Get Down

When it comes to health and fitness, people want simple solutions: sitting is bad, so get a standing desk instead. Problem solved.

Except that the human body is complex, so most simple solutions don’t actually work in the real world. Prolonged periods of standing in a single position often create nearly as many problems as prolonged sitting in a single position.

To understand this better, consider nutrition: kale is healthful, but a diet of just kale isn’t. Instead, to optimize your diet, you need to ‘eat a rainbow,’ trying to get a variety of different foods of every color, because different colored foods contain different vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals: lycopene in red foods, anthocyanin in purple/blue, carotenoids like betacarotene in orange/yellow, etc. You need them all, and so your diet needs to be sufficiently varied.

So, too, with movement. Thus, the answer isn’t just a standing desk, or any other tool or gadget. Instead, it’s making sure that you sit and move in the broadest number of ways that you can.

Perhaps you’re at a traditional desk. Sure, you can sit in your chair. But you can also do a stretch of work kneeling on the seat.

Or perhaps you’re at a standing (or, even better, convertible) desk. There, you can spend part of your time with one foot on the floor and the other up on a chair, and then, after a bit, you can switch feet.

And, either way, you can also do some work (say, taking a call) seated on the floor. That’s a great way to watch TV, too: planted on the carpet in front of your couch. Try sitting in different ways – cross-legged, side-saddle, legs in front of you. With any of those, you also practice getting down to and back up from the ground, a skill that’s highly associated with decreased all-causes mortality.

You can try eating a meal with your family on the floor, as a picnic on the carpet. You can read a book while laying on the ground on your stomach, or your side. You can even flout good manners in the name of health, and climb up on your desk or table.

But across all those possibilities, the underlying strategy remains: get creative, and explore as many ways to sit and stand and move as you possibly can. Each will challenge your strength, mobility, balance, and posture, and expand your body’s ability to perform in and handle the stresses of the world.

The Backup Plan

Each Sunday, I chart out a carefully considered set of workouts for the week, following a periodized, balanced approach to strength, conditioning, mobility, and recovery. All in, it’s about an hour worth of stuff each day.

Some weeks, I manage to stick to the plan precisely.

Others, everything more or less goes to shit.

In the past month, I’ve had unexpected work developments dump huge piles of urgent work on my desk. I’ve had a death in the family rearrange my schedule around a funeral and sitting shiva. I’ve even jumped in for a few afternoons of nephew-wrangling when my brother’s nanny called in sick.

On those days, I just don’t have the time – or the mental bandwidth – to commit to hitting the gym.

In the past, when days like that happened, I just wouldn’t work out at all. The perfect – following my program precisely – became the enemy of the good – doing something rather than nothing.

But more recently, I’ve started to use a simple, standard fallback workout: I pull a 24kg kettlebell from my closet and do a single set of 50-75 swings.

That’s it. All in, it takes about two minutes, but it’s still a serious kick in the lungs, and a great way to train the muscles of my grip and my entire posterior chain – from my upper back down through my glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

Because I’ve made that one workout the default, I can hop right in, even when I don’t have the energy to think about what to do. And, though it’s short, it’s enough to make a meaningful contribution to my overall health.

Even more importantly, it’s also enough for me to be able to chalk the day up as a fitness success.

I’ve written before about aiming to never miss twice, and I think that’s still an excellent mantra – it’s the surest way to avoid letting one skipped workout become a whole month down the tubes.

But in crazy times, a short, simple, no-thought-required fallback plan also makes it much, much easier to make sure your day doesn’t become a ‘miss’ in the first place.

Process, Results

With February just around the corner, we’re about to hit The Big Resolutioner Fall-Off in gyms the world over. Statistics show that, after a month, more than 50% of people have already given up on their New Year’s resolutions, and by the first week in February, gym attendance drops precipitously from its January peak to the lower leves seen through the balance of the year.

Obviously, people give up on their resolutions – and their fitness resolutions in particular – for a slew of reasons. In most cases, however, there’s a single, over-arching cause: after a month of full-bore effort, most people don’t feel like they’re getting results that justify the effort.

Sure, there are more or less effective ways to improve your fitness. But body recomposition (losing fat and gaining muscle) is slow going in even the best of circumstances; research by the CDC and others has shown that people who sustain weight loss (rather than just yo-yoing back up) are those that lose about a pound a week. And as most people who take up exercise again after a break initially add muscle as well as losing fat, it’s pretty common to see scale weight only drop a pound or two over the course of a first month, even with strong, consistent effort.

When most people set goals (like New Year’s resolutions), they think in terms of results: “I want x to happen by time y.” For project goals – starting a company, buying a home, etc. – that makes sense, as you can then break those goals down into a series of sub-goals along the way, and chart your progress by seeing how well you knock off those projects. But losing weight (like, say, learning a language) is more of a process goal; it doesn’t break down well into smaller goals, but is instead just about doing the same thing, consistently, for an extended period of time. Worse, process goals rarely achieve linear results; instead, progress usually fluctuates up and down, like prices on the stock market, even while the overall trend moves in the right direction over time.

So evaluating process goals by their short-term results is a fast track to feeling demoralized and giving up. Instead, people who succeed tend to be those who make the process itself the goal: they evaluate their success not based on how much weight they lose, but on the percentage of their weekly meals they eat according to plan, or the number of times they work out in a given week. The always-insightful Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) talks about this as the difference between ‘systems’ and ‘goals’ – the goal being weight loss, but the system being eating healthfully and working out.

In my experience, that kind of system-focused thinking is far more effective, because it’s much more self-reinforcing. If you’re solely focused on results, in a given day, you’re unlikely to see enough physical change to feel good about yourself; but if you’re focused on process, on executing your system, every healthy meal, every trip to the gym is something about which you can pat yourself on the back.

So, if you’ve been pushing hard through January, but are feeling a dit demoralized, and on the brink of giving up, I’d strongly suggest you switch your thinking to a systems / process approach instead. Ask yourself which habits you could sustain at an 80% level or better over the balance of 2017 would make a real difference. Maybe it’s walking 10,000 steps daily, cutting out refined carbs, or hitting a gym class three times a week. Then start evaluating yourself, day by day, just on how well you hit those habits. Maybe even buy a calendar, and draw in a smiley face for each day you pull them off.

In all honesty, that still won’t move you faster along the slow path to weight loss, fitness, or health; but it will hugely increase the odds that you keep going throughout the balance of the year, in a way that will allow you, one cumulative step at a time, to actually reach those goals in the end.

Cold as Ice

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but I’m a fan of them, especially in water bottles.

I’m always surprised to see how few people bring water with them to the gym in the first place, given how crucial hydration is to performance. Most athletes know that dehydration can reduce their endurance in longer-duration events. But the effect on shorter duration exercise, like sets of weightlifting or CrossFit WODs, is just as impressive: in one study, athletes who were only 2% dehydrated saw their high-intensity exercise performance drop by 45%.

Even fewer people know that the temperature of the water you drink matters, too. Studies have repeatedly shown that drinking colder water helps athletes go longer before reaching exhaustion, at higher mean power output, and improves performance on everything from the bench press to the broad jump.

So, in short, if you’re working out, you should probably be drinking plenty of water, and drinking plenty of cold water, along the way.

That’s where the vacuum comes in. Something like the insulated Kleen Kanteen (my go-to, and The Wirecutter’s top choice) will let you tote 20 ounces of ice cold water to the gym – even if you have to fill it hours and hours in advance (say, filling it with ice water in the morning and then hitting the gym post-work.)

If you’re picking up a Klean Kanteen, I’d suggest you go with the Cafe Cap 2.0 lid. You can sip through it, without needing to unscrew each time you drink, so you’ll drink more frequently. And, as a bonus, you’ll also be less likely to imitate my signature post-workout move: inadvertently pouring the first sip of water from an uncapped bottle down the front of your shirt.

Krauts

Over the past few years, research has increasingly highlighted the importance of the gut micro-biome. The bacteria inside us, it appears, play a large role in everything from obesity to cancer, from creativity and intelligence to autism and depression.

At this point, gut bacteria research is still in its early days; there’s much more that we don’t yet know than we do. But, at very least, it’s clear that having healthy, diverse gut bacteria is broadly important in a healthy life.

As eating probiotic foods aligns well with ancestral health practices (one of the ‘check-sums’ we use in Composite’s approach – if generations of pre-industrial health wisdom aligns with new science, it’s usually a good sign), we regularly recommend our clients eat a variety of probiotic (and pre-biotic) foods.

But like with many healthy eating recommendations, adding probiotics to your diet can come at a premium. Because probiotic bacteria are only effective if they’re still alive when you ingest them, manufacturers have to carefully monitor production and control temperatures during distribution and display, which quickly jacks up prices.

The probiotic supplement VSL #3, for example, has been well studied, and clinically validated in treatment of conditions like IBS and ulcerative colitis. But taking VSL at the dosage used in most of those studies runs about $4000 a year, well beyond what most people can spend as just one piece of optimizing their health.

Fortunately, there’s an equally effective, and far less expensive, alternative: make sauerkraut at home.

An ounce of sauerkraut contains the same count of probiotic bacteria as clinical doses of VSL #3, and far more than what you’d find in less expensive store brands of probiotic capsules. A recent lab analysis of homemade sauerkraut concluded that one 16-ounce batch contained the same amount of probiotics as eight 100-capsule bottles of probiotics.

I realize that making sauerkraut at home is slightly intimidating. But it’s incredibly easy, and very safe. (The FDA recently declined to add regulations around sauerkraut, noting that there had been no recorded cases of illness caused by sauerkraut and similarly pickled foods.)

Here’s what you’ll need:

  1. A big head of cabbage;
  2. Some salt;
  3. A food scale;
  4. A knife;
  5. A big bowl;
  6. A quart jar, or a similar container to hold the kraut as it ferments.

And here’s what to do:

  1. Slice the cabbage into thin strips.
  2. Weigh the cabbage strips, then weigh out 1/50th as much salt. (e.g., if you have 500g of cabbage, you need 10g of salt.)
  3. Put the cabbage and salt in the bowl, then knead it with your hands for about 10 minutes, until the cabbage starts to feel limp.
  4. Press the salted cabbage down into the bottom of the jar.

Voila. That’s the whole thing. Now all you need to do is wait.

Leave the jar somewhere room-temperature (i.e., out of direct sunlight). Over the course of the first day or so, liquid will leach out of the cabbage, creating a brine. You want the cabbage to be completely submerged in that brine (as cabbage that peeks out can mold rather than ferment), so you might want to place something like a glass filled with water into the mouth of the jar as weight on top of the cabbage to keep it pushed down.

After about a week, taste the sauerkraut. It will still be pretty sharp-tasting, though it will continue mellowing (and becoming more-probiotic rich) over time. You can safely leave the sauerkraut pickling for well over a month, though I tend to find two to three weeks is about right for me. Once you hit a point you like, put the whole thing in the fridge, which will grind further fermentation to a halt.

You can use the kraut as a condiment, though it’s also pretty delicious eaten straight. (For some reason, this sounds intimidating to a lot of people, though most people will happily eat kosher pickles straight from the jar. Good news: this is exactly the same thing, with the same taste, just with cabbage rather than cucumber.)

Again, a forkful a day vastly exceeds the probiotic value of even a big handful of probiotic pills. And at just a couple of bucks a batch, you certainly can’t beat the price.

Catching Up

About a year back, I blogged about the interesting relationship between science and practice in the health, fitness, and wellness worlds. On the one hand, a lot of what passes for ‘best practices’ in the trenches – from professional athletic teams’ weight rooms to your local Gold’s Gym – is completely unscientific garbage. But on the other, there’s also a long history of well-executed journal research simply lagging behind new and effective innovations that have already gained traction in the real world.

So it was particularly interesting to stand in the middle of that process, when a recently published meta-analysis of 27 weight-loss studies fully endorsed several of Composite’s key ideas that we’ve been developing over the past year and a half.

As the name implies, Composite is built on a multi-faceted approach; in building fitness, we think that the parts of your life that happen outside of the gym – things like nutrition, movement throughout the day, and lifestyle – are just as important as what happens in class.

We also think that coaches – the highly-trained leaders of those classes – have a role beyond teaching and guidance, as accountability points for those outside-of-class factors.

And we know that the community we build in classes can similarly reach beyond the gym, to provide support, encouragement, and motivation that helps people build and sustain healthy habits over the long term.

So it’s no surprise to us that the paper’s authors conclude precisely the same thing:

“Programs supervising attendance, offering social support, and focusing on dietary and lifestyle modification have better adherence than interventions not supervising attendance, not offering social support, and focusing exclusively on exercise.”

As I said, that’s not a surprise. Even so, it’s nice to be right.

Blue Collar Work Ethic

Like basically every other entrepreneur and self-improvement nerd in the world, I rolled into 2017 reading Tim Ferriss’ excellent new book, Tools of Titans, a collection of bite-sized insights and lessons from 200 podcast interviews with top achievers in a slew of areas.

In his first episode on the podcast, elite gymnastics coach Christopher Sommer talked with Tim about the first seminar that he held for adults, back in 2007: an all-day training for top CrossFit athletes and coaches.

We tried to do entry level plyometric work. The stronger the athlete, the faster they went down. […] We had 15 minutes on the schedule to stretch. [That] stretch took an hour and a half to complete. There were bodies lying everywhere; it was like we were in Vietnam. [And I said to my staff,] “what the fuck am I supposed to do now? They failed warmup. They failed warm-up.”

Funny enough, I was at that seminar, and I always remember, just before the lunch break, Sommer rounding us all up to say, “I’ve never seen such strong people do such terrible gymnastics.”

Today, gymnastics-based training is a much bigger part of my (and Composite’s) approach, and I’d like to think Sommer would be (at least a bit) less appalled by my technique. But gymnastics training – like so much of fitness – is often slow, frustrating going. So I hugely appreciated the email he sent to Tim, when Tim was similarly struggling with learning a challenging new gymnastic movement:

Hi Tim,

Patience. Far too soon to expect strength improvements. Strength improvements [for a movement like this] take a minimum of 6 weeks. Any perceived improvements prior to that are simply the result of improved synaptic facilitation. In plain English, the central nervous system simply became more efficient at that particular movement with practice. This is, however, not to be confused with actual strength gains.

Dealing with the temporary frustration of not making progress is an integral part of the path towards excellence. In fact, it is essential and something that every single elite athlete has had to learn to deal with. If the pursuit of excellence was easy, everyone would do it. In fact, this impatience in dealing with frustration is the primary reason that most people fail to achieve their goals. Unreasonable expectations timewise, resulting in unnecessary frustration, due to a perceived feeling of failure. Achieving the extraordinary is not a linear process.

The secret is to show up, do the work, and go home.

A blue collar work ethic married to indomitable will. It is literally that simple. Nothing interferes. Nothing can sway you from your purpose. Once the decision is made, simply refuse to budge. Refuse to compromise.

And accept that quality long-term results require quality long-term focus. No emotion. No drama. No beating yourself up over small bumps in the road. Learn to enjoy and appreciate the process. This is especially important because you are going to spend far more time on the actual journey than with those all too brief moments of triumph at the end.

Certainly celebrate the moments of triumph when they occur. More importantly, learn from defeats when they happen. In fact, if you are not encountering defeat on a fairly regular basis, you are not trying hard enough. And absolutely refuse to accept less than your best.

Throw out a timeline. It will take what it takes.

If the commitment is to a long-term goal and not to a series of smaller intermediate goals, then only one decision needs to be made and adhered to. Clear, simple, straightforward. Much easier to maintain than having to make small decision after small decision to stay the course when dealing with each step along the way. This provides far too many opportunities to inadvertently drift from your chosen goal. The single decision is one of the most powerful tools in the toolbox.

Tools of Titans, definitely worth the read.

Beyond the Monkey Stomp

With the year coming to a close, many people are starting to think about new year's resolutions. If 2017 aligns with decades of years previously researched, 'getting in shape' is likely to remain high on those resolution lists.

The fact that the same resolution tends to crop up, year after year, points to an ugly truth: the vast majority of people fall short of their annual get-in-shape goal. There are lot of reasons why they do, and I’ll try to look at a few of them in the days and weeks to come. But one problem that’s increasingly prevalent is that most people focus on ‘working out’ in stead of on ‘training.’

Training is something you do to achieve a specific performance goal or a physiological adaptation. To train, you start with that goal or adaptation in mind, then work backwards to construct a carefully-designed, science-backed plan that will take you, step by step, to where you want to end up.

Whereas working out is an end in and of itself, something you do regularly with a vague sense that it will get you to a nebulously-defined better place. And because you’re not clear on your plan, nor on metrics that will let you measure the effectiveness of your efforts along the way, you default to more subjective evaluations of your gym session. Did it seem super hard? Where you lying on the ground after in a pool of sweat? Are you painfully sore for days to come?

All of those seem like reasonable heuristics. If you’re sore, then certainly the workout did something. And if you toss your cookies midway through, then clearly the workout must have pushed you to the max.

But, in fact, neither of those are reliable signposts. Your sore muscles (or DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness) simply mean you exceeded your current capacity for safe eccentric contraction. Your mid-workout cookie toss? Just a sign that you built up lactic acid systemically faster than your body could flush it out. Neither necessarily means your fitness level is improving. And it’s perfectly possible to get fitter, faster, without doing either one.

Elite coaches refer to this kind of pointless destruction as ‘monkey stomping’ their trainees. And, indeed, a lot of the GloboGym personal trainers I see seem to design workouts specifically to hit that sort of monkey stomp, knowing that clients want to feel like they left it all in the gym, are more likely to come back for a second session if they just got pushed to their limits in their first. CrossFitters, SoulCyclers, Barry’s Bootcampers, and others thrive on the monkey-stomped feeling. It’s the unspoken core selling point of most group exercise classes: we can kick your ass harder than anyone else.

But, it turns out, getting monkey stomped repeatedly is pretty unpleasant. And once the start-of-year drive towards righteous self-flagellation peters out, people tend to abandon those sorts of ‘take it to 11’ approaches in droves. Whereas people following an actual training approach, who don’t hate every single session, who can start to see meaningful progress from checkpoint to checkpoint and milestone to milestone, tend to increasingly build their commitment over the course of time, intrinsically motivated to further cement the training habit.

So, in short, if your plan for 2017 involves getting into shape, consider searching out professional advice from someone who can help you figure out a training plan rather than just a series of workouts. Ask them what the big picture of their approach for you would be, and how you’ll know if an individual session is pushing you forward. If they can’t answer that – or, worse, if their answer involves some variation of the monkey stomp – then turn and run (or, depending on Thanksgiving-to-Christmas binge eating, waddle) the other way. Make 2017 the year you cross ‘get in shape’ off your resolutions list for good.

[Obligatory deeply self-interested plug: after a bit of scaling up, Composite now has room for a handful of new clients, in NYC and elsewhere; shoot me an email if you’d like our take on what training – rather than just workout out – could mean for you.]

An Easy Hack for Healthier Eating

There's a saying in the business world: what gets measured gets managed. That works in fitness, too.

Fortunately, when it comes to eating, it’s even easier. Science shows you don't need to measure – you just need to notice. A slew of recent studies have demonstrated that, simply by journaling what they eat, people lose literally twice as much weight as a non-journaling cohort.

The reason: most people already know how to eat better. (Eat more fruits and vegetables. Eat some protein and healthy fats. Stop eating processed crap.) Sure, we give Composite’s clients a lot of additional guidance to help them perfect their diets. But just following common sense usually gets people 80-90% of the way towards their goals.

The biggest problem, then, isn't knowledge. It’s action. With food, we too often act without thinking. We follow the dictates of our brain stem, the animal part of our brain, without stopping to consciously consider our choices.

That's where food journaling comes in. Just a brief moment of pause to document what you're about to eat is enough to trigger cortical involvement, bringing in your more evolved conscious brain. In turn, that leads people to make better, more goal-oriented choices.

There are a nearly endless number of ways to food journal. In practice, however, we find the perfect is the enemy of the good. While apps like MyFitnessPal are comprehensive, they're also a pain in the butt to reliably use, so people tend to use them for just a few days before falling off.

Instead, we’ve found a much simpler solution works just as well, yet is far easier to sustain over the long haul: use your smartphone to take take a picture of your food before you eat it.

For Composite clients, we set things up so that those pictures are submitted automatically to their coach, who can provide additional accountability. But you can also act as your own nutrition coach: every few days, look back over the food photos you’ve taken, and ask yourself what the health impact would be of keeping up that same way of eating for the rest of your life. Or consider how you would feel if you had to show the last few weeks of pictures to your physician, coach, or trainer.

If your nutrition isn’t yet dialed in, I’d highly recommend trying this out. For the next two weeks, every single time you eat something, take a photo first. It doesn’t seem like much, but science and clinical experience backs us up: it really works.

Note to Self: Get Moving

The founder and VC Marc Andreesen once observed that “entrepreneurs are congenitally wired to be too early, and being too early is a bigger problem for entrepreneurs than not being correct.”

Indeed, if you look at a slew of new industries, the current 800-pound gorilla in the space wasn’t the first-mover. Facebook was predated by Friendster and Myspace, Google by Yahoo, Lycos, and Alta Vista.

At the same time, an ‘overnight success’ usually takes about ten years of hard work. So when a startup appears at just the right time, it’s often no longer really a startup, already several years into it’s path of consistent, quiet growth. In other words, though you don’t need to be the first to win an emerging industry, you do probably need to be relatively early, substantively innovative, and excellent at execution. You need to get started on a new idea before it’s widely recognized as the inevitable future, and then you need to fight to entrench your company in the order of things.

So I didn’t panic eighteen months back, when another company raised tens of millions of dollars behind an idea similar to Composite; they’re delivered as a B2B HR service, rather than a direct consumer business, and we’re intending to entirely bootstrap rather than raise external dollars anyway. And I kept my cool twelve months ago, when a major fitness magazine penned an article on emerging fitness trends, which nailed (admittedly individually, rather than as cohesive whole) at least 2/3 of the ideas that underlie Composite.

But in the last few months, I’ve continued to see more and more indications that we’re not the only ones starting to toe our way around some new, big ideas in the fitness, health, and behavioral medicine space. The time, clearly, is now. Composite team, let’s get to work.