My girlfriend and I have joined forces on an e-book, geared towards providing anyone walking into a Bikram yoga class, whether it’s their first time or they’ve been doing it for a while, with basic information about how their body functions when exercising in intense conditions, and what they need to know to take proper care of themselves.
(My girlfriend is a professional Bikram yoga instructor—here’s a link to her blog: http://yogamattes.com)
So, we’re writing the book with a Bikram Yoga class in mind, but the basic information in there could be useful to pretty much any kind of athlete. These first two chapters are on sweating and hydration—those are important no matter what your sport or style of training is.
Well over a century ago, a French physiologist named Claude Bernard (1813-1878) made a very important observation. He observed that body cells survive in a healthy condition only when the temperature, pressure and chemical composition of their fluid environment remains relatively constant. This is still a pivotal observation in modern physiology. We don’t call the environment of cells the milieu interne, like he did—we call it the extracellular fluid. Extracellular fluid fills the microscopic spaces between cells, and it is actually of two types: interstitial fluid, and blood plasma (the fluid part of whole blood, as opposed to the red or white blood-cells.)
The relatively constant state of the cellular environment is called homeostasis. The literal meaning of homeostasis in Greek is “Standing or staying the same.” That doesn’t mean our body’s homeostasis is something that stays the same all the time and never varies, it just means that, while the internal environment will vary, the body will work ceaselessly to keep it relatively constant—because there is a narrow margin for change in our internal environment before the cellular and chemical processes that are the literal basis of life cease to move along properly. As an example, the homeostasis of blood temperature is 98º F, but it will vary slightly above and below that point. For the most part, though, the body has mechanisms in place to keep blood temperature there, even when environmental factors outside the body threaten to change it. Mechanisms for maintaining homeostasis involve the functioning of nearly all the body’s organs and systems. The body has its metaphorical hands full, working endlessly to maintain the constant internal environment upon which its survival depends, adjusting continually to a changing external environment.
Temperature regulation is of the utmost importance, because life depends on various chemical reactions taking place inside the body at a certain rate—and changing temperature changes the rate of chemical reactions. Unchecked internal temperature fluctuation would have catastrophic effects for the body, so there are thermostatic mechanisms in place to maintain—yes, you guessed it—temperature homeostasis. To maintain an even temperature, the body must balance heat production with heat loss—if extra heat is produced, that amount must be lost. Heat loss, primarily, occurs through the skin by the processes of evaporation, radiation, conduction and convection.
And that (finally!) brings us to sweat. Sweat is produced by sudoriferous glands, the most numerous of all the skin glands. Histologists estimate that one square inch of skin on the palm of your hand contains 3,000 little coiled, less-than-0.4-mm-diameter sweat glands. The number of sweat glands all over your body can exceed 3 million. These glands will work throughout life to produce a watery fluid rich in salts, ammonia, uric acid, urea and other wastes—a fluid which in addition to excreting wastes helps maintain a constant core temperature. And obviously, if the replenishment of lost fluids is not adequate, serious dehydration will occur. (In extreme conditions the body is capable of an astonishing sweat-production of 3 liters per hour for short periods—a prodigious rate which will almost always exceed what we can replace by drinking.)
Heat energy must be expended to evaporate any fluid, so evaporation of sweat is a major method by which the body loses excess heat. (When you’re in a Bikram yoga class and your teacher says, “Don’t wipe the sweat! It’s helping to cool you down,” that’s what she means.) The process of evaporation taking place on the surface of your skin is contributing majorly to heat loss. Evaporation is especially important in high-temperature environments, where evaporation is the only means the body has for heat-loss. Radiation and conduction involve the transference of body heat to a nearby surface with a cooler temperature (that’s what happens, it’s just thermodynamics) but in the hot-room during a Bikram class, everything around you is just as hot as you are, so you can’t lose heat that way. Evaporation is literally your body’s only shot at cooling itself down. So, leave that sweat there, and if it tickles a little as it drips down, just deal with it.
A humid atmosphere inevitably retards evaporation, which is why a really humid class leaves everyone flat on their mats, even if the temperature wasn’t any higher than usual. But that doesn’t mean you have no hope for heat loss through evaporation in a humid room: a ceiling fan, no matter how slowly it’s rotating, can be your saving grace. Convection is the transfer of heat away from a surface (for instance, the surface of your skin) by movement of heated air or fluid particles. The moving air, even if it doesn’t feel cooler, will allow your body to lose more of the excess heat than it could in a stagnant atmosphere. So avail yourself to the fan, if possible, even if it doesn’t feel like it’s doing much.
Sometimes your teacher will mention the antimicrobial properties of sweat. That doesn’t mean exactly what it sounds like—your sweat isn’t some natural cleaning product that will leave the hot room, by virtue of the gallons of sweat shed into the carpets daily, a sterile environment which never needs cleaning, where we could safely perform surgery or assemble microchips. But sweat does play a part, along with the sebaceous or oil glands, in maintaining a surface film which covers your skin, providing a protective barrier against bacteria and fungus, hydrating the skin surface, buffering against various caustic irritants, and blocking a verity of toxic agents. So, there’s another reason not to hastily wipe sweat away as soon as it starts to glisten on your forehead.
All this talk of sweat brings us to a strongly related topic—hydration. Water is lost through sweating, and water regulates your body temperature, lubricates joints, and helps transport nutrients. So obviously you don’t want to lose it without replacing it.
If you’re not properly hydrated, your body simply cannot function at its highest level—and dehydration can lead to fatigue, muscle cramps, dizziness and more serious symptoms.
There are no rules set in stone, when it comes to guidelines for water-intake before, during and after exercise. Everyone is different. And there are a lot of variables affecting water-loss—heat and humidity, exercise intensity and duration, general level of physical “fitness.” Body weight makes a difference, age can make a difference, etc., etc. Your specific need for water is just that—specifically yours.
The simplest way to monitor that you’re staying properly hydrated is to check your urine. Don’t wince, this is science. If your urine is remaining consistently clear or light yellow, you are most likely staying well hydrated. (Before actually walking into a Bikram yoga class, you should be well-hydrated enough that your urine is clear, but day to day, straw-colored urine is ideal.) If your urine is amber-colored or dark brown, it’s a sign that you’re becoming dehydrated.
There are further general guidelines to be found on the internet regarding water intake in relation to exercise, but, again, your need for water isn’t general. It’s specific to you. And a good guideline that’s specific to you is—yes!—your level of thirst. If you’re thirsty, drink. Stop drinking when you’re not thirsty anymore. Then, when you’re thirsty again later, drink some more. Following that golden rule, and also being aware of the color of your urine and learning to “read” it to judge your level of hydration in realtime, will very quickly lead you to an intuitive understanding of how to balance your water intake with water-loss in your own body and life.
The signs of dehydration include headache, dizziness or lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting, muscle cramps, dry mouth, cessation of sweating, and heart palpitations. Signs of severe dehydration include mental confusion, weakness and or loss of consciousness. Obviously, you should seek medical attention immediately if you experience any of those symptoms.
Severe dehydration is no joke.
But over-hydration is also a thing. Hyponatremia occurs when there is too little sodium in the body—as can happen when someone, like an endurance athlete for instance, drinks too much water. Hyponatremia is a rare condition involving swelling of the body-cells with water, including, potentially, swelling of the brain. This is an extreme and it’s rare, but it pays to be aware of it, and aware of the trend of excessive water-intake that can lead to it. Excessive water intake of such a catastrophic, heroically disproportionate level comes from ignoring your thirst-level and drinking to some outside guideline. That is, not drinking because you’re thirsty, but drinking because someone told you how much water to drink, so you think you need to force down that last bottle.
Drink to thirst, keep an eye on your urine. That’s the way to self-regulate your hydration and keep it in healthy parameters.
[Next chapter will be on maintaining blood electrolyte balance.]
It’s a fact that essential oils have been used in various therapeutic applications for centuries, but there has generally been little published clinical research on their use. So we don’t have much hard data on their effectiveness in alleviating or attenuating the various conditions they are utilized in traditional medicine to treat. But this is starting to change lately, as a little spattering of scientific studies on essential oils are being conducted around the world.
There are a quite a few inherent difficulties for any study centered on essential oils. For one thing, that shit ain’t standardized. Unlike with a pharmaceutical drug, medical researchers can’t count on the fact that the chemical constitution of, say, lavender oil is exactly the same in all cases. The chemistry of an essential oil is inevitably going to be influenced by local geographical conditions, and weather conditions, as well as the season and the goddamn time of day when the plants are harvested. Additionally, how they are processed, and how they are packaged and stored, will affect the oils’ constitution. Each plant is unique in its chemistry, so essential oils are never exactly the same—this is obviously different from pharmaceutical drugs that are synthetically reproduced and are identical every time. It throws a wrench in the works when you’re studying something, if you can’t be sure that thing is, on a chemical level, exactly what you think it is.
Another problem is derived from the fact that it is difficult to conduct blinded studies with aromatic substances. Typically, research studies involve testing two groups—one group gets the experimental substance, whatever that may be, and another group gets a placebo substance (this group is referred to as the “control” group). When using aromatic substances, it is very difficult to conduct a blinded study, for the exact reason you would think. Basically, your subjects in a study are going to know whether you’re giving them a fucking beaker of lavender oil to sniff, or a beaker of saline solution.
But some researchers are finding ways to get around these difficulties, and conducting clinical studies on essential oils.
Preliminary controlled studies indicate that various forms of aromatherapy may have clinical applications in the reduction of anxiety experienced by patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. For instance, one interestingly designed (albeit small-scale) study, a hospital ward was suffused with either lavender oil or water for two hours. An investigator then entered the ward and evaluated the behavior of the 15 residents, all of whom had dementia. (The investigator was unaware of the study’s design and wore a device to block inhalation of odors, because double-blind medical studies require both the researchers and the study-percipients to be unaware of whether the actual substance or the placebo has been delivered.) The results indicated that use of lavender oil aromatherapy modestly decreased agitated behavior.
It’s common, however, for patients suffering from dementia to lose their sense of smell, rendering the application of aromatherapy in dementia patents somewhat limited in its usefulness.
Essential oil of lemon balm has shown promise in this regard; in a double-blind study of 71 people with severe dementia, use of lotion containing essential oil of lemon balm reduced agitation compared to placebo lotion.
In a trial involving sixty-six women waiting to undergo highly anxiety-inducing surgical procedures, ten minutes of inhaling the aromas of essential oils of vetivert, bergamot, and geranium failed to reduce anxiety significantly, compared to placebo treatment. In another study, rosemary oil failed to reduce tension during an anxiety-provoking task, and conversely might have actually increased anxiety.
Another interesting complication involved in studying aromatic substances, is that human beings have a strong connectivity in our brains between memory and smell. Smells pull up a lot of emotional associations for us—it’s such an accepted fact that neurologists even have a pithy name for it: “nasal nostalgia.” So, if a subject smells rosemary and becomes anxious, how can a researcher possibly know if that’s due to some innate property of rosemary oil, or because that subject has just been reminded of the rosemary perfume his crazy aunt Mildred used to wear—the one who used to chase him around the house with her taxidermy cat when he was a child?
Yet another wrench in the works.
Still, some other clinical trails have actually revealed favorable effects. In one such study, researchers assessed the anxiety-level in three-hundred and forty individual dental patients, all waiting for dental appointments (who were all presumably about to flip their shit.) Those that inhaled the scent of lavender showed lower levels of anxiety compared to the control group. In another study, one-hundred and fifty patients were randomized into one of three treatment groups: control (standard care), standard care plus lavender, or placebo (standard care plus another kind of oil not thought to have any anti-anxiety effects). Those in the lavender group did actually experience an appreciable reduction in their level of anxiety.
Approaching the use of essential oils from a different angle, researchers have evaluated the effects of massage therapy done with essential oils on people suffering from anxiety and/or depression, while undergoing treatment for cancer. The treatment did appear to provide some short-term benefits to those patients. Again, absorption through the skin may have played a role here.
There is weak evidence to suggest that inhaled peppermint oil might relieve postsurgical nausea. Peppermint was associated with the attenuation of nausea symptoms in a small randomized trial of 35 women after nonemergency cesarean section, compared to placebo aromatherapy and standard antiemetic drugs.
Inhaled peppermint oil may also be useful in relieving mucus congestion of the lungs and sinuses—there is, however, only marginal supporting evidence for this application.
There is clinical research showing that an essential oil constituent (perillyl alcohol) has been successful in treating brain cancer. That’s a pretty frigging big claim, and calls for linkage:
So we know that in certain circumstances the constituents of essential oils can do big things. But that doesn’t necessarily display the effectiveness of the essential oils themselves—for instance, does inhalation necessarily lead to the same effects as other modes of administration? Maybe. Or maybe not.
In one rat study, bergamot essential oil inhibited the damage caused by “focal ischemia” (the same type of damage caused by stroke). The oil was injected, not inhaled.
Persistent anxiety is an all-to-common problem in the general population, and the pharmacological drugs used to treat it can often lead to sedation—hence the perennial search for alternative modes of treatment. Since the anxiolytic properties of lavender have already been demonstrated in some studies and small-scale clinical trials, like we’ve been looking at, a controlled clinical study was performed to evaluate the efficacy of “silexan,” an oral lavender oil capsule preparation. The lavender oil preparation was shown to be roughly as effective as pharmaceutical drugs (benzodiazepine) in the treatment of anxiety.
So what does all this say? Nothing other than what it says. There’s no broad, all-or-nothing take away, like “essential oils work!” or “essential oils don’t work.” (Sorry not to have a magic answer.) As time goes on, more and more evidence will be amassed both to debunk the effectiveness of oils in some applications, and to support their effectiveness in others.
“Fitness” is a highly coveted state. If you want to know what that state entails, never fear: there are plenty of weekend Crossfit warriors and people who have taken two or three Bikram yoga classes in their lifetime who will be happy to tell you in intimate detail that they have arrived at the one true definition of “fitness,” and then proceed to magnanimously climb down from their high horse and explain to you exactly what you need to do to become, like them, “fit.”
But if, like me, you have a sneaking suspicion that “fitness” is meaningless jargon engineered to sell magazines and keep self-dissatisfied people scrambling after an illusory goal, then I have something you might be interested in reading. Here’s a small excerpt from my book, “The Man Who Pulled His Own Leg,” about my experiences, observations and reflections over the past nine years in yoga, and also in bodybuilding.
“This is a good moment to mention something important: ‘Fitness,’ as most people use and understand the term, is a mythic state. Next time someone says something along the lines of ‘I’m really fit,’ treat them like they just said, ‘I’m actually a unicorn.’ It is a state of being that exists only in their imagination, fueled by desperation to be a happy, beautiful immortal. It’s the plasticized, Photoshopped state of a man on the cover of a magazine, whose shaved abs and percent body-fat demand a constant, obsessive maintenance that his cool, suave expression belie. It’s a non-specific athletic mastery of everything, including things we haven’t tried yet. It’s a symbiotic unity of perfect health, dazzling functionality and sculpted physical aesthetics, carried to an expression of perfection where they’ve all hit critical-mass and perpetually sustain themselves, needing only air and good cheer for fuel—leaving the Fit Superhuman with nothing to do but engage effortlessly in rigorous recreational activities, bask in their own classical beauty and have terrific sex, on and on forever.
The reality is, fitness is always specific. It’s always fitness to do something. It makes no difference if that thing is running or pole-vaulting or lifting weights or doing yoga. By doing that thing, you increase your fitness for it—your body continually adapts to that specific thing, to the detriment of your fitness for other things. A champion Strongman athlete looks and performs nothing like a champion Marathoner—they are both ‘fit’ to the highest degree in their particular sport, but the adaptations that brought their bodies to that high level of fitness were drastically different. This doesn’t mean you can’t be in generally good shape—defining ‘good shape’ as having the strength, stamina and natural mobility to engage in a wide array of activities, enjoy a great quality of life and maintain a high level of activeness for years to come. That is immanently feasible—that’s primal human heritage. That’s how the body evolved to work. But something people don’t acknowledge when they think about fitness, is that such a general state as being ‘in good shape’ necessarily doesn’t veer to any extremes. If you want to engage in specific activities—say, yoga—to a point where your abilities are truly exceptional, you’re inevitably going to take away from your ability to do other things exceptionally. Your body will adapt to yoga so heavily that there’s no room left for adaption to other activities—if you want to shift your adaptation in another direction, you can, but it’s going to come at the cost of your previous extreme adaptation.
Being ‘in good shape’ doesn’t require anything more than a novice-to-intermediate level of ability in any particular thing. For instance, you can progress from being completely sedentary to being pretty good at yoga and see a massive corresponding increase in your general quality of life. But that’s as far as the principle extends, before the returns for your effort start diminishing. After that point, the shifts from intermediate-to-advanced-to-elite will have absolutely no corresponding increase in your general quality of life, because at that point the training you’re doing is specialized. It’s yoga-specific (or anything-else-specific) adaptation that has no practical overlap with the outside world.
Nothing in excess, everything in balance. You know what that is? It’s the fucking slogan of ‘Core’ dog-food company. Who cares where wisdom comes from. Learn it by heart.”
If you’re interested in reading some more excerpts, here’s my book’s Facebook page:
Not many people take a lot of time to warm up before a workout. It seems like, unless they’re in a class (like a martial arts or yoga class) where gentle stretching and warming-up is part of the routine, and there’s an instructor leading them through it, people would just as soon jump straight into lifting or cardio without taking any time for simple mobility exercises. But taking time to properly warm-up mitigates risk of injury, improves circulation to muscles and joints—which improves performance—and gives you a few minutes to shift mental gears from whatever you have been doing out in the world all day, to whatever you’re about to do in the gym. Give yourself a good warmup as part of your next workout. Give yourself that chance to check in with your body and gently test how everything is moving and feeling today, and give yourself a chance to bring your mind into the room, so you’re fully present when you get down to your first deadlift or squat or whatever.
Part of the problem is that, unless they’ve learned it already, again in a context like martial-arts or yoga, most people don’t HAVE a go-to warmup routine to use. They don’t know any good ones, ergo they just don’t do it.
BLAMO—GUESS THE FUCK WHAT. Here’s a general purpose warmup and whole-body stretch I generally use before a workout. Call it routine A, if you want—we’ll take a look at routine B later. I’m putting it up here, free to a good home. Do as many reps of all this stuff as you want, take as long with it all as you want.
· First off, hold a full squat for a while. (Feet a little over shoulder-width apart, ass to the grass or as close as you can get it. A couple minutes at the bottom of a squat is all the stretching for hip flexibility you need. Come up every now and then for a second if you feel like you need to get the blood moving back down in your legs, it’s no problem.
· Walk around shaking out your arms, legs and shoulders to get the blood flowing; throw in some light trunk-twisting, and some swimming motions with the arm/shoulders—breast-stroke and back-stroke. Do that for as long as you want. When I’m leading the warmup for a martial arts class, we stick with swimming-motions for a good 30 seconds to get our shoulders ready.
· Walking, lift your knee way up with each step, grabbing it with both hands and pulling it towards your chest. You’ll especially feel the stretch at the attachment of the hamstrings and glute. (Day after Leg Day, this stretch is hella uncomfortable.) Remember this about all stretching: it isn’t like lifting! Nothing should be done hard. Think 50% intensity, max. You’re not trying to rip your body open, you’re trying to increase natural range of motion gently and steadily. Also, breathing always normal. Normal breathing is breathing you don’t even have to think about. (Mouth closed, inhale/exhale naturally through the nose.)
· Walking, lift your foot up behind you with each step, reaching back to grab it around the instep and pull it in like you’re trying to crack a nut between your calf and hamstring, stretching the quadriceps. Make sure you keep good posture, chest up, shoulders back, little arch in the lower back to increase the stretch.
· Step forward into a lunge, gently sinking down as deep as you can go. Put both arms up over your head and lean to the side away from your bent leg. Keep stepping forward through lunges, leaning side to side in alternate directions each time. You can break perfect lunge form in these to increase your stretch in the hip—that is, bent knee going beyond the line of your toes is fine, it’ll bring your hips down further and give a better stretch. you’re not lifting any weight, so don’t worry that it’s bad form.
Now back to the shoulders. Find a broom handle, straight walking stick, PVC pipe, whatever. (If you need to, you can even use a towel—holding either end and pulling it tight, not hard, just enough to maintain tension.) Grab it with both hands, about as far apart as you would hold the barbell doing an overhead press. Hold your stick up over your head, and move it backwards as far as you can. You’ll feel the stretch in your front, anywhere and everywhere from your anterior deltoids down the front of your body, depending on your level of flexibility. Gently pull your shoulder blades together, arch your back a little. Hold it however the fuck long you feel like.
Holding the stick the same way, bring it in a big arc down to one side—now one arm is behind your head, one arm is out to the side. don’t let your elbows bend. same deal as before, don’t do this hard—your goal isn’t to tear your body apart. Hold the stretch for a while. Do both sides, as many times as you want.
• Finish with another full squat, again holding it for a couple minutes. Seriously, holding a squat like this will up your hip mobility like you wouldn’t believe. Another thing you can try, is reaching up to grab something with your hands so you can “hang” from it while you’re holding the squat. I just set the barbell in my squat rack at the right hight to use for this. That’s a pretty easy way, but you can use whatever you want. You’ll get a great stretch in your back and shoulders that way. Gentle, gentle, gentle, everything gentle. It’s a warmup. It shouldn’t be hard.
Next summer, everybody is going to be looking for a fast, easy way to get a flat stomach and six-pack abs.
I’m here to tell you: winter is the time to start. Give yourself MONTHS to undertake your new fitness routine and make steady progress. That way you’ll have real, lasting results to show off next summer when you finally pull the big reveal and take your shirt off the first day it’s warm and sunny again.
I’m also here to share the one big secret everyone who’s looking for a way to melt fat, build muscle and transform their body needs to know: you’ll have to train hard, and train consistently. There’s no magic trick. I have nothing to sell you, and anyone who says they have something to sell you “to make getting fit easy” is lying. You don’t need a miracle, you just need to work steadily and have a critical, intelligent attitude towards your physical conditioning. Don’t take everything everyone tells you about fitness and nutrition at face value. Discriminate. There is a ton of bad advice out there—way more bad than good. Time to tackle some of the long-standing misconceptions surrounding “getting a six-pack,” and maybe arrive at some good ideas about intelligent training in the process.
• Forget crunches and sit-ups. They are a lousy exercise for your abs, and they put more strain on your low-back than they’re worth. I realize it might be hard to sever all ties with an exercise that’s been touted for generations, but once you’ve tried a few ab workouts composed of better exercises, you won’t even miss crunches or sit-ups.
• Recognize that your abs don’t function alone when you exercise. You don’t get nice abs without having a nice core. Core muscles include everything from just below the chest, down to your knees—front and back. Working abs safely and effectively is going to involve working that whole area.
• “Plank” is your friend. Plank is a terrific core-muscle workout. You can’t do too much plank. Start off shooting for a 30 second hold, and gradually try to build to a minute. Then two minutes!
• If you’re going to plank, do it right. Hips parallel to the floor. Elbows in line underneath your shoulders.
• Is plank getting easy? Make it harder. As it gets easier, try moving your elbows forward from the line of your shoulders. It’ll be way harder!
• There are a million and one other plank variations. Do your homework. Find the variations that you like, that work for you, and try them out! Have fun. Play plank.
• Try out other core workouts, find what works for you. Have you ever tried knee-raises? L-sits? Why not? Try it. Try new things! Have fun!
• L-sits: Space two chairs next to each other, so you can stand between them with your arms down by your sides, hands on the chair backs (make sure they’re chairs that will stay steadily in place as you go.) Lift your feet off the floor, so now you’re holding yourself up with your hands. With legs straight and toes pointed, try to raise your legs parallel to the floor. That’s an L-sit! Hold it as long as you can, even if that’s only 1 or 2 seconds at first. Work steadily! Keep trying, build it up to 30 seconds. Who cares if it takes a long time to develop?
• Get a workout buddy. It’s easier to train with a friend than alone.
• Try this fun workout with your buddy: Partner A lays down flat on their back, raises feet up vertical to the floor. Partner B stands over Partner A’s head, and Partner A grabs Partner B’s ankles with both hands for stability. Now, Partner B (not too hard at first!) pushes Partner A’s feet away. Just a quick push, directly away—Partner A will get a terrific core workout by trying to keep his or her legs straight up in the air while they’re being pushed away. When you’re tired, switch places and give your buddy a turn!
• Knee-raises: Hang straight down from a pull-up bar. Bring your bent legs up until your knees are parallel to the floor. From there, raise your legs up towards your chest, high as your can, then lower them back to parallel. That’s one rep. Do as many as you can! Build up to 12 over time.
• Leg-raises: Lay flat on your back—if you want, you can put your hands underneath your tailbone for extra support. Raise your legs two inches off the floor. That’s all. Just hold it! You’ll quickly realize what a good core workout it is. Navy SEALs don’t do this in bootcamp for no reason.
• Scissor-kicks: After you’re done with leg-raises, stay in position while you catch your breath. When you’re ready, lift your legs up again two inches off the floor. Now, gently kick your legs up and down, legs staying straight, alternating. One up, one down, one up, one down. Legs never touch the floor as you go, they just keep going up and down a couple inches in the air. Go until your tired, put your lags down and catch your breath, then do another set. What do you have in common with a black-belt? This exercise.
• Train with free weights. Do your homework on the proper way to work with a barbell. Get a coach. Seriously. Free weights are way more effective than training with gym machines. Squats, deadlifts, bench-press. They will all work your core in a positive way.
• Forget about weighing yourself. Weight is a stupid metric for measuring the success of a health and fitness regimen. Really—muscle weighs more than fat. Also, as you get more fit, other changes in your body composition are going to play into changing your weight. Things like denser bones and stronger joints—they will change your weight. Just going by weight is a really narrow, pointless way to measure your health.
• You can do more to change your body with exercise than you can with diet. Forget fad diets. Forget diet “reboots” and “jumpstarts.” Those are short-term results. You want long-term results. You get those long-term results from exercise—as long as you’re consistent and make an ongoing commitment to your fitness training.
• Have incremental goals. Abandon the mindset that always looks for sudden, miraculous transformations, and gives up when you don’t immediately see the results you want. Instead of having such broad, extravagant goals that they serve to discourage rather than motivate you—because you always see yourself falling beneath them—have incremental goals that carry you in the direction you want to go. There’s always a next step to take, there’s always progress to make. If your goals are incremental instead of all-or-nothing, you’ll always have the next goal within reach. You’ll always see yourself passing milestones, and that will give you the motivation to keep trudging along the road.
• Track your progress. Write everything down. Keep track of your workouts. Track how long your worked in each session, track everything you did. Keep good notes. Give yourself hard data to follow, to see what’s working and to measure your progress.
Sugar is the generalized name for sweet, short-chain, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. They are carbohydrates, composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. There are various types of sugar derived from different sources. Simple sugars are called monosaccharide and include glucose (also known as dextrose), fructose and galactose. The table or granulated sugar most customarily used as food is sucrose, a disaccharide. (In the body, sucrose hydrolyses into fructose and glucose.) Other disaccharides include maltose and lactose. Longer chains of sugars are called oligosaccharides. Chemically-different substances may also have a sweet taste, but are not classified as sugars. Some are used as lower-calorie food substitutes for sugar described as artificial sweeteners.
Sugars are found in the tissues of most plants, but are only present in sufficient concentrations for efficient extraction in sugarcane and sugar beet. Sugarcane is any of several species of giant grass in the genus Saccharum that have been cultivated in tropical climates in South Asia and Southeast Asia since ancient times. A great expansion in its production took place in the 18th century, with the layout of sugar plantations in the West Indies and Americas. This was the first time that sugar became available to the masses, who previously had to rely on honey to sweeten foods. Sugar beet, a cultivated variety of Beta vulgaris, is grown as a root crop in cooler climates and became a major source of sugar in the 19th century, when methods for extracting the sugar became available. In a shit ton of ways, sugar production and trade have changed the course of human history. It influenced the formation of fucking colonies, the fucking perpetuation of slavery, the transition to indentured labour, the fucking migration of peoples, wars between sugar trade-controlling nations in the 19th century, and the fucking ethnic composition and political structure of the new world.
The world produced about 168 million fuck-tons of sugar in 2011. The average person consumes about 24 kilograms of sugar each year (33.1 kg in industrialized countries), equivalent to over 260 food calories per person, per day.
Since the latter part of the twentieth century, it has been questioned whether a diet high in sugars, especially refined sugars, is good for human health. Sugar has been linked to obesity, and suspected of, or fully implicated as a cause in the occurrence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, macular degeneration, and tooth decay. Numerous studies have been undertaken to try to clarify the position, but with varying results, mainly because of the difficulty of finding populations for use as controls that do not consume, or are largely free of any sugar consumption.
Let’s get lay down some background shit about nutrition, so you’ll have a clearer conceptual framework to keep in mind as we proceed. “Nutrients” are the nutritious components in foods that an organism utilizes to survive and grow. Duh. “Macronutrients” provide the bulk energy for an organism’s metabolic system to function, while “micronutrients” provide the necessary cofactors for metabolism to be carried out. Both types of nutrients can be acquired from the environment (or in other words, from diet). Carbohydrates are a vital macronutrient (and remember that sugar is a generalized term for forms of carbohydrates.) Carbohydrates break-down quickly in a rapid digestive process and are thus quickly available to the body as energy. Consequently, sugar provides a quick metabolic spike—and consequently they are not a stable, long-lasting source of energy. You can easily understand this without needing to consider it in physiological terms. Imagine a kid who wolfed down too much candy: they go fucking wild with a sudden blaze of energy, and afterwards “crash,” and, like a switch has been flipped, become overtired. This is because the sugars they ingested quickly metabolize and become available to the body (and brain) as energy, and, just as quickly, the energy is burned up, the metabolic spike is over and is followed by metabolic depression (i.e., tiredness) if no other, “longer-burning” food energy has been ingested. Proteins and fats are the other two forms of macronutrients our bodies require from diet, and both provide more stable, longer-lasting energy as they are digested.
Glucose is a simple monosaccharide found in plants. It is one of the three dietary monosaccharides, along with fructose and galactose, that are absorbed directly into the bloodstream during digestion. It is an important carbohydrate in biology, which is indicated by the fact that cells use it as a secondary source of energy and a metabolic intermediate. In fact, that shit is used as an energy source in most organisms, from bacteria to humans. Use of glucose may be by either aerobic respiration, anaerobic respiration, or fermentation. Glucose is the human body’s key source of energy, through aerobic respiration, providing about 3.75 kilocalories of food energy per gram. Breakdown of carbohydrates (again, that’s sugars) yields mono- and disaccharides, most of which is glucose. Through glycolysis and later in the reactions of the citric acid cycle, glucose is oxidized to eventually form carbon dioxide and water, yielding energy sources, mostly in the form of ATP (adenosine-triphosphate. Look it up. It’s outside the scope of this article, but it’s fucking interesting.) The insulin reaction, and other mechanisms, regulate the concentration of glucose in the blood.
Glucose is a primary source of energy for the brain, so its availability influences psychological processes. When glucose is low, psychological processes requiring mental effort (e.g., self-control, judgment, decision-making, etc,) are impaired.
Because sugar is such a general term, it’s natural that many people have only a vague idea of what it is and of its place in their diet. These vague ideas give rise to a lot of generalized misconceptions about it.
“Sugar is evil!” or “I don’t eat sugar,” are familiar slogans for people who follow conventional wisdom regarding healthy diet, and who simultaneously lack a very deep understanding of the term they are using. As a matter of fact, carbohydrates comprise the primary caloric (food-energy) content of plants, fruits and vegetables. A hypothetical person who takes a righteous pride in their healthy, sugar-free diet—who eats fruit for breakfast, a green smoothie for lunch, and sweet-potatoes for dinner—in actuality derives most of their food-energy over the course of the day from sugars.
A fact often cited by misguided proponents of a low-sugar (or, even more misguided, no-sugar) diet, is the fact that glucose in high concentrations in the bloodstream becomes toxic. The body deals with this, as mentioned above, by regulating the concentration through various mechanisms—including, notably, the insulin response. Insulin is a peptide hormone produced in the pancreas, which, among many other functions, serves to force the intake and storage of glucose in the liver, muscle cells, and adipose (fat) cells. This is a negative thing, low-sugar proponents claim, because the pancreas eventually becomes fatigued by the need for insulin-secretion and the body’s cells become gradually more insulin-resistant due to the increased levels of the hormone circulating in the bloodstream. Something to consider, before impulsively following this line of thinking, is that insulin-secretion is also stimulated by the metabolization of amino-acids—amino-acids are the building-blocks of proteins. Ergo, in healthy individuals there is a comparable increase of insulin secretion following the consumption of protein to that which follows the consumption of carbohydrates.
Another argument made against sugar, as mentioned above, is derived from the fact of glucose’s toxicity in high concentrations in the bloodstream. But, as Paracelsus said,
“Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”
Glucose in high concentrations is poisonous, granted. So is water in high concentrations. So is oxygen. They are essential to survival, but in too high a concentration, they are toxic. That doesn’t mean that we should altogether avoid the intake of water and oxygen. It simply means we shouldn’t inundate the body with these chemicals in a greater quantity than it can effectively regulate and metabolize in the ways that are vital to the functioning its systems.
The takeaway from all this should not be that taking in copious amounts of sugar is healthy or that a fucking all candy-bar diet would be a good idea. Instead, the takeaway should be that sugar, carbohydrates, are an essential part of a healthful diet, and impulsively following prevalent fashions that state sugar is always “bad for you” is an extreme and misguided action. Closer consideration is needed; magazine articles and fad diets cannot provide you with adequate understanding to make truly informed dietary choices. Look deeper into the science. By default, be skeptical of health and diet gurus. Always consult the studies they cite—suspect them, until it is somehow proven to you that their information is valid—of “confirmation bias,” that is, a tendency to view the conclusions of the clinical research they reference in a way that lends the facts to the confirmation of whatever position they have already decided to hold on the topic. Rarely are things as black-and-white as they are presented in our popular ideas about food. Rarely are the answers as simple as they seem. Generally, if the answer appears to be final and does not allow for any exceptions to the rule, the answer is false.
EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW THIS ONE SIMPLE TRICK FOR BUILDING MUSCLE AND BURNING FAT, GETTING IN SHAPE AND STAYING IN SHAPE: work consistently and intelligently, over the course of months and years.
That’s it. Sorry, I have nothing to sell you.
If that’s disappointing, then get ready to be even more disappointed—because I’m about to tell you all the things this blog isn’t going to do. It’s not going to offer you a succinct 6-week program to get fit and jumpstart your health. It’s not going to help you lose weight. It’s not going to present you with a “science” based diet plan for across-the-board improvement of your eating habits and general well-being. It’s probably not going to answer any questions you may have regarding health, fitness or exercise. At least not directly.
Basically, if you’ve seen it on the cover of a health-and-fitness-related magazine, you won’t see it here. Except maybe in the form of belligerent satire.
What you will see on this blog is level-headed, experience-based analysis of what it means to be healthy and “fit.” The goal here isn’t to answer the familiar questions, because a lot of the questions we have surrounding health and fitness and diet are framed in fundamentally wrong ways (and you can’t get a right answer to a wrong question.) The goal is to deconstruct a lot of prevalent questions, and replace them with better questions. Better, stronger, faster.
For instance: ask me how to lose weight, and I’ll ask you if weight is actually a valuable metric in measuring a human being. Ask me how to get fit, and I’ll ask what you mean by “fit,” because you can be fit in a lot of different ways, and some of them mutually exclude each other. Ask me why the sky is blue, and I’ll tell you flat-out that it fucking isn’t. Literally more than 50% of the time, the sky isn’t blue. Maybe that seems like an irrelevant, off-topic observation, but I’m not just trying to be argumentative—I’m pointing out a flawed mode of thought that we generally bring to bear on matters of health, diet and fitness. We see things as cut-and-dried, black-and-white, good or bad.
Particular foods are either good for you or bad for you. You’re either exercising the right way or the wrong way. There’s no in-between, there’s no variation. There’s a right way to eat and move your body, you just have to find it. The sky is blue. That’s just how it is.
Except, no, it isn’t. The sky isn’t blue. You think you know it is blue, and you’re not wrong—you’re just not right. The sky is blue, and it’s black, and it’s gray, and it’s red and yellow and every color of the literal goddamn rainbow.
Now, apply that thinking elsewhere. In what other contexts are you accepting “the sky is blue” as an answer, glossing over and disregarding hundreds of shades of color?
The purpose of this blog is to look at all those other shades of color. It’s meant to take questions apart and examine their inner workings, and generally won’t settle for an answer that doesn’t multiply into new questions. It will spend a lot more time wondering than defining.