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.

Get (Jump-)Started!

For the past six months, I’ve been working quietly on Composite, my next startup. It takes what I learned over a decade of building CrossFit NYC into the largest CrossFit gym into the world, and pairs it with the power of technology and a bunch of new research in sports science and behavioral medicine.

Eventually, Composite will be a ‘clicks & mortar’ hybrid: a chain of real-world gyms paired with a dedicated app that helps members continue to improve their health outside of the gym with the same kind of accountability, expert guidance, community, and competition they get in class.

Thus far, I’ve been testing out Composite’s ideas one-on-one, with private training clients. (And, though I’m pretty booked on that front, if you sign up here and mention you came from my blog, I’ll do my best to wedge you in.)

Now, however, we’re trying to kick things up another level, and I could really use your help:

1. If you live in NYC, we’ll be beta-testing group classes this fall, a couple of times a week, in spaces around the city. If you might be interested in attending a class, come sign up for updates about classes and I’ll keep you in the loop.

2. Additionally, we’re launching a free, online 14-day Jump Start course, with short daily assignments (around topics like exercise, movement, mobility, nutrition, sleep, lifestyle, and more) designed to help you build some new, science-backed health and fitness habits. I’d really love your feedback on the course, so please sign up, try it out, and let me know what you think.

Huge thanks!

Golden Brown, Part IV: Make Like a Fern and Stay

Thus far, we’ve looked at why getting some sun is actually good for you, how to wisely choose and apply sunblock, and how to time your sun exposure to allow the maximum number of hours outside.

Today, however, we’ll be working from the inside out, starting with Polypodium leucotomos, a green leafy fern found in the wilds of Central and South America. Polypodium initially evolved as an aquatic plant, before a changing environment forced it to adapt to life on land. Unable to leverage the sun-blocking effects of water-cover as it had when it lived underwater, the fern instead evolved to produce powerful antioxidants that offset the free-radical damage of all-day above-water sun.

As recent research has shown, those fern antioxidants work nearly as well inside of you, too. By taking pills that contain Polypodium leucotomos extracts, like Heliocare or Solaricare, you can triple or quadruple your natural resistance to burns. In other words, if it might normally take you 15-20 minutes to scorch at a given UV intensity, you could instead hold out for a full hour.

And while, in most cases, that’s not enough to supplant sunscreen, given how quickly sunscreen sweats and washes off (as previously discussed, ‘waterproof’ sunscreens are designed to weather just 40 minutes of swimming and sweating), a belt-and-suspenders approach seems like reasonable insurance.

Pick up some Heliocare or Solaricare, pop one in the morning, and another before and every few hours during your time in the sun. If nothing else, you can offset the $20 cost of a bottle by the money you’ll save on aloe vera. (Which, as we’ll see in the next installment, doesn’t really do much of anything anyway.)

Golden Brown, Part III: Make Like a Tree and Leave

Researchers who follow hunter-gatherer tribes in tropical and dessert areas have found a nearly universal pattern: during the very hottest hour or two of the day, the members of the tribe get out of the sun completely, to relax and eat in the shade.

Over the course of a summer day, the UV index – the amount of UV radiation reaching ground level – varies hugely. At 12:30pm today in New York, for example, the UV index was at 10, enough to cause burns in just 10 minutes, blazing through even strong sunscreen. Whereas by 1:15, the index had dropped to a 6, allowing for a half hour before burning without protection, and for several hours of happy sun time with a layer of (full-spectrum) sunscreen applied.

A team of outdoorsy engineers in New Zealand recently released a free app, UV Lens, which provides daily hyper-local UV forecasts. With the app in hand, you can easily plan your schedule to mimic the wisdom of our hunter-gatherer ancestors: enjoy the sun in the morning, take a brief, strategically timed mid-day lunch break in the shade, and then head back out once the very highest UV stretch of the day has passed. That way, you can spend far longer outside overall, while still greatly reducing the risk of sun-damage and burn over the course of the day.

Golden Brown, Part II: Screened

As I shared in Part I, getting some sun is good for you, at least if you’re smart and careful about it.

Your first step to that end: get some good sunscreen.

Sunlight is made up of two kinds of ultraviolet rays: UVA and UVB. It’s the latter, UVB, that causes sunburns, so for decades sunscreen was designed to block UVB. But more recently, research has shown that UVA rays, which penetrate deeper, also substantially increase skin cancer risk, and cause wrinkles. (The EPA estimates that up to 90% of aging-related skin changes are actually caused by a lifetime’s exposure to UVA.)

Good sunscreen is therefore ‘full spectrum’ or ‘broad spectrum’, and blocks both UVA and UVB. While those were previously specialty products, in the last year or two, almost all the major sunscreen brands have released reasonably-priced, widely-available versions that block both spectrums. Make sure you only buy sunscreens that do.

Three more sunscreen tips: slather it on, do it often, and stop going nuts with the SPF.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, most people apply only 25-50% of the amount of sunscreen that they need per application, which reduces an SPF 30 sunscreen to an SPF 3. SPF ratings are based on applying two milligrams of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin. Which is a lot. Basically, you should briefly look like Casper each time you apply a layer if you want your sunscreen to actually do anything.

Next, a sunscreen is FDA-certified as ‘water resistant’ if it can hold up to 40 minutes of swimming or sweating. After that, all bets are off. So, while you’re on the beach, you also probably need to reapply every hour or so.

And, finally, just buy some SPF 30; after that, the numbers get kind of meaningless. A few years back, Procter & Gamble even sent a letter to the FDA, asking that the numbers be capped at 30, because real-world and laboratory light conditions are different enough to make higher SPFs of “dubious value” that are “at best, misleading to consumers.”

So, to recap, buy some SPF30 full-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen. Put on a bunch, and keep reapplying. And then enjoy the sun!

Golden Brown, Part I: Get Some Sun

With beach weather upon us, I’m spending this week on a roundup of summer sun tips, with the science behind each, so you can make smarter choices about what works, and what doesn’t.

First up: get some sun. It’s good for you.

While people completely ignore most public health advice, it seems we’ve actually taken warnings about the dangers of tanning too much heart.

Excess sun exposure (and sunburn) increases the risk of skin cancer. But too little sun exposure dangerously decreases your level of vitamin D (which your skin naturally produces when exposed to sun), increasing the risk of a slew of other cancers and heart disease.

As one recent review study concluded, “the overall health benefit of an improved vitamin D status may be more important than the possibly increased melanoma risk resulting from carefully increasing UV exposure.”

In other words, it’s healthy to get back out in the sun. Just be smart and careful about how you do it. Tune in tomorrow, and learn how to wear (good) sunscreen, the right way.

Suck it Up

For the most part, you should run the other direction from crash diets, fast fixes, and “one weird trick” solutions. But with summer upon us, there is at least one exercise you can still deploy in the last couple of weeks that will make you appear noticeably slimmer when you hit the beach.

It’s called the ‘stomach vacuum’, and it’s an old bodybuilder standby, used by competitors to achieve the waspish waist that was the hallmark look of that sport’s golden era.

The stomach vacuum works the transversus abdominis (or TVA), a deep postural core muscle that serves as essentially a natural corset, holding in your guts. Improving the maximal contractive strength of the muscle also increases the muscle’s tone – its degree of resting contraction. Which, as a result, will carve an inch or two visually off your waistline, even in just two or three weeks.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Ideally, do this first thing in the morning. Or, at least, on an empty stomach.
  2. Start lying on your back, with your feet on the ground.  
  3. Take a full breath, then exhale through your mouth until you've blown out all the air.  
  4. Once your lungs are empty, pull your bellybutton down to your spine, as hard as you can. Really pull it down; the harder you pull, the closer to your spine your bellybutton gets, the better this works.
  5. At the same time, try to make your chest as big as possible (i.e., lift your chest up), though while still pulling down hard on your bellybutton.
  6. Hold that for 15 seconds.  
  7. Then relax, breathe normally for 15-30 second, and repeat, 2-4 times more.

If you stick with this exercise over the course of the summer, you can slowly increase the duration of each hold, adding 5-10 seconds each week, until you’re holding for 60 seconds for each of your 3-5 sets.

Again, this should drop two inches off your waist in just two to three weeks. And, as a bonus, engaging your TVA improves power transfer in athletic movements, and may even protect your low back from tweaks and injuries.

Suck it up, indeed.

Hot & Cold

About 40 years ago, Dr. Gabe Mirkin coined the acronym RICE – Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation – which has been the standard treatment protocol for most athletic injuries ever since.

Recently, however, a slew of studies have begun to show that icing actually delays healing. (For some good examples, see this one and this one.) The studies are persuasive; so much so that even Dr. Mirkin has changed his mind, updating RICE to the new (albeit much less pronounceable) MCE: Movement, Compression, Elevation.

In short, while inflammation was initially considered to be a source of damage (hence icing, which reduces that inflammation), scientists increasingly understand that inflammation is actually a key part of the healing process, with inflammatory cells called macrophages releasing hormones into the damaged tissue to help with repair. (Here’s a recent study on that process.)

Eagle-eyed readers will note that Mirkin isn’t just dropping icing, he’s also swapping rest for movement (or, more specifically, for “move safely when you can as much as you can”). Continuing to gently move an injured joint or muscle promotes the flow of fluid into and out of the area around the injury (which allows those macrophages to get in when they need to work, and to depart once they’re done), and prevents the injured tissues from wasting as they would with complete rest.

So throw out that stack of old ice packs in your freezer, and start thinking of creative ways to say “MCE” out loud.



In exercise science, there’s a principle known as SAID, or ‘specific adaptation to imposed demands’: when your body is exposed to a stress, it responds by improving your biomechanical and neurological ability to handle that stress.

Start doing pull-ups regularly, and your body will get better at pull-ups, increasing the strength in your lats and biceps, and reinforcing the tendons in your shoulders and elbows.

But SAID also dictates that adaptation is specific. So while practicing pull-ups will make you better at pull-ups, it won’t necessarily improve your ability to pull yourself up a mountain face while rock-climbing.

For years, the gospel of SAID kept most athletes locked into the most literal version of their sport. If you wanted to train for a marathon, you’d simply go for increasingly long runs.

Let Me Be (Less) Specific

Over time, however, scientists began to discover that adaptation wasn’t quite as specific as initially believed. Because most sports depend on a constellation of intertwined skills and abilities, other types of training could often develop those constituent skills and abilities more effectively than simply (or solely) practicing the goal sport itself.

Rather than just going for long runs, for example, marathoners began to integrate interval and tempo work – practicing the skill of running faster for short distances, and then working on sustaining a higher pace for gradually greater distances. Though neither type of run was as ‘specific’ as a long-distance jog, they helped runners improve faster than long-distance jogging alone, and athletes began to set new records, year after year.

As athletes and coaches further experimented, they began to see that even more distantly-related variants of the initial task could be valuable. In the early days of the competitive marathon, for example, weight-training was considered anathema to running. By now, virtually all marathoners have extensive weight-lifting programs. And the details of those programs have evolved over time, too. While runners initially used light weights for a large number of reps (reasoning that it more closely mirrored the endurance-heavy nature of the goal task), now elite runners instead tend to focus on developing skills like power-endurance in the weight room. Though a heavy set of cleans is a far cry from a long-distance jog, it turns out to pay greater dividends on the road than time spent doing multiple sets of 20-rep leg extensions.

Far, Far Away

Today, some of high-level athletes’ training modalities seem ridiculously distant from the sort of specific training that once dominated the show. For example, hyperthermic conditioning – or, sitting in a sauna or steam room – has recently come into vogue. Scientists discovered that regular time in the sauna boosts plasma volume and blood flow to your heart and muscles, increasing endurance in even highly-trained athletes.

In other words, while adaptation may be specific, a modern and science-based understanding of training has a much broader definition of what, exactly, ‘specific’ might mean.

Most of us have limited time (and energy) to devote to fitness, so it makes sense for us to focus on the things that give the most bang for the training buck. And from that perspective, a few sessions a week of strength training and metabolic conditioning are all you need to get into great shape.

But because Composite works with pro, semi-pro, and serious amateur athletes, we’re also always on the lookout for things (like hyperthermic conditioning in the sauna) that can help juice out additional percentage points of performance gains.

That’s what led me to a series of recent experiments with apnea tables, an idea borrowed from the world of spearfishing and free-diving (a sport of diving to SCUBA depths while simply holding your breath).

Let’s Get Metabolic

To understand why apnea tables work, you first need to know a bit about energy metabolism. When we work out at high levels of intensity, our bodies route around our cells’ mitochondria (which generate energy in a more sustainable, but slower, way) to create energy directly, in the rest of the cell. That process, anaerobic metabolism, is much faster, though it creates an increasing build-up of lactic acid as a by-product, called metabolic acidosis. Eventually, as enough lactic acid builds up, we hit what’s called the lactate threshold: we ‘feel the burn,’ and need to slow down or stop.

But where that threshold is, exactly, varies from person to person. In short, the higher the threshold, the more metabolic acidosis you can tolerate, and the greater your exercise endurance.

As you exercise, your body also creates carbon dioxide, or CO2. And CO2 is a buffer against lactic acid. So the higher the level of CO2 in your blood, the more metabolic acidosis you can tolerate.

We’ve long known that’s one of the ways endurance training works: you increase your tolerance of CO2, which increases your tolerance for metabolic acidosis, which increases your performance and endurance.

Just (Don’t) Breathe

But while you can improve CO2 tolerance indirectly through exercise, it turns out you can also train it directly.

When you’re holding your breath, your body doesn’t actually monitor the amount of oxygen in your blood. Instead, it monitors the amount of CO2. As it climbs, you feel like you need to breathe. But that feeling has a lot of margin of error built in. Most people can only hold their breath for 30-45 seconds, due to CO2 tolerance, but it takes a full 180 seconds, or three minutes, before your oxygen levels really begin to drop.

So free-divers and spearfishers have developed ways to improve CO2 tolerance, in an attempt to hold their breath for longer and longer durations. (With practice, a decent free-diver can go 5-6 minutes on a single hold.)

Their main training tool is called an apnea table, which alternates static periods of breath-hold with decreasing periods of recovery breathing.

It looks like this:

Round 1 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 1:30

Round 2 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 1:15

Round 3 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 1:00

Round 4 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 0:45

Round 5 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 0:30

Round 6 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 0:15

Here’s a good iPhone app that does a more tailored, dynamic, and easily counted version of the same thing. (It’s what I and my athletes have been using.)

With increasingly brief durations to catch your breath between holds, and less time to flush the carbon dioxide from your blood, your CO2 level will slowly climb over the course of the protocol. Which, in turn, builds your ability to tolerate the increased CO2. (Nota bene: if you’re doing it right, you should likely feel a little light-headed by the end. Sit or lie down while you’re practicing, so that you don’t injure yourself if you happen to pass out. And never, ever try this in water; drowning is tacky.)

From what I’ve seen, most free-divers recommend trying this just once a week, as well as a weekly workout on an oxygen table (where the breathing periods are constant, but the holds increase). While I suspect the latter would be beneficial to endurance, too, I’ve focused my experiment solely on the CO2 / apnea table, to better isolate its effects.

Great Success!

And, in short, the effects have been pretty impressive. My 500m row had held steady at 1:47 for the past few years. (I know, I know. At 5’6”, rowing isn’t exactly my sport.) After just six weeks of apnea table practice, however, I pulled a 1:42 – a whopping 5% improvement. And, at least as importantly, a slightly slower row (2:00/500m) now seems far, far easier in terms of perceived exertion, leaving me much less gassed when one shows up mid-workout.

I’ve seen similar improvements on my running and metabolic conditioning times, and the four athletes on whom I’ve been testing the apnea tables have also seen 3-8% performance bumps across the board.

At less than 15 minutes of weekly time commitment, it seems more than worth trying out. If you do, let me know how it goes; I’m definitely curious to test this further, and will report back with more data once I do.