As a good friend likes to say about most things in life…”It’s simple, but it’s not easy.” There is no secret to maintaining a healthy bodyweight. Unless there is an underlying metabolic issue (rare), or an addiction that requires mental health treatment, we generally just have to become more conscious about our daily habits. I often hear people approaching this subject as if there is an ancient magical formula that can only be found by searching the farthest reaches of some tropical jungle.
Here’s the straight talk: All of us can do this, but most of us don’t want to. In a culture that prides itself on abundance and indulgence, we expect our struggles to be overcome in a passive manner that is seriously lacking accountability. “The Cheesecake Factory should have known that I couldn’t resist a second helping of dessert. I’ll sue them.”
What do you really want? Do you want to look and feel good? Or do you want to binge watch Netflix while polishing off a king sized bag of M&Ms every night? The choice is yours, and so is the result. Healthy people do healthy things. Now…before you fall into the “Easy for you to say personal trainer and colossal douche” mind-trap, it is important to re-state where I came from: Pack of Marlboro reds, 3 pints of vodka, Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese meal (super-sized) — every day for years. After watching my life crumble from the inside out, I decided I wanted something different, and then I did something different.
Here’s an anecdote that one of my former clients shared with me a few years back. She and her husband went on a spring trip to Boston with another couple. My client couldn’t wait to walk around the city and take in its rich history. The other couple wouldn’t have it. Their legs were in too much pain as a result of diabetes and obesity. So the couple offered an alternative: During lunch, they would spend all of their time discussing options for dinner.
Nothing will ever happen if you “start tomorrow,” and you will never have time if you don’t make time. Incidentally, you do have time. You just don’t want to give up resentful Facebook rabbit-holes in which you conclude that everyone else’s life is better than yours (it’s not). Just stop it.
Without further ado, here are the keys to a healthy bodyweight (and a healthier mind for that matter).
— Drink a gallon of water per day.
— Use My Fitness Pal.
— Keep your net carbs at 100 grams or less (total carbs minus fiber).
— Get at least 7 hours of sleep. (Turn off the screens 8 hours before your alarm is set to go off, and get into bed).
— Meditate 10 minutes every day. (Headspace is a great way to start learning).
— Get your 10,000 steps. (There are plenty of wearable fitness devices that can help you track).
That’s it. 6 things. Here’s the Stephen Hawking scientific explanation: It works if you do it. It does not work if you do not do it.
Don’t make them. Just do something different starting now.
These days it takes me a little longer to get up off of the floor. When I attempt to sprint, I curse the practical joker who put concrete in my shoes. My shoulders are beginning to feel like my knees, and my knees feel like a migraine. At 42, I’m not an old man, but my body is approaching middle age with an ego that still thinks college dorm life is a real possibility.
I have done a lot to my body over the years. There was a time when I didn’t notice any real consequences from the abuse. I assumed that I had dodged all of the bullets. Turns out that the ramifications of that abuse wake up all at the same time, sometime after 40. Disc compression from high school football. Worn out knees from distance running. Dodgy shoulders from kickboxing. Several years of drug and alcohol dependency. I don’t regret any of it. Even the substance abuse. While I am not proud of that particular decade, I learned a lot of priceless lessons while fighting for sobriety that I may not have learned otherwise. When my clock runs out, the “bucket list” won’t be very long.
Even into my mid-30s, I wanted to be as strong, fast, and powerful as my genetic limits would allow. I pushed, and pushed, and pushed. But it’s harder to recover from that kind of training now. At this age, living as healthfully as possible, I’m still not faster than the chain-smoking 23 year old me. My goals had to change. I’ll never be a professional fighter. I’ve injured myself twice while training for powerlifting competitions. My knees won’t allow running on pavement anymore. Most of my goals were about serving me anyway. I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with that, at least in terms of athletic endeavors. Competition can be healthy, particularly if you’re competing with yourself.
Something changed after I became a parent. Anne and I got started late. Parker is 5 and Max is 2. This peculiar sense of mortality and danger emerged in a way that hadn’t existed 20 years ago. I jumped out of small airplanes a few times. Now I won’t get in one. I’m more cautious when I climb ladders. I am continually on the lookout for sharp objects. Everything shifted from a focus on competition, to a focus on surviving an emergency. I don’t obsess about every possible danger in life, lest I become agoraphobic. But there is an awareness about things that simply weren’t on my radar before. Am I fast enough to push one of my kids out of the way of a speeding car? Am I strong enough to lift a store display rack that falls on one of them? Can I catch and overpower a kidnapper? Can my ribs withstand a flying elbow from a 5 year old who attacks me while I’m napping on the floor?
Thankfully, at this point in my life, I can safely answer yes to those hypothetical situations. But I don’t want to take it for granted. I also can’t afford to train like a Navy SEAL to single-handedly stop a Red Dawn (aging myself) that only hits our house. There has to be a realistic balance somewhere. Most possibilities in life exist on a spectrum:
Church Softball <—> The Olympics
A cold <——> Ebola
Ronald McDonald <——> It
It is impossible to prepare for every emergency. But people often lose their lives in emergency situations because they simply aren’t fit enough to remove themselves from the danger:
*Unable to break a window in a submerged car.
*Loss of balance while standing on a roof.
*Unable to move out from under a heavy object.
*Unable to climb to avoid danger on a lower level (flooding, dogs, Ronald McDonald)
So what kind of fitness should we seek to maintain in order to survive emergencies that primarily require fitness as a survival tool? This is not an exhaustive list, and while these are bare minimums, it is a good place to start. If you can achieve any of these standards without much effort, but struggle on others, then spend time on the most difficult movements:
— At least 1 solid chest to floor pushup with a perfectly planked body. 1 perfect pushup is a lot more challenging than 10 sloppy ones. (A 50 lb box has fallen down the attic ladder and you will suffocate if you can’t push it off of you, or squirm your way out from under it).
— At least 1 kipping pull-up. It is very challenging for most women over 40 to do one strict form pull-up. But I’m talking about being able to climb over a fence or wall, in which you’ll be using your feet and legs to assist you. You gotta get over that wall by any means necessary. It doesn’t matter how pretty it looks.
— At least 1 partial range dip. You’ve pulled yourself to the top of that wall, now what?
— A smooth, balanced Turkish get-up on each side of the body using only your bodyweight. If a bookshelf falls on top of you, getting out from under it by maneuvering away from it is a lot easier than trying to bench press it. The get-up is a great way to learn to coordinate the entire body.
— At least 30 bodyweight squats, a little above parallel is fine. Your legs should always be stronger than your arms. If not, you will eventually have a problem.
— Drag yourself across the floor 15 feet using only your elbows. You fell and broke your hip. Nobody can hear you. The phone is in the other room. Incidentally, if you’re over 65, store your phone where you could reach it from the floor.
— Deadlift 45 lbs with perfect form. This is not a heavy deadlift, and it is unlikely that you’ll have to deadlift your way out of an emergency, though you might have to one day lift something off of someone else. However, perfecting deadlift technique by practicing with a light to moderate weight will help prevent future emergencies (throwing out your back while doing yard work).
— Walk for 2 hours. Your car broke down in the middle of nowhere. There’s no signal and you haven’t seen a car since morning.
There are an infinite number of physical standards that you can apply to any potential emergency. Soldiers, firefighters, and police officers obviously have to maintain a more rigorous set of standards. But this list will give you a fighting chance if you’re surprised by something in your day to day life. When was the last time you tried a pushup? Feel free to add to the list.
…cont’d from pt. 2
So, what does all of this mean? It means that we all have a tremendous amount to overcome in our day to day lives before we even get out the door. Our pre-programmed, but outdated, survival behavior is interfering with our ultimate desire for “happiness” and “peace.” Throw in modern stressors that our evolutionary mechanisms are not equipped to address, and we begin to work at full capacity just to make it to the end of the day. It’s as if we’re being asked to program a computer with a hatchet. A hatchet is a useful tool that served our ancestors for thousands of years. But it isn’t useful for programming computers.
When I was struggling to get sober in the early 2000s, people kept telling me that if I could learn to live in the “now” as often as possible, most of my problems would begin to take care of themselves…including my drinking. I genuinely didn’t know what that meant. Most of the time I was obsessively worrying about what was going to happen, or regretting what had already happened. If there was a “now,” it was, “Now I’m drinking.”
Over time, it became clear that I couldn’t think my way out of the problem. A neuroscientist or psychologist can probably explain this more articulately than I can, but our very existence is defined by paradoxes. If we try to stop thinking about something, we will only think about it more. If we “try” to sleep when we’re having trouble falling asleep, we are doomed to stay awake. Broccoli doesn’t taste like doughnuts. Sitting on the couch feels better than exercise.
Another paradox that I find truly baffling: With most things in life we instinctively know exactly what to do. We know it intellectually, but there’s a little monster inside that keeps steering us in the wrong direction. I knew that a 12 step program could help me get sober, but instead I switched from vodka to beer. I knew that if I changed my eating habits I could probably win the battle with chronic acid reflux, but instead I just took more medication. Again, this is probably something on which a psychologist could enlighten me, but for now it’s merely a puzzling observation. I do, however, believe it is somehow tied into the conflict between modernity and our outmoded survival mechanisms.
We know from experience that if we actively focus on spending our conscious time in the moment we are actually in, rather than in some moment in the past or future, things generally go more smoothly. Much less anxiety or pangs of regret. But it feels so tempting to nurse an old resentment or drive the possibilities for disaster right off of a cliff. Those thought patterns are always harmful. Yet we persist.
How exactly do we go about staying in the now? It is pretty simple really. Despite the immense complications associated with human evolution, and the aspects of our minds that we do not yet understand, it is possible to override the discordant noise that constantly hums in the background (or foreground depending on the kind of day you’re having). There is nothing new or groundbreaking here. But as our lives are dominated by paradoxes, most of us do not take advantage of these tools. We don’t make time for them because we are overwhelmed by everything else that we know we must do. But here’s another paradox…the more time we spend using these tools, the more time they produce. It becomes self generating.
Time is in many ways an illusion. Many theoretical physicists have debated the concept of time as a purely human construct. I’m not going to delve into this debate here, but there is no question that our perception of time is impacted by our quality of mind in any given situation. “Time flies when you’re having fun!” Conversely, many of my personal training clients insist that I am lying to them when I say that they’ve been holding a plank for only 30 seconds.
Twenty four hours is twenty four hours. But the rate at which those hours seem to pass are largely determined by how present we are throughout the day. If we spend our time at work dreading a difficult conversation at home, it will feel like we can’t get anything done. If we spend time with our kids dreading all of the work we have to do on Monday, it will feel like we aren’t in our children’s lives. However, with a few simple tools we can shift our perception in such a way that time seems to expand. But we have to make time for these things first. If we only get to them once we’ve worn ourselves out with all of the other “stuff” we have to do, we will never get to them, and we’re right back to where we started — out of time.
There is no shortage of scientific information available that explains the “how” and “why” pertaining to these tools. I am just going to share my own personal experience with them. These tools help me stay sober all the time, and at peace most of the time:
1 — Daily meditation using the Headspace app. I am fairly new to this. Maybe 3 months in. Focus has sharpened. General demeanor has softened. I find that I am able to apply the principles while driving and literally experience nothing but the act of driving. It is a very new and foreign feeling. Traffic frustration has just about vanished.
2 — Martial arts, or any other complex high-skill sport. It is nearly impossible to get lost in distracting thoughts while performing a highly technical movement. Exercise alone is certainly beneficial to the mind as well as the body, but it is the intense concentration associated with a highly technical physical activity that brings the perception of time into “right now.”
3 — A skilled hobby. Like exercise, hobbies of any kind are terrific on any level. But I’m referring to hobbies that take a great deal of practice in order to master the activity. Woodworking or learning a musical instrument are good examples. Again, we’re trying to bring the mind down into the thing we are doing, rather than letting it carry us up into the clouds. The more technical the hobby, the more anchored the mind becomes.
4 — Keeping a journal. This can be about anything. There is something liberating about writing thoughts down. Things that spin in our minds throughout the day tend to stop spinning once written down. It’s as if we’ve moved them from our mind into a separate storage facility.
5 — Once per day, take contrary action. It can be completely random. If you order coffee every day, pick tea one day. If you turn on the news first thing in the morning, turn on some music one day. This may seem silly and arbitrary at first. But I find that when I get into the habit of mixing up mundane things for no reason, it feels much more natural to find another option when it really matters. For instance, when I’m having a bad day and I want to take it out on my family. Or someone cut me off on the freeway and I want to pay them back. This is a “wax on, wax off” approach that works when our instincts are getting pushed around by stress.
This is not an exhaustive list, and I’d love to hear any tools that you use to keep you “in the present.”
…cont’d from pt. 1
Two proposals, for me, have clarified just about everything we struggle through in our day to day psychological lives, and they have to do with formerly necessary survival instincts outliving their usefulness. They have become a liability in that they cause stress that is pre-programmed and unavoidable. However, it is manageable when we can come to terms with the reality of what these stressors are, and catch ourselves before we stumble into an instant gratification sinkhole in an attempt to escape them. We can, on occasion, learn to stay in the present. But it takes practice, and it doesn’t always go smoothly.
I am paraphrasing these proposals in order to apply them to my own understanding of the stressors to which I am referring.
#1 — Historian Yuval Noah Harari indicates in “Sapiens” that nature’s great predators are majestic and confident — all the time. Tigers are a great example. They embody the essence of a successful predator. One doesn’t look at a tiger and think, “Gosh, he really looks worried about his day.” Prey animals, however, display a very different energy. Our neighborhood is full of rabbits, so I’ll use them as an example. Everything about these rabbits exudes anxiety. “Is that gonna eat me? What about that? Where are my kids? Are they being eaten? CAR!!!” The best analogy I can think of is when you’re playing chess or tennis with someone who is significantly better than you. You will constantly be on defense, and never have the opportunity to mount an offense. That is the rabbit. Always reacting, never plotting. Harari’s proposal is that humans very rapidly transitioned from primates who were both predator and prey, into the ultimate predator. The transition happened so quickly that we were never able to fully evolve out of the anxiety and mistrust that defines the rabbit’s existence. Harari argues that this makes us extremely dangerous — The predator instincts of a tiger in direct conflict with the prey instincts of a rabbit. One doesn’t have to think for very long to recognize that this can be a horrifying combination. An extreme case would be Hitler, for example.
#2 — In an interview with NPR, evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright discussed our ceaseless general dissatisfaction…with everything. For instance, “This house is too small. I need a bigger house. Now this bigger house is too small. I need a bigger house…and so on…” Wright explains that this drive is what kept us from becoming extinct. If we stuff our bellies at Thanksgiving, and our brains tell us we’re full for 6 months, we will starve. If we have sexual intercourse one time, and decide that it was so satisfying that we never need to do it again, we will simply vanish as a species. One can see how these things can run haywire in a society that is not only marked, but plagued, by abundance. We are biologically programmed to eat until we are as full as possible, and as a result we see obesity and type 2 diabetes becoming epidemics. I am not making any specific moral value judgments about pornography, as that is not the purpose of this discussion, but it is clear to me that the required survival instinct for existence occasionally (if not often) becomes a self-destructive obsession when pornography is available 24/7 for free.
If we throw all of these anachronistic survival tools into the modernity pot and stir it up, it becomes rather obvious why our collective mental seam is splitting:
“Tom loves his wife Julia, but he can’t stop thinking about his secretary Heidi. He isn’t in love with Heidi. He just wants to have sex with her, one time. But he knows that he must pretend to be in love with her in order for Heidi to consider any such proposal. Tom hates himself for this. He sits in church, ashamed. He becomes more withdrawn from Julia because he doesn’t want to hurt her, but he can’t stop obsessing about Heidi. Julia suspects that Tom no longer finds her attractive, but she’s too afraid to confront him about it. She decides that it’s because she has gained too much weight. So she goes on a diet, which fails. Soon, she transitions into binging and purging. Suddenly, she loses interest in her suspicions about Tom, because the binging and purging cycle has become her first priority. She buys a gym membership, and starts working out 7 days per week. A 20-something bond trader named Dan begins flirting with her on a regular basis…and so on, and so on.”
It has become crystal clear to me that this entire scenario is a direct result of the exponential rate at which the human mind adapts intellectually, while being simultaneously imprisoned by biological survival instincts which adapt and modify much more slowly. The intellect and instinct go to war with one another, and both sides lose. In my totally unscientifically tested opinion, this results in increased rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction.
I don’t want to get into an abyss about whether or not we have free will, but neuroscientist Sam Harris indicates that, for the most part, we do not. For the purpose of this discussion, it is relevant in that, for me, it explains many of the paradoxes and neuroses associated with trying to resist our instincts in order to function in a modern, civil society. I’ll use myself as an example. “I won’t drink today, I won’t drink today, I won’t drink today. Alright, fine, I won’t drink tomorrow.” I spent so much time obsessively trying to fight the urge to drink, that all I could think about was drinking. The misfiring instinct to fill myself up with something that I “needed” was fighting me back harder than my “will” could overcome it. As far as I can tell, the instincts always triumph in a battle of pure will. How many of us recognize that we are eating too much, and yet feel powerless to stop it? In that case, we are losing the battle with our instinct to ingest as much energy as we can to ensure successful procreation. It is like building a dam to block the water, but the water keeps rising infinitely. We have to learn to dig a new channel for the water to move in a different direction. It is a futile endeavor to try to restrict it entirely.
cont’d in pt. 3…
Scientists recently discovered that anatomically modern humans have existed for approximately 300,000 years. Rudimentary agriculture has been around for less than 20,000 years. For 280,000 years humans had one real job: Kill the animal you’re trying to eat; don’t get eaten by the animal you’re trying to kill.
Changes in human anatomy happen at a glacial pace, which includes the brain’s capacity to adapt to the world around us. It seems apparent that our capacity for innovation has far outpaced our capacity to adapt to that innovation. I am not an evolutionary biologist, nor a neuroscientist, but I think I can reasonably state that psychological/physiological changes over time occur as a response to environmental stressors. Prey gets faster — humans develop better spears. Hostile populations become more aggressive — native populations build stronger walls.
The industrial age is only 300 years old. The information age…less than 100. In a span of time that is nothing more than a speck relative to the sum total amount of time that modern humans have existed, innovation has redefined the world in ways that would have been unimaginable to the average person living in 16th century Europe. Or even to the few remaining indigenous populations currently untouched by the modern world.
What happens when the aggregate number of daily stressors exceeds the brain’s ability to adapt to them? It is clear that a constant hyperawareness of wild animals is in and of itself a more acute stressor than say, a traffic jam. But here’s the fundamental difference: For most of the span of human history, wild animals were one of the very few stressors that the human mind had to process. Weather, illness, and food scarcity covered most of the rest. Except in extreme cases, humans have managed to solve most of the problems associated with those particular challenges. I don’t worry if my children will be eaten by a tiger. It isn’t terribly likely that the flu will kill me. I have some decent options in a tornado. My fridge is full. I am fully aware that many populations are still under constant threat from these types of catastrophes, but that’s a different discussion (though undoubtedly related to some of the complications associated with modernity).
We have exponentially multiplied our daily stressors to a height at which the levee seems to be on the verge of breaking. These stressors are both real (job insecurity, healthcare costs, political uncertainty) and virtual (cyberbullying, misinformation, looking up the causes of headaches). There is also a peculiar phenomenon associated with social media that is an extension of conspicuous consumption: The Facebook home page that features the person standing on a yacht drinking champagne. Or piloting a small aircraft. Or paragliding in Australia. To be clear, these things are all terrific opportunities that anyone should take if they have the chance. Yes, there are countries decimated by famine. Sure, we could probably all be doing more. But that doesn’t mean survivor guilt should prevent people from ever taking advantage of good fortune. The point I am making is that we seem to be trying very hard to portray a life in which every day consists of drinking champagne on a yacht. But that’s not reality (at least for 99.99% of us). The reality is the 40-something divorcee with insomnia at 3am looking at Facebook pictures of people on yachts drinking champagne…while wondering why her own life is such a disaster.
This could be described as a type of cultural disease, or pandemic psychological disorder. More succinctly, it is a smoke-and-mirrors existence:
“If people see me on this yacht, they won’t know that I can’t stop thinking about suicide.” “If everyone marvels at my giant muscles, they’ll never suspect that I let everyone take advantage of me.” “If they see me wearing these medals, it will conceal this crippling depression.”
I am not arguing that we would be better off constantly unloading all of our burdens on total strangers, nor that our Facebook homepage should feature us crying while uncontrollably snorting cocaine. My point is that our collective psychological response to a ceaseless inundation of stressors is becoming pathological, and the ramifications are, to me, obvious: Increasingly vitriolic social discourse, anxiety, ADHD, autism rates, etc. While I am not medically qualified to make mental health diagnoses, I genuinely don’t believe that these assessments are too far out of bounds.
…cont’d in pt. 2.