Archives For paleo

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?

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“No Days Off”

February 15, 2013 — Leave a comment

A couple of weeks back PilatesTree.com asked via Facebook “how much self practice do you really put in?”. It’s a really interesting question to ask professional Pilates teachers, not least because we so often seem to prioritise teaching over working on ourselves. When I first started teaching I used to “do” the class that I was teaching, and it took me a while to realise that this was a really good way to develop some bad habits (never mind that my mat was not the optimum place to be teaching from all the time..).

I’ve struggled for some time with conflicting ideas around Pilates teachers’ responsibility to be aspirational figures (see ‘What should a Pilates teacher look like?‘) and, of course, what we do should be more important than how we look. If we finish teaching a class and then adopt a collapsed posture we’re doing a lousy job of reinforcing what we teach. “Do as I say, not as I do” is rarely a powerful teaching message.

One of the consistent messages of primal/paleo lifestyle authors, and indeed Kelly Starrett, my movement sensei, is that it is our responsibility as human beings to optimally express our genes – to be the best version of Homo sapiens that we possibly can be. This seems eminently reasonable to me, and also a great basis for a slightly different question from the one above: “How often should we be trying to be better?” or better yet – “How often should we be practicing being amazing?”

The answer, naturally, is ‘every day’. Hence, there are NO DAYS OFF. Practice making permanent = we become good at what we do often, which brings us back to the post-class slouching Pilates teacher. A state of fitness is not the result of a couple of hours per week of exercise. That may well form a part of fitness, but if we practice being great for 2 hours a week, and then the remaining 110 hours (assuming a generous 8 hours sleep per night) practicing being mediocre, or worse, we don’t need NASA to tell us what the outcome will be.

Typical view of living room floor (tissue paper is for the cats to play with).

Typical view of living room floor (tissue paper is for the cats to play with).

I was unusually reticent about answering the original question on PilatesTree….in part because I know that I can’t pretend to do anything resembling a Pilates class more than once a week. Preferring to answer my own question (“How often should we be practicing being amazing?”). As of this year, I do something in pursuit of being better as often as it crosses my mind, and this means at least every day. I don’t work out every day, but I try to practice something that I need to improve daily, whether that be a skill/movement, or mobility. I’m very lucky to be married to a woman who shares my passions/obsessions, and evenings in front of the TV usually involve one, or both of us rolling various body parts on sundry firm objects, or indulging in mutual ‘quad smashing’ (For a visual on how to do this to a massive weightlifter, or your loved one, click here, and remember: “Foam rolls are for children”).

Talk of my idiosyncratic home life may have me straying off the point. Here’s the thing: Yes, practice Pilates, yoga, boot camp, karate…whatever’s your poison (passion?), at least once per week AND practice being a better Homo sapiens every day. In the middle of a TV show I was watching the other night (I put my hand up here and acknowledge that I was making no effort to be better at the time), I heard the line “Clean water is a human right.” It sounded weird at the time – I think we’re often too quick to award ourselves rights (argh! Rabbit hole! Yes, ideally every living human should have access to clean water). Ethical quagmires aside, could we say that “an optimally functioning body is a basic human right”? I hope so, and if we’re agreed upon that, we have to remember that “with rights come responsibilities”.

We have the basic human responsibility to maintain our bodies in such a way that we are able to best express our genetic heritage.

In acknowledgement of the inspiration for this post, here’s Kelly Starrett. Not my favourite MobilityWOD video (and he no longer advocates icing) but maybe it can serve as a way in to the goldmine for you – he’s ALL about being better at EVERYTHING.

How did cheap and dirty become delicious?

(This post owes a huge debt to “It Starts With Food” by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig – buy it for yourself, and for everyone else that you care about…)

Millions of years before food scientists existed, our ancestors developed ways of helping them distinguish, and then remember, between good sources of nutrition, and bad. Sources of quick energy tasted sweet; sources of dense calories tasted fatty; and salty tastes were a sign of foods to help hydration, or maintaining hydration.

The net result: we are ‘hard-wired’ to seek out sweet, fatty and salty foods. It’s worth mentioning that the fruit our early ancestors ate was probably a fraction as sweet as the fruit we enjoy – we’ve had hundreds of thousands of years to select the sweeter mutations and make them dominant in their species. Fat sources would have been unprocessed, and salt simply found in more sodium-rich foods.

Everything our ancestors needed to nourish themselves was available in nature.
We all know that food can elicit an emotional response, and if our brain is receiving the signals that we’re being nourished it will release dopamine and endorphins. Thus, our ancestors would not only be nourished, but would feel good too.

Fast-forward to around ten thousand years ago, and our less-distant ancestors developed agriculture – allowing for production of food by a few for many to consume, and the potential to store food for long periods (never mind, for now, that this food was less nutritionally dense than more traditional hunted/gathered food).

I only mention agriculture because it allowed for all sorts of development, not least the study of sciences. Not needing to hunt or gather, some of those ancestors of ours had the time to indulge in more lofty pursuits. So, in more than one sense, agriculture gave us food scientists.

Fast-forward again, this time to the middle of the twentieth century, and manufacturers of food products had the knowledge and facility to exploit our hard-wiring to generate masses of profit. All that was necessary was to make food products that were sweet, fatty, or salty, or (ideally) a combination – doughnuts, potato crisps…..

These food products tasted amazing, and ticked the boxes that our DNA was programmed to recognise as nutritious input.

Here’s the best part, and the answer to the opening question. Real food (animals, fish, vegetables, fruit) can be costly to come by, might require a lot of looking after, careful handling and so forth. Those crops that lend themselves to an industrial scale of production (grains, corn, rape, soy, sugar beet etc) do so because they’re much less complicated they can be mechanically harvested and require minimal care in their handling en route to processing. Therefore they’re relatively cheap, and never mind that they’re a poor source of nutrition, the food scientists have an array of additives, or means of manipulating them so that they can be turned into ‘super-normal’ (super = beyond) tasting sweet, salty or fatty foods – way beyond what nature could conceive.
What effect does that have on our emotional response to food, mentioned above? Natural/real food, with its modest level of sweetness, fattiness, or saltiness, rapidly loses the ability to get our brains excited enough to release those feel good chemicals. How could it compete with ‘super’ ‘Frankenfoods’?

Have a look at the ingredients of, say, a packet (tube?) of Kellog’s sour cream and onion Pringles:

Dehydrated potatoes, vegetable oil, vegetable fat, rice flour, wheat starch, sour cream & onion flavour(hardened vegetable fat, onion powder, sour cream powder, dextrose, flavourings, sugar, sweet whey powder, lactose, milk protein, potato starch, food acids:citric acid, lactic acid and malic acid), emulsifier:E471, maltodextrin, salt, modified rice starch

Might any of those ingredients look like food? Sugar and salt, probably; dehydrated potatoes, maybe; modified rice starch….?

Where does this stuff come from…..

“Disc centrifuge for vegetable oil refining are widely used in continuous degumming, neutralizing, dewaxing, and washing of vegetable oils, such as peanut oils, colza oil,palm oil,oliver oil,sunflower oil,cottonseed oil,corn oil etc.”

Makes for an interesting contrast with ‘first cold pressing’, no?

                                                                                                               Modified starch making machine                            For more on rice starch click here

Mmmmm, ‘spray process’.

(It was an eye-opener having a brief search for suitable pictures, especially if one is viewing them from the ‘food’ & ‘industrial’ are two words that don’t go together perspective)

Perhaps this was my subconscious at work – I thought of Pringles as an example before I remembered their advertising strap line: “once you pop, you can’t stop”. They make a virtue of the fact that their food product is addictive…. Plus, it’s cheap to produce, dirty (in that, if shown them all individually, you probably couldn’t identify any of the ingredients, apart from sugar and salt), and (doubtless, to many) delicious.

Why would you want to eat real food ever again?

PrimalCon 2012

April 28, 2012 — 2 Comments

With some REALLY nice people I met at PrimalCon

This post feels a bit like “What I did on my Summer holidays”, and PrimalCon may be of limited interest to anyone who isn’t a primal or paleo lifestyler. Nevertheless, my trip to California has had the effect of shifting my view of Pilates, and teaching, along with a variety of other plusses (and minor minuses) that may be worth a mention, and a couple of readers have encouraged me to write about it.

I decided to book a place for the event late last year, based on the expected presence of two particular presenters, Frank Forencich and Erwan Le Corre, both of whom I really wanted to work with, even if only for the brief period PrimalCon would allow. Talk about nutrition, exercise and rubbing shoulders with like-minded people would be an added bonus. At the same time, California is a long way to go for 3 days of convention, so I started looking for courses or workshops around that time that would help to justify the journey. I was aware of MobilityWOD from mentions on various blogs, and had filed the site in my head as ‘must look at later’. A one day ‘Crossfit Mobility Cert’ presented by the creator of MobilityWOD, Kelly Starrett, was the only opportunity for professional development in the LA area that my searches threw up, so I signed up. I had my misgivings about the Crossfit methodology so, while the course sounded interesting, I didn’t have very high expectations.

A few weeks before going to California I came to realise that I was hoping that PrimalCon would help me to figure out what it was that I had been seeking to augment my Pilates teaching. When I discovered that Frank Forencich would not be presenting after all I was heartily disappointed, but hopeful that Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat might prove to be the way forward for me (exercising in nature, in a functional way – terrific).

The day after I landed at LAX I was heading for Crossfit Balboa feeling slightly uneasy. For those of you unfamiliar with Crossfit there are plenty of videos on YouTube that will give you an idea of what it’s about. Suffice it to say that many practitioners are big, strong and gymnastically fit (some emphatically not, but there’s a separate story), and I was definitely feeling like the puny Pilates teacher. First revelation of the trip (no, I was relatively puny) was that Kelly Starrett is a brilliant presenter – engaging, funny, endlessly enthusiastic, dynamic, and apparently able to deliver a whole day of material without notes. The really exciting part for me was that, although he was speaking the language of strength and conditioning (squatting, deadlifting, pressing, pulling, handstand push-ups etc), he was often sounding a lot like Pilates. I’ve referred in the blog previously to revelations about the synergy between Pilates and S & C, but this was really underlining it for me, and making me understand some of Pilates writings/exercises better than I had done previously. Why didn’t Joseph Pilates teach reformer footwork with internal hip rotation? Was it because he hadn’t thought of it? No, I bet it’s because he understood that it’s a crap position in which to do footwork. Naturally I was delighted to discover that Kelly was also going to be presenting at PrimalCon on the following weekend.

So, the main event. I got to Oxnard, home of PrimalCon, on the Thursday evening, and duly made my way to the beach park for the informal gathering of participants, meeting, amongst others, a woman who competes in “fig-yur”. Turns out it’s a kind of non-bodybuilding physical exhibition sort of thing that doesn’t seem to have made it’s way across the Atlantic (small mercies etc.). As mentioned, the event was being held in a beach park, so it was a bit of a blow when, shortly after the 7.30am registration,  a rainstorm of biblical proportion settled over the town for the bulk of the day. No problem, we’re Primal, we love evolutionary theory because it explains everything we do, so we adapt to circumstances, and move into a ballroom in the neighbouring resort hotel.

First on the schedule for my group was Kelly Starrett, presenting, essentially, a small segment of the one day course I’d done previously. The jokes were still funny, and it was a welcome reminder of some of his key ideas – I hadn’t been able to write fast enough to get everything down on the previous weekend. I was also left with questions practically spilling out of my head – always a sign for me that I’m in a stimulating environment. Next up was the MovNat presentation – yes, that which I was pinning my future hopes on. Clearly, learning about a movement program that is based on the outdoors is somewhat diminished by being inside a hotel ballroom, and Erwan Le Corre appeared to be duly flustered and frustrated by the circumstances.  We got underway with him explaining some theory that was certainly interesting – ‘Becoming fit through the practice of efficient movement skills enables a physical and mental conditioning that is the most effective and applicable to all areas of life.’ – and then practicing a few drills: how to jump and land, for example. Around this point in the presentation someone asked if there were resources, such as videos on the MovNat website, that would help us to priorly practice these skills later. The answer: No. The follow-up question was naturally ‘How then can we practice this more?’ The answer: Do a one day or two day MovNat course. It’s worth mentioning at this point that Kelly Starrett’s motto is:

“All human beings should be able to perform
basic maintenance on themselves”

and his MobilityWOD website has in excess of 400 video clips, freely available, to show you a huge array of techniques/exercises to increase mobility/range of movement/movement efficiency etc. To be honest, having spent a lot of time trawling around the websites and blogs of the primal/paleo community, I’ve come to expect that people are sharing valuable information for free, because it appears to be the norm. Never mind what’s the norm, the brusque manner with which Le Corre dealt with people who were expressing an interest in learning more was disappointing. There was enough interesting material in the short time that we had for me to still be interested in the certification courses that he mentioned before the finish, so I took the opportunity to ask him for more information. His response was along the lines of: ‘It’ll be on the website”, before turning his back to me. Now, call me old fashioned if you wish, but if someone approaches me to tell me that they’re interested in Pilates, and would like to know about my studio/where I teach etc. my first reaction is going to be appreciation for the fact that they’re interested , and some enthusiasm for telling them more. Consequently I was starting to wonder if Erwan was someone I wanted to be giving thousands of dollars to….

The afternoon’s agenda started with Mark Sisson’s (author of ‘The Primal Blueprint’, and PrimalCon creator) keynote address. One to one, or in small groups, Sisson didn’t seem terribly comfortable, but standing in front of a large audience he was very impressive. He spoke mostly about nutrition (apparently without notes) in considerable detail, emphasising the benefits of being a ‘fat burner’ rather than a ‘sugar burner’ – decreased oxidative damage, greater cell longevity, decreased inflammation, improved insulin sensitivity etc. Perhaps most impressively, he fielded a number of questions, some of them quite complex (even multifaceted – bravo Ozgur) and managed to give detailed answers, sometimes slightly tangential, without losing track of what he was talking about. He has 15 years on me and his memory appears to be decidedly better than mine – maybe if I follow his lifestyle tenets for another 10 years or so it’ll improve…

There were plenty of other presentations – running technique, kitchen skills, weight-lifting and gymnastic skills, nutritional advice, etc. with a lot of time given over to ‘free choice’ – meaning that the various presenters were around and available for questions and discussion. This meant that mini-workshops spontaneously occurred around the beach park which probably constituted the most valuable part of the weekend. Inevitably, still full of questions, I gravitated toward Kelly Starrett most of that time, and he didn’t disappoint – seemingly always available and eager to talk about movement (and happily, a keen advocate of Pilates). In contrast, Mr MovNat was much less available, and I became certain that his work does not present my way forward. In that respect PrimalCon was a failure for me, because I’d been hopeful of leaving knowing that I would enrol on a training course that would help to develop my own work. On the other hand, I learned so much from the time I spent listening to Kelly (and having my calf/thigh/shoulder mashed) that it was huge success. Not to mention that, though my Pilates teaching has already changed a little, what I learned feels like a doorway to much much more that I can be excited about discovering. I’ve realised that learning what you don’t want can be as valuable as learning what you do want.

Making new friends, and developing what I’m doing professionally, along with reminders of some things that perhaps I knew but had let slip, and lots of sunshine made the whole trip worthwhile. If you have the will to keep reading there’ll be more to follow shortly on specifics in relation to Pilates.

Here’s a bonus for making it to the end of this post….

Why go Primal?

March 15, 2012 — 2 Comments

Around June 2011 a friend of mine (let’s call him Glen, since that’s his name, and he may often make an appearance on this blog) told me about a book that he was reading, ‘The Diet Delusion‘. It sounded interesting, so I bought it, and was amazed by what I read in the first few chapters.  I won’t go into details here, suffice it say that the author dismantles, with the help of an astonishing array of references, many of the ‘sacred cows’ of healthy eating that I had believed in for years (the book is pretty dense, for a summary you can watch this video).

Talking to Glen about what I’d been reading, he suggested looking at the website Mark’s Daily Apple. Discovering this site was the watershed for me, and before long the shelf above my desk looked like this:

‘The Primal Blueprint’ is the manifesto of Mark (‘s Daily Apple) Sissons, and became my guide to applying the information of “The Diet Delusion’ to my life. The blurb on the cover offers “…effortless weight loss, vibrant health, and boundless energy”, and Sissons is very clear that the Primal Blueprint concept is not a diet, but a lifestyle. Nutrition is a significant slice of the Primal pie, but exercise, sleep and sun also play a part.

I didn’t start reading either of these books thinking that I needed to lose weight, but I certainly knew that I ate more sugar than was good for me, and had had a nutritionist point out to me that my diet was dominated by wheat. My daily food might look something like: toast and jam for breakfast; pain au chocolat and perhaps a croissant too during the morning; sandwich, with fruit, and probably chocolate for lunch; muffin/brownie/chocolate coated peanuts and maybe more fruit afternoon snack; and pasta or pizza for dinner. On the whole I considered myself to be reasonably fit and healthy (on reflection I may be very lucky with my genes…) and I knew that cutting back on sugar was very difficult for me. The transformation in my eating began, as I learned about the role of carbohydrate in fat storage, with trying to increase my protein intake – opting for sausage and egg croissant instead of the pain au chocolat, for example.

The more I read (and one of the things I enjoy about the Primal/paleo community is how much information people offer for free), the more I started to believe that eating grains was a bad idea, and with that I found it surprisingly easy to cut back on my wheat consumption. The shift in my eating probably took four or five months, and was amazingly easy. At first it was very difficult to find ‘primal’ snacks when I was out of the house but as my eating changed more I discovered that I don’t need snacks – four to five hours without food is perfectly manageable if you’re not carbohydrate dependent. A year ago I could easily eat an entire bar of Green & Black’s creamy milk chocolate (36% fat, 50% carbohydrate) – I might have felt a bit sick afterwards, but that wouldn’t have stopped me. Now I find one square of milk chocolate a) doesn’t taste of chocolate at all and b) is so sweet I can hardly bear it. At the same time Lindt 90% cocoa dark chocolate (55% fat, 14% carbohydrate) tastes truly wonderful.

As I mentioned earlier, ‘The Primal Blueprint’ isn’t just a diet book, so what else is there?

These are the 10 Primal Blueprint Laws. Some may need a bit of elucidation: ‘avoid trauma’ in an earlier edition of the book was ‘avoid stupid mistakes’, and is essentially to do with being more conscious of one’s environment, so as not to get hurt; ‘avoid poisonous things’ largely refers to eating foods that contain anti-predation chemicals/elements that we’re not made to digest – these would include almost all grains and legumes (I’m not the ideal person to explain why – please click on the links for Sisson’s own explanation).

I’ve not done so well with the insect eating, lots of sleep is sometimes tricky (especially when living with an excitable kitten…), and I don’t play as much as I might, but on the whole it’s been a very positive experience trying to stick to them. In fact, the changes to the way I eat, and approach exercise have led to one of the biggest transformations of my life.

Pilates definitely had a hugely transformative effect on me – it freed me from 18 months or so of chronic pain, and opened the door to the first real career that I’d ever wanted (and I met my wife through Pilates). It’s inspired me to learn, and allowed me the chance to be a part of running a thriving business. Probably because of my nature, Pilates also allowed me to have a somewhat entrenched view of ‘proper’, or worthwhile exercise, and a limited perspective on physical health. (Let’s be clear, these are my shortcomings. Please see my earlier post for more thoughts about Pilates and health).

And how has the Primal lifestyle transformed me? I’ve lost body fat (I had no idea I stored so much fat in my legs…); I feel like I have more energy; I’m stronger; my eczema is a thing of the past; I don’t feel bloated after eating; I’m less gassy, and my digestion from (ahem) start to finish is generally better. The weightlifting appears to have made me more flexible, and has also made me work some muscles much more than I’d managed previously – I’d never felt my back extensors work like they have to when I squat properly. I’ve also learned that activities like weight lifting have more in common with Pilates than I might have imagined – the language and the application is different but you still have to work from your centre, and the load is supported from your centre.

Physical things aside, there are plenty of other benefits. I’ve discovered that I really enjoy cooking, and, better still, the pleasure of cooking for friends and family who appreciate the food. I’ve developed a relationship with some of the people that I buy food from, and get a surprising kick from the whole process of eating, from the buying of fresh ingredients to the preparation and cooking (no more ready meals in our house…). As well as taking up weight-lifting and other high intensity exercise, I’ve also been introduced to other approaches to exercise/movement like MovNat and Exuberant Animal (see ‘Useful Links’), that I’m really excited to be learning more about. My inspiration to learn is greater than it has been in a long time, and I’m optimistic that I will be able to offer more to my clients over the coming years as a result. I’ve been led toward quite diverse reading material that has helped me to reframe thoughts about a variety of subjects, and to be more considerate of how my actions effect my immediate environment, and the larger world.

In the same way that we try to encourage clients at our Pilates studio to feel responsible for their health and well-being, the primal lifestyle really  fosters personal responsibility  that, in turn, encourages a positive outlook. If I believe that I’m in charge of my health, and I’m making sensible choices to support it, then I can feel optimistic about remaining healthy, fit and strong as I get older.

Zealotry

March 10, 2012 — 1 Comment

Listening to as many podcasts as I have, I’ve heard several questions addressed to the presenters along the lines of “How can I spread the word better?”, “What name could we use instead of ‘Paleo’ to get more people interested?”, “How can I convert my family/friends?” etc. etc. More often than not the response is something like “Why waste your breath? If people want the information they’ll come looking for it.” The trouble is that the answer is probably being given by someone who receives 100’s of emails every day seeking help, and that’s not the case for the amateurs out there like me, who are excited by what they’ve learned and want to pass it on.

It’s a cliche for good reason that people who have successfully given up smoking become the most vigorous advocates for going smoke-free. Perhaps it’s deep in our DNA to be this way. Since discovering and embracing the primal lifestyle I’ve seen in myself an apparent need, reflex, desire, urge… (one or more of those) to evangelise about food. Specifically the food that I believe it’s right to be eating. I was a vegetarian for many years (there’s that reformed smoker thing), and quite a stroppy one at that. I was younger, it was an emotional/sentimental thing, and there may have been a girl in the picture that helped my choice to give up meat. I don’t think that I was quite as enthusiastic about spreading the vegetarian word as I am at spreading the primal/paleo word, but I certainly wasn’t shy about letting people know what I felt about meat eating.

I know that I am not alone in wrestling with the problem of not being able to shut up about nutrition – the friend that showed me the path to the paleo way has had his own struggle with this. It appears that a lot of people in the paleo ‘community’ latch on to the idea very strongly because the framework of evolutionary biology seems so logical. Perhaps it’s inevitable that if something works for you, and resonates with you, the urge to spread the word is strong. I had back problems for about 18 months before someone pointed me toward Pilates, and in a very short time the practice of Pilates had ‘fixed’ me. I was pretty excited, and convinced that everyone with back problems should do Pilates. And hey, why just back problems? Anyone with any physical problem or injury will surely be fixed by Pilates. As a teacher I’ve seen this pattern repeated many times –  Pilates helps someone overcome chronic pain and consequently changes their life. As a result Pilates then becomes ‘bigger’ than a mode of exercise, and reaches the status of miracle, at which point evangelism may well follow.

What drives us to evangelise? I realise that in choosing this word I’ve gone into the realm of religion, and this highlights for me the whole problem of feeling the need to share. I’d rather base my ideology in science, and specifically evolution. I think I can reconcile this, and perhaps simply need to choose my words more appropriately. While Christian evangelism is dedicated to saving people from one unprovable idea (hell), and giving them hope of another unprovable idea (heaven), the lifestyle that I’m espousing offers the real possibility of health and longevity, and salvation from the equally real possibility of ill-health and disease. Surely that’s a reasonable thing to be trying to share?

I had a great lesson recently in the value of sharing information with people that aren’t very interested. We had family staying with us, part of the Belgian arm of my family, for whom bread is the principle component of, typically, two of their daily meals. Perhaps I was conspicuous in my non-eating of bread (perhaps I may have said something about the evil of wheat-but I don’t think so…), either way, one of the teenagers in the family asked me what the problem was with wheat. I launched into an explanation of the trinity of bad things about wheat (gluten, lectins, phytates), and quite succinctly, as I recall. I didn’t have high hopes but still felt slightly crushed when he, and the rest of the family, still attacked the bread with gusto at the next meal. As my wife is inclined to say to me when I tell her about an exciting new nutritional nugget that I’ve picked up: “It’s just someone’s opinion”…. (Of course that’s often not the case, but it serves to reign me in a little).

I’ve noticed in my 8 year old son an enthusiasm for acquiring knowledge that often extends to an enthusiasm for sharing that knowledge. On the whole it’s quite charming in a child, but perhaps not so much in an adult. I recognise in myself the danger of sharing information  with too much of a “listen to how much I know” motivation – definitely something that I would like to control as much as possible. The struggle is to balance this with wanting to pass on things that I imagine others might want to know. I’m reminded of reading John Pilger years ago and feeling sure that lots of people would want to know about all the evils that he described being perpetrated in our names. Even as I write this the parallel seems even stronger than I had thought – the collected information from sources such as ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories‘, ‘Wheat Belly‘, and ‘The Vegetarian Myth‘ adds up to something looking very much like governments and vested interests misleading the people, disempowering them and making them sick (while multinational corporations make VAST profits, and public and private healthcare costs spiral beyond comprehension). Who wouldn’t feel pissed off about that?

What to do? I care about the health of my family and friends. I care about the well-being of the people that I teach. What does that require of me? Respect for their values, certainly, and support too. I know that my vegetarian friend doesn’t want me trying to persuade her of the merits of eating meat, but if I hear her talking of trying to lose weight by eating carbohydrate, instead of protein and fat, I’m bound to say something….

So here’s a pledge to everyone that knows me:  I will try really hard to only offer information when there’s a hint of invitation, and to assume that, if you take soy milk in your coffee, you probably don’t want to know why that’s a bad idea.

Fitness

February 18, 2012 — 3 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from the person who handles marketing for a yoga centre at which I teach a (Pilates) class. All the centre’s teachers were being approached for their input in an idea to tie the London Olympics into the centre’s publicity, with an ‘Olympic challenge’: “The idea is to get who ever does the challenge [as] fit as an Olympic athlete through Cycling, Yoga , Pilates, Nutrition and treatments.”
I was fascinated by this idea on a number of levels.

The first to get out of the way is incredulity at the idea that a combination of the above would produce similar results to the training regime of an Olympic athlete, unless we’re considering pistol marksmen/women, or some similar sports person. I think most people conjuring the idea of an Olympic athlete will come up with someone like Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis, Chris Hoy, Tom Daly etc. I know that Usain Bolt is notoriously lackadaisical about his training but I cannot believe that a similar physical condition could be achieved through yoga, pilates and nutrition, with some treatments thrown in.

I specifically referred to Usain Bolt’s physical condition to avoid using the word fitness. This is the part of the ‘fit as an Olympic athlete’ concept that I find really interesting. How are we to define fitness? And will Olympic athletes fit into that definition?

I asked a friend of mine, Pilates teacher Suzanne Scott, “an anatomist with physiology leanings”,  to define fitness for me recently, and this is what she came up with: “greater tolerance to shifts in environmental parameters and biologically mediated challenges”, which, aside from being marvellously worded in a very science-y way, captures an evolutionary notion of fitness rather well, and I shall return to this. Biology online says: “In biology, Darwinian fitness or simply fitness of a biological trait describes how successful an organism has been at passing on its genes. The more likely that an individual is able to survive and live longer to reproduce, the higher is the fitness of that individual.” Hence ‘ survival of the fittest’ – those that are best adapted to be able to successfully pass their genes on to successive generations. (This perhaps calls for a separate post on how our species has nearly circumvented this simple evolutionary rule by inventing agriculture, with its attendant advantages and disadvantages).

So what has evolutionary theory got to do with Olympic athletes? If we were to define fitness as the ability to perform a narrow range of specific tasks repeatedly and, perhaps, particularly fast, then an Olympic athlete may well be the model of fitness. However, in keeping with my primal/paleo bias, I have an imaginary prehistoric framework in which an individual’s fitness is tested – a wild place, untouched by ‘civilisation’, in which there are a variety of hazards to be negotiated or avoided, and great skill at a narrow range of tasks will not do. Survival, or better yet, flourishing (for that’s what I hope we all strive for), in this environment requires many attributes: keen senses, agility, speed, strength, endurance, ingenuity and so on. All of these attributes may well be possessed by a number of Olympic athletes, so why not call them fit? It isn’t a new idea that the most successful Tour de France cyclists are those that can tolerate the most pain. Similarly, it is well established that competing in endurance events (Ironman Triathlons, for example) causes more cell damage than it’s possible for our bodies to fully recover from, chronic inflammation, and has a corresponding impact on our immune systems. (A brief trawl of Google will proffer plenty of articles linking prolonged training for, and participation in, endurance sports to increased risk of various conditions from heart disease to cancer.)

As sports science and our understanding of human physiology and biomechanics  has developed the level of performance has risen to a staggering degree (world best marathon time teetering on the brink of the 2 hour barrier being broken!). To be ‘elite’ means monitoring the minutiae of an athlete’s life and training, and competing at the very edge of one’s potential. Pushing to that ‘edge’ inevitably means that many athletes seem to be, even when performing very well, on the verge of injury and/or illness. To be really successful as an athlete means maximising your adaptation to your chosen activity. This adaptation ultimately means that an athlete’s body starts to dispense with any tissue that doesn’t help perform the relevant specialisation, whether it be muscle, bone or brain! If you need to be as light as possible to be really good at your chosen sport then your ability to store energy is going to be compromised. This is fine if you have a ready supply of food, but could lead to catabolism (something like your body ‘eating’ your muscle tissue) if not. However impressive a lot of sporting achievements are, and how much I enjoy watching them, this doesn’t feel like a model of fitness to me. While some elite athletes might do very well within the prehistoric framework mentioned above, I suspect that many would have trained the necessary versatility out of themselves, in order to be highly skilled at their specific event.

An honourable mention is due the Olympic decathletes, like Brian Clay (pictured), whose multi-sport discipline of running, jumping, throwing and vaulting (an amazing combination of movements) requires them to have a truly impressive combinbation of strength, speed, stamina and agility.

Okay, so I’ve succeeded in arguing that actually some Olympians do qualify as really fit – not my original intention. I still stand by the argument that, very often, the requirements of elite sporting performance are incompatible with a Darwinian interpretation of fitness. Given that, let’s return to what does qualify as fitness, or what does “greater tolerance to shifts in environmental parameters and biologically mediated challenges” really mean? Can you cope with unexpected challenges to necessary or normal activity? (I wrote about how Pilates relates to this here).

If you’re a slight framed woman driving an Audi Q7 around London’s streets (yes, I’m a cyclist), and an electronic malfunction means that your power steering is disabled, can you control your vehicle? If you live on the 6th floor, and the lift is out of order, can you get your 20 kilos of groceries upstairs to your home? If you’re a 70 year old out for a stroll and some lunatic on a bike appears from nowhere heading straight for you, do you have the speed and agility (and balance) to get out of harm’s way? I’m sure we could come up with infinite examples of such scenarios. An answer of “yes” would suggest that, having a greater tolerance to …, you are more fit than some. Let’s not say that a ”no” answer means that you are unfit, rather that you could be fitter. The truth is that many, many people will get by, and quite possibly even thrive, without the skills to make it within the prehistoric framework. I would suggest that this only serves to show that our species is weaker than it once was.

“Why boast of this age of science and invention that has produced so many marvelous wonders when, in the final analysis, we find that man has entirely overlooked the most complex and marvelous of all creations: himself?”
Joseph Pilates, Your Health (1934)

The motivation behind this post is an effort to reconcile my career as a Pilates teacher with my growing enthusiasm for the Primal/Paleo lifestyle, and to try to discover how much synergy there is between the two.

This first post will mostly be an attempt to discover hints of a primal approach to human health in Pilates’ own writing, specifically “Your Health”, published in 1934.

My understanding of the Primal approach to living boils down to simple guidelines related to nutrition, exercise, sleep and sun-exposure. (A fuller list can be found here). In essence, the idea is to use the lives of pre-historic humans as a framework on which we can model our own behaviour. We are apparently genetically virtually identical to our paleolithic ancestors, and will achieve the best health by eating, moving, sleeping etc. in the way that archeology and anthropology suggests our ancestors did.

Much of the output of blogs, books, and podcasts from the primal/paleo community are intended to help people suffering from the symptoms of metabolic syndrome (obesity, insulin resistance etc.), and diseases/ailments related to chronic and or systemic inflammation (degenerative joint conditions, gastro-intestinal problems, multiple sclerosis etc.).

The primal/paleo philosophy is that what is generally recognised as ‘normal’ for old age – steady physical decline, illness, disease etc. may be usual, but are not normal for our species. By following the guidelines mentioned we are capable of living to old age without suffering substantial physical (or mental) deterioration – one of Mark Sisson’s ‘slogans’ is “Live long, drop dead”. The advice on how to stay fit and healthy for as long as possible typically comes down to addressing nutrition, exercise, sleep and sun-exposure.

Pilates was obviously writing at a very different time, and the health problems that our society faces were quite likely unimaginable in the 1930s. Nonetheless Pilates clearly wasn’t happy with the condition of many of the people he saw around him, and certainly had a lot to say about health and longevity. He saw “Tuberculosis, heart disease, posture problems such as bow legs, knock knees and curvature of the spine, as well as a veritable legion of other minor ills..”. He was concerned with both the physical and ‘moral’ health of humanity:

“As civilisation advances, the need for prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals should steadily decrease. But is this the case in our era? Certainly not!”

He was writing at a time when a lot of the working population of the United States were probably transitioning from more manual work to more sedentary work but with still much more balance between the two than is the case now. Some of his ideas, and some of the exercise repertoire that he devised may seem inappropriate now, but it’s quite possible that those things made more sense for his time.

Whilst he was certainly concerned with sleep quality, going so far as to design a bed, his primary interest was clearly exercise, or movement. Whilst contemporary pilates teaching may well have a slightly different emphasis, Pilates himself was promoting exercise that required, at the more advanced level, a combination of gymnastic skill, flexibility and strength. Typical workouts suggested by the Primal/Paleo crowd often involve those same combinations.

Joseph Pilates, aged 54, working on his Vitamin D levels

Frequent sun exposure and supplementing with Vitamin D are common recommendations in books such as Robb Wolf’s “The Paleo Solution”, and other Primal/Paleo media. Statistics suggest that, in the USA, something like a third of the population are deficient in Vitamin D and it’s safe to assume that the figures for the UK are similar, if not worse. The photograph on the left shows Pilates in what was apparently typical attire for him. In “Your Health”, though he doesn’t mention Vitamin D specifically, he lauds the ancient Greeks for preferring “to more or less expose their bodies to the invigorating air and revitalizing rays of the sun…”.

Pilates’ method is often referred to as ‘mind-body’ exercise, and he was convinced of the relationship between a healthy body and a healthy mind. Those relationships are less explicit within the Primal/Paleo world, yet there is a lot of discussion over the negative effects of, for example, over-production of cortisol on both a physical and mental/emotional level. In addition, via podcasts and articles, I have come across numerous mentions of links between diet and mental health, including a link between wheat consumption and schizophrenia and apparent links between poor insulin sensitivity (see ‘metabolic derangement’ above) and Alzheimers, leading to the suggestion of a Type 3 diabetes.

One significant gap in any connection between the two philosophies is that, as a part of his exercise regime, Pilates was especially concerned with ‘correct’ breathing. He believed that a great many people didn’t know how to breath properly, and that the action of fully filling and emptying the lungs has great benefit for ridding the body of toxins and maintaining vigour. I have yet to come across any specific mention of breathing habits in the ‘paleosphere’ but I think this relates to the notion that we have lost touch with our ‘natural’ selves, and therefore need to be retaught the most basic of human activities. This certainly fits within my understanding of the Primal/Paleo philosophy.

Pilates didn’t seem to be much of a one for going to the doctor. Concerning preventing or curing the ills of society in the 1930s, he wrote: “Can this be done through medicine? No! It can be done by following basic health rules and a simple exercise regimen,”. Again, there is some synergy here, as the wealth of shared information amongst the P/P community indicates – with many people eschewing conventional medicine and seeking to heal a variety of problems from autoimmune conditions to skin problems to metabolic syndrome and beyond, by means of lifestyle changes – very often dietary changes in particular. This is another area where Pilates and the Primal/Paleo camp don’t appear to have much in common, yet I’m inclined to argue that, had Pilates been alive now, he would have had a lot to say about nutrition. The so-called ‘Green Revolution’ was most pronounced in the years immediately after Pilates’ death (the term was first used in 1968, Pilates died in 1967). This went hand in hand with the acceleration of industrial food processing (a somewhat depressing timeline can be viewed here), leading us to the current situation in which we can make a choice when shopping, if we wish, to buy food, or food products. Inevitably, the massive advertising budgets are behind food products, rather than real food. I believe that Pilates, on the basis of much that he wrote to do with mankind in his/her natural state, would have abhorred the state of general nutrition these days, and would have been urging his clients to follow a dietary regime that looked a lot like Primal/Paleo eating.

In essence Pilates was a celebrator of the wonders of the human organism, and a proponent of living in a way that optimised the health and fitness of said organism. This seems to me to be exactly aligned with the more recently developed Primal/Paleo philosophy, which has more reference to evolutionary biology (and scientific studies), but the same underlying promotion of physical health and longevity.