Archives For Primal lifestyle

Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, of  Whole9, have determined a set of ‘Good Food Standards’, set out below.

The foods we eat should:

  1. Promote a healthy psychological response.
  2. Promote a healthy hormonal response.
  3. Support a healthy gut.
  4. Support immune function and minimize inflammation.

Their basic message is that you should eat things that are nutritious (good for you), and avoid those ‘foods’ that are not – for instance, food with a high caloric but low nutrient value. I’m three and a half days into my fist attempt at a Whole30, a thirty day nutrition programme devised by Whole9. A Whole30 involves eliminating the following: all grains; all legumes (pulses, beans, peanuts etc.); all dairy (apart from clarified butter); all sugar (and substitutes); all alcohol. In addition, potatoes aren’t allowed, nor are any processed vegetable oils, which basically eliminates any restaurant fried food.

What’s the point? For me, it’s mostly to do with seeing if I notice any changes in all aspects of my life – exercise, sleep, energy levels, body shape and so on. It’s already been interesting to see how careful one has to be to follow this regime. I absent-mindedly reached for the chewing gum in the car yesterday and, thank goodness for my alert wife, was stopped in time.

I’m, typically, fairly mindful of what I’m eating, aiming to be generally living a primal lifestyle, but I’d noticed that I was managing to sneak more sugar back into my diet (85% cocoa chocolate still has sugar in, as apparently does alcohol, damn it). I’m curious to see how easy/hard it will be to go without those things that I’m used to having for a whole month, and my resolve is being bolstered by concurrently reading “Primal Body, Primal Mind” by Nora Gedgaudis, full of fascinating information about the consequences of our food choices.

It turns out that our digestive system is intimately linked with our immune system and overall health. We also, apparently, have more nerve cells in our gut than our brain, and 95% of all serotonin is produced in the gut, suggesting that there are links between digestion, and mood and sleep quality.

So, our fridge is stuffed with eggs and animal protein, and plenty of vegetables and fruit. I am feeling slightly more obsessive about food than usual, but obsessing about nutrient density doesn’t feel like such a bad thing. If it seems at all interesting I’ll report back at the end of June, when my 30 days will be up.

Primal 101

May 11, 2012 — Leave a comment

It turns out that at least one reader wants me to explain the Primal lifestyle more than I’ve succeeded in doing previously (and doesn’t want to read ‘The Primal Blueprint‘). So, aiming for brevity, here goes:

Eat meat, fish, eggs, lots of vegetables, and some fruit, nuts and seeds.

(Red wine and 85% chocolate if you wish).

Fuel your system with fat, instead of sugar.

Avoid grains – they’re pro-inflammatory, calorically dense and nutritionally poor and, in the case of wheat particularly, associated with a broad array of ailments (from skin rashes to schizophrenia…)

Avoid legumes (beans, pulses etc.) – also potentailly pro-inflammatory, and the gas that they have a repuatation for causing is a product of your body trying to cope with things we’re not made to digest.

Move about frequently, at a slow pace.

Avoid ‘cardio’ exercise of the hamster-in-its-wheel variety (treadmill, crosstrainer etc. for half an hour plus). It doesn’t serve any useful purpose.

Lift heavy things regularly – squatting, deadlifting, pressing etc. (ideally have someone competent teach you how to do this)

Sprint occasionally. (High intensity interval training).

Get plenty of sun exposure (without getting fried) – it’s great for your vitamin D levels, and vitamin D has a role in a variety of crucial functions.

Get plenty of sleep, ideally in a totally darkened room. If possible, wake up naturally.

Stay alert – be as attuned as possible to your environment (maybe avoid walking around texting, shutting out sound with MP3 player etc.) This is about avoiding silly mishaps/accidents.

Don’t hold other people responsible for your own well-being.

Learn new skills.

Play (have fun) – there’s plenty of research to show that playing is both a fundamental part of learning, and a means to keep stimulating brain activity as we age.

That’s about it….Easy.

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….

I just tried an internet search for “pilates low back pain” and Google returned 1, 380, 000 results. Google scholar also offers hundreds of ‘scholarly articles’ that touch on the subject. Amazon offers several DVDs of Pilates for low back pain, but their offerings are dwarfed by the hundreds of YouTube videos on the same subject. Another Google search for the same terms but in the News section suggests that in the last month English language newspapers and magazines have also had hundreds of articles on this subject. Coupled with my own experience of Pilates ‘fixing’ my low back pain, is it any wonder that I’ve spent years believing that Pilates offered the best solution for anyone suffering from this nearly ubiquitous affliction?

The Dummies.com website has a page, attributed to Ellie Herman on: ‘Easing Your Back Pain with Pilates‘ in which she explains that the causes of back pain are “faulty posture” and “sedentary lifestyle”. While we might like to suggest some other possible causes, I don’t suppose that many Pilates teachers would disagree with her – it seems like pretty basic stuff: you sit and/or stand badly, your postural muscles get lazy, you ability to stabilise your spine is compromised, and from there you’ll be very lucky if you don’t wind up in pain.

So, why is Pilates so good at helping relieve low back pain? Well, of course, it targets your ‘core’, deep postural muscles that give your lower back its stability. The less uncontrolled movement that you have in your lower back, the less likely it is that you will have pain. As your stability improves Pilates can help to develop efficient movement of the whole of your spine, encouraging good posture during a variety of activities. In addition, helping areas of relative stiffness to become more supple, and areas of relative ‘looseness’ to become more  stiff (stable) can help to bring more balance to our structure, and integrate our limbs into our trunk.

I was lucky enough to receive a pretty high level of training as a Pilates teacher (certainly by UK standards), and to work with some truly brilliant teachers from the UK and the US. I hope that I can reasonably consider myself to be well steeped in the principles of Pilates, and how to apply them when faced with clients with chronic pain and/or injury. I know about ‘working away from the pain’, and I’ve particularly enjoyed Ron Fletcher’s anecdote on that subject in his conversation with Kathy Grant (I referred to this DVD in a previous post) – Fletcher (a dancer at the time) explains that he went to see Pilates for help with a knee injury. Every time he went to Pilates’ studio he would be given exercises to do that had nothing to do, and Pilates would ignore Fletcher’s protestations that it was his knee that was the problem. After a few sessions Fletcher discovered that his knee was better.

So, I think my training has equipped me to help clients deal with back pain fairly well. I also believe that I understand a lot of the potential causes of back pain, as well as the importance of posture in maintaining a healthily functioning spine. I’ve been fixated (in my teaching) with hip mobility for years, and ‘get’ its importance relative to spinal stability and functional movement. I know, too, that most of us could do with working on upper back extension (and probably rotation and side-flexion too), and that the consequence of that will be less pressure on our necks. The list could go on, and that’s not really the point. In short, I felt that I had the basic understanding that I needed to do my job well, and that Pilates taught well was the ideal solution for all manner of problems. I certainly didn’t imagine that the world of strength and conditioning would have much more to offer in that regard.

More recently my perspective has been challenged. First of all by learning some of Mike Boyle‘s ideas (if you follow the link you’ll see just the kind of website that fit my prejudice completely – all it’s missing is advertising for protein powder) from his book ‘Advances in Functional Training’. (Actually this info is second-hand since it was my wife who bought the book and then explained it to me – I am nothing without her.) Boyle explains the body from the ground up as a series of joints that require, alternately, mobility then stability: ankle joint needs mobility, knee needs stability, hip needs mobility, lumbar/pelvic joints need stability, thoracic spine needs mobility, cervical spine (neck) needs mobility. Genius!

Being peripherally involved in a Pilates teacher training programme I understand how tricky anatomy and physiology can be to get to grips with, not least because it rarely seems to be straightforward, and how often students crave some dependable, simple answers. I’ve suffered the frustration, and seen it in many students too, of different books giving different answers for muscle functions. I know now that anatomy is an evolving subject, not a science in which all the answers have been found and set in stone. Thus, an explanation of what we need from our joints, expressed as simply as Boyle does, feels like a wonderful breath of fresh air. Mobility: stability: mobility: stability….It also seems to fit perfectly with ‘working away from the pain’ – you leave the problem area alone, and look for the adjacent compensations/weaknesses/stiffnesses. I think I had learned the same thing previously, but perhaps in a way that meant I didn’t see the wood for the trees – I knew it in pieces, and had never heard it said so succinctly. Lots of bits of information fell into place as I mused on this idea, and it’s become a constant reference point when I’m teaching.

Following that I was listening to a podcast recently in which the two hosts (one a strength and conditioning coach and the other an olympic weightlifting coach) were answering a question about exercising with a herniated lumbar disc. In discussing the question they came up with an equation something like: “If your hip joints are mobile, and your thoracic spine is mobile, you probably won’t have low back problems. If your hip joints aren’t mobile, and your thoracic spine isn’t mobile, you probably will have problems with your lower back at some point”. More genius! 

It’s just like Mike Boyle said! (Mobility, stability, mobility, stability….) Again, I knew already what they were saying, in fact I’ve probably been saying the same thing to clients for years, just not in such a clear and straightforward way. Perhaps I’ve just been lagging behind all these years, thinking I knew more than I did – certainly I need to view other disciplines with a little more humility than I have in the past. In any case, when trying to learn more about what I do for a living, casting my net wider has definitely been rewarded.

To return to the Ellie Herman piece on http://www.dummies.com, posture may well be a part of the picture, but there’s more to it, and you may be able to make a significant difference to your risk, or management of back pain, by going beyond her advice to:  “sit and stand up tall, keep your belly pulled in, and keep your shoulder blades pulling down your back”. Maybe even by listening to the advice of weightlifters.

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.