Archives For December 2012

Rushing toward the end of the year (and having successfully negotiated the projected end of the world, unscathed) I’m probably not alone in contemplating resolutions for the next year. I’ve already made a commitment to be a ‘dryathlete’ for January –  no, NOT triathlete, my days of indulging in daft endurance challenges are behind me – the Dryathlon is a brilliant fundraising wheeze for Cancer Research UK, and will fit in nicely with my Whole30 plan.

I feel confident that I can go without alcohol for a month – I’ve done it before, just as I’ve done a Whole30 before (No: dairy, sugar, grains, legumes, alcohol. Yes: meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds – hell yeah!), these are not radical changes, and don’t represent a significant challenge.

There are plenty of other instances when I’ve found myself not doing something that might represent positive change, and I’m trying now to evaluate my reasons. I notice immediately, casting my eye back over the previous sentence, that I ‘found’ myself not doing something – how’s that for disowning behaviour? On the whole, I’m not referring to very significant life changes, or behavioural changes, but rather the small things that might make a difference to a single day, and accumulate over time into more substantial benefit. For example, if I practiced skipping every day (I’m really crap at skipping – do not ask me to do a double under yet) I’m sure that I would get better at it relatively quickly. I do practice from time to time but, if it crosses my mind to do so, my usual gut reaction to that ‘practice-skipping’ thought is, at best “tomorrow”, and at worst “f**k it, I’m not in the mood”. There you are: compelling reasons not to be better… Why is it that those negatives seem so powerful? Perhaps it’s just me, and I’m inherently lazy. Yet, even as I write that, my mind is compiling a long list of evidence to support the case for my not being lazy, and I can’t accept that notion.

Along with the evidence from my own teaching practice, I hear plenty of tales from the coach that I see regularly of clients that are resistant to making small changes to their lives – small changes that might have a large effect. It appears, too, that the great majority of people who seek treatment of a specific problem from a physiotherapist or other health practitioner do not do the exercises they’re given as homework. I’ve come across this phenomenon so many times that the people that do their home exercises take me by surprise. Often, on suggesting dietary changes to someone with a chronic condition, or body composition goals, I’ve seen the mental shutters come firmly down. I’ve tried to give up on making such suggestions, as nutrition seems to be as contentious a subject as politics or religion, (but I still wonder… does anyone truly believe that they may become malnourished if they don’t eat bread for a few weeks?)

I’ve strayed a little bit from the point – who am I to say that dietary changes would necessarily be positive? I don’t limit myself to failing to engage in physical challenges that would be good for me. How often have I travelled on public transport, with the option of either reading something, or playing some stupid game on my ‘smart’ phone, and chosen option B? I’ve not read any books of the “7 habits of highly successful…” ilk, but if I did perhaps I’d learn that one of them is that, faced with that internal “shall I make the small effort required to do X, or not bother?” dialogue, really successful people will typically make that little extra effort. It may well not be my destiny to be really successful, so I’m not going to worry about that, but I am resolving to make the negligible effort to do something useful with my available time, rather than taking the pointless option. It seems like such a simple thing, yet I know it will be a hard resolution to keep. I just need to hold fast to the truth that there are no compelling reasons not to make positive changes, or to take positive actions: “later”, “f**k it”, “tomorrow”, “I can’t be bothered” certainly will not qualify. As Frank Forencich writes in ‘Change Your Body, Change The World‘: “When it comes to making substantive changes to minds, bodies or lives, easy doesn’t work. Easy doesn’t transform….Easy doesn’t save time; easy is a waste of time.”

The thing with new year’s resolutions is that they always seem to be finite, like my dryathlon will be. The real challenge, then, is to make avoiding the easy path into a life strategy, rather than a new year’s resolution.

where-the-magic-happensImage courtesy of blog.unstash.com

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One doesn’t have to search very long on the web to find critiques of CrossFit, there are many, and many of them valid. This seems to be largely down to the fact that it allows (fosters, perhaps) an obsession with the number of ‘reps’, or the time taken to do the workout, over practicing good technique. In essence, the idea of learning skills and then challenging one’s ability to remain skilful under duress is a really interesting idea. If you read any of the CrossFit training literature the same message is frequently repeated – form is everything. There is not an official edict that says “Finish the workout at all costs, never mind your technique”. Unfortunately, this point seems to have been missed by a number of certified coaches who fail to scale workouts appropriately for different people, and fail to teach the imperative of proper technique. CrossFit then earns a reputation for being dangerous, and causing injuries.

I will agree with anyone who suggests that becoming a certified CrossFit coach should be a little harder, but the arguments against Crossfit based on poor coaching are the same as the Daily Mail “How pilates can make your bad back worse..” type articles. Once you get passed the eyebrow-raising headline, the article essentially says ‘if you have a poor teacher, things may not work out too well’. As another blogger (whom I’m afraid I cannot credit, sorry) put it: “Crossfit is not dangerous. Bad coaching is dangerous. Poor movement is dangerous. Ego is dangerous.”

Enough about the problems with/for CrossFit (‘CF’ hereafter). This is about why I love it.

Maybe teaching Pilates for as long as I have (coming up to 10 years) had made me slightly jaded. The pressures of running a business during one of the longest recessions of my lifetime might have played a part too. Before I discovered CF I was still a firm believer in the possibilities of Pilates to work, something like magic, in transforming the lives of people with chronic pain, and other physical challenges, but I had fallen out of love with Pilates, a little. (That may also have something to do with my perception of the dominant trend away from building strength and fostering empowerment in UK Pilates teaching). In stumbling upon CF, and recognising their common threads, I’ve rediscovered my original zest for Pilates.

Aside from the philosophical similarities with Pilates that I referred to here, CF consistently teaches me about myself, in a way that no other discipline or type of exercise has. I’ve run marathons in the past, and done long training runs as part of the preparation, and I certainly found myself looking inward then. It’s probably true that I’ve suppressed some of the memories of what I may have seen. What I remember was the struggle to find a way to overcome physical fatigue, and some pain (and, to be fair, the stakes were high – nobody wants to train for 6 months to run a marathon, and then fail to finish). It also took a long time – both the activity, and the recovery. The soul-searching that I might do during a CF workout is different, and it’s a more humbling experience. On a number of occasions I’ve wanted to give up on finishing a workout, not because I was too physically tired to continue, but because my mind was telling me that I’d had enough. It was quite a surprise for me to discover that (with the motivation of, for instance, seeing my wife carry on when I wanted to stop) I’m capable of pushing myself beyond my previously perceived limits, which opens up a variety of new horizons.

There’s a camaraderie in doing CF workouts with others that I’ve never found in Pilates – perhaps because you’re more likely to be exploring the limits of your capacity. I’ve seen plenty of official marathon t-shirts with slogans that imply that being a marathon-finisher puts you in an elite group. Whilst the sentiment resonates with me, I also find it somewhat obnoxious. At the same time, there’s something about sharing the experience of a workout like Diane (Deadlift 225 lbs, Handstand push- ups, 21-15-9 reps, 3 rounds for time), especially doing it together, that forges connections. (CF is widely recognised for its community-building aspects).

Kristan Clever’s Diane at the 2012 CrossFit Games regionals

If you watched the video, there’s a clue to the humbling element of CF – not only is my ‘Diane-time’ about 10 times slower than the woman featured, it’s also slower than my wife’s (who of course has minimal interest in how long it took). It’s a curious feeling to set about something, believing myself to be bigger and, therefore, stronger, but to find that my wife is actually stronger than me. She’s a very accomplished Pilates teacher, and I admire her teaching a lot, but it doesn’t compare to the feeling of witnessing her steel herself, and push back the limits of her physical capability. For her too, more often than not, it seems that it is pushing past mental boundaries, that extends the physical ones. I’m finding it hard to adequately describe – there are moments at the end of a workout when, gasping for breath, I see deeper into myself than I have done during other physical pursuits. I wonder if it’s too much of a leap to suggest that it helps me make a connection to my primal self – the one that was born to run and hunt and struggle for survival…

Your Health

December 4, 2012 — Leave a comment

I heard recently that the NHS in the UK spent £8.6 billion on prescription drugs last year. Four of the top five most prescribed drugs are used to treat ‘lifestyle diseases’ – cardiovascular disease, diabetes etc. More recently I heard a news item about a suggestion that patients needing treatment for those kinds of illnesses should have to pay toward their treatment, on the basis that their condition is self inflicted.

All arguments about the practicalities of implementing such a system aside, why does it seem that many of us are willing to accept that ill health is inevitable, and beyond our control? There are plenty of scholarly books/articles written on the subject of ‘civilisation’ being our downfall as a species. The further we get from our origins as a species, the more prone we become to physical degeneration. The very things that make our lives easier are the things that make us more prone to sickness. As Frank Forencich writes (in ‘Change Your Body, Change The World‘): “by engineering our environment to take care of our every physical need and desire, we have simultaneously disempowered ourselves and bought disease upon our bodies.” (It’s perhaps worth noting part of his solution: “..we need to find creative and interesting ways to make our lives harder, in some cases much harder.”) Have our disconnection from our origins, our comforts, and medical interventions allowed us to believe that ill-health is somehow a natural state?

Since I began writing this, a few weeks ago, I’ve heard a few more snippets of information that have fed my thoughts on this subject. I heard a trailer for a radio programme concerning research conducted on animals, to investigate treatments for Alzheimers, diabetes, and obesity – estimated to cost the UK tax payer £35 billion/year. Separately, listening to episode 160 of The Paleo Solution podcast, I learned why ‘low GI’ foods are a hindrance to losing body fat. (It’s obvious really, and I should have figured it out before – our bodies need our blood sugar level to drop below certain levels in order to trigger the release of fat as an energy source. If you eat food that will specifically elevate your blood sugar level over a prolonged period you will be inhibiting your bodies ability to mobilise fat for energy).

The trailer for the above radio programme described scientists using their experiments on mice to find “treatments” for these diseases. Treatments that perhaps might be more effective than recommending diabetics eat low GI foods, one hopes…. But why ‘treatments’? It feels like an acceptance of the inevitability of these diseases to set about developing drugs (procedures, perhaps?) to treat them. If we don’t accept that our bodies have built in obsolescence, or that it’s ‘natural’ to become sick (please don’t!), then there has to be an alternative. How about honestly facing up to what behaviours lead to these problems, and giving people advice and support to change these behaviours – maybe then we’d find that it’s all the ‘treatment’ that is required.

Maybe everything comes back to money. There are so many vested interests in making us believe that we do not have control over our own bodies, and health – All those industries: the media; pharmaceuticals; food; ‘health food’ & supplements; fitness etc. This all adds up to a potent mix of misinformation, and contradictory information, that may well leave most of us with our heads spinning, or the impetus to bury them in the sand. In terms of diet alone – ‘fat is bad for you’; ‘carbohydrate makes you fat’; ‘saturated fat is very bad for you’; ‘red meat causes cancer’; ‘sugar is bad for you’; ‘reduce calories to lose weight’; ‘everything in moderation’; ‘calories don’t matter’ – not to mention all the miracle healing foods: cranberries, goji berries, acai etc. If you face serious struggles with body composition there is a minefield of advice in the media, of questionable value. And then in the supermarket: ‘fat free’; ‘no added sugar’; ‘low GI’; ‘high in fibre’; ‘heart-healthy’; ‘wholegrain’; ‘one of your 5 a day’ (funny that fruit and vegetables never get labeled with nutrition information… If you’re buying a packaged food item that makes this claim, I’d be deeply suspicious of its nutritional value).

This could become a tedious list very easily, so I’ll try to change tack. In short, the barrage of advice and consumer pressure all seems to add to a collective sense that we are somehow programmed to malfunction, and that the answer is either pharmaceuticals, surgery, or buying the right food product. This isn’t helped by government advice, both in the UK and the US, perhaps the rest of the developed world too, that is patently unsuccessful. How many people are following that advice and becoming fatter, or sicker? The lack of declining obesity rates should answer that.

In pursuit of an overall project of owning responsibility for our own health, along with remaining physically active (as I imagine you all are) – Pilates; lifting weights; walking; running; climbing; jumping, and all of that good stuff, here’s a challenge for you (I’ve just decided it’s called the “Don’t Play With My Food” challenge):

For the next 7 days only eat food that has not been packaged in plastic, tins, polystyrene or cardboard boxes (glass is allowed, as are cardboard trays for fruit, eggs etc.). The beauty of this is that you won’t need to look at ingredients lists, or nutrition information – you’ll be eating real food that doesn’t require labelling. Please let me know how you get on via the comments…