March Challenge for Me?

Tracy has blogged before about why she likes 30 day challenges.

I’ve never actually completed one of these though I did begin, with all good intentions, Jennifer Broxterman’s 30 Day Nutrition Challenge.

I don’t recall exactly which day I fell off the wagon. I made it through vegetables at lunch, fruit at breakfast, the benefits of tea, and hydration but got lost somewhere before the fish oil.

But now there’s a new 30 day challenge on the horizon which has the benefit of team accountability. My masters’ rowing group is considering taking on Concept 2’s March Madness Challenge (the advanced version). The basic idea is simple, do 10 km a day for 25 days on the erg, during the month of March.

I may have to tweak the rules slightly though since if the weather is okay in March–that’s iffy–I hope to be getting some bike kilometers in too. I’m thinking 30 km a day on the bike or 10 km a day on the erg for March. Anyone out there both a cyclist and a rower? That rate of conversion seem fair to you?

All of our group workouts in March will be at least 10 km so that’s 3 days a week covered on the erg. I do have some travel booked in March so I might be on the look out for hotels with rowing machines!

My other option is to do the basic version of the challenge 5 km a day for 25 days…that might be less complicated. A rowing friend suggested that and it would certainly be more reasonable given cycling, cross fit, aikido, soccer etc!

The picture above in the inside of the London Rowing Club. There’s actually 2 rows of rowing machines but I wanted to get the ‘tank’ in the picture too.

Come join us if you’d like. The Masters group meets Tuesdays and Thursdays in the early evening and Sunday morning for coached sessions. It’s a fun group and there’s a great coach.

Tracy is writing about running at Spry Living

Becoming a Runner (at 40-plus)

If you are a walker who is tempted by running but perhaps intimated at the same time, I have some suggestions that might help you make the transition. These all presuppose that your doctor has given your new level of activity the stamp of approval.

1. Think of running as an experiment. I approached running as an experiment that I could call off at any time.  If after an honest effort, I truly despised running, then I could go back to my walking routine.

Read the other 9 tips here.

Thinking Critically about Obesity

Philosophers looking for excellent examples to use in critical thinking classes might be well served by our thinking about overweight, obesity, and weight loss. “Myths, Presumptions, and Facts about Obesity,” published in the New England Journal of Medicine today reviews shoddy reasoning abut obesity and asks why it is we continue to believe things to be true on the basis of little or no evidence in their favour or even with substantial evidence against.

Here’s Gina Kolata writing about the article in the New York Times,

“Myths and unproven assumptions about obesity and weight loss that have been repeated so often and with such conviction that even scientists like David B. Allison, who directs the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, have fallen for some of them.Now, he is trying to set the record straight. In an article published online today in The New England Journal of Medicine, he and his colleagues lay out seven myths and six unsubstantiated presumptions about obesity. They also list nine facts that, unfortunately, promise little in the way of quick fixes for the weight-obsessed.” Myths of Weight Loss Are Plentiful, Researcher Says

The myths, “beliefs held true despite substantial evidence refuting them,” are:

“1. Small sustained changes in energy intake or expenditure will produce large, long-term weight changes

2. Setting realistic goals in obesity treatment is important because otherwise patients will become frustrated and lose less weight

3. Large, rapid weight loss is associated with poorer long-term weight outcomes than is slow, gradual weight loss

4. Assessing the stage of change or diet readiness is important in helping patients who seek weight-loss treatment

5. Physical-education classes in their current format play an important role in preventing or reducing childhood obesity

6. Breast-feeding is protective against obesity

7. A bout of sexual activity burns 100 to 300 kcal for each person involved”

The six presumptions, believed to be true but without evidence in their favour, are:

“1. Regularly eating (vs. skipping) breakfast is protective against obesity
2. Early childhood is the period during which we learn exercise and eating habits that influence our weight throughout life
3. Eating more fruits and vegetables will result in weight loss or less weight gain, regardless of whether one intentionally makes any other behavioral or environmental changes
4. Weight cycling (i.e., yo-yo dieting) is associated with increased mortality
5. Snacking contributes to weight gain and obesity
6. The built environment, in terms of sidewalk and park availability, influences obesity”

Why do we, where that includes many health care professionals, believe things to be true when there is no evidence in their favour (the presumptions) or worse when there is evidence against them (the myths)?

In the section of the article called “Knowing and Not Knowing” Allison discusses various sorts of biases that influence our thinking about health and weight. Writes Allison:

“When media coverage about obesity is extensive, many people appear to believe some myths (e.g., rapid weight loss facilitates weight regain) simply because of repeated exposure to the claims. Cognitive dissonance may prevent us from abandoning ideas that are important to us, despite contradictory evidence (e.g., the idea that breast-feeding prevents obesity in children). Similarly, confirmation bias may prevent us from seeking data that might refute propositions we have already intuitively accepted as true because they seem obvious (e.g., the value of realistic weight-loss goals).”

The 9 facts are less interesting, as facts tend to be! Diets don’t work in the long term. Exercise does help keep weight off. Heredity is important but is not destiny. Weight loss is greater with programs that provide meals. Some prescription drugs help with weight loss and maintenance. Weight-loss surgery is a good solution for some people. For overweight children programs that involve the whole family work best. Exercise is good for your health regardless of its effect on your weight. And in order to maintain a new lower weight you need to continue the conditions that led to weight loss.

Reference:

“Myths, Presumptions, and Facts about Obesity”

Krista Casazza, Ph.D., R.D., Kevin R. Fontaine, Ph.D., Arne Astrup, M.D., Ph.D., Leann L. Birch, Ph.D., Andrew W. Brown, Ph.D., Michelle M. Bohan Brown, Ph.D., Nefertiti Durant, M.D., M.P.H., Gareth Dutton, Ph.D., E. Michael Foster, Ph.D., Steven B. Heymsfield, M.D., Kerry McIver, M.S., Tapan Mehta, M.S., Nir Menachemi, Ph.D., P.K. Newby, Sc.D., M.P.H., Russell Pate, Ph.D., Barbara J. Rolls, Ph.D., Bisakha Sen, Ph.D., Daniel L. Smith, Jr., Ph.D., Diana M. Thomas, Ph.D., and David B. Allison, Ph.D.

N Engl J Med 2013; 368:446-454 January 31, 2013 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsa120805

She May Look Healthy But…Why Fitness Models Aren’t Models of Health

ShayAs our regular readers will know already, both Sam and I prefer athletic values and performance goals to aesthetic goals, even when the aesthetic goals include “looking fit” instead of the old ideal of being stick thin.  It’s not because there isn’t something admirable about looking fit, not even because there is no accomplishment in looking that way. It’s because we distinguish between looking fit and actually being fit. And there’s a real range of body types among those who count as fit and healthy.

One less well known fact is that fitness models and people who compete in the figure category in fitness competitions aren’t actually at the height of healthy when they compete. By the time “game day” comes, they’ve followed a regime that no one recommending a healthy approach to fitness and diet would recommend.  They’ve eaten too few calories for the intensity of workouts they’ve been doing. And they’ve reached a weight that they have no intention of maintaining.

In short, their bodies, admired as models of fitness by so many, are unrealistic even for them!

Here’s a super article about a fitness instructor who decided to enter a figure competition.

Here’s what the competitor, Kelly Booth, has to say about her diet leading up to the day of competition:

Three months before competition, I stopped eating bread. I limited myself to 1,400 calories a day. I would only eat oatmeal (in the morning), eggs, chicken, protein shakes, sweet potatoes, more chicken, broccoli, some almond butter or avocado (for healthy fats), tuna or fish and salads (spinach, bell peppers, broccoli, and fat-free dressing with less than 6 grams of sugar). I ate like this for 6 weeks straight. You are not supposed to cheat at all—no going out to eat. No sugar. Very few carbs—oatmeal, sweet potato, brown rice—that’s it.

It gets worse. Six weeks out, I followed a stricter diet, which was basically no carbs, except on a “carb-load day” twice a week, when I’d have a banana, sweet potato, oatmeal, almond butter, and green beans. The purpose of carb-loading is to give yourself energy until you can carb load again. This is when I saw my body fat start to drop.

Here is what happened to her during this phase of her preparation, when she was on a very restricted diet (1400 calories a day) and working out intensively:

I felt really out of it (my brain needs carbs). Once, I lost my phone for 2 hours, and I was talking to myself, looking everywhere for it, and it was right in front of me. I wasn’t tired, but I got a lot of sleep. I did drink some black coffee or green tea for energy (and for something other than water, which I drank a gallon of each day). I was really carb-depleted. I felt weak and couldn’t work out as hard. And I was moody! Sometimes I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone. I could only stand talking to certain people, like my workout partner and my trainer—because they were the only ones who understood how I felt and what I was going through.

As a personal trainer, Kelly says she would never recommend this approach to a client. She says:

The first week I was on this diet, I felt like I was going into shock. I felt like my brain was trembling in my skull! I worked with a trainer who is a bodybuilder who could help supervise me, and help me know when it was OK or not.

But to look like that and have that definition and such low body fat, there is no other way than to restrict your diet and work out.

What I get from this article is: you can’t have the fitness model’s body if you don’t engage in this extreme dieting and training.  The diet and training are decidedly NOT healthy. Therefore, in order to sustain the look that so many people desire for themselves (hence the popularity of fitspo for inspiration — I have blogged about why I’m opposed to fitspo) it is necessary to do something that is not recommended if you are interested in health.

This is not to say that there is no accomplishment in achieving this body. Just like climbing Mount Everest or running a marathon, it’s not something you do every day. It takes a certain sort of physical and mental toughness.  As Kelly says, “Well, it’s looked at like a sport. It’s not something you can maintain.”

Philosophy professor Shay Welch competes in figure competitions as well. When I emailed her about her experience, here’s what she responded:

I usually am at 1200-1400 calories during off season just to maintain (which is about 25 lbs over what I should be on stage) and then at about 800 calories in the final stretch, working out twice a day for around 4 hours.  everyday.  I do a lot of crying and very little sleeping.  Off season is relatively healthy but your body will change weight super easy because the metabolism crashes to nothing.  But the final stretch is super duper uper unhealthy.  But I can’t do any other sports and I love being athletically competitive so I deal.  Most people I know who do this cannot maintain a real job.  They are almost always fitness trainers because they’re the only ones who can really endure this.  I’ve known more than a few people who had to quit their regular job because they became obsessed with dieting and being on stage.  I throw all my trophies away because I am always trying to remember that this is just a hobby.  And no one maintains except professional fitness people and they get paid to starve year round. 

To put it mildly, Shay’s experience shows the disconnect between fitness/health and the aesthetic ideal that has come to represent fitness.  It’s a misleading representation that sets a lot of ordinary people up to feel as if they are not succeeding in their pursuit of fitness unless they are trending towards a super lean, muscular body.

Nicole Nichols’ interview with Kelly Booth  and Shay Welsh’s candid comments are excellent reminders of the reality of what it takes to get that body and how impossible it is to keep it.

And that’s another reason to keep the focus on athletic values and performance goals if fitness and heath matter to you.

[photo: The woman in the centre of the photo is philosophy professor and figure competitor, Shay Welch. Also a good friend of Sam’s. The photo is from the “Looks Philosophical” Blog. Thanks, Shay!]

Road cyclists are to bike riding as analytic philosophers are to philosophy: Discuss

Posted with the greatest affection for both analytic philosophers and road cyclists, two groups of which I’m proud to be a part…

Road cyclists look like the archetypal cyclist. With greyhound like physiques, massive thighs and calves and underdeveloped upper bodies, they are the elite of the cycling world. They are also the gatekeepers against which others others are judged and judge themselves.

The image of the left is from the terrific animated movie The Triplets of Belleville.

If you haven’t seen it, you must. The trailer is here. (Brief description: “When her grandson, Champion, is kidnapped during the Tour de France, Madame Souza and her beloved dog Bruno travel across the Atlantic to Belleville and team up with an aged song-and-dance team to rescue him from the French mafia. Directed by Sylvain Chomet. Categories: Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Music, Foreign Film. Year: 2003.”)

When someone says, I’m not a real cyclist. I just commute by bike, what they mean is, I’m not a road cyclist. I don’t have one of those bikes with the skinny tires and the curled over handle bars. I don’t wear special cycling shorts or shoes and I don’t carry everything I need for a 160 km ride in the back pouch of my bike jersey.

Road cyclists love rules. For the complete list, see here, from the Keepers of the Cog: http://www.velominati.com/the-rules/

For a great taxonomy of the kinds of cyclists, see The bike snob’s guide to cycling tribes:

Here’s his description of the road cyclist, or the roadie:

The Roadie is, in a certain sense, the prototypical cyclist. Road racing is certainly not the oldest form of competitive cycling, but it does have a long history and it is by far the most popular competitive discipline. After all, even people who can’t tell a road bike from a mountain bike have heard of the Tour de France. The drop bars, the jersey with rear pockets, the tight shorts and the diminutive brimmed cycling cap together embody the cyclist in the popular imagination.

Because road cycling is steeped in tradition (and occasionally garnished with attitude), every single aspect of road cycling – from clothing choice to equipment choice to hand signals to which way to pull off the front of a paceline – is governed by rules. And like all rules, some of them have evolved out of necessity, and some of them are simply tradition for tradition’s sake.

The negative view of the Roadie is that he or she is fastidious, snotty and aloof. On the other hand, the romantic view is that Roadies are the toughest of all cyclists and that their careful preparation and studied appearance is a natural expression of this mental and physical toughness. But there’s a deeper truth. Beneath all the training and suffering and Lycra and embrocations, the fact is that all Roadies are freeloading cheats. I’m not talking about doping. No, Roadies are freeloading cheats because the true essence of road cycling is the conservation of energy. Naturally, the only way a bicycle is going to move is if a person puts energy into it and they do what they can to make their bodies strong, but there the effort ends. Beyond this, everything else is based on not making an effort. It’s based on making things as light and aerodynamic as possible; it’s based on slipstreaming behind other riders for as long as possible and it’s about expending as little effort as effectively as possible.

It occurred to me while chatting with other philosophers of sport that each activity, philosophy and cycling, can be thought of as big tents. There are analytic philosophers, continental philosophers, pragmatists, feminists, historians of philosophy, etc. Likewise, there are road cyclists, track cyclists, urban fixie riders, mountain bikers, commuters, etc.

But in each field there is one group that likes to make rules about who counts and who doesn’t, who belongs in the tent and who must remain outside–not a real philosopher, not a real cyclist. My conversational thesis was that it’s the road cyclists and the analytic philosophers who are the fussiest this way.

Which may explain why analytic philosophers are drawn to road cycling. (Or not.) I’m just having fun here but later I’d like to blog about the sports that attract philosophers and why. Mountain climbing anyone? Maybe some yoga after?

In each area–philosophy and cycling–my own inclinations are the same. I’m an analytic philosopher drawn to the big tent idea. I dabble a bit. I’m a road cyclist who also rides track owns a mountain bike, and has cyclocross ambitions.

If our blog had an exam, wouldn’t that be popular?, the analogy between road cyclists and analytic philosophers might be a good topic for an essay question. Discuss.

 

 

 

On Doing Less

Image

For a long time my main two fitness activities were Iyengar yoga and walking.  I wanted to establish a consistent yoga practice at home, not to replace my weekly class but to get the most out of it. In Iyengar yoga, students are encouraged to practice regularly on their own at home.

One weekend I had the opportunity to do a workshop with a senior teacher from another city.  When I spoke to her about my failed attempt to get a home practice going, she suggested I do less than I thought I should do.  “Set your timer for 20 minutes,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine that you don’t have 20 minutes.” She asked me if I could back down from my lofty goal of one hour of practice a day and instead commit to that for 30 days.  Even though I thought 20 minutes wasn’t nearly “enough,” I made and kept the commitment.

Every morning I showed up at the mat for just 20 minutes. For the first ten minutes I did whatever I felt like that day, and for the last ten minutes I did five minutes of headstand, five minutes of shoulder stand, and then added a couple of minutes of savasana.  The time flew by. Some days, I found myself wanting to do more. I did more. By the end of the 30 days I had a solid habit, and a dramatically stronger headstand.

It was the commitment to doing less that got me to the mat.

I’ve had similarly ambitious goals about writing and have learned that aiming to do too much doesn’t work for me.  When I recently met with publication coach, Daphne Gray-Grant, to get back on track, she immediately had me scale back the hours a day I thought I should be spending on writing.  Instead of 2-3 hours, she suggested I aim for 25 minutes. Instead of aiming for 2 hours a day working on a revision (that I was in fact avoiding daily), she suggested I spend an uninterrupted 15 minutes on it. Set the timer. Don’t work a minute more on it.

Scaling back like that made me feel as if was setting the bar too low.  But the more ambitious goals left me cold. I wasn’t doing anything when I aimed high like that.

Taking Daphne’s advice, I got a solid first draft of a paper written (25 mintues a day of new writing) and that dreaded project revised (15 minutes a day, no more, of editing/revising) in 10 days, with 2 consecutive days off from writing and plenty of time during the work days to do other things.

I needed her to remind me what I’ve known for a long time: my first instinct is to set  unreasonable goals, and I get more done when I set reasonable goals.  The yoga teacher and Daphne both brought me back to reality on that point.

The 25-minute increment comes from a wonderful time management tool called The Pomodoro Technique.  Whenever I am putting off anything, I can get right back on track with pomodoros — 25 minutes chunks of time where I’m focused on one task (no email, no phone calls, no getting up, no moving to another task, just for those 25 minutes). After that, I take a 5 minute break and then get right down to the next pomodoro (which might be a new task or continuing on the same one).

This can work well for activity. Like the yoga teacher I spoke with said — go for 20 minutes, not an hour. When I started running, I felt good if I could just get myself out the door for 15 minutes.  Even today, if I don’t feel like doing something, I give myself permission to scale back and do less that day.  Less is better than nothing. It keeps the habit in place, or helps to build a new habit, and doesn’t overwhelm me.

If a pomodoro is too much, you could think in terms of Sark’s “micro-movements.”  Sark says:  “I’m a recovering procrastinator and perfectionist and I have a short attention span, so I invented Micromovements as a method of completing projects in time spans of 5 minutes or less. I always feel like I can handle almost anything for 5 minutes!”   You don’t have to be a Sark fan to agree that you can do most things for 5 minutes.

Or even less than 5 minutes, as Samantha discusses in her post about the “thousand cuts fitness program.”

Now, it may be that 5 minutes isn’t enough to get a lot of benefits from exercise. But on a day when you feel like doing nothing, it’s something. And if you’re choosing activities you enjoy, it’s very likely that once you get past the initial inertia of doing nothing, 5 minutes isn’t going to feel like enough.  My experience with the yoga practice was that after a couple of weeks, I was routinely doing at least 30 minutes, often more.  And my experience with running has been similar. I want to do more.

The valuable idea here is that IF you are struggling to get motivated (you might not be! Yay for you! Go do some deadlifts!), then doing some shorter-than-you-think-will-be-helpful timed sessions of uninterrupted activity might be just what you need to get the flow going again.

This is not to say we should never set big goals.  But as we have discussed before on the blog, the big goal (I want to run a marathon by the time I’m 50) needs to be broken down into smaller performance goals (e.g. I want to run three times a week; I want to increase my distance to 10K gradually over the next three months). If we’re not meeting these smaller goals, chances are they’re too ambitious (for the time being).

Everything the Publication Coach says here about the kaizen method applies equally well to fitness goals.

It’s not every day someone will encourage you to do less, scale back, aim lower.  But it works. I’ve had great success with setting less ambitious goals in my writing.  I wrote a full draft manuscript of my book that way, using 30-minute increments of uninterrupted time, no more than 3 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Try doing less.

Rational couch potatoes unite! Or, are you a non responder? Would you want to know?

A few years ago a friend of mine took part in a research study to measure responsiveness to physical training.

Some people, she told me, are rational couch potatoes. Working out doesn’t improve their fitness. They can follow a regular program of exercise without improvements in cardiovascular capacity. At the end of the program they’re just as slow and unfit as when they began.

I think she was hoping to turn out to be a non responder so her friends (okay, me) would quit nagging her to go to the gym.

I was skeptical but it turns out she was right. Not that she was a non responder. She turned out to be a mere low responder but rather she was right that such people exist.

The human population, it turns out, can be divided into the following groups:

  • non-responders (whose fitness levels don’t improve with exercise , making up about 20% of the population)
  • responders (who respond as expected to exercise, comprising about 65% of the population)
  • super-responders (who respond extremely well to exercise, and make up the remaining 15% of the population)

Those figures are from a terrific BBC program on fitness, in which host Michael Mosley found out he’s a non responder.

I think I’d be very sad if I was a non responder. Fitness is such a source of joy in my life. But of course there are other joys and maybe you wouldn’t miss it if you’d never had it. That’s what my low responding friend claimed.

I hadn’t noticed non responders before but while taking various running clinics I did notice that people varied quite a bit. Some people could skip half the work outs and progress just fine while other people doggedly did all the work but made very slow gains. I’ve blogged about that here as one of the things you learn from working out with others.

I also see it every spring on the bike as many of us go from not riding at all to getting fast again. How many weeks, rides, kilometers does that take? No surprise. It varies.

There’s also the vexed question of how much fitness you retain through periods of inactivity. Again, there’s lots of variability.

So I think the one size fits all, x weeks to x km programs can mislead us into thinking that we are all alike. We’re not. Athletes work hard it’s true but most come blessed with bodies that respond very well to training.

But given that most of us are training for fun and for health, how much should it matter if we get faster slowly or not at all? I’ve argued for fitness goals in terms of performance rather than physique but what if the performance goals are beyond your reach too? (You can read some about fitness goals here and here and here.)

It turns out that ‘non responder’ is a bit of a misnomer. The non responders don’t get faster or fitter but they do benefit in other ways.

“In a study carried out at Louisiana State University, researchers found that 10 to 15% of the volunteers they tested experienced no increase in aerobic capacity after a 20-week exercise program that involved gradual increases in exercise intensity over time. On the other hand, the lead researcher in this study emphasized that despite the lack of obvious improvement in aerobic fitness, all of the individuals experienced some physical improvements as a result of working out.” (Exercise Non-Responders: Not Everyone Responds to Exercise the Same Way)

What kind of benefits? Well, they burn calories, for one. On its own that’s not that important but they also experience the metabolic effects of exercise that help protect against diabetes.

Here’s another complication. Some people respond to cardio training but not strength training, and others vice versa. And of course, some people do well at both and others neither.

A Finnish study of 175 adults found that some didn’t improve their strength or fitness level at all after a 5-month exercise program.

“Finnish researchers asked these previously sedentary adults to work out regularly for 21 weeks. Some walk or jogged while others trained with weights. Some did both. At the end of the 21 weeks, they tested their aerobic fitness and strength. What they found was surprising. Some of the volunteers improved their aerobic fitness or strength by as much as 42 percent, while others actually experienced a decline in their strength and aerobic capacity after 21 weeks of exercise. Some showed strength gains, but not an increase in aerobic capacity, while others boosted their aerobic capacity but showed no gains in strength. An unfortunate few had no improvement in either area.” (Exercise Non-Responders: Not Everyone Responds to Exercise the Same Way)

You can now test your responsiveness to physical training with a simple mail in genetic test. Gretchen Reynolds writes about that here.

What’s fascinating are the elite athletes. They’re not all super responders as you might expect. Some are mediocre genetically but work very very hard. So effort can trump bad genetic luck.

I know I’m not a non responder to either cardio or strength training. My body seems to like exercise.

But if I didn’t know, I’m not sure if I’d want to find out.

How about you?