position. Doing that generates power forward, not up, throwing the bar away from the body when you are trying to project the bar vertically towards your shoulders. It also puts serious stress on the low back, which is not a good idea if living a life without pain is something that interests you.

One of the coaches trying to teach me these lifts is Ari. Ari is meticulous, articulate and unwaveringly supportive. He would take what he has to teach and deliver it directly to the synapses in your brain – with a pizza and a 2 liter bottle of coke – if it were possible. He would spend an hour explaining technique to someone with the aptitude of a mannequin. Perfect, in other words, for coaching someone who thinks he can check in and out of learning CrossFit skills with the rationalization that he ‘just likes to get after it.’

“Tony that looks amazing. Soooo much better than last time. Now what I want you to do is take your hands and instead of having them like this – with the hands in line with the wrists – I want you to have them like this – with the wrists bent forward, so that you’re already sweeping the bar back towards yourself. The way you are now is fine, but see how my shoulders push forward toward the bar and my back slackens when I have a straight grip? Instead, curl the hands over and feel how that locks your shoulder back and allows you to tighten your back in your setup position. It’s a much stronger pull from there. It will come more from your legs and hips. The other way forces you to take up the slack in your back first and try to make the lift with your arms.”

I gave it a shot. I immediately felt the tighter position, which translated to more use of my legs and less reliance on my shoulders and low back. Ari’s tip also helped me to integrate into my lifting something that I learned from a video of Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, about the ‘scoop and second bend.’ Glassman’s message was: get to a vertical position with your spine stacked and strong and then explode upward like a crazy person. Ari’s tip allowed me to get the bar into a better position for this second pull, which allowed me to explode upward (or as close to ‘explode’ as a novice Olympic lifter with a preference for fitness ignorance can get to it).

When it comes to working out, I like to get after it. I am learning that that has to mean more than just grabbing a bar, a kettle bell or whatever and having at it. Ari is helping me with this, god bless him. I’ll probably see him again on Friday. He will have lots of technique to teach, and I’ll be ready to get after it. I just hope he doesn’t forget the pizza and coke.