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"Tell the chef, the beer is on me."
Question of the day: what does the term “dieting” conjure up for you? Anecdotes, laughs, regrets, frustration, anxiety? I bet there’s quite a collection of stories to be told. When I think of diets, I think it’s common to think deprivation – of calories, of real food, of satisfaction, of enjoyment, of peace of mind. And that’s how it generally goes in our culture, isn’t it? We diet, we end the diet, we go back on the diet because either it didn’t work the first time or it did but then we fell right back down the same hole again. So, we keep playing the same game of deprivation, white-knuckling it until we get to that glorious sham of an “endpoint,” what I would call the “and they lived happily ever after”
conclusion delusion. From a maybe more humorous angle, I think of deprivation dieting as an extended version of the mental game, “don’t think of a elephant.” Gee, what’s the first and most predominant thing you’re going to think of? How much determination and energy is it going to take to not think of the elephant 40 times per day? How about just forgoing the game altogether? Just eat the elephant already.
On a more serious note, I think of the way we work ourselves into a love-hate relationship with food (and sometimes ourselves). We tell ourselves erroneously that food makes us fat, but the pull toward it has never been stronger and more loaded with psychological baggage. Food shouldn’t be the reason for our existence, but it should never be the enemy. From an ancestral point of view, the whole framework is insane. Dieting in the modern sense distorts our relationship with food as basic sustenance.
Incidentally, research shows it can also distort our physiology. A team at the University of Pennsylvania found that a restrictive short-term diet not only had higher levels of the stress hormone corticosterone but also showed lasting epigenetic changes in genes influential to stress regulation.
Likewise, dieting even changes our brain activity. A study at the Oregon Research Institute demonstrated that caloric deprivation increases the “reward value” of food as determined by activity in relevant regions of subjects’ brains in the presence of food images and the presentation of food itself.
On this note, I caught an intriguing article in The New York Times a few weeks ago. It offered the provocative premise (research based) that dieting makes us “dumber.” The article cites studies demonstrating the “mental strain” deprivation puts on our brains and the likelihood of failure we face as a result. Of most interesting note is the research on mental “bandwidth.” Dieters apparently do worse than non-dieters on all manner of basic cognitive tests – everything from spatial reasoning to information retention. Does this really surprise anyone?
The reasons behind this cognitive strain are multifold. Dieters are distracted – by the endless calculations, the various and sundry trade-offs, the obsessive regrets and gymnastic style justifications they contort their minds into throughout a day. It’s frankly exhausting just to read about. The author also connects the strain, however, to a larger “scarcity” force in our biology and brain activity. According to research, when we’re preoccupied with not having enough, we literally lose IQ points. From an evolutionary standpoint, that also isn’t surprising.
When we diet, we deliberately choose scarcity. Why? In the end, deprivation is a self-defeating behavior. It will always be self-defeating behavior. Sure, there may be that temporary grit-your-teeth triumph many of us have experienced in the pre-Primal pasts. The fact is, you can scramble, deprive and exhaust your way to a target weight, but chances are you’ll just roll right down the other side of that mountain once you’re there. The better choice is always investment as opposed to deprivation. A better, healthier lifestyle calls you to invest in yourself. It’s not a mental game of mathematical twister or complicated rule book. It’s a lifestyle you create over time.
Related to this concept, as the Times article explains, is other research that suggests the perceived complexity of one’s weight management approach determines the ability to adhere to the plan over time. The more rules and more complex those rules were, the less likely participants were to adhere to the eating program. In short, “cognitively challenging” doesn’t work when it comes to diet.
Ring true? I’ve heard from many people that one of the things they love most about The Primal Blueprint is its simplicity. No fuss, no frustration. The Blueprint is intended to be a straightforward map to healthy, ancestrally sensical eating and living. While we can get as elaborate and impressive as we want in terms of recipes, the nuts and bolts are clear. Plain sailing.
With time and experience, the Blueprint takes on richer nuance, variety and personalization, but that investment yields long-term, consistent benefit in ways a quick-fix will never even approach. In “dieting” you count down the days. In a lifestyle shift, you commit to a learning curve.
The fact is, the trajectory of genuine dietary and lifestyle change is gradual, but it definitely doesn’t have to be slow. Anyone who’s done the 21-Day Transformation Challenge knows you can make substantive change in a short amount of time and experience substantial results. The difference is, you gradually make it your own. When you do a short-term diet, it tends to revolve around restriction and regimen. Choosing a healthy lifestyle, on the other hand, revolves around adaptation and experimentation. You accept the new approach into your life. You allow the philosophy to become a long-term part of your socialization, your holiday routines, your time management, your family life, your private recreation, your shopping sources, your kitchen library, your life’s enjoyment. A good diet should ultimately be about living the good life. It’s a countercultural kind of message, however. The results, I think, are the difference between deprivation dieting and good Primal living.
Thanks for reading today, everyone. What’s your take on dieting? Does the research ring true to you? What’s been the difference between past dieting and Primal living?
Think back to the last time you were under stress. What kind of physical symptoms can you recall?
Pounding heart. Increased pulse rate. The sensation of blood rushing through your body and brain. A narrowing of focus, your thoughts and gaze centered on the stressor itself; and then, suddenly, you’re scatterbrained. Anxiety. Your stomach a pit apparently filled with fluttering, winged insects. These are all familiar to anyone who’s faced down a deadline, bull in the arena, mounting stack of bills, or mugger.
But those symptoms also show up at other times in response to different situations. Mustering up the courage to ask a girl or guy out? Trying to make a move on the first date? Preparing to take a big test? Stepping up to the free throw line for potentially game-winning or game-losing foul shots? Psyching yourself up minutes before a public performance? You’re going to feel anxious and sweaty, your pulse will pound and you’ll exhibit all the classic symptoms of being under immense amounts of stress. But you’re not actually in danger. You’re under pressure. You’re gearing up to perform. Your nervous system is preparing you to handle the coming task.
Let’s look at those symptoms differently for a second.
The tunnel vision? All the better to help you focus on your target or goal.
Faster breathing? More oxygen for your brain.
Anxiety? It’s to ensure caution and leave nothing to chance.
Even our sweaty palms and pits aren’t there to throw us off our game and make things even harder. We sweat under stress in order to alert others nearby – by odor – to the danger so that we can mount a unified response.
This changes things up, doesn’t it? Getting anxious over a girl doesn’t damage your health, nor does giving a speech. But the response to these challenges are eerily similar to the stress response.
That’s because the stress response is a preparedness tool, sometimes hastily thrown together by the body and wrongly interpreted by our brains, but it’s not the enemy. It’s there to make us work better under duress. It heightens our senses and steels our nerves and increases our attention to detail. We need it. And if we learn to reinterpret the stress response, the actual physiological changes that occur when you encounter a stressor, you may be able to reduce, sidestep, or repurpose the negative effects of stress on health. One recent study suggests this, finding that although high amounts of stress increase the risk of dying, it does so only in individuals who perceive stress to be harmful. In people who don’t see stress as a health threat, stress does not appear to increase mortality.
If the connections found in this study are indeed causative, this is huge. It means that stress isn’t “bad.” Stressing over stress is what makes stress so stressful.
To understand how this might work, let’s take a truly stressful, harrowing, dangerous situation, one that definitely deserves the stress response: a speeding bus headed straight in your direction. Do you consciously decide to throw yourself to the side to avoid collision? No; you just do it. Something inside you clicks and compels your limbs to move. It’s only after the fact that you can piece together what just happened.
That “something” is the amygdala, a region of the brain that receives and interprets incoming visual and auditory information. The amygdala is the “lizard brain.” Every animal, both higher and lower, has one. If it perceives a dangerous sight and/or sound, the amygdala sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that controls our endocrine responses (in addition to many other functions). The hypothalamus receives the stress signal and notifies the adrenal medulla to make adrenaline and the pituitary gland to begin producing adrenocorticotropic hormone, which tells the adrenal glands to make our old pal cortisol. This all happens before you know it, and it’s this rapid, subconscious response that throws you out of the way to safety.
But there’s another aspect to the stress response, and it comes from the site of higher thought: the neocortex. The neocortex acts more slowly than the amygdala, deciding after the fact whether the amygdala’s response to the perceived stressor was justified and if we should continue to stay on alert. Since we have conscious control over the neocortex, we can use it in a variety of ways to dampen the stress response or even turn stress into a performance booster.
First, you can do what participants in a pair of stress reappraisal studies did: think of the stress response as a preparedness response. In the first study (PDF), subjects taking a standardized test were separated into two groups. Before the test began, both the experimental and control groups were told that they would have various salivary hormones analyzed to determine their stress and anxiety levels during the test; only the experimental group was told that research indicated “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” The experimental group outperformed the control group and displayed a greater stress response.
In the second study (PDF), subjects were separated into an experimental group and two control groups, then given tasks to complete. The experimental group was told to reappraise their stress response – the pounding hearts and elevated pulse – as a way for the body to distribute important blood and nutrients in preparation for a task; they actually displayed an altered physiological response to stress. The control groups experienced the increased pulse and vasoconstriction (narrowing of the blood vessels), as most people do when under stress. This can increase stress on the vessel walls and lead to damage. Meanwhile, the experimental group’s pulse increased like normal, but instead of narrowing, their blood vessels expanded. Expanded vessels ensured the increased blood flow was benign, and even beneficial. They also had reduced attentional bias compared to the control groups – they stopped focusing so much on the “stress” and instead focused on the task at hand.
Reappraisal has also been shown to reduce the connection between stress and depression. People with the tendency to reappraise a stressful situation are less likely to suffer depression as a result of the stress, while people who don’t practice cognitive reappraisal tend to suffer more depression resulting from stress.
Even in cases where the stress response is completely and utterly justified, as in war veterans with PTSD, cognitive reappraisal can lessen the severity of the stress reactivity.
And if all that doesn’t convince you, check out this inspiring TED talk from Kelly McGonigal that covers much of the same territory.
So, reappraisal – changing how you think about stress – is the big one, but there are other actions to take that can positively change your response to stress.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Say to yourself: “Look, traffic is unpleasant, but who cares?” Is it really worth being the guy who flips out because someone dared into his lane, every honk bringing him closer to stress-induced heart attack? We’ve all seen that guy, we’ve all been that guy, and it’s no way to live. If you get the urge to honk or speed up when someone puts their blinker on to come into your lane, don’t do it. Stay your hand. Acknowledge the desire, know that these urges are the result of a lizard brain prone to exaggerated responses in a modern world, and tell yourself that you’re better than that. You’ll go about your life with the preternatural calm of a zen master (well, maybe not quite that calm), deftly maneuvering through the thickest and nastiest of traffic and smiling all the while. In the words of a different type of zen master, “Let it be.”
In a “stressful” situation, get as weirdly analytical as you need to dismantle it. Ask yourself questions like “Is [the stressor] going to negatively impact my life enough to justify this physiological response?” or ”How will sweaty palms and an elevated heart rate improve my ability to pay my car bill?” You’ll often find that answering them honestly and logically removes the stress.
Don’t let important things hang over you. Remember that mounting personal debt is not just an abstract stressor to be discarded or ignored or meditated away. You owe money; take steps to start paying down your debt methodically, however minimal the payment might be. You have a deadline; meet it. You’ve got a neglected spouse; wine and dine them. Some problems are real and deserve your attention. Reappraisal won’t beat everything.
Don’t ever say any permutation of “I’m so stressed,” even if you are. What’s the point? Whose cause does it serve? By reaffirming your stress level in a negative manner, you give it life and power over you. You’re literally telling yourself to be stressed out. It’s silly, so stop feeling sorry for yourself.
Give to others. Volunteer somewhere, help the old lady across the street (or whatever the modern corollary for that is), pitch in to help friends move houses, offer to show your mom how to properly lift heavy things, walk that old dog his elderly owner is unable to walk, make dinner for your sick buddy, and so on. A recent study found that stress only increased mortality risk in those who had not “provided tangible assistance to friends or family members.” People who helped their friends and family could endure stress without incurring a mortality risk.
And for those who think they can’t do this, that they’d never be able to truly convince themselves that stress wasn’t hurting them: faking it can work. Folks in the stress reappraisal studies had spent their lives hearing how stress could kill, just like all of you, and they were able to change how they responded to stress. See, the human brain is powerful. We have the unique ability to psyche ourselves out and think ourselves into a depressive, unhealthy pit, a terrible cycle of bad thoughts begetting bad thoughts begetting poor health. But it goes both ways. We can also trick ourselves into feeling better. We can tell ourselves that we don’t care about it, that the traffic doesn’t bother us – even if it kind of does – and that the stress we do experience isn’t harmful to our health, and not only will we eventually start to believe it, it will become true.
The ultimate message is that there is no “true you” underlying everything, waiting to call your bluff. Rather, we are what we think, say, and do. We have the power to shape our response to this sometimes but not necessarily stressful thing called life.
The real beauty of this approach is it’s easy. Thinking a thought takes almost zero effort. It expends very few calories. You can do it from the comfort of your bed. All you need is to know it can and it very well will work.
Stress will kill you.
But only if you let it.
P.S. Unfortunately, I doubt this works on obviously physical stressors, like overtraining, blows to the head, drug abuse, or lack of sleep. You can improve the total stress response by not psychologically stressing about the physical stress, but you won’t be negating the actual mechanical stress being heaped on your body.
I’m curious about your reaction to this. Does it change anything for you? How are you going to change your conscious perception of stress going forward?
Let’s hear all about it in the comment section!
Wes Bertrand from the Complete Liberty Podcast joins me to talk about my personal experience with the Virgin Diet, as well as a general look at N=1 experiments. We spend a good bit of time discussing what makes for good science: removing bias, controlling variables, and so on, while mixing in my own anecdotal findings while trying JJ Virgin's elimination diet.
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Bumper music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8ECalN6oXI
On September 11, 2001, passenger jets struck the Twin Towers, leveling them, killing thousands of New Yorkers, and traumatizing tens of thousands more. Among those directly affected, but not killed, by the attack were 1700 pregnant women. Some of those women developed post traumatic stress disorder, some did not. When the PTSD-positive group had their kids, their cortisol secretion was lower and stress response to novel stimuli was impaired. Although as fetuses they weren’t conscious of the chaos, it affected them as if they had directly witnessed the blast. The affected children were no different genetically – they didn’t have “the stress gene.” Rather, the activity of the genes that regulate the stress response had been altered by an environmental input.
This was epigenetics in action.
Epigenetics isn’t just relevant to pregnant women and their offspring, either. Dads matter too. In one recent study (PDF), male mice were subjected to ongoing chronic, intense stress. They were placed in cages with and beat up by larger, more dominant males. Essentially, they were bullied for ten days straight. This gave them the mouse versions of PTSD, depression, and severe anxiety. After, they bred with normal females. Their pups were born “stressed out” and anxious, uninterested even in sugar water when subjected to stressors. The anxious pups avoided social contact with other mice as much as possible. The pups’ mothers weren’t exposed to stress during pregnancy; only the dads’ life experiences before conception could explain the differences, which correlated with changes to gene expression in the pups.
Epigenetic shockwaves can reach far into the future, too. Until the 20th century, the people of Overkalix, Sweden were at the mercy of the elements. Winter brought total isolation, with every route into and out of the municipality completely frozen over and inaccessible. That meant if the harvest was poor, the people flirted with starvation. If the harvest was good, they prospered and thrived. It was either famine or feast. In 2002, Swedish researchers analyzed the extensive birth, death, and health records of the area to see how this feast and famine cycle of the 19th century might have affected the health of the population. Amazingly, they found that boys who ate very well during late childhood were more likely to go on to have grandsons with health issues like heart disease, diabetes, and early mortality later in life. On the other hand, boys who experienced famine during late childhood had longer-lived grandsons with fewer health problems.
What does this all mean?
That our choices are bigger than us. It’s easy to see how the foods we eat, the exercises we do (or don’t), and all the other choices we make can affect our own health, in this lifetime. Anyone who’s ever made a positive change to their lifestyle and seen the subsequent health benefits can attest to that. But these stories indicate that those very same life experiences can send epigenetic shockwaves to your offspring – and in some cases your offspring’s offspring. There’s more to it than bullied mice, Swedish famines, and terrorist attacks, though, as you’ll see below. The life experiences of both moms and dads can exert a wide range of powerful effects. But how, exactly?
Maternal Epigenetic Transfer
Moms transfer epigenetic effects via two routes. First, as an epigenetic factor herself. After all, the mom is the primary environment for the fetus. Anything that happens to the mom – famine, stress, overnutrition, undernutrition, chronic sleep loss, terrorist attack – also happens to the fetus, sometimes even if it occurs pre-conception. Second, when a woman is pregnant, she’s not just carrying the fetus and transmitting epigenetic changes to the fetal genes from her life experiences. She also carries the fetus’ reproductive cells which will either develop into eggs or sperm. Any changes to the gene expression of these reproductive cells during their development in the fetus may also affect subsequent offspring. So at least three generations are affected by the environmental input during pregnancy: the mom, the fetus, and the fetus’ future offspring.
Paternal Epigenetic Transfer
Dads transfer epigenetic inheritance through changes to the sperm. If a male fetus is subjected to an epigenetic input in the womb as his reproductive cells are developing, he may grow up with forever altered sperm that in turn affects his progeny. As seen in the case of the Swedish village, male sperm may also be vulnerable in late childhood right before puberty, which is when sperm cells are maturing and “finalizing.” And then you’ve got the mouse studies that suggest inheritance can transfer even when the father’s experiences happen as an adult. The amount of research into paternal epigenetic transfer pales in comparison to that of maternal epigenetics, but it appears to play a role just the same (if perhaps not as prominent).
It’s easy to get bogged down in epigenetic mechanisms, but what you’re really here for is to learn how we can shape our offspring’s health. Let’s explore, shall we?
Nutrition – the types of foods we eat, the numbers of calories we consume, and our overall metabolic state – plays perhaps the biggest and best studied epigenetic role in the health of our offspring. A few examples:
Among isogenic (identical, genetically) mice, those born to obese and diabetic mothers showed changes in liver gene expression that predisposed them to obesity when faced with a Western-style diet. In other words, mice born to leaner mothers weren’t just leaner, they were somewhat epigenetically resistant to the obesogenic effects of the Standard American Diet.
Lesson? Avoid obesity and diabetes during pregnancy (and always, really). You can’t force your kids to eat Primal, but you can set them up for metabolic robustness.
In contrast to the earlier example of grandfathers who spent the formative years of their childhood in lean times siring grandsons with better metabolic health and longevity, mothers who experienced undernutrition during pregnancy gave birth to offspring with altered hypothalamic gene expression, a propensity to overeat, disrupted glucose tolerance, and lowered energy expenditure – the kind of gene expression that would help someone survive starvation. Those same epigenetic changes to gene expression were also found in twin lambs born to both underfed (a period spanning 60 days prior to and 30 days after conception) and well-fed sheep, suggesting that it’s the “perception” of famine (whether actual or imagined) that triggers the starvation epigenome.
Lesson? Don’t try to diet and restrict calories while pregnant. Weight gain is totally normal, healthy, and necessary when building a tiny human inside your body.
Male mice who were fasted for a day or two a few weeks before mating sired offspring (both male and female) with consistently lower blood glucose levels than controls. It isn’t clear whether this is a positive alteration, however, as too low a blood glucose level can hamper growth and development.
Lesson? The occasional skipped meal, or series of meals, doesn’t just affect your health (in a mostly positive way), but the health of your offspring. Whether lower blood glucose is a good or a bad thing is conditional.
Pregnant women are advised to increase their intake of folate and other vitamins to prevent birth defects and make up for a substandard diet. This is generally good advice, but there is such a thing as “too many vitamins.” In one study, pregnant mice fed a high-folate diet (10 times the normal amount) had offspring with an epigenetically enhanced propensity for obesity unless they were weaned on a similarly high-folate diet. Another study found similar obesogenic epigenetic changes in male offspring of rats taking ten times the normal amount of a multivitamin.
Lesson? Get most of your nutrients from food whenever possible, and don’t overdo the prenatals (also, make sure you take folate, not folic acid).
In pregnant mice on an imbalanced diet (wildly variant ratios of folic acid and B vitamins), maternal omega-3 intake ameliorated some of the negative epigenetic effects normally caused by the nutrient imbalance.
Lesson? Get your omega-3s.
Even the source of maternal dietary protein during gestation seems to affect gene expression in the offspring. In pregnant mice given soy as a protein source, offspring were fatter and had elevated insulin when compared to offspring from casein-fed mice, an effect mediated by an increase in gene expression in the area of the brain that controls food intake.
Lesson? Skip the soy protein shakes.
Some pregnant women are advised to restrict dietary protein. In animal studies, this appears to have negative epigenetic effects on the fetus, including the “programming of hypertension.”
Lesson? Eat protein to satiety when pregnant.
Maternal choline affects the expression of cortisol regulation in the fetus. This likely explains why mothers with a high intake of choline during pregnancy have kids who appear to be protected against stress-related disorders through epigenetic factors.
Lesson? Eat your liver and egg yolks.
Maternal (and paternal) stress is one of the largest area of study in epigenetics, probably the largest besides nutrition.
Using a mouse model of prenatal stress, researchers were able to epigenetically trigger neurological and psychiatric disease states in the offspring. Prenatal stress induced microRNA regulation at sites in the fetus that affect and/or induce multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, brain inflammation, and bipolar affective disorder.
Lesson? It’s not like a traffic jam in the 2nd trimester is going to give your kid schizophrenia, but it does illustrate the worst-case scenarios associated with prenatal stress.
Even the mom’s mood during pregnancy exerts an epigenetic influence on the outcome of the pregnancy. If a mom was depressed or anxious during the 3rd trimester, her offspring was more likely to have altered cortisol regulation, including increased cortisol responses to stress at three months.
Lesson? Relax, kick your feet up, and try not to let daily stressors consume you during pregnancy. Easier said than done, I know. Also, don’t let the stuff from the previous section – what you’re eating – turn you into a ball of stress. Eating anything can be hard when you’re pregnant. Just make the best choices you can, and make your “bad” choices better.
Six weeks of chronic stress were enough to alter the microRNA (a regulator of gene expression) of sperm in male mice, whether the stress occurred in adulthood or childhood. When those mice later bred, they sired pups with dysfunctional stress responses reminiscent of neuropsychiatric disease. Another stressed out mouse dad study had similar results: altered stress responses in the offspring.
Lesson? Stress matters for dads, their sperm, and their offspring, too. Not just the moms are vulnerable.
Research into the prenatal or preconceptional epigenetic effects of other lifestyle factors is limited, but we can still make some predictions. Let’s take a look.
Exercise – One recent study found that exercise can affect the quality of sperm and upregulate gene expression across generations. Both maternal and paternal exercise, for example, improve memory and spatial learning in the offspring (paternal exercise only seems to benefit male offspring, but dads should probably still work out just to be on the safe side). A word of caution: though exercise is generally “a good thing” for your offspring, remember how vulnerable the fetus is to maternal stress. Don’t do too much!
Sleep - We know that melatonin (the “sleep hormone”) is an important player in “fetal programming,” and a recent study found that rats who were sleep deprived during gestation produced offspring with reduced antioxidant activities and/or altered homocysteine levels, so sleep clearly plays an important role in fetal epigenetics.
Sun - While there’s nothing that explicitly looks at the effect of sunlight exposure on fetal development, there are links between maternal vitamin D levels – a fair proxy for sunlight – and epigenetic regulation of fetal bone development and osteoporosis later in life.
Dirt – “Maternal exposure to animal sheds” and other farm environments during pregnancy might actually make the offspring more resistant to allergies right out of the womb.
Much of this is still up in the air, of course. We haven’t identified every lifestyle factor that triggers epigenetic changes in offspring, nor will we (likely) ever. But most of the evidence that we do have suggests that being healthy is good for our offspring and being unhealthy is bad for them. So, being an obese dad or mom? Not so good for the kids and grandkids. Being a healthy weight mom or dad? Probably good for the kids and grandkids. Smoking during pregnancy? Bad. Going for nature walks during pregnancy? Probably good. Getting a good 8-10 hours of sleep while pregnant? Good. Staying up late watching bad TV with a kid in your belly? Not so great, most likely. Playing? Good. Even if there isn’t a study for everything, it’s already been shown that most lifestyle modifications affect us on the epigenetic level. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that they’re also affecting our children on the epigenetic level.
Some of you may find this a bit scary. You may even feel helpless, as if decisions were made concerning your longterm health before you were born, or even before your parents were born. For my money? It’s the opposite. It’s empowering, because knowledge truly is power, and now you have the power to not just transform your own health, but also the health of your unborn progeny’s progeny. That may sound like a lot of responsibility – and it is – but it’s not anything you aren’t already doing for yourself. Just stick to what you know works, eat right, stay active, avoid unnecessary stress, get plenty of sleep, get away from the city now and again, laugh everyday, give and get massages, walk a lot, lift heavy things, eat lots of plants and animals, and all that epigenetic stuff will take care of itself.
Most importantly, remember that you have just as much power to create lasting health benefits in your children with the choices you make. It’s not just about avoiding unhealthy outcomes, but creating healthy ones!
Anyway, that’s it for today. It was a long but important one; thanks for sticking around. Leave your thoughts, questions, concerns in the comment section, as well as any other bits of evidence you’ve found that shows how we can affect our offspring.
I’m grateful to have our friend Darryl Edwards, fitness explorer and creator of the PRIMALity movement system, pen today’s guest post. Meet Darryl in-person and get expert instruction on how to make activity truly fun at PrimalCon Vacation Tulum Mexico 2014.
“We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing”
– George Bernard Shaw
When was the last time you played? I mean really played. You might regard organised sport as playtime or going to a party and getting drunk as play, but what I am actually talking about is play that is activity based on unadulterated and joyful movement. When children are asked what they think is important in life, play is often at the top of the list. Of course, most of us reading this article are no longer children, so how is this relevant to us as adults?
Play is not difficult to justify. Playful movement promotes practical strength, balance, agility, coordination, speed, skill and mental focus. Play unlocks the mind, it samples endless possibilities, it seeks and finds new levels of creative opportunities. Play is key to physical, mental, and social well-being, but it is often underrated and viewed as superfluous. Play is endemic to human development – a biological necessity based on our survival. As Stuart Brown the founder of the American National Institute for Play states “When we stop playing, we start dying…” Play is life!
Yet when it comes to exercise and activity adults still tend to opt for a workout rather than a play-out. I often get posed the question by my clients. “Why should we play, Darryl? I have better things to do with my time!” As is the case in most instances, the question is easily asked, but the answer is somewhat elusive. I usually respond by introducing them to a playful activity that challenges their perception of fitness. For example, doing an arm wrestle against a partner whilst standing on one leg (get a play partner and try it to see what I mean!)
One observation is that the fitness industry has a preference for sweat, pain, and suffering. With exercise we mistakenly believe we need to undergo significant sacrifice in order to get fit. We should be punished for even thinking about being sedentary. Despite lip service to the contrary, “No pain, no gain!” remains the industry mantra.
The path on this painful journey may be endurance based such as long-distance running or multi-discipline endurance (swim, bike, run) or ultra endurance races – because 26 miles isn’t enough? There is also the let’s-get-cross-and-fit-and-work-as-hard-and-as-fast-as-possible-camp, whose workouts of choice produce an inevitable collapse into a heap, and puking is the ultimate evidence of their commitment to hard work.
There is the pursuit and sacrifice of sculpting a body as if hewn out of clay by pumping iron and isolating certain body parts to build muscle, working to failure rather than success – without a hint of irony! There are also the movement disciplines, which focus on technique, skill and form above all else, reserved for the elite few who have the effort, money and patience to achieve the movement of genius. Another category becoming increasingly popular are long distance challenge-type runs with mud or military style obstacles. Are you man or woman enough to attempt – and suffer through – these challenges?
Of course don’t get me wrong there is a time and a place for hard work, and I’ve done my fair share of it. What I am suggesting is that we should find time for serious play too.
Well play can be confusing for us adults; it is either seen as frivolous, deemed as foolish, or blanketed as childish activity related to relieving boredom with no well-defined goals. Adults often judge play as an unnecessary task even for their children. Instead, they encourage their children to pursue more organized activities based on education or those leaning towards “sporting” talent. Due to our warped attitudes on the subject, time for spontaneous play is more and more difficult to come by. It’s ironic that we now pay other people to teach our kids how to play!
Consider these comments by David Elkind in the American Journal of Play:
School administrators and teachers – often backed by goal-orientated politicians and parents – broadcast the not-so-suitable message that these days play seems superfluous, that at bottom play is for slackers, that if kids must play, they should at least learn something while they are doing it.
– Elkind (2008) “The Power of Play: Learning what comes naturally”, American Journal of Play1
There are two aspects of play that are particularly relevant to us as adults: progressive play and imaginative play.
Progressive play serves the purpose of advancement – advancing from young to old through the function of play: Imagine a kitten practicing how to pounce, which is a precursor to catching prey. Or, a child learning how to climb a tree, developing tactics to manage risk as well as the ability to climb.
Imaginative play utilises techniques such as visualisation and focus to make you “work” harder. This is one reason athletes often use visualisation when training to improve their athletic performance. Research demonstrates that visualisation brings about quantifiable improvements as well as psychological changes.2 Studies also suggest that using mental imagery for movement can create similar electrical activity in the muscle as that seen during actual movement.3
One thing we understand as parents is that our kids are influenced by what we do or do not do as adults. If we demonstrate movement as being punitive, then our children will see movement and activity as punishing and something to fear. If we are playful and excited about activity, it gives our children an opportunity to enjoy movement too. Play is an essential activity regardless of age. As adults, it is absolutely critical to learn how to play again!
Playful movement does not need to be complicated. Lay it out in terms of basic movement patterns. Moves that are functional and possible to adapt for all – with challenges that can be scaled to each individual. You can piggy-back carry, focus on animal crawls and movements, or play games such as tag. In fact – even better – create your own games! What is the main beauty of this? The process of creating your own ad hoc set of play is more rewarding then following a set prescription of moves.
1“The Power of Play: Learning what comes naturally”, Elkind, American Journal of Play, 2008
2“Advances in Sport Psychology”, Champaign IL, Human Kinetics, 2002
3“Motor Control and Learning”, Champaign IL, Human Kinetics, 1999
Darryl Edwards is the author of “Paleo Fitness”, and founder of Fitness Explorer Training & Nutrition based in London, England. He is the creator of the PRIMALity movement system, and world-renowned as an expert teacher, lecturer and practitioner of the Paleo lifestyle. He will be hosting “Primal Playout” playshops during August in the US and is a resident coach at PrimalCon events. You can learn more about Darryl’s work at The Fitness Explorer.
Catch Darryl at PrimalCon Vacation Tulum Mexico next March. And check out this testimonial video from PrimalCon Austin 2013 attendees.
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