Don’t Make ’em Like They Used To

In the last week, the politically-minded fitness world has been abuzz with the theory of exercise that Donald Trump shared in a recent New Yorker feature:

There has been considerable speculation about Trump’s physical and mental health, in part because few facts are known. During the campaign, his staff reported that he was six feet three inches tall and weighed two hundred and thirty-six pounds, which is considered overweight but not obese. Trump himself says that he is “not a big sleeper” (“I like three hours, four hours”) and professes a fondness for steak and McDonald’s. Other than golf, he considers exercise misguided, arguing that a person, like a battery, is born with a finite amount of energy.

Like many of Trump’s science-minded proclamations, this one is mind-bogglingly stupid. And it reinforces my long-held belief that massive heart-attack is the likeliest way for 45 to serve out less than a full first term.

But what really caught my eye was a piece about the quote in GQ, which ran through the exercise habits of recent presidents past: Obamas pick-up basketball games, W’s “100 Degree Club” (waiting until the temperature hit 100° before heading for stacks of 7:00 miles), Clinton’s pokier lopes in 90’s jogging suits.

The real kicker, however, is a reference to an episode I think I knew about obliquely, but had largely forgotten:

On the campaign trail in 1912, Teddy Roosevelt stopped in Wisconsin for a campaign rally. There, a crazed assassin (who later claimed to have been egged on by the ghost of William McKinley) sprung from the crowd, and shot Roosevelt in the chest at point-blank range.

The bullet, however, simply got stuck in Roosevelt’s pec muscle. Though doctors wanted to bring him immediately to the hospital, Roosevelt explained that he was not mortally wounded, and would go ahead with the speech. Blood still dripping from the wound, Roosevelt told the gaping crowd, “I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose!”

So, in short, Donald is definitely being a wuss. And Teddy Roosevelt, who I also think of whenever I visit New York’s American Natural History Museum, full of taxidermied fauna he gunned down on hunting trips during his spare time, is undoubtedly the original Most Interesting Man in the World.

Bottle-Full

This time of year, as the weather turns, and people start thinking about having to appear in public in a bathing suit, there’s a sudden uptick in diets and gym trips. With a sense of deadline looming, they tend to jump in full-throttle.

But here’s the bad news: you didn’t get out of shape in six weeks, and you’re probably not going to become a cover model in that amount of time either. I see a lot of people who don’t want to face that reality, cutting their calorie intake in half, hitting the gym seven days a week. And, for about two weeks, it works like a charm. By the third week, they’re overtrained, nursing a summer cold, and entirely burnt out.

Harvey Penick, the legendary golf coach, liked to say, “when I tell you to take an aspirin, please don’t take the whole bottle.” Just because something is helpful doesn’t mean five times as much is five times as helpful. In fact, overdoing it often has entirely negative effects; an aspirin may cure a headache, but a bottle of it will kill you.

So if you want to kick off a summer fitness push, I think that’s a great idea. You can set reasonable goals, make a plan, and see solid results over the span of the next few months. Or you can take the whole bottle, and set off on an unsustainable beach countdown crash approach, which, after a few weeks, will similarly probably be dead.

Additive

When people start getting serious about their fitness, they often start to opt for well-marketed “scientifically designed” food substitutes instead of actual food. They drop simple fish and chicken, for example, in favor of protein drinks and bars.

I’ve written before about one set of problems that causes, as breaking food down and then reassembling it from its constituent components leaves out all kinds of important micro-nutrients.

But problems exist in the opposite direction, too. A number of ‘harmless’ additives used in those reassembled food products are increasingly turning out to be not so harmless after all.

A study recently published in the journal Nature, for example, demonstrated that two widely-used emulsifiers (carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80) threw off the gut microbiome in mice, sufficient to cause inflammation, colitis, obesity, and metabolic syndrome.

As the researchers conclude, “the broad use of emulsifying agents might be contributing to an increased societal incidence of obesity/metabolic syndrome and other chronic inflammatory diseases.”

The solution? Eat real food instead of food products. It’s the simple, healthy choice.

Two

This morning, Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon in two hours, twenty-five seconds. On the one hand, that fell short of the sub-two-hour goal that he and his Nike support team had been shooting for – a parallel to Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile exactly 63 years back. But, on the other hand, it bests the prior world record time by more than two-and-a-half minutes, a nearly superhuman feat.

It’s hard to get a real sense of how crazy a sub-two-hour marathon is. As it’s a consecutive series of twenty-six 4:41 miles, it’s literally just harder than setting your treadmill to 13mph, then running for two hours nonstop. To demonstrate that, Wired put today this great video, which includes (along with some physiological analysis of the feat) a number of members of Wired’s running club trying to see how long they can hold that 13mph. In short, it turns out they can cruise for about a minute before things fall apart. So, just more than 99% of the race to go!

Congrats to Eliud and everyone at Nike. The two-hour barrier may not have fallen today, but it’s only a matter of time.

Fascinatin’ ‘Rithm

One of the goals for Composite over time is to build automated mass-personalization for our clients, whether in prescribing workout programs, or pacing the acquisition of healthy eating habits.

I’ve started to sketch a few of those algorithms out, and the flow-charts I’ve amassed definitely look more than a bit like a prop from A Beautiful Mind.

So I was happy to see this xkcd comic today, which pretty much nails my present mood:

Lump this, I suppose, under “nobody knew fitness could be so complicated.”

Earn It

As I blogged about last week, progressive overload is one of the most fundamental principles in fitness: for your body to adapt positively, you need to gradually increase the stress induced by successive workouts. To get stronger, in other words, you need to lift more weight over time.

That’s where barbells come in: they allow you to add load, with more safety and efficiency, than nearly anything else. But just because barbell-based movements are where you probably want to end up doesn’t mean they’re the best place to start. Indeed, starting barbell movements before you have a requisite base of strength is a quick road to disaster. If you can’t generate the stability needed to do a barbell exercise perfectly, your body will compensate with less ideal movement patterns to accommodate the load, putting your joints and muscles at serious risk.

If you look around a commercial gym, you can see all kinds of terrible movements in action: unsafe joint mechanics, limited range of motion, and general wobbly disaster. In almost all of those cases, the root of the problem is the same: people ran before they could walk, adding load to a dysfunctional movement.

If you can’t squat perfectly without weight, adding weight is only going to make things worse.

That’s why, at Composite, we build all of our clients’ movements from the ground up. You need to show us 25 perfect, unbroken squats before we add any load at all. Then you need to build up to 25 perfect, unbroken goblet squats while holding half your bodyweight (60 pounds, say, for a 120 pound woman) before we graduate to the bar.

Similarly, if you can’t do 10 perfect, unbroken pushups – with core stability, and a range of motion from full plank lockout at the top to chest literally touching the floor at the bottom – you have no business bench pressing. We see big guys all the time who frequently bench press 225 pounds, yet who can’t pass the pushup test. And, funny enough, they’re also the same guys who show up with a history of persistent shoulder injury.

And while a lot of people spend time on accessory movements to hit their beach muscles – bicep curls, crunches until the cows come home – they’re equally ineffective for beginners. If you can’t do eight strict pull-ups, put down the E-Z Curl bar. And if you can’t farmer’s walk for 30 seconds while holding at least 1-2x your body weight, then start practicing that instead, as it’s all the core work you need.

Sure, the basics aren’t sexy. But they’re also the fastest, safest, and most effective route to results – and long-term health.

Variable

One of the most fundamental principles in fitness is progressive overload: gradually increasing workout stress over time, so that your body adapts positively to that increase. Perhaps that’s adding five pounds to your squat each time you lift to build strength, or lengthening successive runs to go from a mile to a marathon.

But while overload is easy on paper, it’s far more complicated in real life. Human bodies don’t adapt linearly in even the best of conditions, and progress is even more unpredictable once you factor in life stress, travel, lack of sleep, or a night of heavy drinking and too much dessert. Continuing to overload beyond what your body can keep up with leads to overtraining, which in turn causes illness and injuries, setting progress back.

So as you move forward in training, it’s useful to be able to monitor how well your body is adapting. While there are a number of approaches that work, one of the simplest and most empirically validated is tracking heart-rate variability (or HRV).

We tend to think of our heart as beating in a steady tick-tock. In reality, each beat varies a bit from the last. In fact, a healthy heart has a great deal of variability, whereas increasing regularity (as data from the Framingham study and others have consistently shown) drives increasing risk of heart disease.

Heart-rate variability results from the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is like the gas in a car, revving our bodies up for increased output, whereas the parasympathetic is like the brakes, bringing us down into rest and relaxation.

When the sympathetic nervous system overwhelms the parasympathetic, your heart-rate variability decreases. And, similarly, when your sympathetic nervous system overwhelms the parasympathetic, you’re on the road to overtraining.

As a result, monitoring heart-rate variability is a great way to simultaneously monitor overtraining.

While, previously, measuring HRV required specialized equipment (whether an EKG or a chest-strapped heart-rate monitor), the brilliant folks behind the app HRV4Training recently developed and clinically validated an approach to measurement using just your smartphone.

The way it works is simple: each morning, right after you wake up, you hold your finger over the phone’s camera lens for one minute. From that, the app determines your HRV for the day, compares the number to your moving averages over the past seven days and two months, and kicks out a simple recommendation: something like “go ahead and train, but limit intensity,” or “if you planned intense training, go for it.”

As I admitted on Friday, I’ve sometimes been lax with daily HRV tracking. But I always regret it when I am. HRV provides a great window into how I’m adapting to the progressive overload of my workouts, and it’s been a powerful tool in helping to keep me healthy and injury-free, moving forward over the longer haul.

So download HRV4Training, and overload yourself, just the right amount.

Z’s

I admit it: I’m both lazy and forgetful.

So while I sometimes manage to track useful health markers (like, for example, heart-rate variability each morning with the excellent HRV4Training app, to monitor over-training), I also often end up going for days and weeks ignoring them completely.

That’s why I’m particularly enthused about any app that works regardless of whether my brain is engaged, like AutoSleep for Apple Watch and iPhone.

Unlike other Apple Watch sleep trackers, this one doesn’t require me to actively tell it when I go to sleep and wake up, yet it’s surprisingly accurate nonetheless. Even better, as I only wear my watch to bed some nights, it still works even when the watch is on the charger. Sure, those nights don’t include sleep quality (which the app derives from heart rate and restlessness data from the watch), but it still accurately clocks start and stop times from when I plug in and unlock my phone (something that, shamefully enough, tends to be my last and first actions of the day). And it even correctly subtracts time for early morning pee breaks, as I (like, I think, most people) briefly turn on the screen of my phone when I get up in the middle of the night to see what time it is.

If my trailing average sleep duration closes in on eight hours nightly, I’m well-poised to hit PRs; whereas, if I’m averaging under seven hours (or, worse, six), I’m lucky to get through my workouts at all (and, frankly, equally lucky to just get through the day). When I keep track of that number in my head, I find I overly weight the prior night (or two), and can barely remember how much I slept on any nights even a day or two further back. AutoSleep’s home page serves as a far more reliable reference.

Knowing when to push myself – and when not to – has been key to keeping me training productively and injury-free for long stretches. If you think it might be for you, too, download AutoSleep; it’s well worth the $2.99 cost.

PSA: Stop Flip-Flopping

With summer weather upon us, a lot of people are breaking their flip-flops out from the closet.

My advice is: don’t.

First, if you’re not currently a member of a fraternity, it’s probably not helping your look.

But second, and more importantly, flip-flops are a biomechanical disaster.

Your feet are a beautiful system, designed over thousands of generations of evolution to withstand pounding by forces several times your bodyweight, thousands of times each day. Fundamentally, your foot is a mechanical arch (cf., the arch of your foot), leveraging physics to accept and then dissipate force with ease.

Or, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

To illustrate, try this: lift your big toe. You’ll notice that, when you do, the arch of your foot pulls taught. The same thing happens when you keep your toe planted, but lift your heel – the way your back foot moves on each step as you walk. That pulling taught is called the Windlass Effect, and it allows you to support your weight using the strength of your fascia, tough connective tissue that surrounds your muscles. The Windlass action tightens up the fascia in your arch (the plantar fascia), as well as fascia in your calves and upper legs, like the IT band. And that fascia is super strong. In fact, you could literally hang a car from your IT band.

But if you’re wearing flip-flops, your big toe does something different: it scrunches in on every step, holding your shoe in place. That prevents the Windlass effect, so instead of pounding your strong fascia, you instead mash the tendons and soft-tissue of your feet, the cartilage and meniscus in your knees, etc., none of which were designed for that job.

So, in short, if you want to avoid plantar fasciitis, knee replacements, etc., stop wearing flip-flops. Sure, you can wear them on the beach / at the pool. But if you’re just walking around in warm weather, try something like a Vans slip-on (timelessly surfer chic), a strappy sandal, or anything else that holds on to your foot without your active effort.

You’ll look better. And you’ll make it to fall with a healthy leg up.

Vera-fied

Last summer, I wrote a series of blog posts about smart approaches to getting some sun. Starting with why sun exposure isn’t really the devil no matter what your mom says about skin cancer, moving on to everything you should know about suntan lotion but probably don’t, covering the use of UV-tracking apps to limit sun exposure to safe amounts, and ending with a pointer to antioxidant fern extract pills that research has shown works like sunscreen from the inside. With warm weather upon us again, all four are still worth the read.

But there’s at least one summer staple that isn’t worth it: aloe vera gel.

Though research on aloe vera for sunburns is surprisingly sparse, almost all the studies (like this one) conclude that aloe is no better than a placebo at reducing the pain or duration of a burn.

And, indeed, though most clinical studies use carefully titrated medical-grade aloe creams, it turns out that most of the aloe vera gel sold at stores really is just a placebo: as of last year, researchers found that the store brands of aloe vera at Target, CVS, Wal-Mart, and elsewhere didn’t actually contain any aloe vera.

So save your $5 and refrigerator space, and stick with sunburn remedies that actually work: take a cool bath or shower, drink plenty of water, use moisturizer on the burn, and consider taking aspirin or ibuprofen to help reduce redness and pain.

See you at the beach!