Archives For Fitness & Primal lifestyle

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courtesy of Pilates Style

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Courtesy of Huffpost

One doesn’t have to look far to find many testaments to the value of Pilates during pregnancy. Though it has not received a specific endorsement from any UK health authority (RCOG for example), I doubt that there are many Pilates teachers who would tell a mum-to-be that Pilates wasn’t a good idea. Searching for ‘risks of Pilates during pregnancy’ doesn’t yield many results.

Equally, though perhaps less numerous, there are a number of women who will attest to the value of (appropriately scaled) CrossFit during pregnancy. Indeed there is a website, and social media pages and websites for ‘CrossFit Moms’. In this instance the doubters are a bit more vocal. While they may be largely lay people, photos of a heavily pregnant CrossFitter doing weighted squats caused a storm of controversy, with commentators declaring that she was endangering her baby, and that this activity should be regarded as child abuse.

I am an enthusiast for both of these exercise modalities, but recently I’ve had cause to reconsider my beliefs around pregnancy and exercise.

I’ve also had cause to wonder, prompted by social media threads in particular, about the prevalence of pre- and post-natal sacroiliac joint problems and symphysis-pubis dysfunction. Of course, the release of relaxin, not to mention hyper mobility, will have an impact on joint stability. We know that relaxin is released for a reason, yet it seems a very inefficient (thus unlikely) natural response if it causes lasting problems. I don’t believe in the ‘we just spontaneously break’ model of health that we generally adopt in the developed world. Something about our inputs, or our environment causes ill health – whether it’s joint problems or heart problems, for example. If we are (symptomatically) hyper mobile I suspect it’s because something in our diets, or parents diets (inputs) led to changes in collagen structure leading to lax connective tissues. There appears to have been a variety of research around the subject of diet and collagen (a protein), particularly in relation to caloric, protein, or cholesterol restriction – here’s a study on rats, if you fancy it. Thus, pelvic instability is not a random luck of the draw occurrence, but has an underlying cause. This is not an attempt to lay blame on anyone who has suffered with this problem – rather, to suggest that they have been unfortunate in their genetic inheritance and expression; or have not received the best guidance.

To get back to comparing exercise, first off, what are the most important exercises, or important muscles to be worked during pregnancy? Pelvic floor, right? You’ve got to do your pelvic floor exercises, for heaven’s sake! I’ve certainly done my fair share of teaching PF contractions to pregnant clients.

And then, last year, I watched Jill Miller’s webinar on CreativeLive, which featured the excellent Katy Bowman, as she put it, ‘dropping the Kegel bomb’ (Kegels is the term used in the US). She asserts that the most effective, and balanced way of keeping one’s pelvic floor toned during pregnancy is to squat, and to walk. We might say ‘practice natural human movement patterns’….Her argument is that, while they may be appropriate for some women, isolated pelvic floor exercises may lead to excessive pull on the inside of the sacroiliac joint and consequent imbalance/instability. Squatting would give more balancing posterior support, and both walking and squatting would help to keep tone in pelvic floor muscles.

And what are the issues around Pilates and pregnancy? We encourage pregnant clients at our studio to work with the apparatus, rather than doing mat classes. We’ve had great results and have had plenty of women coming to class right up to the end of their pregnancy. That said, during their second, and especially in their third trimester, a lot of their class doesn’t look much like classical Pilates. We don’t encourage participation in mat classes largely because of the restrictions in lying down (though I’d be the first to agree that guidelines on this are heavy handed, and that a woman’s body will most likely have a way of telling her to stop if lying down is causing vena cava compression), and herein lies one of the fundamental drawbacks of Pilates, especially in the classical practice – there’s a lot of lying down. I know of Pilates teachers who have had terrible problems of pelvic instability during pregnancy. There was a heated debated on a Facebook forum recently about the rights and wrongs of allowing a pregnant woman to participate in a Pilates mat class. Another recent post on the same forum was from a Pilates teacher in her third trimester, unhappy that her workouts feel incomplete because she can no longer follow the sequence that she’s used to. Advice from her responding peers ranged from suggestions for standing (Pilates) work, to taking walks and enjoying nature. Great suggestions, yet I fear that they may fail to address the problem of the lady’s frustration – her workout has to change completely. Is there an issue with the scalability of Pilates? Or the scalability of a ‘classical’ approach to Pilates? Mari Winsor’s book, ‘The Pilates Pregnancy’ is a case in point, with a number of reviews on Amazon commenting that the sequence of exercises varies little from one trimester to the next, and that she doesn’t offer much in the way of modification. In the third trimester she suggests the Hundred with bent knees and feet on the floor, or kneeling up if lying down is too uncomfortable.

Lying down isn’t just a problem from the point of view of possible restriction of blood flow, but also because it doesn’t train the muscles and soft tissues around the hip joints and pelvis to handle to take the increasing load of the growing baby. Indeed, would it not be better to be loading these joints (hip & SI) before conception, and in the early stages of pregnancy, in order to have a strong/stable foundation for the certainty of increasing load?

Here’s where the CrossFit mums-to-be that I know of step in. (Firstly, let’s be clear – I’m sure that many women have had happy and healthy pregnancies and deliveries with Pilates as their exercise companion). The wife of my first CrossFit coach is due in a matter of days, and still doing pull-ups. Another lady that my current coach is training, who is expecting twins in three months, is still deadlifting and squatting with weight – and maintaining that her back has never felt better. The beauty of the exercise methodology that they are following is that it can be scaled to fit their changing needs, without having to change the exercises themselves, and there are articles, in addition to the website mentioned above, to guide mums-to-be and coaches alike. In other words, they can squat throughout their pregnancy – the load and the range needs to change but the activity remains the same. High intensity workouts can be left ’til later, so there’s no need for any stopwatches, but there’s lots of scope for strength work (indeed, it doesn’t matter whether it’s called CrossFit or strength & conditioning). A lot has been written about the community aspect of CrossFit, and one of the benefits of this scaleability is that it means that pregnant women do not have to miss out on their fitness community, and the potential disempowerment of ‘I can’t do what I used to’.

I’m not really advocating that everyone pregnant gives up Pilates and signs up at their nearest CrossFit gym. I just wonder if there isn’t (sometimes) something missing from Pilates that needn’t be. Or maybe there’s a middle ground. I’ve never seen film or photographs of Joseph teaching a pregnant woman, and I don’t remember any reference to pregnancy in his writing. Perhaps he never intended pregnant women to use his method. If, like me, you believe that Pilates is about moving well then many activities can be approached with a Pilates sensibility, perhaps to the significant benefit of women both pre-conception and during their pregnancies.

Or, don’t have your feet on the ground

I admit to owning some MBTs once, so I understand the seductive power of shoes that are said to improve your posture (there’s a number of things about my past that I’m not especially proud of…). More recently I’ve used this blog to question the use of technology to ‘fake’ a natural situation in pursuit of a solution, rather than accepting the naturally available solution. Of course, there’s often money to be earned from this kind of virtual reality. In the case of shoes, the rationale seems to be: “There’s a problem with your body – your muscles don’t work like they should, because (unlike a Masai warrior) you’ve been disconnected from the ground. Don’t worry, we’ve come up with a way to make your body work better – by tricking it into action.” (For only X amount of £s/$s)

I think I was more eloquent last time I touched on this, so apologies. I was motivated to revisit the subject by someone that came to one of my classes today. She was wearing some brightly coloured Reebok shoes, that served to highlight the degree to which her feet pointed outwards (“Walking like a duck” in Kelly Starrett-speak). When I spoke to her, as a new participant in the class, she told me that she has knee pain. Unfortunately for her, not surprising at all – we’ve probably all seen similar: thighs rotated in, shins rotated out, and arches collapsed. Easy to imagine that she has lower back pain too. Perhaps that’s why she bought the Reeboks, that I discovered were ‘EasyTone’ (“our EasyTone Essential walking shoe features built-in balance pods that transfer air in response to your stride and create micro-instability with every step.”) There’s a great scenario – someone who is putting excessive rotational force through the soft tissue of her knee joint with every step, because of her leg alignment, wears shoes to increase the instability for her already collapsed feet.

Clearly there are many people wearing MBTs, Fitflops, Shape-Ups and Easytones (there are probably other brands too) who do not have the same structural/alignment challenges, yet the logic still escapes me. Why did I ever think that interfering with the interface between my body and the ground was a good idea? Why did I think that elevating my feet further from the ground would be better for my proprioception and muscle activation?

Just as Michael Jordan asserts in the video clip above, it’s not the shoes! The ‘secret’ is to get your feet on the ground – your hip muscles will work better (and give support to your spine) if your feet work better – It’s not the shoes!

When I was very young there was a radio programme called “Listen with Mother”. We didn’t have a television, and I listened to this nearly every day (with my Mum, of course). Without fail, the show began with “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” (I’m not sure whether it’s a positive or a negative that this is etched in some recess of my brain).

These days, with the increasing number of studies suggesting that sitting is bad for us, it seems to be a particularly interesting question. The answer may well be “Hell, yes!” (“I’ve got this fantastic well stuffed, reclining, cocooning, i-pod docking super-sofa and I’m as comfortable as anyone ever has been.”) Of course sitting is comfortable, or certainly can be. And, it turns out, it shortens your life, makes you fat, possibly metabolically deranged, possibly pre-diabetic – never mind the possible reduction in range of hip movement.

However, I’d like to leave the bulk of the anti-sitting stuff aside, valid as it is. It seems to be getting a reasonable amount of attention. Instead, I’d like to concentrate on the “comfort” part of the equation. A little while ago I saw a Tweet from @NocturnalOutpos: “Our lust for comfort is the biggest thief in our lives…”, which resonated for me. I think there can be no doubt that the technological advances that have given us easier access to greater comfort have also weakened us as a species, or at the very least made us less resilient (Nassem Nicholas Taleb would say ‘more fragile’).  (Back to) sitting =  more hip dysfunction & back/knee problems, for example. Controlling every aspect of our living environment makes us less well able to cope with the unpredictable. Can we survive without electricity and telecommunications. Most end-of-the-world disaster movies that I’ve seen assume that we can’t (at the same population level).

Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa writes: “All living organisms in nature, including humans, are evolutionarily designed to reproduce. Reproductive success is the ultimate end [goal] of all biological existence.” So, yes, having children is pretty much our reason for existing as a species. The hunter-gatherer existence of our pre-agricultural ancestors would have had its own pragmatic population controls. It is simply not practical to live that semi-nomadic life with lots of children tagging along, and the food supply would have been a limiting factor.

When the agricultural revolution came along things became more comfortable, in that it was possible to stay in the same place, procuring food was no longer everyone’s task, and food became more abundant (though less nutritious). Consequently it was possible for the human population to explode – all the natural population constraints of the HG existence were lifted. Terrific. As a result we now enjoy all the fruits of civilisation, both positive and negative. Negative in that our numbers, ingenuity and technology have allowed us to overcome or resist many of (what I perceive to be) Nature’s attempts to maintain some balance by keeping our numbers in check.

I’m writing this sitting in a cafe on a Saturday morning, as it fills up with people, especially families. It’s noticeable how many couples have several children, clearly born in relatively quick succession, and the part of me that is certain that there are already far too many of us on the planet can’t help inwardly asking ‘Why?’ Why are you having all these children? (In this instance ‘all these’ denoting more than two). And the answer that I come back to is, we are too comfortable. It’s too easy to procure food, shelter, water and energy, so we trick ourselves into thinking that what may be sustainable in at a local, insular level is equally sustainable for humanity as a whole.

where-the-magic-happensOn a less ‘end-of-the-world’ note, it’s common to talk of one’s ‘comfort zone’ these days. It’s not an unusual idea that we need to leave our comfort zone to make changes, or to achieve more. Being uncomfortable thus is the route to progress, perhaps success, or becoming stronger. And the inverse is true. Comfort makes us weaker. Comfort encourages stasis. Comfort anaesthetises.

I’ll still be sitting comfortably on the sofa for a while this evening, but more fool me if I do so for long.

Prove it!

December 1, 2013 — 1 Comment

X YI recently came across “Back Pain Myths” via pilatestree.com, from a website called ‘Better Movement’, and a review of Kelly Starrett’s book ‘Becoming a Supple Leopard’ from a website called ‘Exercise Biology’, that both use science, or the absence of it, to question, or indeed attack, the beliefs and practices of many practitioners working within the sphere of exercise and rehabilitation. Somehow it feels as though this is a popular subject at the moment.

To paraphrase outrageously, the thrust of these is that if scientific studies cannot be found to support an idea, the idea must be wrong. “Back Pain Myths: Posture, Core Strength, Bulging Discs” (to give it its full title) sets out to show that anyone who has suggested that poor posture, lack of core strength, or bulging discs are a likely cause of someone’s back pain has not kept up with the science, and is barking up the wrong tree. (More about ‘Back Pain Myths’ in a post to follow). Our man at Exercise Biology levels the same accusation at Starrett: “He is literally taking your hand and walking you back to the dark ages of physical therapy of the 1950’s, when we used to believe pain comes from joint, tissues, bad posture and movement.” (Good thing that the OED had revised the definition of ‘literally’ to include ‘metaphorically’ as one of its meanings). To be fair, the book’s subtitle: ‘The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance’, leaves Starrett open to this kind of critique (if you are deliberately obtuse and overlook the fact that the book is manifestly about all three things combined, and not just resolving pain).

I don’t suppose that it will be news to many of us in the Pilates world that the causes and manifestation of pain are complex areas, and that there is strong evidence that people can have, for example, multiple disc bulges and no pain. Many of us may be familiar with the work of Butler and Moseley, who wrote the excellent ‘Explain Pain‘, and will know that (oversimplified) pain is a sensation produced by our brain, based on information it has received from somewhere in the body, that it has filtered through near enough every sensory input (physical experience, anecdotes heard, films watched etc) it’s ever received. Small wonder that experience of pain seems so highly individualised.

The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as: “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” So, the role of pain is to alert us to the likely need to change our behaviour, which seems pretty straightforward, and supports the idea that a poor position could indeed trigger a pain response. Of course, it is complicated, especially in the realm of chronic pain, and when someone experiences pain with no identifiable symptoms. Whilst I am familiar with, at least some (Butler/Moseley), current pain theory, I’m not ready to dismiss the possibility that how someone moves and holds themselves may have a bearing on the inputs that their brain receives. According to Anoop Balachandran (Mr Exercsie Biology), who is a fan of the ‘biopsychosocial’ model of pain, the biomechanics (usually termed PSB: postural-structural-biomechanical) model of pain “is now outdated, unscientific and incomplete..” Incomplete it may be, but if someone has pain that is clearly mechanically derived, and resolves the pain by changing their mechanics, that can’t be dismissed. (Nor would it somehow serve to disprove the idea that there is a valid biopsychosocial model of pain).

I don’t want to give into what may be flawed logic, but I’m sure that many of us will have seen the positive outcomes achieved by helping people to understand and change poor posture or movement patterns. I have no studies to fall back on to prove it, and accept the fact that we cannot prove that Pilates, for example, works. A solution that appears simple can still be a solution. Balachandran writes: “I wrote an article back in 2005 about the myth of posture and pain and ended the article saying Now close your eyes, take a deep breath, slowly slump – and savor the freedom of movement”.” He ‘knows’ that this is a sound thing to be saying, because no-one has yet conducted a study that can show conclusively that there is a relationship between posture and pain. I ‘know’ that it’s a ridiculous statement, because I’ve never seen anyone moving well, or freely, from a slumped position. I know that I went from being a chronic pain sufferer, to being pain-free because I learned better movement patterns, and better positioning strategies. I know that my joints fitting together as well as possible, and the surrounding soft tissues being supple and elastic will help me to avoid dysfunction – and I’m positive that, pain or no pain, that’s a good thing. To quote him again: “The more you talk about biomechanics, joints and movements, the more you are raising the threat level in the brain and making the pain chronic. This is exact reason why current pain science involves educational sessions to change people’s belief about the role of their muscles and joint in pain. Just changing the beliefs about pain has been now shown to lower pain, disability score and improve ROM and movement.” It may be that my beliefs about pain were changed during the first year or so that I took Pilates classes, I’ve no way of knowing that. It may be that counselling would have had a similar result, but we cannot prove it either way. A movement practice, and the changes in habit that followed, in my experience, resolved my back problem. I don’t need to prove whether it was a mental or physical change – it’s not provable – and it doesn’t matter. The practice was empowering to me in some way, maybe many ways, and that’s all that matters.

Ironically, Balachandran refers his readers to this interview, which is fascinating, and also includes the affirmation that Balachandran’s beloved BPS (bio-psycho-social) model of pain actually incorporates the PSB model of pain that he derides, as we saw above, as “unscientific” and “outdated”. His scathing review of ‘Becoming a Supple Leopard’ hinges on it being unscientific – given that Starrett doesn’t mention BPS, and that there is “no single scientific reference...” included. Ah, SCIENCE, the trump card. Balachandran makes it clear on his blog that he favours an ‘evidence-based’ approach to fitness. I believe that the only evidence that can be considered to prove anything comes from a randomised, double-blind study. I’m given to wonder what exercise we can undertake whose efficacy has been proven by studying groups of people, chosen at random, some of whom are undertaking the exercise without being aware of it, and supervised by people who don’t know who’s exercising and who isn’t. Thus, if he’s not basing his exercise on anecdote or observation, he is probably not exercising very much.

I’m not seeking to defend Starrett particularly (though I do think that BASL is a very useful resource), but a superficial reading makes it clear that the primary subject is pain that can be related to movement dysfunction, and that the evidence that he bases his work on is the success that it appears to have over his years of practice as a coach and physio. Isn’t it the case, in the realm of fitness (movement), that anecdote and observation are as reliable evidence of the value of a practice as any other kind?

Efforts to increase our understanding of how the human body works must be helpful, and science doubtless has much still to teach us. Particularly if we are working with people who have long-term chronic pain (especially that which doesn’t appear to have any biomechanics cause), it is helpful to have some understanding of the complexities of the biology of pain. That should not equal throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Starrett’s tagline for his work, attached to all the free material that he published to the internet long before the book, is “All human beings should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves”. Listening to him it’s easy to believe, financial rewards aside, that he is motivated to try to make a positive difference to people’s lives – to make the world a better place. Perhaps those of us in the Pilates teaching profession all share that same desire.

Is the motivation to write a review of this book (which carries an implicit critique of any of us who’s work is often centred on the PSB model of pain) the desire to educate, to advance debate, or the desire to build a reputation?

wonderwoman_and_superman_wallpaper-1024x768

Image courtesy of hdwpapers.com

I would generally be the first to agree that the world looks in bad shape at the moment. In spite of this, and Matt Ridley’s ‘The Rational Optimist’ it seems evident (certainly from the perspective of non-human populations) that there are too many humans on the planet. Social injustice, the tsunami of obesity, environmental catastrophes…the list could go on for a while, and lead us to conclude that the outlook is very bleak.

And yet we are living in an era of unprecedented access to information – to the extent that I can hardly believe what’s available to me at little to no cost. Of course, we have to exercise some discretion, as some of the free information that’s available may be less than entirely reliable. Perhaps it’s safer/more accurate to say that we have unprecedented access to expert opinion, and the beauty is that it appears that applies to almost any subject one can imagine. For instance, my particular bent is for information in and around the spheres of primal lifestyle, ancestral health, functional medicine, paleo nutrition, optimising human performance, exercise physiology, weight-lifting etc. If, however, your interest is in antiquarian books, veganism, numismatism, natural history, chemical engineering…. I’m sure that your interests are being equally well served. 

The torrent of interesting material is sometimes overwhelming, and I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that downtime in front of the television will have to go in order for me to keep up with all the reading – not to mention all the ‘watch later’ YouTube videos. TED talks are one of the best examples of our easy access to expert opinion. Some of my favourites are: The real reason for brains; Why things hurt; Why bodybuilding aged 93 is a great idea; Minding your mitochondria (or, how I cured my MS). Most of these talks were not found through my own searching, but through social media which, despite all it’s flaws, I have to concede is a phenomenal tool. In the main, I use it to ‘follow’ various people whose work and opinions I’m interested in, many of whom will regularly post (aside from their own writing) links to videos, details of scientific papers, links to other interesting websites, and so on. (This is also how the volume of stuff to try to keep up with spirals beyond my reach).

The other aspect of social media that’s especially exciting is that we can get instant feedback on ideas. For example, for convoluted reasons, I was reading an issue of ‘Power‘ magazine recently (yes, there’s an article by Kelly Starrett in there) and one of the powerlifters being interviewed was talking about the value of Facebook in developing a new training system. He can post training ideas and get feedback quickly and directly from the people who are trying out his ideas – it’s like simultaneous market and scientific research, in a way that would have been impossible 10 years ago.

Podcasts are another source of joy for me, particularly on long car journeys. There are probably some that you have to pay for, but the ones I’ve wanted to hear have been free. I have learned about nutrition, biochemistry, business management, teaching/coaching, evolutionary biology, neurology, and on and on – all by listening to episodes of not more than 6 different podcasts. On top of this, listening to various people talking on these podcasts has led me to authors whose books would otherwise not popped up on my radar: John Yudkin, Atul Gawande, Nassim Taleb, Tim Ferris, Weston Price, Dan John. I’ve not included links to all of these because you can easily look these people up if you’re curious. The point is that there is quite possibly information about subjects that you’re excited by freely available if you go looking for it.

It’s also easier than ever to ‘self-quantify’, to measure significant markers of lifestyle – tracking exercise, food, sleep etc. It’s quite possible that some people use the gadgets, and do very little with the data that they’re collecting (which might be considered a waste of money) but you could certainly use the data to conduct your own experiments into what changes in your lifestyle have positive or negative effects on you sense of wellbeing. In the UK we are behind the US a little, but hopefully it won’t be too long before we will have access to something like WellnessFX, that allows you, at relatively low cost, to get very detailed information about your own health markers, well beyond the readings from a conventional health check.

The short message: access to information to help you become amazing, to fulfil your genetic potential has never been so accessible. Do the right thing.

Who’s Health?

October 10, 2013 — Leave a comment
image courtesy of healthcare.com

image courtesy of healthcare.com

When Joseph Pilates wrote “Your Health” in 1934 the world was a different place from the one we know now (or, at least, the Western world was). The majority of people would have lived less sedentary lives. Whilst work for many was physically hard, it appears that lines between work and leisure were much less blurred than they are now (e-mail, anyone?) Industrial food giants were largely a twinkle in the eye of their founders and real food, as opposed to food products, would have been the standard. Wheat looked very little like the Frankenstein’s monster of a grain that it is now, and CAFOs (‘concentrated animal feeding operations’) were a couple of decades away. Ancel Keys wouldn’t succeed in demonising saturated fat for another 25-30 years (and, in the absence of CAFOs, animal fat would have been less potentially sinister anyway).

The list of health related differences could probably go on for a while. In short, I suspect that it was a little easier for people to be responsible for their health then than it is now.

What of it? Well, a couple of years ago I was at the house of a client who had a business associate visiting (both American). There was an American news channel on the television, with a discussion of Obama’s universal healthcare policy underway. My two companions were clearly of a Republican persuasion, and vigorously opposed to this socialist notion. As a European I found it utterly bizarre that anyone could be opposed to something that I have taken for granted for my whole life.

I’ve lived and worked in the US, and experienced the surprise of being asked for my credit card details, in the ER, whilst trying to staunch the bleeding from a sizeable wound. I’ve also seen people of apparently limited means handing over large sums of cash in the pharmacy for their monthly prescriptions. How could this be reasonable?

More recently I’ve started to question my knee-jerk position on universal healthcare. I suspect that the Republicans mentioned above are opposed to the idea for financial reasons – I don’t know the details (apparently the ‘Obamacare’ bill runs to more than a thousand pages, so perhaps no one does) but I can imagine that there are potentially lost profits somewhere in the system. There’s little prospect of me profiting from privatised health care, beyond teaching Pilates, so I’m not concerned by that. What I am uncertain about is the degree to which our system allows us to imagine that, collectively, GPs; surgeons; nurses; physiotherapists; pharmacists etc. are responsible for <strong>our</strong> health. We can afford to fail to take care of ourselves, and make poor choices, because there’s a broad safety net of health professionals that are obliged to try to fix us. Clearly not a good recipe for personal responsibility. If we all knew that there would be financial consequences for the poor lifestyle choices that we make wouldn’t we be much more likely to make better choices?

The problem is that the ship of personal responsibility, in this regard, sailed a long time ago. Even if this isn’t you, I bet you know plenty of people who will seek a pill for any ailment, take antibiotics for a cough/cold, or go to their osteopath/chiropractor/physio to get ‘fixed’ if something hurts. If you’re a Pilates teacher I’d be amazed if you have not been asked for a remedy to some physical ill.

And here’s the real problem – we’ve been encouraged to think like this, by both governments and the corporations that ‘help’ them to form policy. Who knows why the food pyramid looks the way it does? Was it the work of a well-meaning but scientifically illiterate committee of politicians, or was it hatched in the subterranean lair of an evil food corporation executive? Probably somewhere in between, but it doesn’t matter anymore. Their work is done and the great majority of us ‘know’, beyond doubt, what healthy eating looks like. We also know that several episodes per week of 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise are what we need to manage our weight and keep our cardiovascular system in top condition. (This probably requires a post of its own, but don’t we also know that it’s natural for a baby to vomit much of its food…?)

Governments try to protect us from the evils of tobacco, and, to a lesser degree, alcohol, and we justify huge rates of duty because these lifestyle choices place an extra burden on public healthcare. If you manufacture cigarettes you may not advertise your products, because we know all about the health risks associated with your product. However, we enjoy no such protection from the promotional efforts of the corporations, some of whose products purport to be healthy. Nestlé are free to advertise breakfast cereal made with ‘healthy whole grains’, Tropicana are equally free to advertise orange juice, which has the same sugar load as Coca Cola (who, of course, enjoy the same freedom to promote their wares). The list could go on and on – margarine proven to lower cholesterol, sweetened drinks to improve your gut health etc etc.

In these circumstances the odds seem so heavily stacked against us that personal responsibility is hardly an option. Informed choices are only as useful as the information they’re founded on. If governments and corporate giants collude to mislead us, a two-headed monster of misinformation, doing our best can easily become a recipe for ill-health. In these circumstances it seems more than ever that providing universal healthcare is an obligation. If your body were a high performance car, you’d be careful about the fuel you put in, you’d put air in tyres if they looked a little squishy. Perhaps you’d clean it often, and you probably wouldn’t park it where the risk of damage or vandalism was high. In short, you’d probably follow the manufacturers recommendations to keep it in good, if not great condition. This analogy stumbles a little in that our bodies don’t come with a manufacturers warranty, and companion handbook. However, the two-headed monster above has purported to provide one for us. ‘You break it, you pay for it’ seems like a generally appropriate maxim, and could be well applied to healthcare – you abuse and damage your body, you pay to sort it out. However, if you’ve followed the manufacturer’s instructions faithfully, surely it’s their problem?

What does fit weigh?

September 28, 2013 — Leave a comment

3_seca-760_ecru_white_detailMy urge to write often seems related to the me coming across two colliding ideas, or if not colliding, at least divergent ideas. In this case, I’ve recently started reading the excellent “The Paleo Coach” by Jason Seib, and also seen snippets/chunks of the series “The Men Who Made Us Thin” on the BBC, written and presented by Jacques Peretti.

Peretti’s TV series offers up some extraordinary insight, my favourite moment being when the former CFO of Weight Watchers in the United States almost gleefully pronounces that the company he spent 20 years working for was a good business model because their product didn’t work, but kept people coming back and paying for more. It was if, instead of being interviewed by a journalist, he was making a secret presentation to potential investors.

Overall, the series seems to be a sincere attempt to uncover why so many people are becoming obese, and what solutions, if any, are effective. Peretti points out a number of misleading generalisations, but makes plenty of his own in the process. The most striking thing for me in all that I saw was this comment: “Personally I think people should stop worrying about their weight and focus on being healthy and happy, at any size.” This seems to me to highlight the degree to which our thinking about health has been torn away from any grounding in evolutionary biology, and outright bizarre. If your brain and body are under the impression that your situation is so stressful, or that a time of famine is imminent, and that you need ample stores of fat, is there any possibility that you are healthy?

It’s widely accepted that being fat is unhealthy, yet it seems that the opposite extreme has become the definition of healthy. There is no middle ground – Fat is bad, ergo skinny is good. When skinny is patently unattainable (not to mention ‘unhealthy’) the response is to celebrate being too fat, as in “I’m happy the way I am.” There may be a case to say that, in some sections of the UK media, the pressure to be happy the way you are is nearly as great as the pressure to look like someone else a good deal smaller than you. The idea of being fat and fit is bound up somewhere in all of this. For Peretti, the fact that two obese women, who had some previous experience, could keep going in an aerobics class longer than he could was a sign that fat and fit are not mutually exclusive. Overall, the message seemed to be that nothing is truly effective in combating obesity long term – dieting doesn’t work, exercising doesn’t work, surgical intervention doesn’t work etc. Not great news for the concerned viewer who really wants to change themselves.

Then I picked up Jason Seib’s book, and was delighted. Having ‘Paleo’ in the title means I know he’s going to be talking about an ‘ancestral’ model for living now. In other words, taking the physical activity and nutrition of our ancestors as a template for how to live now. This is another way of saying that he uses evolutionary biology as the basis for his assertions about health and fitness (more of ‘health and fitness’ anon).

It fits that our concerns about our size and weight are related to how other people perceive us, or how attractive we are. Using that evolutionary model, we are wired to propagate our own genes, and mix them with other genes that are going to be resilient, robust etc. From that perspective, what attracts us to others is their appearance of health – “Does this person have what it takes to survive and flourish, and produce children that will do the same, in this adversarial world?” Just as excessive body fat won’t signal a promising mate, nor will being very skinny. In other words, as life has become easier and easier, we have developed some twisted ideas about what the roots of attraction are.

Seib argues that people who begin a diet, or programme of exercise, with aesthetic goals are largely bound to fail. That said, it’s not unreasonable to have a goal of fitting into clothes that you wore a couple of years back, or to want a smaller waist circumference, BUT weight per se is a red herring. You might change your body composition significantly, effectively exchanging stored fat for muscle mass, and not lose much weight. The whole notion of ‘losing weight’ is misguided in fact. Bathroom scales tell us next to nothing about how healthy we are. I know someone who has recently succeeded in losing weight, and I’m certain that, as well as shedding some body fat, she has also lost muscle mass. Did anyone’s health ever improve as they got weaker?

As an aside, Seib refers to research that indicates that yo-yo dieters become more efficient at storing body fat. In other words, if you get into a cycle of dieting to lose weight, and then regaining that weight, then you are likely to become progressively fatter. I can’t articulate how or why, but this is surely a natural response of the human body to the stress of deprivation and signalling the need for storing greater energy reserves.

The solution of “The Paleo Coach” is to have a goal of health, rather than a number that you read on the scale. If you take the necessary steps to be as healthy as possible then aesthetic goals will be achieved as a by-product – again, we’ve evolved to find the appearance of robust health desirable. This brings me back to the ‘health and fitness’ point. Under the heading of “What is fitness?” the CrossFit Training Guide (yes, CrossFit, again) contains this line: “We have observed that nearly every measurable value of health can be placed on a continuum that ranges from sickness to wellness to fitness.” This is to say, health and fitness are not separate – fitness is the optimum state of health. If we accept this idea then the notion of “happy and healthy at any size” is exposed as a nonsense.

Bathroom scales can tell you how heavy you are, they cannot tell you how healthy you are (I know there are some that purport to measure body fat but since one such scale told me that I was borderline morbidly obese I doubt their accuracy). Unless you’re wanting to go on, say, a theme park ride with a weight limitation, or wondering if the lift can cope with one more body in it, what you weigh is of minimal significance – your fitness will take care of your weight.

Oh, and don’t settle for wellness (“How are you?” “Oh, fair to middling.”) – is that really going to be good enough for you?

My Primal moment

August 21, 2013 — Leave a comment

The story that follows is nothing compared to the stories of hundreds of thousands of people who have experienced danger, disaster, war etc. That said, it felt like I learned something useful about myself, and it also felt as though it justified the changes I’ve made to my lifestyle in the last couple of years.

Here goes:

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The view, on a good day…

I was recently on holiday in Southern France with my wife’s family. We were staying in a house that is about 350m above sea level, on the side of a hill (mountain?) that is 1050m above sea level. There’s a rough but easy to follow path from the house to the peak, and 3 of us set off to the top one afternoon.

Clouds had been building up, and after only 5 minutes or so we could hear a sound like a strong wind through the trees, that turned out to be a wall of monsoon-like rain coming toward us. Prudently we turned back, but set off once again after the rain had passed, only 10 minutes or so later.

Around the point that we had previously turned back, all 3 of us wearing shoes, shorts and nothing else, passed a family coming down the path, wrapped up in waterproof jackets and looking miserable. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t feel amused by the contrast between our party and theirs, though that was tempered by discovering some of the hailstones that had fallen earlier, probably on that poor family.

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My brother-in-law has spent many summers exploring the area so, when he suggested deviating from the main path to make a more circular than out-and-back journey, we had no doubts about the idea. This is a beautiful part of the world, there are stunning views to admire, and on this morning there was the chance to see the impact of heavy rain on the landscape, some paths still being mini rivers.

Around the time that the sky was turning particularly blue-grey, it was acknowledged that we had missed our uphill path, though on the hillside what appears to be a path can quickly disappear into the undergrowth. The solution was to simply head upwards, negotiating the vegetation in the way. So far, so undramatic. When the rain started we experimented with sheltering under trees and scrutinising the pallor and movement of the clouds, confident of a break in the rain. It didn’t come, so we decided that being on the move was better, and carried on uphill. It had already crossed my mind that I wasn’t feeling the need to hold F (my brother-in-law) responsible for our predicament -weird.

It seems counterintuitive but the vegetation became denser the higher we got, and the way (not path – definitely no path) got steeper. Did I mention the rain was unrelenting? So the purchase on mud/stones/roots was increasingly tricky. I’d had my favourite eggs, bacon and avocado breakfast, and was feeling energetic and strong. P, the youngest of our party, is what I might (in a judgemental moment) call a ‘sugar-burner’ – bread and jam for breakfast. He’s young, and was raised that way, so the choices he makes are more habit than real choice. Anyway, P was beginning to shiver, and the novelty of our situation had evidently worn off. (I later discovered that, in the conditions, his shoes were disintegrating from the inside out, so his crappy breakfast may not have been entirely to blame for his mood).

F was regularly assuring us that we were nearing the top so, of course, it felt as though we weren’t. Amazingly, the rain became more intense and we decided to try to shelter again. This was when I had my ‘epiphany’. Squatting under a tree, with hail cutting through the leaves of our ‘shelter’, and with rain water running into parts of my body that even a shower won’t always get to, I was amazed at how I felt. Again, I wasn’t blaming anyone else, and in years gone by I know I would have been angry with F for leading us to this point. I was reminded of scenes from ‘Platoon’ when the grunts are sitting in the jungle drenched under the incessant rain (yes, I do know that we were in no danger of being shot at). I wasn’t cold (daily cold showers paying off?), instead feeling incredibly resilient. I was a bit concerned about P, whose shivering was intensifying, but at the same time I knew that I was strong enough to carry him to safety if I had to. Our situation was ludicrous and, again to my surprise, I wasn’t at all dispirited.

Deciding once more that we were better off on the move we set off for the ridge, where the vegetation disappears. There is a track running the length of the ridge which was a river a few inches deep at this point. Our way back meant following the track a little more up hill before meeting the path back down to the house. We jogged our way to the top of that path, and then sped up on the descent. Now the rain eased. The path is rough, alternating from stones to gravel, clay to chalk, and with roots here and there to add spice. Once running it was hard to stop, and I have rarely felt as invigorated as I did then – concentrating hard on each footing and feeling agile and powerful. Some 4 hours after we set off we arrived back at the house with, for me at least, a feeling of triumph.

Again, I’m well aware that this isn’t a tale that involves much peril, or endurance, and we all came out of the experience unscathed. Nonetheless, it felt to me that 2 years of ‘primal lifestyle’ had made me better able to cope with adversity. I’m better nourished; stronger; more resilient; my immune system is stronger; and, perhaps most importantly, I’m aware of how empowering it is to, instead of blaming someone else, own responsibility for my actions and any resulting predicament.

Thanks for reading.

Better Than God?

June 5, 2013 — Leave a comment

Most people, if you stopped them in the street to talk about nutrition, would probably know that butter and saturated fat are bad for you. They may well also know that those fats will raise your cholesterol level, and that high cholesterol can kill people. They may well also have some ideas about what constitute healthy fats. After all, this information has been very well disseminated by governments, medical professionals, news media, and producers of healthy fat and cholesterol lowering products.

I know how easy it is to make butter. I made some once when I was overzealous in my cream-whipping, trying to impress someone. Margarine, or Benecol (“Benecol is a range of foods that contain a unique patented ingredient, Plant Stanol Ester, that is proven to lower cholesterol. Benecol is available in a variety of delicious products including yogurts, yogurt drinks and spreads.”) is a different story – I’ve no idea where to start, so I looked it up, and apparently making margarine goes something like this:

It appears that olive oil is also relatively simple to extract from an olive. Certainly the process is mechanised these days, but it’s easy to find instructions for the home enthusiast, requiring nothing more complicated than millstones… It’s also pretty easy to render lard – animal fat, heat, a pan, a jar and some cheesecloth are all that’s required.

Vegetable oil, or seed oil is, like margarine, a different story, as this video shows. In the US they call it ‘canola’, in the UK we call it ‘rapeseed’. (You may not fancy watching the whole thing. If you do, listen out for key words such as: ‘solvent’, ‘chemical extraction process’, ‘wash with sodium hydroxide’*, ‘bleach’. You’ll be glad too to hear that they deodorise the final product…)

It’s pretty much the same process that’s outlined in the flow chart. (Clearly not instructions for making Benecol, because there’s no mention of adding those plant stanol esters….)

What, might you ask, has this got to do with God? You can say God, if you like, or you might choose Mother Nature, for the sake of this particular argument. I’m inclined to simply call her Nature. And here’s my point: someone who is very dear to me is a regular consumer of industrial food products like Benecol margarine, and also happens to be a practicing Catholic. He eats Benecol on his bread (there’s a whole other problem) because medical professionals, and advertising have told him this is what’s best for him, and because I’ve got no credentials for getting into an argument with his doctor.

I don’t practice any religion, so I’m guessing how the thinking might go. At the same time I believe that human evolution has been intimately entwined with us making use of the things that nature provides us with, just as is the case for most living things. Predatory carnivores pick their food from herds of herbivores, antelope graze, killer whales eat seals, seals eat fish (some of the really mean ones eat penguins!), many fish graze on algae etc. Technology changes many things for us – it’s very much easier for us to control fire the it used to be, we don’t need to hunt wild animals any more because we’ve learned how to corral and domesticate them. That list can go on and on. The thing is that technology tends to make life easier for us, and tends to generate revenue for the inventor and/or manufacturer. It doesn’t necessarily make us better (Yes, this was last week’s subject.) And when we’re talking about fat, we’re talking about nutrition. Say it out loud: ‘NUTRITION’ – that which nourishes us. There’s hardly anything more important than this in our lives. If we make changes to how we nourish ourselves, surely they should be based on making us better – not based on making life easier, or generating huge profits for industrial food corporations? (By the way, isn’t it weird that the same company that makes Cornetto, also makes Comfort fabric softener?)

Back to my Bencol eating, Catholic friend. Because it feels cruel, I’ve resisted saying to him: ‘God has given us all this bounty with which we can nourish ourselves. Do you really think that we can manufacture better nourishment in a factory, using enormous resources of energy, chemicals and precious water, than God has seen fit to make easily available to us?’ Again, I’d rather be talking about ‘Nature’ than ‘God’, but that’s largely irrelevant. What kind of arrogance leads us to believe that we are somehow different from any other lifeforms on the planet, and that despite millennia of successful nourishment, garnered with the assistance of  some simple hand tools, and fire, we can ‘create’ food that will do a better job of nourishing us?

Of course the real truth is that it’s probably a combination of greed and fear that leads us to the point where we believe that readily-derived-from-nature is bad, and chemically/industrially manufactured is better. However, if we can strip that away (tough, because fear is what drives capitalism so well) then perhaps we can see that it is vanity and arrogance that tricks into thinking that we (or our doctor) may know better…

Special bonus video (reward for perseverance)

*Yes, it’s caustic soda, but don’t worry, it’s of a higher grade than the oven cleaning or sink unblocking kind.

Older is not better

May 31, 2013 — 2 Comments

There was a report in the news last week relating to research into the safest place for a baby to sleep. According to the researcher I heard interviewed, the conclusion of the study was that the safest place for a baby to sleep is ‘in it’s own environment’. This struck me as rather curious, since I’d also read recently about the almost constant contact that babies in indigenous cultures enjoy with one or other of their parents.

A couple of days later I was talking to a pregnant woman, and mentioned this, at which point she said “Older is not necessarily better”, and went on to point out that in the past many more babies died than currently do. (This is a favourite theme for anyone rejecting an ancestral model for lifestyle choices. That or, ‘no-one lived past 40’…) It wasn’t the time to be pursuing that debate, but I cycled home musing on it that night.

It’s certainly true that because humans have done something for a long time it does not follow that it’s true. There are many examples of horrific practices that, happily, we have left behind us. I’m also aware that it’s rather easy to romanticise a, perhaps, simpler time, or a simpler life. (Years ago I was on holiday with friends, one of whom was from a farming background, and with far more working class sensibilities than I can pretend to have. We were on the island of Tobago, and I was very taken with the lifestyle of the fishermen in the village that we were staying in. They positively glowed with health, and whilst they obviously had to work hard, they seemed to be quite well rewarded. I was attracted to what seemed to be a very ‘natural’ and healthy life, with a straightforward effort/reward equation, and incurred the disgust of my friend for my privileged ignorance of the realities of hard work/hand-to-mouth existence.)

So, acknowledging that I may be wearing my rose tinted specs, I’m still fascinated by the idea that populations with less of the trappings of western civilization might enjoy a closer connection to their environment than we generally do. And this connection imparts a kind of wisdom that we turned our backs on many decades ago. This is a subject that many writers seem to be delving into at the moment – Mark Sisson’s “Primal Connection” is directly related to this, and it’s a theme that Frank Forencich regularly writes about. Doubtless there are many more. Perhaps people that live in closer contact with their environment make choices for the health of their environment, rather than ease of living, as ‘civilisation’ and the industrial revolution have allowed us to do for the last century and a bit. If you know that your food and shelter is dependent on maintaining something of a symbiotic relationship between yourself and your surroundings then you are highly likely to behave in a way that preserves that relationship. The chances are that this way of living has been ingrained for centuries, so that it is interwoven with your learning, play and life in general as you grow. In other words, perhaps it’s unconscious – you know what’s important without knowing that you know. Again, this is my rose-tinted perception, reinforced by wonderful books like ‘Wild‘ by Jay Griffiths.

In contrast, industrialisation and technology have allowed us to disconnect from the natural world more and more. (Aside from the practical implications, there is a rich vein of research into how this impacts our mental/emotional state). I’m certainly not about to give up a home with central heating, but I can believe that some time amongst trees and plants nourishes me in ways that food cannot.

Perhaps as the basis of postmodern theory (which I understand, highly simplistically, to be something like; ‘reality has been replaced by symbols and simulations of reality’ – apologies to Baudrillard if I’m way off the mark) we seem to have become very good at identifying problems that we have created for ourselves through technological advances, and remedied them with more ‘technology’. MBT shoes seem to be the perfect illustration of this idea – We recognise that there’s a problem with shoes, and pavements, flat ground etc. So instead of removing our shoes, and trying to spend more time with our feet on a more natural surface, we develop shoes that move us further away from true connection to the ground, whilst trying to represent that connection. Duh.

How about ‘ergonomic’ chairs? We recognise that sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen, controlling a mouse, and typing isn’t working out to well for us. No surprises there – we’re not ‘built’ for sitting for long periods, the load on our spines increases two-fold when we go from standing to sitting. The solution is, of course, to design a chair that makes us ‘better’ at sitting. One that actually requires less muscular connection in order to remain in the same dysfuntional position.

We no longer have the innate sense that should tell us that sitting for hours at a time is a bad idea. It reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with a martial arts enthusiast (and osteopath). His theory was that Pilates is essentially the same practice as yoga, tai chi, karate, kung-fu, kendo etc., but modified for a Western sensibility. One of the crucial differences is that, in the countries from which those other movement practices originate, children would be practicing them form a young age – repeating movements over and over again. By the time that they were old enough to question why they were going through these movement patterns, they had no need to ask the question because their body had learned the answer through the action. His argument went on that people doing Pilates often need to ask, or understand intellectually why they are doing particular exercises because they have not had the opportunity to develop that innate ‘body intelligence’.

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Could this be the perfect squat?
Sorry, can’t find who to credit for this image….

A brief search on YouTube will quickly elicit plenty of video clips of toddlers doing ‘perfect’ squats, deadlifts etc. – the evidence seems fairly clear that we ‘know’ how to move well at a very young age, or at least that moving well is woven into our early development. Things seem to go wrong around the time that we start to put children in shoes, and make them sit for prolonged periods of time. Shoes and chairs are simple examples of technological advances that are creating problems for us, far beyond what surely could have been imagined when they were first conceived. Just as ‘older isn’t better’, newer is not better either. More importantly, increasing the disconnect between ourselves and our environment is a recipe for newer, perhaps more complicated problems (I’m envisioning later scenes in the excellent Pixar animated film ‘Wall-E” – if you don’t know what I’m referring to, please put this blog post down immediately and remedy the situation – I guarantee it’s way more entertaining).

So older is not necessarily better, but wisdom might trump technology. Returning to the subject that I started with, of baby’s safest sleeping place, isn’t it strange to think that a baby should have its own environment, that is separate from that of its parents? Does that occur in any other species of mammal? Is this perhaps a sign of our fundamental loss of sensitivity to our surroundings, that an adult’s sleeping space is inherently dangerous to a baby? Or have we truly figured everything out better than any of our ancestors did?