Out Cold

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That is, indeed, me today.  Though as I’ve gotten to nap for hours, have consumed my bodyweight in chicken soup, and have been excellently taken care of, I think I’m coming out ahead.

“Being ill is one of the greatest pleasures of life, provided one is not too ill and is not obliged to work until one is better.” – Samuel Butler

The Ears Have It

Recently, I discovered this great blog series on jazz improvisation, which has been excellent food for thought. If you’re a jazz musician trying to improve your game, it’s worth a read.

And, similarly, I’d highly recommend this ear training app, developed by the author of the series.  Unlike most ear training programs, which depend on tapping answers on screen, this one uses pitch recognition to let you play in call-and-response format on your actual instrument.  It’s a challenge, but one that seems to translate much more immediately to real improvising.

Never Miss Twice

As I’ve written about previously, much of fitness (and of life as a whole) comes down to building good habits. But building new habits is tough. So I spend a lot of time thinking about and experimenting with hacks and techniques that might more reliably make new habits stick.

One technique that gets a lot of internet attention comes from Jerry Seinfeld. It’s called “Don’t Break the Chain,” and originates with an anecdote shared by software developer Brad Isaac:

Years ago when Seinfeld was a new television show, Jerry Seinfeld was still a touring comic. At the time, I was hanging around clubs doing open mic nights and trying to learn the ropes. One night I was in the club where Seinfeld was working, and before he went on stage, I saw my chance. I had to ask Seinfeld if he had any tips for a young comic. What he told me was something that would benefit me a lifetime…

He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was better than that. He had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself—even when you don’t feel like it.

He revealed a unique calendar system he uses to pressure himself to write. Here’s how it works.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

”Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.

That’s a great story. And the approach sounds easy enough. But having tested it out on myself and on Composite clients, it’s actually pretty much a miserable failure in real life.

Indeed, the problem with Don’t Break the Chain is that it reinforces the same all-or-nothing thinking that dooms most new habits more generally.

Here’s what typically happens when someone decides to start a new diet, for example:

For four or five days, they’re super gung-ho. They make perfect food choices, and bask in the glow of their newfound nutritional motivation.

And then, on the fifth day, they’re tired and it’s someone’s birthday at the office and there’s birthday cake. So they have the piece of cake.

And then they totally go off the rails.

Nutritionally, that single piece of birthday cake is pretty meaningless. But because we’re thinking all-or-nothing, because we’re trying not to break the chain, it feels like defeat. And since we’ve already lost, what’s the point? You might as well get some chips from the vending machine and a pint of ice cream with dinner and then maybe you’ll start again fresh next week with the diet and try to be more perfect that time.

In other words, it’s not the mistake that matters. It’s the spiral that too often follows it.

As a result, what actually works is a slightly different mantra: “Never Miss Twice.” (Hat-tip to James Clear for this one.)

You ate some birthday cake? Fine. But now your next meal has to be a healthy one.

You felt tired and it was raining so you skipped going to the gym? No problem. But tomorrow, you must go and make up the workout.

Never Miss Twice is the opposite of all-or-nothing, “Don’t Break the Chain” thinking. It acknowledges the difficulty of building new habits. It says, sure, you’re going to screw up; that’s how things go. But the crucial point, the reason why you’re going to succeed nonetheless, is that you’re not going to let that single mistake scuttle the whole plan. Any time you fall down, you’re going to get right back up. Any time you derail, you’re immediately going to get back on track.

You’re going to make mistakes, but you’re never going to make two in a row. Because, in the long term, those individual small misses don’t much matter. Instead, what really adds up are all of the good choices you get back to making after those misses. What matters is that you don’t let one small miss devolve to total disaster.

That’s all it takes. Never miss twice.

Breaking the Seal

When it comes to evaluating fitness trends, I tend to value direct experience. So when a hot new diet, boutique gym, supplement or lifestyle tweak comes around, I spend some time reading through the related research, then jump in as a human guinea pig.

Over the past year, I’d been hearing a lot about SEALFIT, a CrossFit variant developed by a retired SEAL commander for “first responders, industrial athletes and military special forces.”

I don’t fall into any of those categories. But I was curious nonetheless. So a few months back, I decided to hop in and give the program a try.

To give you a sense of SEALFIT’s approach, consider this trio, pulled from my workout for tomorrow:

  1. 10 Turkish get-ups on each side;
  2. Five rounds of 10 pull-ups, 15 push-ups and 20 sit-ups, for time;
  3. Two mile run.

Which seems like a reasonable CrossFit workout.

In SEALFIT, however, that’s literally just my warm-up.

After that, I still need to do a heavy weightlifting session, and then a crazy hour-long conditioning workout involving a mile of swimming broken up by climbing out of the pool to do sets of squats, push-ups and burpees.

CrossFitters like to boast that “your workout is our warmup.” Apparently, SEALFIT is the literal next step up that workout=warmup chain.

In the long-haul, I’m unclear how I could keep this up without verging deep into overtraining territory. But, in the short term, I’m getting great results, and enjoying myself in a “it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun” kind of way.

If nothing else, each day I make it through a workout without quitting halfway to curl up in the fetal position seems like a real victory. Hooyah.

Night Shifted

Early this month, I wrote about the beta of iOS 9.3, and its new Night Shift feature. Night Shift reduces iPhones’ blue-spectrum light output in the evening, which in turn helps you preserve your circadian rhythm for a better night’s sleep.

This week, Apple released the final version of iOS 9.3, which you may have already updated on your phone. I had hoped that in the final release, Night Shift would be turned on by default. But though it now appears as a button in Control Center (see below), it doesn’t turn on at sunset automatically as it should.

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Because the settings are a bit buried, here’s a quick step-by-step guide to configuring Night Shift so that it runs on its own for maximum health benefits:

1. Open the Settings app, and choose Display & Brightness.

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2. Choose Night Shift.

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3. Toggle on the Scheduled slider, so that it turns green.

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4. Choose the newly-appeared From / To option.

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5. Check the Sunset to Sunrise option.

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6. Finally, go back to the Night Shift pane, and move the Color Temperature slider all the way to More Warm.

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Voila! You’re now all set. Enjoy the sweet dreams.

Vegetable-Friendly Athletics

While I’m a big fan of meat, Composite has increasingly picked up vegetarian and vegan clients, most of whom steer clear of meat (and, in the case of vegans, eggs and dairy) for moral reasons.

I won’t argue the moral grounds here (as others have already done so). But because people evolved to eat meat, it is important crucial for vegetarians and vegans to supplement their diets wisely, as it’s easy to run short on important nutrients and micro-nutrients found primarily or solely in meat and animal products.

Here’s a quick rundown of the most important ones, including why they matter, and how much to take:

Creatine 

What is it?

Creatine is an organic acid that your cells use to make energy. It is perhaps the best-studied and most effective health supplement available. It improves everything from strength and power output, recovery from endurance exercise, muscle growth and bone healing to memory formation, attention span and problem-solving skills. Because we get creatine in our diets from meat, vegetarians and vegans tend to have lower levels than omnivores, and benefit even more from supplementation.

How to Take it

Take 5 grams with a meal, once a day. The best form is micronized creatine monohydrate, which is very safe and gentle on the stomach, and dissolves flavorously in liquid.

L-Carnitine 

What is it?

L-Carnitine is an amino acid that’s found only in meat products. Your body needs it for cognition, fat metabolism and sports performance. Supplementing l-carnitine has also been shown to reduce both muscular and mental fatigue in vegetarians and vegans.

How to Take it

Take 500mg with carbohydrates, once a day. Acetyl-L-carnitine is very safe, and can pass through the blood-brain barrier, so it’s the form that provides the greatest cognitive benefits.             

Vitamin B12 

What is it?

Many vegetarians and vegans already supplement B12, and for good reason. B12 is an essential vitamin, and deficiency causes nervous system damage, anemia, heart disease and pregnancy complications. While some vegan foods have been claimed previously as good sources of B12 (spirulina, dried nori, barley grass, other seaweeds, raw foods), research has shown them to be ineffective. All dietary sources of B12 are animal-based, so while vegetarians can sometimes get sufficient B12 from eggs and dairy, it is crucial for vegans to supplement B12.

How to Take it

Take at least 100mcg daily, and as much as 10,000 mcg. (High doses are not toxic, because the body will not absorb more than it needs.) Methylcobalamin is the best absorbed form, though people with kidney problems should speak with their doctor before supplementing B12.

Protein

What is it?

Dietary protein is an important macronutrient, a crucial building-block used throughout your body. Eating too little protein leads to muscle wasting, reduced immune function, increased irritability, and eventually shock and death. Most non-animal protein sources have low bioavailability, which means that your body actually absorbs and uses a much lower percentage of the protein that you ingest. Protein supplements can help vegetarians and vegans get sufficient amounts of protein, from the most bioavailable sources.

How to Take it

Aim to eat at least 0.8g of protein per pound of bodyweight, supplementing to cover the gap from what your diet provides. Vegetarians would do best with with whey protein isolate, which is made from milk. Vegans should consider combining pea protein and rice protein instead, which together provides a complete protein. Steer clear of soy proteins, which contain isoflavones, compounds that bind to your steroid receptors and have unwanted hormonal effects on your body.

Iodine

What is it?

Iodine is an essential mineral, important for a properly functioning thyroid. Additionally, for women who are or who plan on becoming pregnant, iodine is crucial for fetal and early childhood brain development. Most people get sufficient iodine from their diet. However, vegans who don’t regularly eat sea vegetables, and who use natural salts (like sea salt) or salt substitutes like miso, are often deficient.

How to Take it

Taking 325 of kelp is a good insurance policy for vegans who don’t otherwise consume it daily. People on blood pressure medications should consult a doctor before supplementing.

Omega-3

What is it?

Being healthy depends on a balance between two kinds of essential fatty acids, Omega-3 and Omega-6. A 1:1 ratio between them is associated with healthier blood vessels, a lower lipid count, reduced risk for plaque buildup, and decreased risk of diabetes, depression, rheumatoid arthritis and several forms of cancer, including breast cancer. Omega-3 fats are found primarily in fatty fish, and in small amounts in eggs, while Omega-6 fats are found in very high levels in most vegetable cooking oils. As a result, research has shown that most vegans and vegetarians (like much of the omnivore population), have wildly unbalanced Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratios.

How to Take it

Taking 200-300mg of DHA from algae, while favoring oils lower in Omega-6 (like olive oil, avocado oil or coconut oil), is usually sufficient to bring the balance of fats back in line.

Well Matched

Currently loving this great version of “Oh My Sweet Carolina”, with Ryan Adams and the excellent Laura Marling:

Feed Your Friends

According to a newly-published study, more than 50% of what Americans eat is ultra-processed.

Which is bad news, for a slew of reasons.

First, as I previously explained, ultra-processed food is missing all kinds of micro-nutrients, leaving you far less healthy than you would be if you ate the same foods in more natural states.

Second, ultra-processed food contains basically zero fiber.

For years, I (like most people) thought the point of fiber was that it makes you poop. Which it does. Indeed, sufficient fiber reduces the odds of constipation, lowers the risk of developing hemorrhoids and possibly (though by the science, somewhat unconvincingly) might help prevent colon cancer.

At the risk of over-sharing, however, I already poop like a pro. So I’d never really taken fiber that seriously.

Over the last few years, it’s become increasingly clear that fiber has another, even more important role.

Allow me to explain:

Your gut is full of bacteria. Lots and lots of bacteria. In fact, you have more bacteria in your gut than you have cells in the rest of your body.

But fret not, because those gut bacteria are working on your behalf. They take undigested fiber and convert it into important short-chain fatty acids like butyrates, propionates and acetates. And they synthesize important vitamins, like vitamin B and vitamin K.

Healthy gut bacteria has been linked to slowing cancer tumor formation, preventing obesity, and preventing Crohns, colitis and IBD. And new research is showing unhealthy gut bacteria is implicated in all kinds of autoimmune diseases, from Rheumatoid Arthritis to Type 1 Diabetes.

So, basically, you want those good gut bacteria going full-bore.

Mostly, they live way down at the bottom of your GI tract, in the colon. And because you’re so efficient at digesting, almost all of the nutrients you eat are absorbed well before they make it that far down the line.

But not dietary fiber. Fiber makes it to the colon. Which is good news, as it’s the preferred food of the intestinal bacteria.

But here’s the converse: if they aren’t getting enough of that fiber to keep them full and happy, the natives not only stop working for you, stop producing all these things you need, they also start getting restless. And they get hungry. And the underfed bacteria literally start to eat you, instead.

They start munching on mucin, the mucous barrier that lines your colon and separates all those bacteria from your immune cells. Most people don’t know it, but the gut also houses the largest collection of immune cells in your body. All of which are hanging out right by that giant collection of bacteria that they’re primed to kill, just safely separated by the mucin layer.

But when you don’t eat fiber, and your bacteria start eating the mucin, the immune cells are suddenly exposed to their nearby enemies for the first time. And, basically, they go nuts.

Immune cells are hugely effective – they kill bacterium, viruses and cancerous cells unbelievably effectively. But they also use some pretty heavy weaponry to do it. They generate hypochlorite (bleach) and hydrogen peroxide to use on the offense, much as you might use the same stuff to sterilize a toilet, kitchen counter or floor.

As you probably know from household use, those are pretty nasty chemicals. So their release not only kills the invading bacteria translocating from your gut, they also start causing all kinds of collateral damage.

Suddenly, you end up with serious systemic inflammation. Your body is getting hit with friendly fire, and hit hard.

Systemic inflammation is about the worst thing you can have going on in internally. It’s linked to cancer, heart disease, infections, Alzheimer’s, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis and more.

In other words, it sucks.

And you can bring it on yourself, by letting your gut bacteria go hungry. Conversely, you can get those bacteria working even harder on your behalf, by feeding them the fiber they need.

So eat unprocessed foods. Foods with fiber. Eat all kinds, because research is showing that different bacteria prefer fiber from different kinds of foods. In other words, you can’t just down some Metamucil and call it a day. Instead, you mostly need vegetables and fruits, a wide variety of them, at every meal.

Real food: it feeds you. And it feeds your intestinal friends. And when they’re happy, everybody’s happy.

100 Up

This year, I’ve been working on running more, mostly because I hate it, in turn because I suck at it.  A few months in, I’ve already racked up more mileage than I managed in the past two full years combined.

I still suck at running, but I definitely suck less.  And though I wouldn’t say I yet love doing it, I now have confidence in my ability to head out the door, start running, and keep running for miles, something I couldn’t have said before.

So I was intrigued recently to find this video, from the NY Times, on W. S. George’s “100 Up” exercise:

George was a chemist’s apprentice in England in the 1870’s, with little time for training.  He developed the exercise so he could train during his lunch break.  In two years, he went from a novice to one of the fastest milers of his time.

I’m only a few days into doing the exercise daily, though I suspect after even two years I’ll be well short of a competitive mile pace.  Still, I can feel the exercise working, and am planning to stick with it.  For other duffer runners, perhaps worth similarly giving it a shot.