Sunday, 23 March 2014

Move and Stick, and other reversals

Today I ‘discovered’ a new type of exercise.  New for me at least.  It’s hitting a heavy bag while walking uphill on a treadmill.  What kind of newfangled bullshit is this you ask?  Let me explain.  I have head cold and I was home today getting some rest.  I thought that maybe getting a bit of cardio in would help clear my head, but I didn’t want to leave the house or do anything too strenuous – just enough to sweat a bit and help get my body temp up in an attempt to nip the cold in the bud.  So I loaded up a Joe Rogan Experience podcast, hopped on the treadmill and set the controls for a brisk uphill walk.  At about 10 minutes in, my phone froze and, because it was over on the charger I didn’t want to stop and go fix whatever was wrong, so I just left it.  Not feeling all that great, I didn’t figure I’d last all that long anyway.  But once I got about 20 minutes in, the boredom set in a bit...that is until I caught a glimpse of my heavy bag hanging within arm’s reach.

Suffice it to say everything in my gym is pretty much within arm’s reach.  My current set-up shares space with the laundry room, furnace and workshop, so space is at a premium.  I do have other random implements in the garage and outdoors, but my main ‘gym’ is downstairs, consisting of a homemade squat cage, treadmill and heavy bag.  You can see in the pic below that it’s fairly tight quarters.  I don’t mind – I kinda like it that way, as I wrote in a previous post.  And yes, that black ABS pipe running down the wall in front of my squat rack is indeed the drain pipe for the toilets upstairs.  It helps when you’re struggling at the bottom position of a set of heavy squats to be reminded that instead of this you could be literally crawling through shit, Shawshank style, rather than just feeling that way!

Today the cramped quarters were particularly advantageous.  Just as boredom was setting in on the treadmill, I took a few random jabs at the heavy bag, soon realizing that it was a cool sensation.  Usually, when I do rounds on the bag, I’m working from a stable position of power.  I move the other equipment out of the way and can really unload with punches, knees and kicks from the strong foundation of being on the ground.  This was different in the sense that I was walking on the treadmill at a quick pace, trying to throw punches while off balance.  Right jabs were easy enough but hard to generate much power at first.  Left crosses, across the body were even trickier.  This struck me as useful.  How often, in an actual fight, are you swinging from a stable position?  More likely you’re off balance, backing up perhaps.  Of course, ideally you train for this type of situation by sparring with actual opponents who are firing back and trying to knock you off your game.  However, from a solo training perspective, this type of off-balance punching seems to be a worthwhile compliment to the more traditional heavy bag work.  After all, knockouts aren’t always produced when the striker is in a stable attacking position, as evidenced by the infamous Anderson Silva KO of Forrest Griffin.

So, speaking of backing the fuck up, why on earth am I doing long, slow, boring cardio on the treadmill in the first place?  I virtually never do slow, steady-state cardio.  I much prefer getting it in through playing basketball, running sprints, flipping tires, etc.  The trend in the fitness ‘industry’ over the past decade or so I would say, largely influenced by CrossFit and so called functional fitness, has been toward HIIT-style cardio, intervals and the like.  Works for me!  That kind of stuff is way more fun than hopping on an elliptical machine for an hour and sweating to the oldies.  But I remember back in the 90s (holy shit I’m old!) and early 2000s, the holy grail of fat loss was always long, slow cardio.  All self respecting bodybuilders did that shit, preferably in the AM on an empty stomach (or post weight training).  I remember being constantly told in muscle magazines to do lengthy cardio in the 60-70% max heart rate zone to oxidize fat.  Keep it moderate, as anything more strenuous would shift the metabolism over to burning carbs/glycogen. 

What’s funny is that, back then, I virtually never followed that advice.  I just could never persuade myself to devote that much time to long, boring cardio.  So, aside from sporadic attempts, I never did.  But perhaps my physique suffered for that stubbornness.  When the trend in the mid-2000s seemed to switch over to high-intensity, interval-style cardio, I jumped on that bandwagon whole-hog....because that’s what I’d been doing all along anyway - talk about the easy route!  You know the story...someone throws up a picture of a world class sprinter and marathoner side by side with the caption, “Which one would you rather look like?” The mesomorphic Greek god or the emaciated Kenyan?  Of course, everyone chooses the sprinter, so the implication is to train like a sprinter...lots of speed, intervals, high-intensity stuff.  Long slow cardio just wrecks your hormones and makes you, well...slow.

There’s probably some truth in all of that.  No one is going to get fast and athletic from doing slow cardio for 60 minutes each morning on an elliptical.  Fast and athletic comes from doing fast and athletic stuff (as well as good genetics).  But what about body composition?  That’s where I’m not so sure.  I’m not entirely convinced that high-intensity, interval-based sprint training is the best recipe for body recomposition.  Or at least, maybe not in isolation.

So, not at the expense of, but rather as an addendum to the fun, high-intensity stuff, I’m going to give slow, monotonous cardio a solid try.  I’d say an old fashioned college try, except for the fact that, as I said, when I was actually in college I never gave it the time of day (despite it being de rigeur back then).  So far it’s been four sessions of AM cardio, on the treadmill – between 45 and 60 minutes each, and with HR around 65% or so (easy peasy lemon squeezy, as my 3-year-old would say).  We’ll see how it goes.  Despite the fact that there’s still a mountain of snow on the ground here, I’m motivated by the vanity of summer (even if far-off still) and trying to drop a bit of bodyfat before the season when it becomes more socially acceptable to walk around with your shirt off.  The impetus for trying this came from two sources.  Firstly, following Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson on Twitter in preparation for his Hercules role, it seemed he was doing a lot of steady-state morning cardio.  Lots of tweets about lengthy 5:00am elliptical sessions (or course in addition to gruelling strength training).  Dude has always been huge of course but he looks absolutely shredded for that role.  The other inspiration is that I’ve been reading Joe Manganiello’s Evolution book.  It’s a pretty solid and sensible read, but one of the quotes that particularly stuck with me was:

“I don’t care how much you hate cardio or think that weights and diet alone will do the job.  They won’t.”

He talks quite a bit about formerly hating long, boring cardio, but that finally buckling down and adding it in made a huge difference in his physique.  Joe’s attitude is basically that you may hate it at first but nevertheless just suck it up and get it done.  That resonates.  One of his recommendations is to set the treadmill to a 12 degree incline and do a brisk 3.5mph walk for about 30-45 minutes.  I love to walk so that works for me.  Sure it’s boring at first.  But it’s a good opportunity to listen to podcasts, audiobooks or whatever you like...or just zone out with your thoughts.  Moving meditation.  It’s actually kind of enjoyable.

It’s led me to reassess the whole concept of boredom.  I’ve always hated the idea of boredom.  It annoys me when people say they’re bored.  I mean, the world’s a fascinating place, there’s so much to see and the hell can you say you’re bored?  Read a new book, paint something, learn a new skill on Youtube...whatever!  We’re so programmed to be constantly stimulated nowadays.  It’s a constant digital amusement park out there.  I think we’ve been cultured to expect that we don’t deserve to ever be bored.  What an insult to think that I should ever have to hunker down and do something that’s menial and unstimulating.

The thing is, life is often menial and unstimulating.  Probably always has been and probably always will be.  Until very recently, people seemed okay with that, or at least didn’t really question the concept.  Sure, it’s not good if things are always boring...nobody wants that.  But I think the whole idea that we’re somehow entitled to be constantly entertained, constantly stimulated, is a relatively new idea.  It seems kind of part and parcel to the whole ‘me generation’ mentality.  People assume that they should be perennially entertained by their career, their relationships, their surroundings.  If you were to ask someone in the 1930s if they felt stimulated in their job, they probably would have looked at you like you had three fucking heads.  It wasn’t even a question – you just go to work and do your job.  I suspect that this is also quite a foreign concept in any kind of traditional/indigenous cultures that still exist (and would be a good proxy for the bulk of human history).  Think of subsistence hunting.  Most of that shit is incredibly dull.  Trust me, I’m a hunter.  Most of hunting is sitting still and trying to be very quiet.  It’s dull – not unenjoyable, but dull.  It’s punctuated by moments of extreme excitement or course, but those are the exception, not the rule.  I don’t have to spend hours on end digging up tubers with a stick, tanning animal hides or braiding rope but I imagine those get a bit dull too.  But no one in those cultures sat around wondering if they felt fulfilled or self actualized.  You just picked up your stick and dug.

This concept of boredom is at the heart of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished masterpiece, The Pale King, which I’ve been reading lately.  The book fictionalizes, among many other things, a group of IRS employees and their menial tasks, and contains passages such as this:

“I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.
But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. I mean really succeed: do good, make a difference, serve. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities, rather the way that an ability to breathe and pump blood underlies all thought and action.
The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.
The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.
It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

I like that whole idea of becoming ‘unborable’.  It seems to me to have something to do with realizing that we are not our external environment, no matter how sterile or mundane.  But it’s not avoidance either, or retreat into some sort of internalized ‘happy place’.  It’s somehow the sense that our humanity becomes most evident when juxtaposed with the most torturously robotic and inhumane of contexts.  To talk about it is to trip over words, at least for me.

Elsewhere in the novel, DFW writes: “Like so many other nerdy, disaffected young people of that time, I dreamed of becoming an 'artist', i.e., somebody whose adult job was original and creative instead of tedious and dronelike.”  This is of course what every unique little snowflake these days is raised to believe.  I can’t deny that at times, especially when I was younger, I’ve felt pangs like this too...the idea that I’m somehow above all the menial and monotonous chaff of everyday existence.  Which of course is bullshit.

I’ve repeated the DT Suzuki quoke here before: “Nirvana is to be sought in the midst of Samsara.”  Or perhaps more tangibly it’s expressed in the proverb, “Zen is not about thinking of spiritual matters while peeling the potatoes, Zen is simply to peel the potatoes.”  That is, real enlightenment or liberation is to be found in the most mundane of things.  Something to keep in mind the next time you’re copying formulae in an Excel spreadsheet, or plodding away on the treadmill.  I know I will.

Friday, 7 March 2014

On Free Will, Obesity and Nutting the F@#& Up

Be forewarned, this is a rant.

I was listening to the radio the other day and they were speaking with a bariatric surgery doctor of some sort (unfortunately affiliated with one of my alma maters) about some recently published statistics that show, to no great surprise, that people are getting fatter and fatter.

This doesn’t even seem to register as overly troubling anymore.  This guy’s response, as a supposed expert, was that it’s a real surprise that not everyone in our society is obese.  Basically, he argued that our society is set up in such a way, specifically with respect to the 24-7 availability of food and our reliance on computers (i.e. sedentary work and lifestyle), that predisposes people to be obese. His lacklustre advice was essentially (despite the outright error of avoiding ‘fatty’ foods) keep taking your drugs and statins, keep getting your stomachs stapled so you can’t physically cram any more food into them, and just basically accept that ‘society’ is going to make us more and more obese and we better just hunker down and fight the long defeat.

Well, I’m calling bullshit on that.  That argument fails for precisely the reason that there’s still a sizeable (ironic word choice) portion of the population who aren’t fat and never will be.  Those are the people that have learned and developed a sense of free will and responsibility with respect to taking care of themselves and their bodies.  They’ve learned the capacity, as all functional adults should have, to delay gratification.  They’ve realized that despite the absolute ubiquity of shitty fast food and temptations everywhere, that no one is holding a gun to your head and telling you to eat that donut.  No one is holding you down and forcing you to waste hours playing Candy Crush on your phone or watching reality TV.  So if ‘society’ is to blame, why aren’t all those other people fat too?  Well, it’s because society isn’t the culprit.

Here’s the harsh truth.  If you’re fat, it’s your fault.  Unless you’re a kid – then it’s your parents’ fault (and I think there’s a special spot in hell reserved for parents who let their kids get obese…it’s tantamount to abuse).  But if you’re an adult human, it’s your fault.  I’m sorry if that sounds mean, but it’s the truth.  That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.  Hell, you might be the nicest person in the world.  But being a fatty is your own doing, and you’re also the only solution to your problem.  It’s not your friends, your family, your upbringing, your ‘genes’, or ‘society’ (whatever the hell that means) – it’s you. And it’s time to nut the fuck up!

CT Fletcher says it best in relation to training and weightlifting.  At the end of the day, you can complain all you want about your various excuses and limitations, but all that matters is that you get into the gym and do the work.  IT’S STILL YO MUTHAFUCKIN’ SET!  How refreshing would it be if we all carried that attitude over into all aspects of life?  Fast food restaurants beckoning you on your way home?  IT’S STILL YO MUTHAFUCKIN’ DINNER! Go home, take 5 minutes and cook some eggs instead.  Sedentary job? IT’S STILL YO MUTHAFUCKIN’ JOB!  Get out on your lunchbreak and go for a walk and do some pushups.  Do squats while you’re on the phone.  Whatever works.  Too busy in the evenings to exercise?  IT’S STILL YO MUTHAFUCKIN’ FAMILY!  Do chin-ups at the park while watching your kids play...or better yet play with them, play tag, run around.  Get off your ass.

The way I see it, this whole victim mentality, this passivity, is the root of the whole problem.  I’ve read studies that show a person’s satisfaction and happiness at work are directly related to the degree of control that they feel they have.   I would extrapolate that out to life more broadly.  If you feel like you are in control of your life to some extent, not in the sense of barking out orders and being controlling, but simply in having the feeling that you are influencing the outcomes of your own life by the choices and decisions you make, I would wager that you feel a sense of contentedness.  Conversely, I think most people who consider themselves pawns on some cosmic chessboard, or slaves to other people or agents in their own lives, probably don’t feel very happy or content.  And while I’ve never experienced it personally, I’ve heard that one of the main reasons that people overeat is that they’re trying to exert some control in one area of their lives to make up for powerlessness elsewhere.  For this perspective, the whole victim mentality becomes a pretty vicious cycle:  Eat to feel in control – Get fatter – Blame external circumstances for your weight problem – feel more passive and powerless – Eat some more….

The corollary of this is that in some places, being super fat is now considered a disease!  To me, that’s the ultimate in passivity – throwing our hands up in the air and treating it like some kind of plague foisted upon us from afar, rather than accepting responsibility that it’s a condition wholly within our control.  Smallpox is a disease.  Polio is a disease.  Sitting on your ass too much and shovelling garbage into your mouth is not a disease, it’s a choice.  Furthermore, the health care costs of this choice are astronomical, with some recent studies estimating it at one fifth of all heath expenses in the U.S.!  Now I’m no libertarian – I’m proud that in Canada we have a health care system that attempts to take care of everyone.  If you get hurt or get cancer or some other actual disease, I want my tax money paying for treatment.  In many ways, a society should be judged by how it treats its weakest members.  But when people refuse to make simple choices that would avoid those costs from the outset, the whole thing becomes unfair and unsustainable.

The whole thing comes back to free will.  No matter your epistemological leanings, we either evolved as sentient hominids out of our more instinctual ‘animal’ pasts, or we were granted the ability by [Insert  deity of your choice here] to make up our own minds on how we behave.  Even some of the more deterministic Eastern traditions would allow that, within a broader context of fatalism, we have the power to choose how we behave and react to discrete events.  Maybe I’m destined to get hit by a bus in two days.  Who knows?  But in the interim, it’s a precious gift that I get to exercise my own free will in how I conduct myself.

You see this lack of personal accountability everywhere.  I keep hearing a commercial on the radio for some sort of credit management firm.  The gist of the commercials is that a big mean collection agency has been leaving messages for someone who hasn’t paid their bills.  The person is screening calls and then suddenly picks up the phone and says, in the most dismissive and sycophantic tone, “Hi, Mr. So and So, I’ve called BDO.” And hangs up.  Problem solved!  The whole implication is, how dare this collection agency keep hassling me about my unpaid debts.  What nerve!  No sense of embarrassment or remorse that I’ve borrowed money that I can’t pay back.  No sense of culpability.  I’m the victim here!  And now I’m passing the buck to someone else who’ll clean up my mess.  Calgon, take me away!

Again it all comes back to ability to exercise free will, take responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences, and to delay gratification when necessary.  It’s really all the same concept.  Deciding that hey, I really want a new pair of shoes but you know what, I can’t fucking afford them right now, so I’ll wait until I can.  Or thinking, wow I’m really hungry right now, but instead of stopping at Tim Hortons I’ll wait the 10 extra minutes and go home and actually make myself a decent meal using actual food.  Or thinking, I’m tired and I don’t feel like going out into the cold for a run, but I know how fantastic I’m gonna feel afterwards so suck it up buttercup!  And I’m convinced that free will responds just like a muscle, in the sense that it grows stronger with frequent exercise and it atrophies from disuse.  You start taking responsibility for your actions and start making the harder choices, and suddenly the ‘harder’ choices don’t seem as difficult anymore.  They become the default.  But that can’t happen as long as we continue to deflect and externalize the real causes of our problems, without realizing that each of us holds the key to our own liberation.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Pain and Gain

“The more pain I train myself to stand, the more I learn. 
You are afraid of the pain now, Unk, but you won’t learn anything if you don’t invite the pain.  And the more you learn, the gladder you will be to stand the pain”

This is a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan.  I was reading it this past week while relaxing on a beach in Mexico, pretty much as far as humanly possible from any sort of pain or displeasure.  It made me reflect on why we, as athletes or regular exercisers, routinely subject ourselves to activities that open the door to pain and discomfort.  Why am I motivated to do something that will hurt and leave me in a crumpled, sweaty mess on a gym floor, when the option is there instead  to recline on a beach lounger with a cool drink in hand (or at the very least, when not on vacation, on the couch with a cup of tea)?  Why is it that, despite being a nice break in the middle of winter, sitting around all comfortable on a beach gets reeeeaaalllly fucking boring!  Quickly.

The fact is that most of us, in the middle-class ‘developed’ world lead lives that are, for the most part, fairly free from pain.  Despite the constant bitching about how busy or stressful our jobs or lives are, a thorough self-examination surely leads to the conclusion that compared to the vast swath of human history, we have it pretty sweet.  I’m not denying that bad things happen, often to good people, but in the broad context we’ve crafted a society that by and large allows a good deal of comfort and freedom from genuine misery.

Many of us work jobs that have become fairly second-nature and are not overly demanding, certainly from a physical perspective at least.  We don’t have to hunt, gather and toil for our food.  Entertainment is plentiful – we’re awash is the proverbial ‘bread and circuses.’  Creature comforts are everywhere.  You deserve that Starbucks latte, you really do.  Put your feet up on that new Ottoman, you’ve had a long day....

Intense physical exertion, the kind that temporarily makes a person wish that they had never been born, seems to be an antidote to the kind of ennui that accompanies such a well-fed and well-cared for state of being.  The fact is that running a 6 minute mile, hurts.  Loading up a barbell, laying it across your shoulders and squatting down ass-to-grass, hurts.  Flipping a tractor tire in the snow, sucking cold air into your lungs, hurts.  I know, however, that by subjecting myself to that pain, hopefully I’ll learn something about myself that I didn’t know before.  I’ll know a little bit more what I’m capable of enduring.  Few things in life give you that.  And it’s a gift.

It’s a gift that’s available to all. But herein lies the trouble in convincing non-exercisers to ‘get off the couch’, so to speak.  From the perspective of someone on that side of the fence, who’s never come through and seen the benefits, exercise (at least the strenuous kind that actually pays dividends) just looks like a lot of pain.  They don’t see yet that, when that temporary pain has passed (as it always does), one emerges on the other side with a completely transformed sense of self.  It’s not invincibility or arrogance or complete fearlessness.  But perhaps it’s a little bit of fearlessness.  It’s the sense that someday, something will certainly take me down and beat me.  But it won’t be that thing.  It won’t be that weight I just lifted.  It won’t be that time I just beat.  It won’t be that pain that I just endured.

What’s great too about that Vonnegut quote is that it comes from a letter that the character, Unk, has written to himself.  He’s had his memories erased several times and is writing the message to his future self as a means of instruction and encouragement.  When the character first reads those lines he weeps because he thinks that the letter has been written by someone else who clearly has a greater pain tolerance.  He imagines someone heroic and fearless, far more so than himself.  It’s not until later that he realizes that he himself is the author, and the one that has already been capable of enduring such intense pain in the quest for truth and knowledge...a realization that makes him “courageous, watchful, and secretly free.”  I think that that’s a telling metaphor, in the sense that most people are capable of far more than they give themselves credit for.  The gym is a great place to discover that.

For the science-y among you, there’s even some data to suggest that regular exercisers show greater levels of pain tolerance than other people, even without recent exercise:
That’s significant in my mind, because it implies that once you’ve been baptized in the fire, it’s a permanent adaptation...  Something you’ve earned that can’t be taken away from you.

And speaking of Stoicism, old Marcus Aurelius has some advice in this regard:

Be like the promontory against which waves break. Am I unhappy because this happened - not a bit, rather happy am I though this has happened because I continue free from pain, neither crushed in the present nor fearing the future. Such a thing could have happened to any man, but not every man could have continued free. There is no misfortune, only the course of nature and our adaptation. What event can prevent you from being just, magnanimous, temperate, prudent, secure against opinions and falsehood? Remember when vexed that to bear misfortune nobly is good fortune.
M.A. IV.49.

That is, we might to not be able to control the things that happen to us, which are just part of nature.  What we do have the power to control however is our reaction to those events, how we respond, and our resiliency toward them.  Furthermore, Cicero writes, “For what shame, what degradation will a man not submit to in order to avoid pain, if he has once decided it to be the highest evil?”

Decided – that’s the key word.  Pain is just pain.  It’s neutral.  We choose to place either a positive or negative value on it through our interpretation.  Is this an invitation toward unbridled masochism?  I don’t think so.  But it might be a hint that pain has more to teach us about ourselves than does the siren song of perpetual comfort.