mountain stream swimming

The Paleo-Living Balance of Us Bodies

As much attention as “paleo” has received as the latest fad diet, the people who are looking into its basic tenet as a guide to what a human is meant to experience – how we are to live, not just to eat – are much fewer.

It may be understandable only too easily.

Do you want us to go back to the Stone Age?!?” is a popular reaction to e.g. environmentalists’ calls for degrowth and to remember lessons from earlier times, after all – and surely we wouldn’t want to literally live like cavemen.

That said, if you believe that maybe we are not physiologically well-adapted to eating modern foodstuffs (yet), it is all the more likely that we are not adapted to many other modern conditions.

At most about a century of artificial light, for example, has not changed billions of years of the evolution of life under the rhythms of day and night.
The question of how natural rhythms, artificial light, and our modern sleep patterns interact has, indeed, received quite some attention (just not under the label of paleo, probably for the better)…

It may well be, however, that these relationships go even deeper and that they show us to be misunderstanding the balances we need.

Sugar Spikes

One of the arguments around the paleo diet (and others), for example, seems to be that blood sugar needs to be kept low and constant.

Eat with too much sugar and your blood sugar will suddenly rise, your insulin levels will spike a bit later to get that sugar out of your blood stream, and low blood sugar and the desire to eat again will follow. Keep that up too long and low insulin sensitivity will follow; you’ll be on the path to metabolic syndrome, the argument goes.

Parts of that reasoning are likely to be true, and fructose (fruit sugar) may well play a particularly dangerous role in all of that – but if we look at what is normal for a human being (which, mind you, does not have to translate into “what is good/healthy in the long term”), then it certainly is to have blood sugar spikes at times, even from fruits and their sugar: Whenever fruits were in season and available, you can be sure that people ate them.

En masse.

strawberries

The problem is, perhaps, not so much with the ingestion of sugar in and of itself but in the lack of this dynamic balance between times with an excess and (many more) times without.

Nowadays, after all, all we tend to have are times of excess.

When it comes to sugar, in particular, these times never end and don’t even depend on income levels anymore. In fact, it is often costly to try and avoid the sugar-laden and calorie-rich things in favor of, well, even fruit and other foods with actual flavor.

What can be talked about so nicely and science-y when it comes to diet is an even more difficult thing to consider when it comes to other conditions and other balances.

Getting Cold

Consider how we are among those animals with a constant body temperature, for example.

What it has led to us doing is keeping our houses and homes and workplaces heated (or cooled) to a comfortable and often constant temperature.

Is that really what we need, though?

Again, there have been some considerations of this question when it comes to sleep.

You have probably come across the advice that your bedroom should be kept at a lower temperature than your other rooms.
Considering financial and ecological health more than individual health, there have also been some recent calls to return to warming people, not places.
Basically, consider if maybe you are doing something wrong if it’s winter and you are sitting in your home in a T-Shirt rather than a sweater (especially if you also feel like complaining about your heating bill).

(And, just while I was writing here, The Atlantic’s James Hamblin reported on “The Benefits of Being Cold” when it comes to burning calories and supporting healthy weight…)

Just consider all the (not uncommon but few) people who go to saunas, go ice-bathing, and engage in similar practices with a heat-cold-effect (and all the more people who seem to consider that crazy).

Kaltbecken - Cold Pool

Cold pool, bracing like a mountain stream. Best done not thinking about it ;)

Maybe the knowledge that we need such inputs that are uncomfortable-but-good isn’t lost?

An ecological balance – and a body’s physiology is one of those – is a dynamic balance, after all.

Balancing

What the bodies and minds of “higher” animals, and certainly of humans, are made to experience is definitely not a static balance where things stay within the ever-same comfortable zone, but a dynamic range of conditions.

Anything you experience all the same, all the time, becomes boring and, maybe, even sickening.

You cannot lie comfortably in bed all the time, nor can you always be running around – and healthy functioning needs both.

You cannot feel good never doing anything to make a living (uncomfortable as it is to have to worry about the bills), but always having to scramble to just get by or because your job keeps you busy, busy, busy is a recipe for psychological and physical disaster, too. – And again, it takes both, in a dynamic balance.

Heat and cold, darkness and light, heavy eating and none, stress and joy – maybe in all that, we need to let go of the stale drive to be always-happy and always-comfortable and aim for dynamic balances in their own natural rhythms and seasons instead.

Sure, once again, it will take a push – be that one you take from me or give yourself – but the discomfort involved in it all will make the comfort all the sweeter.

And getting started is easy.

Just skip a meal.
Turn down the heat in your bedroom if you haven’t always done that.
Take your shower cooler, at least for a bit, at least for some of the time.

Jump into the next mountain stream – or go running in the snow.

IMG_20160106_111832 (1)

Matters of the (Runner’s) Heart

Matters of the (Runner’s) Heart

How we are not at home in our bodily being is one of the fundamental ways we are not “at home:” We think of “our bodies” when that is, in fact, what we are before we even develop a sense of self, remain even if we lose our mind, and always are as an integrated whole.

One particularly good case in point is our understanding of our hearts and heart rate in running.

Born to Run, Left Fast and High

For a species that may have been “born to run,” a surprisingly large number of us doesn’t even seem to want to walk anymore.
And among those who at least take up running, a common problem seems to be that they overdo it.

During the Beijing Marathon 2014

During the Beijing Marathon 2014

Driven by notions of competitiveness, perhaps, or by ideas of how running must equal speed, too many beginners apparently run all too fast. Heart rates skyrocket.

It doesn’t help that people who have become aware of the importance of heart rate tend to think they know all they need to know when they equate a lower heart rate with a higher fitness level.

I can hardly begin to tell you how often I heard someone see my heart rate and say that “You must be half dead, your heart rate is so high!” even when it was not out of exhaustion, but part of an individual difference.
(And admittedly, it is part of what got me into learning more about this issue, and into Suunto tools, as there may also be a problematic side to it…)

There really is a lot more to know and consider.

Listening to Your Lactate-Tested Heart Rate

For the everyday, there isn’t much of a need to obsess about heart rate except if you end up with palpitations and fear that something is wrong – then go and get yourself checked!

Even if you go running, as long as you just keep it at a comfortable pace and heart rate, you don’t necessarily need a heart rate monitor.

For the runner who wants to get halfway serious about his/her endurance building, however, heart rate-based training is all but an essential tool, and at least a little understanding of heart rate variability and the measures built on it is helpful.

Try to get to that, and you’ll probably quickly learn that you don’t know yourself even in this basic way: An inexperienced runner typically has a very different heart rate from what he or she would expect, just by feeling. And lactate testing for heart rate-based training guidance tends to hold surprises, too.

Sure, you can just start out with the simple guidance for the average beginner that your maximum heart rate might well be the old “220 minus your age.”

That “formula” does not take into account any of your own particular parameters, however, and it invites the abuse in and of fast runs that seem okay just as long as the pulse remains below that supposed maximum.

Go do lactate testing, get some training advice, and see what is actually real for you.

I recently went for a (follow-up) check-up and found that my fitness level had, not unexpectedly after the time spent (not) running in Beijing, declined.
My heart rate (and blood pressure) under exertion had also gone down, however.

Lactate Test Results

Heart rate (left y-axis, upper lines) and lactate (right y-axis, lower lines) at different speeds (x-axis).
Red line: recent test; green line: earlier test.

So, when I was trying to build my fitness again, using the heart rate zones from an earlier sports medical test to guide my training, I was actually, unwittingly, running too fast.

Rather than at 166 bpm, the upper heart rate limit for my moderate zone, which I should do most of my runs in, is now at 145 bpm…

Quick Outliers, Slow Speedsters

Should you care?

05_DonauWell, Tim Ferriss would disagree and, in “The Four-Hour Body“, tells you that you can also get to the necessary endurance foundation by only doing low doses of high-intensity training. And maybe you could (even if he didn’t).

HIIT (high intensity interval training) certainly is better than doing nothing and perhaps even better than always just going out for long slow distance (LSD) jogs without any interruption to that routine. You need to push yourself, at times, to get better.

The much-tested advice that has not just worked out for a few outliers, however, is that if you want to get fast, you often have to go slow.

In fact, for many a long run to build your endurance foundation, you need to go much slower than you probably expect and want to. But if you are serious about fitness training rather than just having fun – and there are things to be said for both of these two ways of training – that’s the slog to go through.

Learn where your heart rate zones lie, and especially the easy ones, and see how fit and fast you can get through training in those easy zones (with interruptions by intervals in other sessions).

Remember, running increases lifespan, and especially when it is not too fast or too far – and the fun (which such easy, slow runs tend not to be so much of) sometimes comes through the practice that isn’t all that much fun. But see your running performance increase and your fun runs become all better, and it’s all good.

The Non-Constant Beat of Your Heart

Get even more serious, if you so want to, having a look at heart rate variability.

Image from Firstbeat

Image from Firstbeat

Again, fun fact speaking to our not being at home: Any straight-thinking person would probably assume that a healthy heart rate is a very regular one. Sounds logical, doesn’t it?

At the micro(second)-level of differences between individual heart beats, however, it is high variability that is a measure of health, and it is a lack of variability which indicates that your sympathetic system, the one that makes you ready for fight or flight (as opposed to the parasympathetic system that gets you to recovery), is in overdrive.

You are stressed.

(And again, in one of those “not at home in the body”-ways, it is not just “your body” that is stressed, even if you don’t consciously feel that way, it will be the whole you. You won’t be feeling, and being, your best when you are in such a state of overdrive.
The opposite also applies, and is also visible in HRV: If you do feel stressed, even if that is just a result of your ruminating about some social slights that are all in your own mind, you will be stressed psychologically as well as physically; there really is very little separation.
Just ask anyone who can’t sleep…)

Fortunately, if you don’t want to get too technical about this, you don’t have to. There are apps that measure HRV and interpret the results; and even the new recovery tests (and running performance) features on the Suunto Ambit3 work with that.

For What Your Heart Beats

Finally, there’s one issue of the heart, albeit a metaphorical one, I’d also want to mention: Listen to your heart not just in practical ways, but also when there are issues you burn for and people you care deeply about.
Be careful not to let your feeling something make you think you have the truth, but do care. It’s not just your heart rate that counts, after all.

It's all so connected and shifting, it's really surprising we can even speak of a physical "I" as if it were constant - and the mental construct "I" only arises from that...

Ways We Are Not ‘at home’ 3: Not Being the Bodies We Are…

It is one of the great things about us that we have such a rich life of the mind.

Sure, we may be misled by it, ending up fighting over ideologies when we’d really much rather get along, falling victim to stories we tell ourselves of how life is, other people were, and we ourselves are… “You’re Not So Smart” (both book and podcast) is an excellent resource on that.

But, we can also learn. Beyond the abilities of all other animals, we can imagine, anticipate, ponder, and study things.

In thinking about ourselves and our minds, however, we keep talking of “our bodies” as something separate from the brain, and completely different from the mind.

We keep thinking of ourselves – or our selves – as this mental thing that seems to be doing the thinking somewhere behind our eyes, if not at times floating away from its bodily vessel.

It is here that the dreams of uploading “ourselves” into hardware, becoming freed from “our meatsuits” comes in. Here comes the notion that maybe a nutrient drink like Soylent could free “us” from the needs of our bodies. – But the very ideas are, for all that we know about us, utterly ridiculous.

No matter what Platonic, Christian, or other philosophy may argue, we are not minds or souls inhabiting bodily vehicles.

This is not a road trip of the soul, driving around a vessel like the various demons and angels of Supernatural (or The Exorcist, if you’re more ‘classically’ inclined).

Rather, our minds only arise from our bodies, and they are connected so intimately that a separation into a supposedly “pure” sphere of the mental alone is impossible.
The very biology of it doesn’t make it possible to think of body and brain (and in extension of the brain, the mind) as separate units:

“The brain is a term that is usually used to refer to a part of the body that rests in the skull and contains billions of cells clustered in various groupings. The skull-based cluster of cells, the top of the central nervous system we commonly call the brain, is inextricably interconnected with the whole of the body through the peripheral nervous system and all the signals from the body’s physiological processes. Input from the extended nervous system directly impacts how the skull-based cells, or ‘head brain,’ functions. Hormonal input from the bloodstream shapes brain processes, as does the influence of the immune system. To consider that ‘the brain’ is independent of this extensive input from throughout the body makes little sense.”
Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, Daniel J. Siegel

There can be – and perhaps have to be – tensions between what our biological-physical urges drive us towards and what we decide, biologically-mentally/consciously, to want. That is true.

But, even (or especially) if we want to live as better human beings, we need to understand those relationships rather than ignore and deny them.

It’s easy to see the connection, too – and you don’t need a brain injury to notice: Just try and focus on some task that requires concentration when you are hungry or very full.

Remember, though, that it works the other way round, too: mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind in a healthy body – has been the ideal since ancient times for a reason.

Only this “in” shouldn’t be there; (leaving aside issues of handicaps) an “is” would be more appropriate. And it works both ways, and as usual, with connections that are inseparable, but sometimes weaker and other times stronger.

Dampfbad - Steam Bath

Of Sweat, Sweets, and Self

When you sweat, it’s you that sweats; when you enjoy something sweet, it’s you tasting and enjoying it. Isn’t it?

We often think and speak as if we were truly just the conscious part of ourselves – and it’s a fundamental and consequential way we fail to be and make ourselves ‘at home’.

We are “brain owners,” I recently heard in a podcast; neuroimaging finding the signal to begin an action before this action becomes consciously decided on is interpreted as meaning that we do not have free will (for it is our brains and not we who made that decision, apparently); many a talk of the posthuman suggests that brains will be uploaded into computer systems and people therefore exist forever, free of their mortal coils / meat bags.

It all – in all the commonness of talk about “my brain” or “my body” – misunderstands the extent to which we are our total bodies.

It would be amusing, if it weren’t so serious, that this is happening at a time when we learn ever more of how our gut (and other) microbiota – which isn’t even our cells, but bacteria – has a major influence over our health, weight, and well-being. So, we turn out to be more than us ourselves.
And sometimes, we are less, as when a body part or a sense gets lost and we are still ourselves; sometimes we are more, as when our tools basically become a part of us and expand our senses – and sense of self.

Sometimes, in fact, we are most ourselves when we enter a flow state in which we do not feel our bodies, certainly not as separate, lose our conscious sense of self, and seem to dissolve into nothing but the activity.

It is here that we find the problem with the everyday way of interpreting ourselves as not embodied (or rather, not bodies). By introducing those boundaries and ‘others’ to our selves, separating the mind from the body, we make it so easy to disavow all responsibility for many of our behaviors. What we don’t like is no longer our fault, “the mind is willing but the flesh is weak.”

Well, it all is us – and if we don’t learn to deal with that appropriately, balancing and nudging it to good ways, we’ll just keep flailing and failing.

Meanwhile, the ways to see how we are one, and how it matters, are everywhere.

Dampfbad - Steam Bath

Or you go into a steam bath. To many people, that’s even worse than a sauna…

When you go to a sauna, engage in vigorous exercise, or simply suffer a stifling heat, you will sweat. (Hopefully, or you’d suffer a heat stroke and collapse.) You won’t be able to do much of any work, least of all any that requires mental exertion.

Yes, to some extent, you can shape your reaction by will power. Some people will be more able to continue moving in heat, for example, than others, simply because they can (mentally) suffer better and get around the body’s mechanism to keep a safety reserve.

It is insane to think that the inability to just go on however one may want is a sign of mental weakness, however. There are mechanisms which are there, interactions both physical and mental (and not actually both, but aspects of a same we have decided to call differently), that make sense.
Will power all well and good, after all, but it’s rather better to survive without having to think about it too much.

Kaltbecken - Cold Pool

Cold pool, bracing like a mountain stream. Best done not thinking about it ;)

The interaction between the two sides of the same body is perhaps the most interesting, however, because the heat may be exhausting for the body while the mind says that it’s a good thing, as when you go visit a sauna or engage in physical exertion for the benefits and fun of it. Or the mind may say that it’s a challenge, as when jumping into a cold pool after a sauna visit, while it’s actually not just no problem, but actually does a body good…

Similarly, sweet things are so enticing to us because the sweet taste is an indication of sugar, and sugar is our fuel. (And no, not our body’s fuel, not our brain’s fuel, but our fuel. No sugar would mean no energy, and therefore no living being.)

It would, however, always have been around in rather small quantities, not today’s glut. So, a sweet is a treat. Or so it should be.

beim Zauner

Sweets in Konditorei Zauner, Bad Ischl, which were good enough for the emperor…

It’s not a battle between body and mind, the two are both happily one in the desire for sugar. The amounts we eat and like, however, will be more than just influenced by our surroundings. How much sugar is available, how normal and good sweet things are considered to be, how accustomed we therefore get (and have gotten in our childhoods) to certain levels of sweetness, will have a tremendous influence.

The influence is all the greater because there, it is not about a dualism between body and mind, but the unity between the two. In learning to eat in certain ways, better or worse in terms of sugar consumption, the whole person learns to eat in that way. A certain sugariness is, then, satisfying or already cloying, a sweet a perfect treat for a rare occasion or a constant snack, vegetables something to struggle with or to enjoy (and even to dislike only when they are too sugary-sweet).

Whether it is about sweat or sweets, comforts or growth, we will only get on truly good paths when we finally forget the old myths that explain things too easily – and incorrectly – and start working with things as they actually are.

We are whole beings, not minds that have somehow ended up stuck into meat bags. Hence, we need the sweat same as we like the sweets, all in a balance that positively challenges – and comforts – us.

On the scale

Everyday Fitness: Forget Weight, Follow Function

The one and only sign of fitness generally fussed about is weight. Oh no, I weigh too much. I must lose weight.

It’s one of those “simplets” where we pick a number and obsess about it because it becomes our reality. Hell, it even sounds scientific; also take your height into account, and you need a formula (!) to calculate your BMI. It’s got to be good.

Continue reading

Chinese Mise-en-Place

Everyday Fitness: The Perfect Diet

Diet, one’s way of eating, is a major factor of everyday enjoyment, everyday fitness, the everyday ecology of our living at home in this world – and oh-so-many of the problems we increasingly face, in terms of the world’s ecological functioning for us as well as our own health and well-being.

The more important clear paths would be, the more we’ve been making the topic into a veritable jungle. Continue reading

Hong Kong Island Skyline at Night

Trouble on the Hong Kong Trail

If there are no pictures shared online, did it really happen?

The question tends to be asked jokingly, making fun of both the philosophical pondering about the sound of a falling tree in a forest when no one’s around to hear it and of the contemporary oversharing on social media, but it recently got more relevant in my own exploratory lifestyle.

We went to Hong Kong on the way to visit my wife’s family in China. As the runner I have been working to become, living exploratorily and making myself at home where I get, measured in steps, I was attracted to the Hong Kong Trail. Continue reading

Zander (pikeperch), Pannonian style...

Salt, Sugar, Fat: Processed Foods and the Body’s Intelligence

Salt Sugar FatJust finished reading Michael Moss’ “Salt, Sugar, Fat” recently. Fascinating book, that.

It’s basically a story of people doing what they found themselves having an interest in and getting hired for: to understand the appeal of foods and create better food products.

“Better,” however, as in “more attractive to the consumer in both convenience and appeal, therefore selling more, and preferably costing less in the production, and thus making higher profits.” Continue reading