Get Down

When it comes to health and fitness, people want simple solutions: sitting is bad, so get a standing desk instead. Problem solved.

Except that the human body is complex, so most simple solutions don’t actually work in the real world. Prolonged periods of standing in a single position often create nearly as many problems as prolonged sitting in a single position.

To understand this better, consider nutrition: kale is healthful, but a diet of just kale isn’t. Instead, to optimize your diet, you need to ‘eat a rainbow,’ trying to get a variety of different foods of every color, because different colored foods contain different vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals: lycopene in red foods, anthocyanin in purple/blue, carotenoids like betacarotene in orange/yellow, etc. You need them all, and so your diet needs to be sufficiently varied.

So, too, with movement. Thus, the answer isn’t just a standing desk, or any other tool or gadget. Instead, it’s making sure that you sit and move in the broadest number of ways that you can.

Perhaps you’re at a traditional desk. Sure, you can sit in your chair. But you can also do a stretch of work kneeling on the seat.

Or perhaps you’re at a standing (or, even better, convertible) desk. There, you can spend part of your time with one foot on the floor and the other up on a chair, and then, after a bit, you can switch feet.

And, either way, you can also do some work (say, taking a call) seated on the floor. That’s a great way to watch TV, too: planted on the carpet in front of your couch. Try sitting in different ways – cross-legged, side-saddle, legs in front of you. With any of those, you also practice getting down to and back up from the ground, a skill that’s highly associated with decreased all-causes mortality.

You can try eating a meal with your family on the floor, as a picnic on the carpet. You can read a book while laying on the ground on your stomach, or your side. You can even flout good manners in the name of health, and climb up on your desk or table.

But across all those possibilities, the underlying strategy remains: get creative, and explore as many ways to sit and stand and move as you possibly can. Each will challenge your strength, mobility, balance, and posture, and expand your body’s ability to perform in and handle the stresses of the world.

From Coach Josh: The Backup Plan

Each Sunday, I chart out a carefully considered set of workouts for the week, following a periodized, balanced approach to strength, conditioning, mobility, and recovery. All in, it’s about an hour worth of stuff each day.

Some weeks, I manage to stick to the plan precisely.

Others, everything more or less goes to shit.

In the past month, I’ve had unexpected work developments dump huge piles of urgent work on my desk. I’ve had a death in the family rearrange my schedule around a funeral and sitting shiva. I’ve even jumped in for a few afternoons of nephew-wrangling when my brother’s nanny called in sick.

On those days, I just don’t have the time – or the mental bandwidth – to commit to hitting the gym.

In the past, when days like that happened, I just wouldn’t work out at all. The perfect – following my program precisely – became the enemy of the good – doing something rather than nothing.

But more recently, I’ve started to use a simple, standard fallback workout: I pull a 24kg kettlebell from my closet and do a single set of 50-75 swings.

That’s it. All in, it takes about two minutes, but it’s still a serious kick in the lungs, and a great way to train the muscles of my grip and my entire posterior chain – from my upper back down through my glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

Because I’ve made that one workout the default, I can hop right in, even when I don’t have the energy to think about what to do. And, though it’s short, it’s enough to make a meaningful contribution to my overall health.

Even more importantly, it’s also enough for me to be able to chalk the day up as a fitness success.

I’ve written before about aiming to never miss twice, and I think that’s still an excellent mantra – it’s the surest way to avoid letting one skipped workout become a whole month down the tubes.

But in crazy times, a short, simple, no-thought-required fallback plan also makes it much, much easier to make sure your day doesn’t become a ‘miss’ in the first place.

Process, Results

With February just around the corner, we’re about to hit The Big Resolutioner Fall-Off in gyms the world over. Statistics show that, after a month, more than 50% of people have already given up on their New Year’s resolutions, and by the first week in February, gym attendance drops precipitously from its January peak to the lower leves seen through the balance of the year.

Obviously, people give up on their resolutions – and their fitness resolutions in particular – for a slew of reasons. In most cases, however, there’s a single, over-arching cause: after a month of full-bore effort, most people don’t feel like they’re getting results that justify the effort.

Sure, there are more or less effective ways to improve your fitness. But body recomposition (losing fat and gaining muscle) is slow going in even the best of circumstances; research by the CDC and others has shown that people who sustain weight loss (rather than just yo-yoing back up) are those that lose about a pound a week. And as most people who take up exercise again after a break initially add muscle as well as losing fat, it’s pretty common to see scale weight only drop a pound or two over the course of a first month, even with strong, consistent effort.

When most people set goals (like New Year’s resolutions), they think in terms of results: “I want x to happen by time y.” For project goals – starting a company, buying a home, etc. – that makes sense, as you can then break those goals down into a series of sub-goals along the way, and chart your progress by seeing how well you knock off those projects. But losing weight (like, say, learning a language) is more of a process goal; it doesn’t break down well into smaller goals, but is instead just about doing the same thing, consistently, for an extended period of time. Worse, process goals rarely achieve linear results; instead, progress usually fluctuates up and down, like prices on the stock market, even while the overall trend moves in the right direction over time.

So evaluating process goals by their short-term results is a fast track to feeling demoralized and giving up. Instead, people who succeed tend to be those who make the process itself the goal: they evaluate their success not based on how much weight they lose, but on the percentage of their weekly meals they eat according to plan, or the number of times they work out in a given week. The always-insightful Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) talks about this as the difference between ‘systems’ and ‘goals’ – the goal being weight loss, but the system being eating healthfully and working out.

In our experience, that kind of system-focused thinking is far more effective, because it’s much more self-reinforcing. If you’re solely focused on results, in a given day, you’re unlikely to see enough physical change to feel good about yourself; but if you’re focused on process, on executing your system, every healthy meal, every trip to the gym is something about which you can pat yourself on the back.

So, if you’ve been pushing hard through January, but are feeling a dit demoralized, and on the brink of giving up, we’d strongly suggest you switch your thinking to a systems / process approach instead. Ask yourself which habits you could sustain at an 80% level or better over the balance of 2017 would make a real difference. Maybe it’s walking 10,000 steps daily, cutting out refined carbs, or hitting a gym class three times a week. Then start evaluating yourself, day by day, just on how well you hit those habits. Maybe even buy a calendar, and draw in a smiley face for each day you pull them off.

In all honesty, that still won’t move you faster along the slow path to weight loss, fitness, or health; but it will hugely increase the odds that you keep going throughout the balance of the year, in a way that will allow you, one cumulative step at a time, to actually reach those goals in the end.

Cold as Ice

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but we're fans of them, especially in water bottles.

We're always surprised to see how few people bring water with them to the gym in the first place, given how crucial hydration is to performance. Most athletes know that dehydration can reduce their endurance in longer-duration events. But the effect on shorter duration exercise, like sets of weightlifting or CrossFit WODs, is just as impressive: in one study, athletes who were only 2% dehydrated saw their high-intensity exercise performance drop by 45%.

Even fewer people know that the temperature of the water you drink matters, too. Studies have repeatedly shown that drinking colder water helps athletes go longer before reaching exhaustion, at higher mean power output, and improves performance on everything from the bench press to the broad jump.

So, in short, if you’re working out, you should probably be drinking plenty of water, and drinking plenty of cold water, along the way.

That’s where the vacuum comes in. Something like the insulated Kleen Kanteen (our go-to, and The Wirecutter’s top choice) will let you tote 20 ounces of ice cold water to the gym – even if you have to fill it hours and hours in advance (say, filling it with ice water in the morning and then hitting the gym post-work.)

If you’re picking up a Klean Kanteen, we'd suggest you go with the Cafe Cap 2.0 lid. That way, you can sip through it, without needing to unscrew each time you drink. You’ll drink more frequently. And, as a bonus, you’ll also be less likely to imitate Coach Josh's signature post-workout move: inadvertently pouring the first sip of water from an uncapped bottle down the front of your shirt.

Krauts

Over the past few years, research has increasingly highlighted the importance of the gut micro-biome. The bacteria inside us, it appears, play a large role in everything from obesity to cancer, from creativity and intelligence to autism and depression.

At this point, gut bacteria research is still in its early days; there’s much more that we don’t yet know than we do. But, at very least, it’s clear that having healthy, diverse gut bacteria is broadly important in a healthy life.

As eating probiotic foods aligns well with ancestral health practices (one of the ‘check-sums’ we use in Composite’s approach – if generations of pre-industrial health wisdom and new science align, it’s usually a good sign), we regularly recommend our clients eat a variety of probiotic (and pre-biotic) foods.

But like with many healthy eating recommendations, adding probiotics to your diet can come at a premium. Because probiotic bacteria are only effective if they’re still alive when you ingest them, manufacturers have to carefully monitor production and control temperatures during distribution and display, which quickly jacks up prices.

The probiotic supplement VSL #3, for example, has been well studied, and clinically validated in treatment of conditions like IBS and ulcerative colitis. But taking VSL at the dosage used in most of those studies runs about $4000 a year, well beyond what most people can spend as just one piece of optimizing their health.

Fortunately, there’s an equally effective, and far less expensive, alternative: make sauerkraut at home.

An ounce of sauerkraut contains the same count of probiotic bacteria as clinical doses of VSL #3, and far more than what you’d find in less expensive store brands of probiotic capsules. Indeed, a recent lab analysis of homemade sauerkraut concluded that one 16-ounce batch contained the same amount of probiotics as eight 100-capsule bottles of probiotics.

We realize that making sauerkraut at home is slightly intimidating. But it’s incredibly easy, and very safe. (Indeed, the FDA recently declined to add regulations around sauerkraut, noting that there had been no recorded cases of illness caused by sauerkraut and similarly pickled foods.)

Here’s what you’ll need:

  1. A big head of cabbage;
  2. Some salt;
  3. A food scale;
  4. A knife;
  5. A big bowl;
  6. A quart jar, or a similar container to hold the kraut as it ferments.

And here’s what to do:

  1. Slice the cabbage into thin strips.
  2. Weigh the cabbage strips, then weigh out 1/50th as much salt. (Ie, if you have 500g of cabbage, you need 10g of salt.)
  3. Put the cabbage and salt in the bowl, then knead it with your hands for about 10 minutes, until the cabbage starts to feel limp.
  4. Press the salted cabbage down into the bottom of the jar.

Voila. That’s the whole thing. Now all you need to do is wait.

Leave the jar somewhere room-temperature (i.e., out of direct sunlight). Over the course of the first day or so, liquid will leach out of the cabbage, creating a brine. You want the cabbage to be completely submerged in that brine (as cabbage that peaks out can mold rather than ferment), so you might want to place something like a glass filled with water into the mouth of the jar as weight on top of the cabbage to keep it pushed down.

After about a week, taste the sauerkraut. It will still be pretty sharp-tasting, though it will continue mellowing (and becoming more-probiotic rich) over time. You can safely leave the sauerkraut pickling for well over a month, though we tend to find two to three weeks is about right. Once you hit a point you like, put the whole thing in the fridge, which will grind further fermentation to a halt.

You can use the kraut as a condiment, though it’s also pretty delicious eaten straight. (For some reason, this sounds intimidating to a lot of people, though most people will happily eat kosher pickles straight from the jar. Good news: this is exactly the same thing, with the same taste, just with cabbage rather than cucumber.)

Again, a forkful a day vastly exceeds the probiotic value of even a big handful of probiotic pills. And at just a couple of bucks a batch, you certainly can’t beat the price.

Catching Up

About a year back, we blogged about the interesting relationship between science and practice in the health, fitness, and wellness worlds. On the one hand, a lot of what passes for ‘best practices’ in the trenches – from professional athletic teams’ weight rooms to your local Gold’s Gym – is completely unscientific garbage. But on the other, there’s also a long history of well-executed journal research simply lagging behind new and effective innovations that have already gained traction in the real world.

So it was particularly interesting to stand in the middle of that process, when a recently published meta-analysis of 27 weight-loss studies fully endorsed several of Composite’s key ideas that we’ve been developing over the past year and a half.

As the name implies, Composite is built on a multi-faceted approach; in building fitness, we think that the parts of your life that happen outside of the gym – things like nutrition, movement throughout the day, and lifestyle – are just as important as what happens in class.

We also think that coaches – the highly-trained leaders of those classes – have a role beyond teaching and guidance, as accountability points for those outside-of-class factors.

And we know that the community we build in classes can similarly reach beyond the gym, to provide support, encouragement, and motivation that helps people build and sustain healthy habits over the long term.

So it’s no surprise to us that the paper’s authors conclude precisely the same thing:

“Programs supervising attendance, offering social support, and focusing on dietary and lifestyle modification have better adherence than interventions not supervising attendance, not offering social support, and focusing exclusively on exercise.”

As we said, that’s not a surprise. Even so, it’s nice to be right.

From Coach Josh: Blue Collar Work Ethic

Like basically every other entrepreneur and self-improvement nerd in the world, I rolled into 2017 reading Tim Ferriss’ excellent new book, Tools of Titans, a collection of bite-sized insights and lessons from 200 podcast interviews with top achievers in a slew of areas.

In his first episode on the podcast, elite gymnastics coach Christopher Sommer talked with Tim about the first seminar that he held for adults, back in 2007: an all-day training for top CrossFit athletes and coaches.

We tried to do entry level plyometric work. The stronger the athlete, the faster they went down. […] We had 15 minutes on the schedule to stretch. [That] stretch took an hour and a half to complete. There were bodies lying everywhere; it was like we were in Vietnam. [And I said to my staff,] “what the fuck am I supposed to do now? They failed warmup. They failed warm-up.” 

Funny enough, I was at that seminar, and I always remember, just before the lunch break, Sommer rounding us all up to say, “I’ve never seen such strong people do such terrible gymnastics.”

Today, gymnastics-based training is a much bigger part of my (and Composite’s) approach, and I’d like to think Sommer would be (at least a bit) less appalled by my technique. But gymnastics training – like so much of fitness – is often slow, frustrating going. So I hugely appreciated the email he sent to Tim, when Tim was similarly struggling with learning a challenging new gymnastic movement:

Hi Tim,

Patience. Far too soon to expect strength improvements. Strength improvements [for a movement like this] take a minimum of 6 weeks. Any perceived improvements prior to that are simply the result of improved synaptic facilitation. In plain English, the central nervous system simply became more efficient at that particular movement with practice. This is, however, not to be confused with actual strength gains.

Dealing with the temporary frustration of not making progress is an integral part of the path towards excellence. In fact, it is essential and something that every single elite athlete has had to learn to deal with. If the pursuit of excellence was easy, everyone would do it. In fact, this impatience in dealing with frustration is the primary reason that most people fail to achieve their goals. Unreasonable expectations timewise, resulting in unnecessary frustration, due to a perceived feeling of failure. Achieving the extraordinary is not a linear process.

The secret is to show up, do the work, and go home. 

A blue collar work ethic married to indomitable will. It is literally that simple. Nothing interferes. Nothing can sway you from your purpose. Once the decision is made, simply refuse to budge. Refuse to compromise.

And accept that quality long-term results require quality long-term focus. No emotion. No drama. No beating yourself up over small bumps in the road. Learn to enjoy and appreciate the process. This is especially important because you are going to spend far more time on the actual journey than with those all too brief moments of triumph at the end.

Certainly celebrate the moments of triumph when they occur. More importantly, learn from defeats when they happen. In fact, if you are not encountering defeat on a fairly regular basis, you are not trying hard enough. And absolutely refuse to accept less than your best.

Throw out a timeline. It will take what it takes.

If the commitment is to a long-term goal and not to a series of smaller intermediate goals, then only one decision needs to be made and adhered to. Clear, simple, straightforward. Much easier to maintain than having to make small decision after small decision to stay the course when dealing with each step along the way. This provides far too many opportunities to inadvertently drift from your chosen goal. The single decision is one of the most powerful tools in the toolbox.

Tools of Titans, definitely worth the read.

Beyond the Monkey Stomp

With the year coming to a close, many people are starting to think about new year's resolutions. If 2017 aligns with decades of years previously researched, 'getting in shape' is likely to remain high on those resolution lists.

The fact that the same resolution tends to crop up, year after year, points to an ugly truth: the vast majority of people fall short of their annual get-in-shape goal. There are lot of reasons why they do, and we’ll try to look at a few of them in the days and weeks to come. But one problem that’s increasingly prevalent is that most people focus on ‘working out’ in stead of on ‘training.’

Training is something you do to achieve a specific performance goal or a physiological adaptation. To train, you start with that goal or adaptation in mind, then work backwards to construct a carefully-designed, science-backed plan that will take you, step by step, to where you want to end up.

Whereas working out is an end in and of itself, something you do regularly with a vague sense that it will get you to a nebulously-defined better place. And because you’re not clear on your plan, nor on metrics that will let you measure the effectiveness of your efforts along the way, you default to more subjective evaluations of your gym session. Did it seem super hard? Where you lying on the ground after in a pool of sweat? Are you painfully sore for days to come?

All of those seem like reasonable heuristics. If you’re sore, then certainly the workout did something. And if you toss your cookies midway through, then clearly the workout must have pushed you to the max. 

But, in fact, neither of those are reliable signposts. Your sore muscles (or DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness) simply mean you exceeded your current capacity for safe eccentric contraction. Your mid-workout cookie toss? Just a sign that you built up lactic acid systemically faster than your body could flush it out. Neither necessarily means your fitness level is improving. And it’s perfectly possible to get fitter, faster, without doing either one.

Elite coaches refer to this kind of pointless destruction as ‘monkey stomping’ their trainees. And, indeed, a lot of the GloboGym personal trainers we see seem to design workouts specifically to hit that sort of monkey stomp, knowing that clients want to feel like they left it all in the gym, are more likely to come back for a second session if they just got pushed to their limits in their first. CrossFitters, SoulCyclers, Barry’s Bootcampers, and others thrive on the monkey-stomped feeling. It’s the unspoken core selling point of most group exercise classes: we can kick your ass harder than anyone else.

But, it turns out, getting monkey stomped repeatedly is pretty unpleasant. And once the start-of-year drive towards righteous self-flagellation peters out, people tend to abandon those sorts of ‘take it to 11’ approaches in droves. Whereas people following an actual training approach, who don’t hate every single session, who can start to see meaningful progress from checkpoint to checkpoint and milestone to milestone, tend to increasingly build their commitment over the course of time, intrinsically motivated to further cement the training habit.

So, in short, if your plan for 2017 involves getting into shape, consider searching out professional advice from someone who can help you figure out a training plan rather than just a series of workouts. Ask them what the big picture of their approach for you would be, and how you’ll know if an individual session is pushing you forward. If they can’t answer that – or, worse, if their answer involves some variation of the monkey stomp – then turn and run (or, depending on Thanksgiving-to-Christmas binge eating, waddle) the other way. Make 2017 the year you cross ‘get in shape’ off your resolutions list for good.

[Obligatory deeply self-interested plug: after a bit of scaling up, Composite now has room for a handful of new clients, in NYC and elsewhere; shoot us an email if you’d like our take on what training – rather than just workout out – could mean for you.]

An Easy Hack for Healthier Eating

There's a saying in the business world: what gets measured gets managed. That works in fitness, too. 

Fortunately, when it comes to eating, it’s even easier. Science shows you don't need to measure – you just need to notice. A slew of recent studies have demonstrated that, simply by journaling what they eat, people lose literally twice as much weight as a non-journaling cohort.

The reason: most people already know how to eat better. (Eat more fruits and vegetables. Eat some protein and healthy fats. Stop eating processed crap.) Sure, we give Composite’s clients a lot of additional guidance to help them perfect their diets. But just following common sense usually gets people 80-90% of the way towards their goals.

The biggest problem, then, isn't knowledge. It’s action. With food, we too often act without thinking. We follow the dictates of our brain stem, the animal part of our brain, without stopping to consciously consider our choices. 

That's where food journaling comes in. Just a brief moment of pause to document what you're about to eat is enough to trigger cortical involvement, bringing in your more evolved conscious brain. In turn, that leads people to make better, more goal-oriented choices.

There are a nearly endless number of ways to food journal. In practice, however, we find the perfect is the enemy of the good. While apps like MyFitnessPal are comprehensive, they're also a pain in the butt to reliably use, so people tend to use them for just a few days before falling off. 

Instead, we’ve found a much simpler solution works just as well, yet is far easier to sustain over the long haul: use your smartphone to take take a picture of your food before you eat it.

For Composite clients, we set things up so that those pictures are submitted automatically to their coach, who can provide additional accountability. But you can also act as your own nutrition coach: every few days, look back over the food photos you’ve taken, and ask yourself what the health impact would be of keeping up that same way of eating for the rest of your life. Or consider how you would feel if you had to show the last few weeks of pictures to your physician, coach, or trainer. 

If your nutrition isn’t yet dialed in, I’d highly recommend trying this out. For the next two weeks, every single time you eat something, take a photo first. It doesn’t seem like much, but science and clinical experience backs us up: it really works.

Explore

In the age of the internet, the fitness community seems continually riven into opposing factions. Spend a bit of time Googling, and you can find troves of comments and blog posts alternately hating on and defending pretty much any fitness trend: CrossFit, bodybuilding, Olympic weightlifting, bodyweight training, distance running, stability work, yoga, P90x, etc., etc., etc.

In fitness, like much of the rest of the world, we seem inexorably drawn towards dogma, believing that our way is the one true way.  And research has long shown that we’re evolutionarily wired towards in-group bias, the desire to build up our own sense of self and community by beating down the differing communities around us.

But while there are nits to pick with all of those fitness trends, there are also great ideas to be pulled from each and every one of them.  Which you can only really learn by trying them out.  

Doing this requires “beginner’s mind”, approaching new disciplines with openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconception.  But as we become experts in one discipline, it becomes ever harder to achieve beginner’s mind in another.  We’re used to looking competent, being a pro.  We’ve built up our ego in our own world, and don't want to risk the embarrassment, confusion, and intimidation of becoming a newbie somewhere else.

Unfortunately, there’s not an easy out.  You just have to, as they say, feel the fear and do it anyway.  

Because, at the end of the day, nobody has a monopoly on the good ideas.  To keep learning and improving, you need to explore new skills and new approaches.  You need to collect insights and innovations from wherever you can.  You need to suck it up, look like an idiot, and grow.

That’s the only way to build a fitness composite that’s right for you.  As Bruce Lee put it,  “absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own."  That's it.

Group Classes!

Over our first year here at Composite, we've been focused on working one-on-one with private clients. 

Over this next year, however, we're planning to grow into a ‘clicks & mortar’ hybrid, offering group classes in a chain of real-world gyms.  Like our private training, the classes will be paired with a dedicated app that helps members continue to improve their health outside of the gym, with the same kind of accountability, expert guidance, community, and competition they get in class.

Starting this fall, we’ll be beta-testing group classes, a couple of times a week, in spaces around the city. If you might be interested in attending a class, come sign up for updates and we’ll keep you in the loop!

Golden Brown, Part IV: Make Like a Fern and Stay

Thus far, we’ve looked at why getting some sun is actually good for youhow to wisely choose and apply sunblock, and how to time your sun exposure to allow the maximum number of hours outside.

Today, however, we’ll be working from the inside out, starting with Polypodium leucotomos, a green leafy fern found in the wilds of Central and South America. Polypodium initially evolved as an aquatic plant, before a changing environment forced it to adapt to life on land. Unable to leverage the sun-blocking effects of water-cover as it had when it lived underwater, the fern instead evolved to produce powerful antioxidants that offset the free-radical damage of all-day above-water sun.

As recent research has shown, those fern antioxidants work nearly as well inside of you, too. By taking pills that contain Polypodium leucotomos extracts, like Heliocare or Solaricare, you can triple or quadruple your natural resistance to burns. In other words, if it might normally take you 15-20 minutes to scorch at a given UV intensity, you could instead hold out for a full hour. 

And while, in most cases, that’s not enough to supplant sunscreen, given how quickly sunscreen sweats and washes off (as previously discussed, ‘waterproof’ sunscreens are designed to weather just 40 minutes of swimming and sweating), a belt-and-suspenders approach seems like reasonable insurance.

Pick up some Heliocare or Solaricare, pop one in the morning, and another before and every few hours during your time in the sun. If nothing else, you can offset the $20 cost of a bottle by the money you’ll save on aloe vera. (Which, as we’ll see in the next installment, doesn’t really do much of anything anyway.)

Golden Brown, Part III: Make Like a Tree and Leave

Researchers who follow hunter-gatherer tribes in tropical and dessert areas have found a nearly universal pattern: during the very hottest hour or two of the day, the members of the tribe get out of the sun completely, to relax and eat in the shade. 

Over the course of a summer day, the UV index – the amount of UV radiation reaching ground level – varies hugely. At 12:30pm today in New York, for example, the UV index was at 10, enough to cause burns in just 10 minutes, blazing through even strong sunscreen. Whereas by 1:15, the index had dropped to a 6, allowing for a half hour before burning without protection, and for several hours of happy sun time with a layer of (full-spectrum) sunscreen applied.

A team of outdoorsy engineers in New Zealand recently released a free app, UV Lens, which provides daily hyper-local UV forecasts. With the app in hand, you can easily plan your schedule to mimic the wisdom of our hunter-gatherer ancestors: enjoy the sun in the morning, take a brief, strategically timed mid-day lunch break in the shade, and then head back out once the very highest UV stretch of the day has passed. That way, you can spend far longer outside overall, while still greatly reducing the risk of sun-damage and burn over the course of the day.

Golden Brown, Part II: Screened

As we shared in Part I, getting some sun is good for you, at least if you’re smart and careful about it.

Your first step to that end: get some good sunscreen.

Sunlight is made up of two kinds of ultraviolet rays: UVA and UVB. It’s the latter, UVB, that causes sunburns, so for decades sunscreen was designed to block UVB. But more recently, research has shown that UVA rays, which penetrate deeper, also substantially increase skin cancer risk, and cause wrinkles. (The EPA estimates that up to 90% of aging-related skin changes are actually caused by a lifetime’s exposure to UVA.)

Good sunscreen is therefore ‘full spectrum’ or ‘broad spectrum’, and blocks both UVA and UVB. While those were previously specialty products, in the last year or two, almost all the major sunscreen brands have released reasonably-priced, widely-available versions that block both spectrums. Make sure you only buy sunscreens that do.

Three more sunscreen tips: slather it on, do it often, and stop going nuts with the SPF.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, most people apply only 25-50% of the amount of sunscreen that they need per application, which reduces an SPF 30 sunscreen to an SPF 3. SPF ratings are based on applying two milligrams of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin. Which is a lot. Basically, you should briefly look like Casper each time you apply a layer if you want your sunscreen to actually do anything.

Next, a sunscreen is FDA-certified as ‘water resistant’ if it can hold up to 40 minutes of swimming or sweating. After that, all bets are off. So, while you’re on the beach, you also probably need to reapply every hour or so.

And, finally, just buy some SPF 30; after that, the numbers get kind of meaningless. A few years back, Procter & Gamble even sent a letter to the FDA, asking that the numbers be capped at 30, because real-world and laboratory light conditions are different enough to make higher SPFs of “dubious value” that are “at best, misleading to consumers.” 

So, to recap, buy some SPF30 full-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen. Put on a bunch, and keep reapplying. And then enjoy the sun!

Golden Brown, Part I: Get Some Sun

With beach weather upon us, we're spending this week on a roundup of summer sun tips, with the science behind each, so you can make smarter choices about what works, and what doesn’t.

First up: get some sun. It’s good for you.

While people completely ignore most public health advice, it seems we’ve actually taken warnings about the dangers of tanning too much heart.

Excess sun exposure (and sunburn) increases the risk of skin cancer. But too little sun exposure dangerously decreases your level of vitamin D (which your skin naturally produces when exposed to sun), increasing the risk of a slew of other cancers and heart disease. 

As one recent review study concluded, “the overall health benefit of an improved vitamin D status may be more important than the possibly increased melanoma risk resulting from carefully increasing UV exposure.” 

In other words, it’s healthy to get back out in the sun. Just be smart and careful about how you do it. Tune in tomorrow, and learn how to wear (good) sunscreen, the right way.

Suck it Up

For the most part, you should run the other direction from crash diets, fast fixes, and “one weird trick” solutions. But with summer upon us, there is at least one exercise you can still deploy in the last couple of weeks that will make you appear noticeably slimmer when you hit the beach.

It’s called the ‘stomach vacuum’, and it’s an old bodybuilder standby, used by competitors to achieve the waspish waist that was the hallmark look of that sport’s golden era.

The stomach vacuum works the transversus abdominis (or TVA), a deep postural core muscle that serves as essentially a natural corset, holding in your guts. Improving the maximal contractive strength of the muscle also increases the muscle’s tone – its degree of resting contraction. Which, as a result, will carve an inch or two visually off your waistline, even in just two or three weeks. 

Here’s how it works:

  1. Ideally, do this first thing in the morning. Or, at least, on an empty stomach.
  2. Start lying on your back, with your feet on the ground.  
  3. Take a full breath, then exhale through your mouth until you've blown out all the air.  
  4. Once your lungs are empty, pull your bellybutton down to your spine, as hard as you can. Really pull it down; the harder you pull, the closer to your spine your bellybutton gets, the better this works.
  5. At the same time, try to make your chest as big as possible (i.e., lift your chest up), though while still pulling down hard on your bellybutton.
  6. Hold that for 15 seconds.  
  7. Then relax, breathe normally for 15-30 second, and repeat, 2-4 times more.

If you stick with this exercise over the course of the summer, you can slowly increase the duration of each hold, adding 5-10 seconds each week, until you’re holding for 60 seconds for each of your 3-5 sets.

Again, this should drop two inches off your waist in just two to three weeks. And, as a bonus, engaging your TVA improves power transfer in athletic movements, and may even protect your low back from tweaks and injuries. 

Suck it up, indeed.

Hot & Cold

About 40 years ago, Dr. Gabe Mirkin coined the acronym RICE – Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation – which has been the standard treatment protocol for most athletic injuries ever since. 

Recently, however, a slew of studies have begun to show that icing actually delays healing. (For some good examples, see this one and this one.) The studies are persuasive; so much so that even Dr. Mirkin has changed his mind, updating RICE to the new (albeit much less pronounceable) MCE: Movement, Compression, Elevation. 

In short, while inflammation was initially considered to be a source of damage (hence icing, which reduces that inflammation), scientists increasingly understand that inflammation is actually a key part of the healing process, with inflammatory cells called macrophages releasing hormones into the damaged tissue to help with repair. (Here’s a recent study on that process.)

Eagle-eyed readers will note that Mirkin isn’t just dropping icing, he’s also swapping rest for movement (or, more specifically, for “move safely when you can as much as you can”). Continuing to gently move an injured joint or muscle promotes the flow of fluid into and out of the area around the injury (which allows those macrophages to get in when they need to work, and to depart once they’re done), and prevents the injured tissues from wasting as they would with complete rest.

So throw out that stack of old ice packs in your freezer, and start thinking of creative ways to say “MCE” out loud.

Apnea

What We SAID

In exercise science, there’s a principle known as SAID, or ‘specific adaptation to imposed demands’: when your body is exposed to a stress, it responds by improving your biomechanical and neurological ability to handle that stress. 

Start doing pull-ups regularly, and your body will get better at pull-ups, increasing the strength in your lats and biceps, and reinforcing the tendons in your shoulders and elbows.

But SAID also dictates that adaptation is specific. So while practicing pull-ups will make you better at pull-ups, it won’t necessarily improve your ability to pull yourself up a mountain face while rock-climbing.

For years, the gospel of SAID kept most athletes locked into the most literal version of their sport. If you wanted to train for a marathon, you’d simply go for increasingly long runs.

Let Us Be (Less) Specific

Over time, however, scientists began to discover that adaptation wasn’t quite as specific as initially believed. Because most sports depend on a constellation of intertwined skills and abilities, other types of training could often develop those constituent skills and abilities more effectively than simply (or solely) practicing the goal sport itself. 

Rather than just going for long runs, for example, marathoners began to integrate interval and tempo work – practicing the skill of running faster for short distances, and then working on sustaining a higher pace for gradually greater distances. Though neither type of run was as ‘specific’ as a long-distance jog, they helped runners improve faster than long-distance jogging alone, and athletes began to set new records, year after year.

As athletes and coaches further experimented, they began to see that even more distantly-related variants of the initial task could be valuable. In the early days of the competitive marathon, for example, weight-training was considered anathema to running. By now, virtually all marathoners have extensive weight-lifting programs. And the details of those programs have evolved over time, too. While runners initially used light weights for a large number of reps (reasoning that it more closely mirrored the endurance-heavy nature of the goal task), now elite runners instead tend to focus on developing skills like power-endurance in the weight room. Though a heavy set of cleans is a far cry from a long-distance jog, it turns out to pay greater dividends on the road than time spent doing multiple sets of 20-rep leg extensions.

Far, Far Away

Today, some of high-level athletes’ training modalities seem ridiculously distant from the sort of specific training that once dominated the show. For example, hyperthermic conditioning – or, sitting in a sauna or steam room – has recently come into vogue. Scientists discovered that regular time in the sauna boosts plasma volume and blood flow to your heart and muscles, increasing endurance in even highly-trained athletes.

In other words, while adaptation may be specific, a modern and science-based understanding of training has a much broader definition of what, exactly, ‘specific’ might mean.

Most of us have limited time (and energy) to devote to fitness, so it makes sense for us to focus on the things that give the most bang for the training buck. And from that perspective, a few sessions a week of strength training and metabolic conditioning are all you need to get into great shape.

But because Composite works with pro, semi-pro, and serious amateur athletes, we’re also always on the lookout for things (like hyperthermic conditioning in the sauna) that can help juice out additional percentage points of performance gains.

That’s what led us to a series of recent experiments with apnea tables, an idea borrowed from the world of spearfishing and free-diving (a sport of diving to SCUBA depths while simply holding your breath).

Let’s Get Metabolic

To understand why apnea tables work, you first need to know a bit about energy metabolism. When we work out at high levels of intensity, our bodies route around our cells’ mitochondria (which generate energy in a more sustainable, but slower, way) to create energy directly, in the rest of the cell. That process, anaerobic metabolism, is much faster, though it creates an increasing build-up of lactic acid as a by-product, called metabolic acidosis. Eventually, as enough lactic acid builds up, we hit what’s called the lactate threshold: we ‘feel the burn,’ and need to slow down or stop.

But where that threshold is, exactly, varies from person to person. In short, the higher the threshold, the more metabolic acidosis you can tolerate, and the greater your exercise endurance.

As you exercise, your body also creates carbon dioxide, or CO2. And CO2 is a buffer against lactic acid. So the higher the level of CO2 in your blood, the more metabolic acidosis you can tolerate.

We’ve long known that’s one of the ways endurance training works: you increase your tolerance of CO2, which increases your tolerance for metabolic acidosis, which increases your performance and endurance.

Just (Don’t) Breathe

But while you can improve CO2 tolerance indirectly through exercise, it turns out you can also train it directly.

When you’re holding your breath, your body doesn’t actually monitor the amount of oxygen in your blood. Instead, it monitors the amount of CO2. As it climbs, you feel like you need to breathe. But that feeling has a lot of margin of error built in. Most people can only hold their breath for 30-45 seconds, due to CO2 tolerance, but it takes a full 180 seconds, or three minutes, before your oxygen levels really begin to drop.

So free-divers and spearfishers have developed ways to improve CO2 tolerance, in an attempt to hold their breath for longer and longer durations. (With practice, a decent free-diver can go 5-6 minutes on a single hold.)

Their main training tool is called an apnea table, which alternates static periods of breath-hold with decreasing periods of recovery breathing. 

It looks like this:

Round 1 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 1:30

Round 2 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 1:15

Round 3 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 1:00

Round 4 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 0:45

Round 5 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 0:30

Round 6 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 0:15

Here’s a good iPhone app that does a more tailored, dynamic, and easily counted version of the same thing. (It’s what we and our athletes have been using.)

With increasingly brief durations to catch your breath between holds, and less time to flush the carbon dioxide from your blood, your CO2 level will slowly climb over the course of the protocol. Which, in turn, builds your ability to tolerate the increased CO2. (Nota bene: if you’re doing it right, you should likely feel a little light-headed by the end. Sit or lie down while you’re practicing, so that you don’t injure yourself if you happen to pass out. And never, ever try this in water; drowning is tacky.)

From what we’ve seen, most free-divers recommend trying this just once a week, as well as a weekly workout on an oxygen table (where the breathing periods are constant, but the holds increase). While we suspect the latter would be beneficial to endurance, too, we've focused our experiment solely on the CO2 / apnea table, to better isolate its effects.

Great Success!

And, in short, the effects have been pretty impressive. One of our athletes 500m row times had held steady at 1:47 for the past few years. After just six weeks of apnea table practice, however, he pulled a 1:42 – a whopping 5% improvement. And, at least as importantly, a slightly slower row (2:00/500m) now seemed far, far easier in terms of perceived exertion, leaving him much less gassed when one shows up mid-workout. 

We’ve seen similar improvements on running and metabolic conditioning times; the athletes on whom we’ve been testing the apnea tables have seen 3-8% performance bumps across the board. 

At less than 15 minutes of weekly time commitment, it seems more than worth trying out. If you do, let us know how it goes; we're definitely curious to test this further, and will report back with more data once we do.

Calories In, Calories Out, Part III: “In” – Digestion

As we wrote in Part I of this series, fitness, nutrition, and medical authorities often reduce weight management to “calories in – calories out”. That sounds scientific enough, and it’s true at a very simplistic level. But it also glosses over a huge amount of real-world detail, hidden in the definitions of “calories,” “in,” and “out.”

So in Part II, we took a deeper look at what calories really are. Though they have the reassuring appearance of objective, quantifiable fact, they’re instead misrepresentatively averaged numbers, based on massaged data, outdated assumptions, and fundamental misunderstandings of how your body actually processes food, and creates and uses energy.

In that post, we eventually concluded that we can’t even really answer a basic question, like “how many nutritional calories are in this cup of strawberries?”

We’re not stopping there, though, because things keep getting worse. While we have real trouble determining the macronutrient content of that cup of strawberries (hint: it’s probably not the “24 calories – 0.2g fat, 6 g carbohydrates, 0.5g protein” asserted by the USDA), things go further downhill once we put those strawberries into our mouths.

That leads us to today’s topic, the first half of what ‘in’ means: digestion.

Before we even start to chew things over, though, are you cooking the strawberries, or eating them raw? 

Cooking is a chemical process, which changes the molecular makeup of food. Consider a potato. When it’s raw, a large portion of the carbohydrates it contains is in a form our body doesn’t well digest. As we cook the potato, however, the starch gelatinizes, converting into a form that we can now digest more easily, allowing us to absorb more nutritional energy – more calories – from the same food. But let’s say you then put the potato into the refrigerator, to eat later. As it cools, a percentage of the carbohydrates converts back into ‘resistant starch,’ which digest differently than either of that carbohydrate’s prior states. Thus, a hot boiled potato (at 180ºF) has a glycemic index (a rating of your body’s insulin response to that food) about 20% greater than the same amount of white bread; whereas that potato cooled to 80ºF triggers about a 25% smaller insulin response than white bread. In other words, if we cook food, how we cook it, and what we do to the food after we cook it, all have huge impact on how our body absorbs the calories it contains.

Then, of course, you put the food into your mouth.

And you chew it. But how much do you chew it? In one study, people fed two ounces of almonds chewed each bite 10, 25, or 40 times. And, in short, those who chewed the almonds more times absorbed significantly higher amounts of healthy fat, and had longer hunger suppression and lower insulin response, then those who chewed the same amount of almonds less extensively.

And that doesn’t take into account how wet or dry your mouth is. Because your saliva also contains a variety of enzymes that actively digest food while you’re chewing. You can test this yourself, with a saltine cracker: simply put a whole saltine in you mouth, and wait. Your saliva contains the enzyme amylase, which catalyses the hydrolysis of starch into sugars. After a few minutes, the saltine will begin to taste sweet, because you’ve literally turned your low-sugar cracker into a high-sugar cookie through the power of drool.

Then, you swallow the food. In your stomach, digestion continues. But here, too, a huge number of factors impact how much digestion, and of what kind, takes place. For example, is your stomach empty or full? Did you eat those previously discussed strawberries alone, or with something else? Both of those impact digestion. So does stress. Your body’s fight-or-flight response prioritizes short-term survival over longer-term concerns like digesting food, so if your stress level is high, and you’re chronically stuck in a fight-or-flight state, the transit time through and acid level in your stomach changes. Also, do you have regular indigestion, GERD, or a history of ulcers? All of those imply too much or too little stomach acid (sometimes caused by the bacteria H. pylori), which further radically alters the degree to which you digest food in your stomach.

So, thus far, we have an unknown number of calories in our food, that have been changed in unknowable ways by cooking, chewing, salivating and stomach digesting. Let’s keep this party going!

Next up, we’re on to your intestines. This is where we start absorbing nutrients, as broken-down food particles pass through the gut barrier. How healthy are your intestines? A slew of factors affect GI health, which in turn determines how efficiently nutrients can pass through them into your blood stream. And again, how stressed are you? As with the stomach, stress changes the time it takes food to pass through your intestines, similarly affecting absorption. Finally, how long are your intestines? It turns out that varies substantially from one person to the next, and the amount of nutrients you can absorb through your intestines is to a large degree determined by their length. (That’s perhaps why, though intestinal length doesn’t correlate with height, it does correlate closely with weight.)

As a last stop, whatever’s left of the food enters your colon. Here, it’s a team effort. Your colon is home to literally ten pounds of bacteria, which help you break down nutrients (like “indigestible” fiber) that you couldn’t on your own. For example, if you have the right bacteria, and they’re healthy and active, they can convert certain kinds of unusable vegetable fiber into the short-chain fatty acid butyrate, a very usable (and neuro-protective) fuel for your brain. As we’re just beginning to learn, we have a huge number of different strains of gut bacteria, their relative percentage varying starkly from one person to the next. Depending on the number of each bacteria and their overall health, and the amount of mucin (the natural protective layer) coating the inside of your colon, the kinds of nutrients that get processed, how much of each does, and how well each passes through the gut barrier, all vary hugely as well.

At that point, you poop out the leftovers. (Squatty potty, anyone?) As discussed, an array of nutrients from the food have now passed into your body along the way. But due to all the aforementioned factors, we have basically no idea what percentage of the ingested nutrients that represents (and of food where we similarly already have no idea how many calories, let alone how much of specific macronutrients, it contains).

Or course, digestion is just the first half of what ‘in’ actually means. Once those nutrients pass into your body, you have to do something with them. So tune in shortly for Part IV, when we look at how your body puts incoming nutrients to use, and (perhaps not surprisingly) the already convoluted plot just continues to thicken.

Calories In, Calories Out, Part II: “Calories”

Yesterday, we wrote that the basic ‘thermodynamic’ equation of weight loss (calories in – calories out = net calories) glosses over a lot of important information, mainly by obscuring the definitions of ‘calories’, ‘in’, and ‘out’.

So let’s clear things up a bit, starting today with calories themselves.

When we discuss “calories” in food, we actually mean “kilocalories”, as nutritional calories are based on 1000 thermodynamic calories. Outside of the nutritional world, a kilocalorie is a well-defined measure of energy: the amount of heat required to increase the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree celsius at a pressure of one atmosphere (i.e., at ground level).

We test calories in food using what’s called a ‘bomb calorimeter’. Basically, it’s a device for blowing up food, and then seeing how hot the explosion makes surrounding water. To operate a bomb calorimeter, you take a small amount of food, and put it into a metal canister filled with pure oxygen, with a fuse that extends out to an electrical ignition. Then you submerge the metal canister, floating it in a kilogram of water. You carefully check the temperature of the water at the start. Then you hit the ignition, and the food explodes. As it does, the heat from the burning food begins to raise the water temperature. By tracking how much the temperature increases at its peak, how many degrees celsius the water temperature rises from the starting point, you’ve got the number of kilocalories in the food you just blew up.

Odds are, you aren’t a biologist. But you’re likely still aware that this isn’t really what happens inside of your body. You don’t walk around with a series of explosions detonating in your stomach all day long. (However, insert fart joke here.)

Tomorrow, when we look at ‘calories in’, we’ll try to get a better sense of what your body actually does to extract the energy from food. But before then, there are a few even more fundamental problems.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Wilbur Olin Atwater, a scientist at Wesleyan University, set out to understand the connection between heat calories (the kind you measure when blowing up food) and nutritional calories (the metabolisable energy your body derives from that food), through a series of experiments.

Atwater tested the heat calories in a wide variety of foods. And then he tested the heat calories in the feces of people who had eaten those same foods, to determine ‘apparent digestibility’, the percentage of the calories absorbed by the body rather than excreted.

The results of those experiments are the “Atwater factors”, the well-known idea that a gram of fat contains 9 calories, while a gram of protein or a gram of carbohydrate each contain 4 calories.

Most people don’t realize, however, that those numbers are averages. Not all fats, proteins and carbohydrates have the same amount of heat calories per gram. Similarly, not all fats, proteins and carbohydrates have the same apparent digestibility. So Atwater devised weighted values for the gross heat of each macronutrient, based on what he thought to be their prevalence in the standard diet at the time.

Similarly, Atwater first tested the apparent digestibility of individual foods. Then he started combining foods together, the way we do when we actually eat things. At that point, however, the numbers started to muddy up. Unfazed, Atwater simply came up with ‘adjustments’ that he hoped might account for the discrepancies in the mixed diet numbers.

When Atwater was doing his experiments, the best-selling Fannie Farmer cookbook was just introducing newfangled kitchen technology like the measuring cup and spoon. The cookbook featured perennial favorites of the time, like turnip croquettes, tomato cream toast, and Washington-style terrapin (turtle served in white sauce with its liver, small intestine, and “any turtle eggs”).

In other words, the ‘standard diet’ on which Atwater based his average computations is more than a bit different from what most of us eat today.

Similarly, Atwater’s ‘adjustments’ to account for mixing foods are difficult to justify in retrospect as anything other than liberal massages of the raw data to better align with his intended conclusions.

So even before we begin to look at how our bodies digest and assimilate foods, it’s clear that perhaps calorie math – which has the reassuring appearance of incontrovertible science – isn’t quite as objective and accurate as we might hope.

Indeed, calorie math doesn’t really take into account the difference between, say, a gram of carbohydrates from a strawberry and a gram of carbohydrates from a pear, or what happens when we eat them together, along with some sugar and cream. (Which, as an aside, sounds delicious.)

Further, it doesn’t even take into account the substantial differences from one strawberry to the next. A huge number of factors in the life of each strawberry can affect its nutritional content. At what time of the year was the strawberry planted and picked? How often was it watered, and how much? Was it fertilized? How much direct sunlight did it get, and how close was its nearest strawberry-plant neighbor? As a result of these and countless other questions, any given strawberry might have different amounts of fructose, glucose, sucrose, soluble and insoluble fiber, and micronutrients than the next.

The result of all of this is that we can’t even answer a very basic question, like “how many nutritional calories are in a cup of strawberries?” We have pretty much no idea.

So, calories. Not really what they’re cracked up to be.

But wait, it gets worse! Tune in for Part III, to learn why, even if we knew how many nutritional calories were actually in that specific cup of strawberries you’re holding, it still has only a small bearing on what happens once you actually put them into your mouth.