Archives For Primal lifestyle

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!

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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.

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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.

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.

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?

“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.

The “Fast Diet”, also referred to as the “5:2” diet seems to be all over the UK media at the moment, accompanied by both very positive reviews, and expressions of concern about the dangers of encouraging anyone to fast.

I had this diet described to me as “fast for 2 days (actually, limit calories to 500/600 per day), and eat what you like for 5 days”. The man behind this is Dr Michael Mosley – and he made a television programme all about it, so it must be infallible. Apparently he found evidence that, aside from weight-loss, the Fast Diet is also associated with a range of other health benefits.

I have grave misgivings about any suggestion of ‘eat what you like’, because it seems to suggest that nutrition is unimportant. In other words, there’s an awful lot of ‘food’ around these days of very limited nutritional value. The idea (not Dr Mosley’s, I’m sure, but possibly widely-held nonetheless) that it’s okay to eat crap for 5 days, and then severely restrict your calories for the other 2, sounds like a recipe for very poor nutrition. And food, after all, is meant to nourish us, not simply supply us with calories.

I can’t help but listen to news items about diets without my Paleo-biased brain shouting “It’s what you eat, not how much or how often, that matters”. I’m also trying not to be a 197693_3967280097068_451202589_nfundamentalist about food. I do get a little stressed over vegan parents raising their babies as vegans. Equally, it would take very strong evidence (that I’ve seen no trace of) to persuade me that being vegetarian is as healthy (never mind sustainable) as being omnivorous . At the same time, occasional rants about soy products aside, if someone feels that the way they eat is the best for them, what business is it of mine? None, of course.

Back to ‘diets’. The biggest problem that I can see is that they always appear to be temporary. I may well be wrong, but I doubt that Dr Mosley is proposing that anyone follows the 5:2 ratio for life. This is why I really like the way that I’m eating these days (and why I’m always a little baffled by people asking me if I’m “still doing that diet”) – it’s great because it feels totally sustainable. I choose, generally, not to eat certain things, that were amazingly easy to give up. That’s it. Again, I’m trying not to evangelise.

I was exposed to another idea today (courtesy of Paleo Solution podcast episode 167), attributed to Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit. It seems like a brilliant approach to body composition, health, and (probably) any other outcome one might desire from a diet. Essentially, set yourself some athletic goals that will really stretch you. The podcast mentions double-bodyweight back squats and a couple of other outlandish strength/gymnastic goals, but we can all figure out athletic achievements that will stretch our individual capabilities. Perhaps it’s mastering the entire Super-Advanced Reformer repertoire, or doing “Romana’s Mat Challenge” 4 times in a row, if Pilates is your thing (though I think a more profound strength challenge would be best). Maybe it’s preparing to climb Kilimanjaro for charity. The point is that, if your goal is sufficiently challenging for you, doing what it takes to reach it will inevitably involve eating appropriately, and making positive changes to your body composition. No 5:2, no GI, no Caveman, no South Beach, no Atkins, no Blood Type (and on and on and on and on)

Perfect! Nourish yourself to achieve amazingness, and enjoy the combined side-effects of better health, and the body composition you’ve dreamed of.

There’s not enough THRUSTING

In a recent conversation with a personal trainer, he made the observation that the components of functional training are: “pushing, pulling, lunging, squatting and twisting”. Similarly, Mark Sisson refers to PEMs (Primal Essential Movements): Squats, Pull-ups, Push-ups & Planks.

A search of the web for components of functional exercise offers up the following “4 Pillars of Human Movement” (coined by ‘fitness maverick’, JC Santana): Standing and locomotion; Level changes in the body’s centre of mass (e.g.. squats, lunges etc.); Pushing & Pulling; Rotation.

Dr. Richard A. Schmidt (author of various books on motor control and learning) defined the six basic human movements as: squat, bend (deadlift), lunge, push, pull and twist.

CrossFit’s Training Guide describes Functional movements as those: “…that mimic motor recruitment patterns that are found in everyday life….Squatting is standing from a seated position; deadlifting is picking any object off the ground.”

You’re probably getting the gyst, and may be wondering what this has to do with Pilates. Well, Pilates is about teaching movement, and hopefully we can all agree that it’s a much better idea to be teaching functional movement over non-functional (isolation) movements.

One of the common themes to these lists is the presence of hip extension, which the CrossFit Training Guide (yes, I’m preparing for my Level 1 certification…) describes as”..the foundation of all good human movement” adding: “..without powerful, controlled hip extension you are not functioning anywhere near your potential.” Perhaps as a result of what I’ve learned from regular sessions of CrossFit, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with hip extension, and aware that the great majority of people that I see, both in classes and in the street, seem to be lacking ‘normal’ hip function.

Surely this is where Pilates should be coming in, and spanking everyone into good function? There’s lots of hip extension in Pilates, certainly when it comes to the equipment repertoire, (not so much in the mat work), so what am I on about? Here’s the thing – we typically approach hip extension, in Pilates, from a static trunk position. Take leg springs lying supine, or feet in straps on the reformer – both great exercises for teaching people how to move at their hip joint without compensating with their spine – but not allowing full hip extension. This doesn’t teach us that much about being upright. In addition, legs move in relation to the trunk, and there is very little Pilates repertoire that requires us to extend our hip joints by doing the opposite (trunk moving in relation to legs, or both moving simultaneously).

It’s been amazing to me to discover, both in myself and other Pilates teachers, how common the inability to dynamically extend the hips seems to be. When I was first asked, from a standing position, to flex at my hips and my knees, keeping my trunk stiff (something like the appropriate position from which to pick an object up from the ground), and then extend at my knees and hips to return to vertical, I couldn’t seem to do it without adding in some kind of spinal articulation. The short version of that rather wordy sentence is: ‘ I couldn’t thrust my hips’. Wanting to consider myself moderately virile, that’s a pretty humiliating discovery.

One of the things that I consider it my job, as a Pilates teacher, to convey to the people I’m teaching, is how to avoid substituting moving with their spines for moving in their hips – yet there I was, incapable of avoiding that substitution, when asked to do an unfamiliar hip movement. This is the crux – do we, or does Pilates, do a good job of teaching people to effectively use their hip extensors when they’re not lying down?

It’s not as if there’s an absence of standing work in the studio (again, mat work is a different story), and maybe I just don’t teach enough of that repertoire – though there’s a lot more squatting and lunging involved in my classes than there used to be. Working from the basic premise that spinal articulation exercises are only to promote flexibility (thus facilitating stability), I wonder if we don’t tend to overemphasise articulating the spine, at the expense of efficient, powerful hip extension. You may argue that powerful hip extension (‘PHE’, from now on) isn’t a part of optimal posture, but I’m willing to bet that someone that has the facility for PHE has a reasonable alignment of their pelvis on the top of their legs. I was tempted to insert pictures at this stage, but it feels too objectifying. Suffice it to say that I was watching a promotional video (from a very well-known manufacturer of Pilates equipment) for a new piece of equipment. The model, who in fairness may not be a Pilates practitioner (though I know of a number of Pilates teachers whose shape is similar), had a pronounced angle at the front of her hips in standing, that speaks to me of lack of hip extensor activity – again, this feels like a common sight to me – generally more noticeable amongst women, but that may simply be down to clothing. In contrast, the elite female CrossFitters seem not to exhibit the same posture, but are ‘flatter’ through the front of their hips. Typical CrossFit movements: dead-lifting, squatting, kettle-bell swings, even gymnastic movements at speed like pull-ups and rope climbs, are dominated by PHE.

Could it be that we could help more people improve their hip function overall, and their posture specifically, by incorporating more standing (& lying) PHE?

For suggestions on how to achieve this (without doing CrossFit) please look out for a forthcoming project, that aims to help make Pilates easier, simpler, and possibly, dare I say it, more effective. Readers of this blog will be the first to know about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristan Clever’s Diane at the 2012 CrossFit Games regionals

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

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?