It’s that time of year again. No, not just the holidays, but the time where it seems that everyone is becoming sick. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones that’s not [yet] been afflicted. So you’re avoiding making contact with people with symptoms – telling that coughing coworker to stay at home to spare the rest of your team. And you’re not touching those infested subway poles. And you wash your hands all the time, just to be safe. I call this mindset the contagion model, where a person becomes sick if they’re exposed to agents that contain infectious bacteria or viruses – people and objects included. While there’s a lot of truth to this way of thinking, I feel we rely too much on it. The contagion model is rendered moot by the resilience model, where one can avoid illness altogether by strengthening and conditioning their bodies in various means. This seemingly impossible feat results from developing a strong immune system and a stress buffer. Thus, even if a resilient individual is exposed to infectious pathogens, her body is able to resist and ward off the potential illness.
Although I’m not a doctor, I’ve mixed together a slew of information, from microbiology to stress research, with self-experimentation and introspection to develop this model. Here’s the kicker – as of this writing, I haven’t been sick since December 2005. That’s 6 years! At worst, I’d feel like I have something coming down which slightly bothers me for a day, and then it’s gone. Now, because I only have a single data point – myself – it’s not entirely clear what factors are more prominent to building resilience. Still, I have a bunch of ideas that I consider to be significant factors.
The body is more likely to succumb to illness when it is placed under stress. So it’s important to keep oneself in tip-top shape by eating well, being very physically active, and getting plenty of sleep. I should note two important things I had done in 2005, when my illness-free streak began: I stopped drinking soda and I began serious martial arts training. My body has felt amazingly better since. Likewise, pursuing meaningful or enjoyable activities (in both work and play) and being social go a long way keep us unstressed and consequently stave off illness. If this perspective sounds familiar, it’s because this is core and time-tested health advice, not to mention a central point of this blog. I believe the way we live on a day-to-day basis most profoundly prevents sickness.
Shocks to the body are bad – like going from the toasty indoors to the freezing winter outside – so it’s helpful to acclimate oneself to the new season. Every Fall the past few years, I’ve gradually exposed myself to the colder outside temperatures. I tend to keep the indoor temperature on the low side, like in the 60s. And participating in outdoor physical activities, like roller blading, means putting up with moderately unpleasant cold temperatures as the season carries on. By the time the days get nastily cold, my body has a new set point and tolerance – I never have to feel the intense blast of cold in the dead of winter because my body is already used to the moderate cold. Reducing the cold imbalances in the season means reducing the chance of a cold in your system.
We should embrace germs instead of fearing them. I’m vehemently against the common use of antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers. Here’s why: not all bacteria are bad and we humans have evolved to coexist with many bacteria in mutually beneficial ways. There’s a trillion bacteria on our skin surface and most of them are either beneficial or don’t cause harm. The actual benefit is very interesting, because these typical skin bacteria often prevent the pathogenic bacteria from taking hold on the skin surface. Let this sink in – the bacteria that normally reside on our skin surface essentially give us a force field that protects us from infectious pathogens. Now what happens when we use antibacterial soap or hand sanitizers that kill off everything? The skin becomes a clean slate and an open invitation to all bacteria – good and bad. Think about this the next time you go for the antibacterial product.
The immune system is like a muscle. It requires a consistent workout to maintain its strength. Like an atrophied bicep that can barely lift a thing, a coddled immune system offers little protection when it’s called to action. Our bodies are designed to be exposed to the elements. A minor infection here or there gives the immune system practice and information. It helps us develop immunity and preps our bodies for the big game when flu season comes around. Hence, we shouldn’t be afraid to get a little dirty sometimes.
As I mentioned, these are a few ideas that have come from a lot of experimenting and consideration of the way the human body works. I understand that it may be a bit unconventional, or perhaps blasphemous. But at the very least, I know that something is working. It’d be nice to have some more data points. Have a healthy and resilient winter!
I’d like to tell you about my friend and skating brother, Ryan, an individual with seemingly superhuman powers. I first met Ryan in summer 2007 on Tuesday Night Skate, a group inline skating event where we fly through 20 miles of city streets each week. Needless to say, I was in the back of the pack that night, due to my limited experience with such distances and my low performance skates. But Ryan held the front with ease, despite wearing hockey skates with tiny wheels (these offer great maneuverability at the cost of top speed and momentum). He clearly had an incredible athletic ability; the extent of it is simply unreal.
For example, a few years ago, Ryan spontaneously entered a skating race. He wore his hockey skates as always and his attire consisted of a t-shirt of board shorts. Most everyone around him, speed skaters with racing level skates, was wearing spandex. Come the end of the race, Ryan placed fourth, beating out many folks that spend countless hours to be in tip-top racing form. This goes beyond skating. In the past year or two, Ryan participated in a bunch of running marathons and triathlons, seemingly just for kicks and to stay in better shape. He doesn’t train for these things. Despite this, he regularly beats out most of the competition, and sometimes wins outright.
How is it possible that he’s able to do this? Perhaps cause he’s young (a couple of years younger than I am), but even then, he’s quite unique among his peers. I’ve met many incredible individuals of all ages and while some have truly amazing athletic ability, none seem to be in the class Ryan sits in. Many folks claim that Ryan is simply innately talented – that he was born with superhuman abilities. I find this answer demeaning, to both Ryan and the claimer, and I’ll explain why below. If we step back and look at the big picture of Ryan’s life, we see the source of his talents.
Ryan is driven for self-improvement and to better the world, learning at every opportunity. He sits front row center in his college classes, showing great interest in what his professors have to say (likewise, he connects with his professors to learn beyond the course material). His skating technique has changed over the years – it’s clear he always works to improve that. By the same token, Ryan shows great consideration outside of himself. One, he’s very friendly – it’s difficult for me to imagine a [sane] person that wouldn’t like this guy. There’s a strong aura about him. Two, he truly wants to better our world and does every bit to push for this, no matter how small. For example, he doesn’t waste a morsel of food and picks up litter in state parks. Three, he’s idealistic yet also down to earth. Like when he discusses ways to improve the grim condition of our planet, something he’s very passionate about, he speaks with such positivity while being completely aware of the true picture.
All or Nothing
Ryan is often pretty relaxed and easygoing – except when he’s not. When he does any physical activity, it’s full blast. When riding around campus, whether on skates or a bike, he always goes top speed. Although these trips are short, it does mean that Ryan’s muscles only understand one way react – 100%. Likewise, Ryan cranks it beyond our skating trips – he insists on doing a thorough job on any assignment whether for school or for work.
Connected to Nature
Ryan is quite in tune with nature. He has spent time in the Amazon, the villages of Peru, and the Andes. Likewise he’s worked summers in the Everglades and in Yosemite. He presently manages a nature preserve. Perhaps you’d think that Ryan is just a Tarzan type figure, but then there’s the fact that Ryan grew up in New York City and that this life surrounded by nature has been the case for only the past five years.
Disconnected from Distraction
Ryan stays away from many things that inject into our modern lives, particularly certain technologies. He spends little time using electronics (though does show curiosity in my gadgets, probably for the sake of learning). He does use email, but only as he needs it. He doesn’t use Facebook. And while Ryan does have a cell phone, you’d be lucky to get a hold of him on it. Likewise, Ryan doesn’t fixate on possessions or our modern standard of comfort. It is all about the experience for him – which means he doesn’t mind beat up gear. He makes it work, and it’s clear that he’s mindful about using technology.
I consider this the most important factor. If there was someone that perfectly fit the ideals I put forth to live well, it’s Ryan. His eating habits are fantastic. His diet is mostly vegetarian, but by no means strict. It’s just that he loves fruits and vegetables, and often consumes them in a raw state. He’ll eat an apple, core and all, leaving just the stem. On his way to class, he’ll grab a zucchini or chunk of bread (whole grain, of course) and that’ll be his meal. Ryan doesn’t “exercise” but he’s more physically active than pretty much anyone you’d meet. Moving around is a core part of his life and not merely addendum to it. It helps immensely that he arranges his life around this: from biking around everywhere to digging up holes and such when at work at the nature preserve. Contrast this to most other folks, using cars or public transportation and sitting in offices all day (stuck inside and away from sunlight and fresh air). Moreover, Ryan has little unnecessary stress in his life. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t experience great stress, especially given his driven lifestyle. Still, this stress is self imposed and on his terms, so it likely bears few negative effects.
Perhaps the perspective is relative, but I don’t think Ryan is really superhuman. More precisely, I feel the rest of us are just subhuman. Put simply – Ryan is maxing out human potential in its most natural and evolved way. In light of everything I discussed, there’s no surprise that Ryan is such an incredible human with seemingly unreal athletic ability. Ryan’s entire life is arranged to make this so and it’s not unintentional. I give him much credit for living in this manner – it’s a very difficult thing to do in our modern society. But knowing what makes for a person like Ryan is inspiring, because it means we have a realistic opportunity to be so much more than we are right now. We can use his methods, many the same as those I discuss on this blog, to live up to the human potential. Until then, no matter how hard we train for those athletic events, be ready to be outclassed by Ryan. We don’t stand a chance.
What’s easier to climb up: 100 feet of stairs or 50 feet of a gradual incline? For most people, it’d be the latter, but as I learned firsthand in a recent hiking trip, our bodies can adapt in strange ways through regular training.
A few months ago, a couple of friends and I went on several challenging day hikes in Yosemite National Park. The first day was a hike between Cherry Lake and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which involved moderate elevation gain through gradual slopes. Still, my legs were feeling wiped out on the return hike. And this hike was supposed to be the warm up since the following days would feature significantly greater elevation gains.
The second day was the hike up to Half Dome and it began with gradual inclines. My legs were already feeling it. Shortly after, upon reaching the Vernal Fall, we were faced with a whole lot of stairs carved into the stone (that explained how we’d be covering so much elevation). As I walked up the stairs, I noticed something strange – it was eerily easy. And that I wasn’t walking up the steps – rather, I was running up 2 steps at a time. Was it that my legs were warmed up or was there something more going on? Perhaps it had something to do with the way my legs were shaped from my everyday physical activity (inline skating and two forms of martial arts).
The third day was more grueling as we hiked up to the Upper Yosemite Fall and across to El Capitan, where some portions of the trail have alternating segments of inclines and stairs. At this point, my legs were pretty worn out from the previous days of hiking. Upon coming across inclines, I slowly struggled my way up with my legs in pain. Then as the trail switched to stairs, I was sprinting with all the energy in the world. That is, until I the trail became a slope once again.
My suspicions were confirmed: my legs were clearly faring very well on steeper segments, such as stairs, and badly on less steep slopes. In essence, the steeper portions require a hiker to bend the knee more and use a full motion of the leg. This was a very familiar motion for me, because in my skating technique and my martial arts forms I get into a low stance and use my entire leg for the technique at hand. My legs were not only used to this motion, but were quite efficient at it from years of training. The less steep slopes, however, require the hiker to use just a small portion of their legs, and this motion is typically easier. This was certainly the case for one of the friends I was hiking with. He was fine on the gradual inclines, but the stairs proved to be challenging (and I surmise that this is the case for most people). Yet for me, the situation was drastically reversed. My body had been transformed from years of training to provide efficiency in very different circumstances.
The big takeaway from this experience is that our bodies are very good at adapting to specific circumstances. It was obvious from my experience that my muscles had become very efficient in motions generally considered difficult. And vice versa – that my body was less efficient at smaller movements that most people find comfortable. It’s certainly something to think about when training oneself and in facing physical challenges. What style of activity are you training? What is your body becoming naturally better at? In some ways we may be able to face seemingly difficult challenges with ease and, in my case, be humbled by challenges we’re not accustomed to.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs), shoes that emulate being barefoot. They’re actually selling so well that they’re hard to find. Even celebrities are wearing them, garnering more attention. Yes, I wear them too. Actually, I’ve been wearing them for over two years. Before the popularity and trendiness. I jumped on these weird pieces of footwear because I sensed that there was something humanly important about being barefoot. For example, in martial arts training, we were always barefoot (and in the very rare instances we weren’t, things were just very off). Still, I didn’t understand what the real significance of this was.
That is, until I read this article about 16 months ago. It discussed how increasingly “advanced” running shoes were doing nothing to help runners prevent injuries; that humans have evolved incredible foot mechanics and are better off barefoot. The author’s book on the subject, Born to Run, (released soon after and which later became a best seller) shared inspiring real-life stories of amazing runners, many of them running in a barefoot manner, as well as the research and history behind running barefoot (and not running barefoot). I share a few very important points mentioned along with my own experiences:
First, that our feet have undergone a great deal of improvement through over four million years of evolution. They contain a large number of muscles and ligaments (I believe the number is somewhere around thirty, if not more). Our feet also contain a large number of nerve endings – as many as our hands – so they provide a great deal of sensory feedback to deal with balance and mobility. Wearing padded shoes, like most sneakers, undoes much of the evolutionary benefits. Shoes are too cushioned to give feet the beating they like and hence the muscles and ligaments in the feet atrophy. Likewise, the thick sole of a sneaker deprives us of all the nerve feedback that tell us so much about what we’re walking on.
Second, shoes actually negate the most important of the evolutionary features – the arch of the foot. Any person with a hint of engineering knowledge knows that an arch is fantastic at bearing load. So it makes a great deal of sense for humans to evolve a load bearing mechanism on their feet to support all the force from walking, running, jumping, and whatnot. The scary part is that many shoes “support” the arch; an arch does not need support and giving it “support” causes it to cease function. This means that since it’s no longer dissipating the load, some other body parts must step up. Force from the foot hitting the ground, no longer absorbed by the arch, travels up to the knee and the lower back. Enter injuries to these regions.
So what if you have flat feet? Does all this still apply? Yes, because flat feet are often caused my atrophied muscles. I myself have flat feet from decades of wearing sneakers on a daily basis. However, I’ve made noticeable improvement to my arches by regularly wearing non-padded footwear, including VFFs and flip flops, to slowly build up the muscles in my feet. Another interesting argument lies at the crux of the sneaker industry: shouldn’t the padding provided by shoes be adequate? It seems not – more padding means more sensory deprivation which means the foot must strike the ground harder to know what’s going on. Any benefit is cancelled out, if not making things worse.
Third, there seems to be discrepancy about form and it often centers around heel-striking – that is, landing on the heel of the foot when running. Sneaker companies have a huge hand in this mess. Forty years ago, they came up with the idea to pad the heel of the shoe. They claimed that this would improve runner performance by allowing longer strides from heel striking, made possible by the padding. One consequence was an unnatural running form, which exacerbated the problem of shock traveling to the knees and back. With heel striking, there’s no possibility of the arch absorbing shock. This makes it a very dangerous practice. It’s pretty frightening since this is the way most people walk and run, as afforded by their shoes. It seems the proper way to land is to do so on the mid-foot, maybe even landing on outside and rotating it in as so to compress the arch. I’ve found this to work best from my own experiences. I’ve also noticed that this is the natural way people run barefoot, by secretly observing my karate students, kids and adults alike, run. Note that for walking, you pretty much have to land on your heel, but you can do so gently and then let the mid-foot take over (and hence make use of the arch).
The problem of heel striking may come as a surprise to many people; it certainly did for me. In fact, when I first had my VFFs, I was heel striking on them when merely walking, simply because I had a habit from wearing sneakers my whole life. Needless to say it was a very painful experience to walk on pavement with VFFs and I avoided doing so for nearly a year. It was after I’d read Born to Run that I understood that the problem was in technique. After correcting for this (as in, I stopped heel striking when walking) the VFF barefoot experience became very enjoyable, even on concrete sidewalks. I should note that I had to “break in” my feet and have them get used to walking “barefoot”. The muscles in my feet needed to be rebuilt and the process took at least several months.
It’s interesting that running has gotten such a bad rap – how it’s hard on the knees. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that when you undo four million years of evolution, there’ll be problems. We have an incredible amount of technology built into our very bodies. Be mindful of it. Watch the way you walk and run and jump. Note what you’re putting around your feet. Feel all the sensations from beneath your feet and what it means to be connected to the world.
Doing physical activity can be immensely more enjoyable in the company of others. We humans are social creatures and are built to respond strongly to social influence. Why not use it to our benefit? A recent NYT article discussed how many people have leveraged this fact so strongly that the prime motivating factor is the social event, and that the exercise itself is a secondary benefit. Hey, it works! And as I’ve stated before, it makes exercise seem less like a chore and more like a fun activity. You’ll certainly train better and be more committed, not to mention have others call you out on when you’re not.
There’s plenty of ways to go about this. Going to the gym with friends or significant others works well. Being part of a team sport is another. Or how about joining a grouped activity, like running, cycling, or inline skating (pictured above and among my favorites)? Martial arts is an exceptional one. Students push each other and help keep their energy up even as the training gets tougher.
There’s plenty of other activities. What’s your favorite and what tips do you have to get involved in social physical activity?
Often times I’ll walk into a building and find an elevator right by the entrance. I look for stairs but they’re nowhere in sight as they’re typically hidden away at some end of the building. What if it was the other way around? What if the stairs were located right by the entrance of the building while the elevators were hidden off at some far end of the building? People will generally do the more convenient thing, which in this case means taking the stairs. It’s certainly something for building designers to consider.
Here’s another thought on convenience: without a doubt, elevators are convenient to go up multiple stories. But having a fit body is awfully convenient to go up many flights of stairs. And a fit body that uses the stairs helps itself to remain fit.
A strong factor that defeats stair use is social influence. It’s difficult to take the stairs when the friends/colleagues/family you’re with are waiting for the elevator. Why not say something? Even getting one more person on your side is enough to sway the entire group’s decision, and there’s always a possibility that others are willing to take the stairs but are adhering to the group’s default choice to take the elevator. Perhaps if more of us did this, the social norm would be to take the stairs rather than the elevator (I’m sure plenty of places have it like this, and I’m curious to know how these sort of norms developed).
Bonus tip: if you’re looking for the stairs, try following those Exit signs affixed to ceilings. They’ll usually lead you in the right direction.
So you’d like to get into better shape but perhaps you’re finding it a bit daunting or are concerned with whether you’ll stick with it. If it’s been a while since you’ve done serious (as in, enough to get you sweating and feeling sore afterwards) physical activity , then start off easy. Your body will need to readjust to the motions and intensity. By starting off slow, you minimize the shock factor. If you happen to start off intensely, then your whole body will be utterly sore and things will be very painful. This on its own isn’t a bad thing (assuming no injuries occur from such a drastic change) but you might be less inclined to continue with the training. Now of course this doesn’t mean take it so easy that you don’t break a sweat. You should be pushing it enough to be sweating and feel sore later on. A workout, after all, requires work, though hopefully it’s something you enjoy (or come to enjoy over time, which often happens). Over time, you should ramp up the physical activity as your body (and your attitude if need be) will get used to the change.
McDonalds is setting an incredibly bad example with their barrage of commercials for the 2010 Olympics. It’s not surprising for an organization like McDonalds to provide sponsorship for the event but these commercials have crossed a line. The video above shows a series of spots for the Canadian airwaves (a similar set was shown for the US). It’s absolutely ridiculous for these amazing athletes to purport this body-destroying junk. It may be true that some like to eat McDonalds [and occasionally at best if they want to remain competitive]. But the athletes are setting a terrible example for millions of kids, world wide, who idolize them, as one blogger as noted from her personal experience.
There was one commercial that really bugged me: A coach talking to a kids ice hockey team. He said that they played like Olympians today, so today they eat like Olympians. Cut to the shot of them in McDonalds. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? This is just blatant. And I’m sure it’s a slap to the face to all the Olympic athletes that work so hard to train and take care of their bodies.
The main part of training your body is obvious enough. You just do it. You push on. You sweat. You fight through the pain (or enjoy it). The other part, equally important, is not so obvious – the recovery. Your body needs to rebuild itself after training. And guess what? It’s gonna have a very difficult time doing so if you’re neither sleeping plenty nor eating properly. Real foods such as vegetables, grains, and fruit go a long way to help the body repair itself (as well as to optimize performance during training). There’s no sense in doing another training session if you’re cutting short your sleep for it. Wasted effort at best.
Whatever new healthcare changes we have are ultimately doomed. It’s not that the reform ideas are bad ones; they’re actually outstanding and much needed changes. It’s just that the American way of life is very incompatible with this system. We Americans are health destroying machines and there’s no way our healthcare system can pick up the slack. We put very little means into taking care of ourselves and that has very serious, painful, and expensive consequences. Imagine if every unhealthy person in the country, which is to say most of the population, was covered by insurance. There’d be no way to pay for all of their medical expenses.
Unless we start eating better and doing more physical activity, among other things, we’re heading for a total disaster. We could very well bankrupt the country in trying to pay off health bills or fees for insurance. So take care of yourself. In doing so, you build your own “insurance” – one of your own wellbeing. I know it’s not easy as it does have its own costs, including time. But it’s one we’re better off paying now than the huge costs we’d incur in the future instead. We also need to approach our food system as we’re doing our health system, as food writer Michael Pollan has stated. With this, we will make eating healthier easily attainable goal.