We all know that we need to exercise to be healthy.
Unfortunately, the popular wisdom of the past 40 years – that we would all be better off doing 45 minutes to an hour a day of intense aerobic activity – has created a generation of overtrained, underfit, immune-compromised exerholics. Hate to say it, but we weren’t meant to aerobicize at the chronic and sustained high intensities that so many people choose to do these days. The results are almost always unimpressive. Ever wonder why years of “Spin” classes, endless treadmill sessions and interminable hours on the “elliptical” have done nothing much to shed those extra pounds and really tone the butt?
Don’t worry. There’s a reason why the current methods fail, and when you understand why, you’ll see that there’s an easier, more effective – and fun – way to burn fat, build or preserve lean muscle and maintain optimal health. The information is all there in the primal DNA blueprint, but in order to get the most from your exercise experience, first you need to understand the way we evolved and then build your exercise program around that blueprint.
Like most people, I used to think that rigorous aerobic activity was one of the main keys to staying healthy – and that the more mileage you could accumulate (at the highest intensity), the better. During my 20+ years as a competitive endurance athlete, I logged tens of thousands of training miles running and on the bike with the assumption that, in addition to becoming fit enough to race successfully at a national class level, I was also doing my cardiovascular system and the rest of my body a big healthy favor.
Being the type A that I am, I read Ken Cooper’s seminal 1968 book Aerobics and celebrated the idea that you got to award yourself “points” for time spent at a high heart rate. The more points, the healthier your cardiovascular system would become. Based on that notion, I should have been one of the healthiest people on the planet.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t – and that same mindset has kept millions of other health-conscious, nirvana-seeking exercisers stuck in a similar rut for almost 40 years. It’s time to get your head out of the sand and take advantage of your true DNA destiny, folks!
The first signal I had that something was wrong was when I developed debilitating osteoarthritis in my ankles…at age 28. This was soon coupled with chronic hip tendonitis and nagging recurrent upper respiratory tract infections. In retrospect, it is clear now that my carbohydrate-fueled high-intensity aerobic lifestyle was promoting a dangerous level of continuous systemic inflammation, was severely suppressing other parts of my immune system and the increased oxidative damage was generally tearing apart my precious muscle and joint tissue.
The stress of high intensity training was also leaving me soaking in my own internal cortisol (stress hormone) bath. It wasn’t so clear to me at the time exactly what was happening – in fact it was quite confusing, since I was doing so much of this so-called “healthy” aerobic exercise – but I had no choice but to give up racing, unable to train at anywhere near the intensity required to stay at an elite level.
To make ends meet…
53 and never been memed.
I have finally been memed. New blogger confession: I didn’t even know what a meme was until Claire over at Burning the Scale tagged me. At the risk of mortifying my teenagers for all eternity, I’m meming, darn it.
The way it works: In this particular meme, I tell you seven things about myself you may not know. Then I tag seven other bloggers to do likewise. You ready for this?
Facts about me:
1. I used to eat a half-gallon of ice cream a day. Every day. Seriously. For almost 10 years while I was training and racing, I craved the sugar and fat in ice cream so much that if I was out of ice cream at 11PM, I would leave the house and run down to Thrifty’s to stock up. Luckily, I got past that and today I can’t even eat a small portion without feeling like – well – crap.
2. I shave my legs. Yes. I have for over 25 years since I started cycling and doing triathlons. I’ll keep doing it as long as I’m fit.
3. I grew up in a small fishing village in Maine. Lived there 25 years, in fact. I worked hard to lose the accent, though.
4. My favorite book is “Sometimes a Great Notion” by Ken Kesey. I think it is truly the great American novel.
5. I’m not a singer, but if there’s reincarnation, I want to come back as one. I once sang “Mack the Knife” in front of 300 people in Tokyo when the first Karaoke machines were introduced. (Had no choice – Pioneer Electronics was my triathlon sponsor).
6. I’m a big fan of the Police and am hoping to score tickets to their reunion tour this summer.
7. My latest pursuit is golf, something I never thought I’d be into. I considered it a waste of time when I was an endurance athlete; now I find that it’s a wonderful way to get out into the fresh air and meet new, interesting people. Sure is a humbling game, though.
Laurel at Laurel on Health Food
Deb at Body, Mind and Solar
Ruth at Eating Fabulous
Brian at Lose Weight With Me
Kendra at A Hearty Life
Michael at the Insomnia Blog
Kate at The Steaks Are High
Sara here. I was just cruising through my morning RSS blog batch and one post in particular made me think about food (never a bad thing). A useful blog covering all manner of personal improvement topics, Ririan Project, had a very handy list of tips for revving up your energy, with the inclusion of “energy bars” on the list. Being the nutrition nerd that I am, I suggested that dried fruits and nuts were a healthier option than energy bars, as many energy bars are loaded with corn syrup, artificial ingredients and empty calories – not much different from a Babe Ruth or Snickers bar.
Here’s a Snickers bar ingredients list (click to zoom):
Now, that’s not really healthy. How about an energy bar? Great! Let’s go check out the ingredients in a Tiger’s Milk bar. Hmm. Well that’s depressing.
In the Bag
I like to keep baggies of snacks at the ready: broccoli florets, dried fruit and seeds, all the typical rabbit food. But perhaps we should reconsider the merits of snacking. I don’t have a gaggle of kidlets to chase after, so I’m rarely so busy that I miss a regular meal, and besides, one can always get something healthy from even the dustiest gas station (nutritive finery at the Arco: it is possible, sayeth Sisson).
We are a snacking nation, and health experts are quick to suggest smart on-the-go foods to substitute for all those French fries, Hershey bars and peanut M&M’s. But do we really need to find healthy snacks to stay alive, let alone healthy? Does the tank need to be sloshing full of fuel at all times to keep the machine humming? Children are a bit different from adults, of course. We’ve all seen what can happen when a tot goes too long without some calories (usually at such ideal locales as the movie theater, the airplane, the church service). Of course, this can even be a concern for some adults with fast metabolisms or blood sugar conditions – a friend of mine is so famous for her Speedy Gonzalez tummy, we all know that glint in her eyes and the question to ask: “How much time do I have?” At that point, get some snackery in the woman, or else.
But most Americans eat far too many calories, on average. Would it be so bad to actually have a growling stomach by the time dinner rolls around? Does anyone even remember what it feels like to conceal a gurgle in a meeting? (The cough-yawn-stretch requires finesse.)
Forget healthy snacks versus junk food. Why do we have vending machines, 100 calorie packs, protein bars? Short of hiking the Santa Monica “mountains” or running a marathon or getting stuck in the traffic to Vegas, I’m not sure I really “need” my at-the-ready arsenal of nutritious snacks. I just like them. I like eating.
Considering Mark’s Primal Health philosophy, I wonder if it might be good to be a little hungry now and then – or at least give your stomach time to reflect. Then again, we’ve been told constant grazing is healthy. Early humans didn’t gather round the campfire three times a day at regularly appointed hours, and Cave Mama certainly didn’t send the seedlings off to frolic with fruits and nuts lovingly wrapped in leaves. Or did she?
Hat tip: Comedian Ted Alexandro has pondered what is apparently a haunting fear of starvation – what else could explain this snackitis epidemic in America? Check him out if you’re into laughs (but note: adult humor).
Although I think the current food pyramid ought to emphasize vegetables over other sources of carbohydrates, you still need some carbohydrates in your daily diet. (Yes, you read that correctly.) I happen to believe a nutrient-loaded bowl of fresh broccoli is a more intelligent – not to mention tastier – dietary choice than a slice of bread and infinitely better than a Pop Tart. I don’t think many would quibble with my Pop Tart derision, but plenty of people take understandable issue with my unfavorable opinion of grains. We’ve been told grains are healthy – to say otherwise must be crazy-talk!
Grains do have a little fiber – sometimes – and offer some vitamins and protein. But, so do vegetables – for far fewer calories. Even whole grain food products tend to come with preservatives, added fats, and corn syrup – not always, of course, but I’m thinking in terms of the typical American diet. Someone is buying all those hamburgers and french fries. Not you? Okay, good.
One of many reasons for favoring vegetables over grains is the calorie factor – grains just have more calories than vegetables. A lot of people hope to lose weight without cutting calories, so they eliminate an entire macro-nutrient category. Axing a whole category is easy at first, and gives one a sense of accomplishment. It feels good. We did it in the 90s with fat. As it turns out, many forms of fat are vital and nutritious, so that wasn’t a smart idea. Now we condemn carbohydrates, which is fine, but I see people chowing on bacon and avoiding “too many” vegetables! How long before we start rethinking carbohydrates? This is why I stress the need for portion control. Eat a little fat, eat a little protein, eat a little (smart) carbohydrate – eat a little.
You can lose weight on a high-protein diet, but few stick with it for more than a few months. I agree with the philosophy of the higher-protein, higher-fat diets in that it’s essential to cut out the refined carbohydrates for optimal health. If we eliminated refined foods, particularly refined sweeteners in the form of snacks and sodas, I think it’s probable that we would see a welcome drop in heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Refined and even whole-grain carbohydrates are not the most nutritious source of calories.
What’s more important to you: being healthy or being thin? I would hope both! If you want both, you’re going to have to come up with a sensible long term solution beyond completely eliminating a macro-nutrient, because that’s not reasonable or healthy. Eliminate refined carbohydrates from your diet, but remember that weight management is still about calories, calories, calories. None of us needs to be feasting on massive steaks or wolfishly consuming the excessive portions restaurants dish out. Shaq is an exception.
To that end, I recommend limiting portions and getting the most out of every single calorie. Why eat a bag of peach-flavored chips when you could eat a real peach for half the calories and a good dose of unprocessed, real nutrition?
Carbs are an instant energy source, and some amount of carbs are necessary to function – though you can be healthier and leaner on a lot less starch than the food pyramid would have you believe. You don’t “need” 6 to 11 servings of grains every day. In fact, I think if we all but removed the grain section from the pyramid, we’d be right in step with an entirely natural diet for humans. We need a lot less of the grains and a lot more of the vegetables, nuts and legumes. And even though fruits are a source of sugar, we also need some fruit to be healthy – berries are best. Guess what? Those fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes are legitimate sources of quality fibrous carbs, and they’re necessary to health. (The grains, on the other hand, not so much. But it’s folly to lump all carbohydrates into one “evil” category, just as it was folly to lump all fats into one “evil” category. As we all know, there are vitally important and highly nutritious fats, like Omega-3’s, that we need to consume with reckless abandon.)
When we eat grain and sugar-based carbohydrates, we are more likely to store fat, suffer inflammation, create an imbalanced metabolic response, and stress our organs. (I cover issues like grain agriculture and human development in greater detail in my weekly op/ed, Primal Health.) That said, a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. Certain calories, like refined carbohydrates, can prompt unhealthy reactions in the body, and may be more prone to store as fat because they seem to trigger a particularly stressful metabolic response. So, the key to health is in making the most of your calories by choosing nutritious ones that compliment the way our bodies work. But the key to weight loss? It’s still the calories, baby. Any more than you need to get through your day and you can bet dollars to donuts your body will find a way to store it all for future use.
Food is a great pleasure. I could never make it on a severely restrictive diet, nor would I want to. I advise that when you eat, choose the most nutritious, valuable calories possible, and keep it small. I do recommend limiting grain-based carbohydrates, not because I believe in “restrictive” diets, but because the evolutionary evidence indicates to me that we just aren’t meant to eat them. When you do eat non-vegetable carbs, limit them to very light portions, and choose natural starches that won’t send your pancreas into overdrive. Make fresh produce the base of your diet rather than attempting to adhere to a severely restrictive, high-calorie diet that demonizes an entire macro-nutrient. Remember, it’s the calories.
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