26 October 2014

Primal Living Part 2 - Ancestral health in the modern world

Last week in Part 1, we introduced the key principals of the Primal Lifestyle -- namely, what to eat and how to exercise. This week, it may serve helpful to discuss some of the background of the Primal Blueprint and where it fits in with life in the 21st century. In doing so, we examine the analogy of "Ancestral Health" by which we mean, emulating the habits of our ancestors whom existed for thousands of years without any of the "lifestyle diseases" plaguing us today. The goal is to understand how to adopt these principals and live primal in the sedentary, highly processed, over-worked world the majority of us live in . 

Ancestral Health

A common misconception about wanting to live like our paleolithic counterparts is that it's about actually turning back time. It's not. Being paleo or primal isn't about camping in your backyard, producing all of your own food, or hunting stray animals. The idea is to use what we know about evolutionary biology through the use of modern science and marry it with the principles and concepts of our ancestors that evolved and lived in optimal physical condition for hundreds of thousands of years. Now, I've explained this to a few friends and the usual question is “isn’t life expectancy much longer now than it was for cavemen?” While the logic behind this question may be understandable, it's still misguided. Yes today, odds are, we will live pretty long lives - much longer than people did 5000 years ago. However, this is because we don’t have to worry about dying from the flu, an infected cut or the shock of a broken limb, not because we are more physically fit and healthy. Plus, we don’t have to worry about being attacked by bears, hyenas, snakes or crocodiles as much as we once had to. What we do have to worry about is obesity, heart-attacks, Alzheimer's disease  and strokes.

Our declining health is absolutely the most important wide spread societal problem there is. Public health care budgets are ballooning so much that it's becoming general consensus that in 30 years such support will cease to exist. Billions of public and private dollars are funneled to providing health care. What makes this worse is that all of these leading conditions creating this drain on facilities, professionals and resources are generally agreed upon to be preventable. The problem is that most people have just been given the wrong information. Fat-free, carbohydrate rich foods do not make up a healthy diet.  The truth of the matter is, outside of the last 300 years, the modern western diet wasn't even possible for our species to survive on - let alone thrive on.
Sugary foods at the base of the pyramid? Crackers healthier than Broccoli? This is crazy. 
The reality is that our ancestors simply didn’t regularly  have the carbohydrate heavy foods that have become the basis of the modern western diet. Rice, bread, corn syrup, pasta, sugar and fruit weren’t routinely eaten because they were incredibly difficult to gather and produce (impossible in some cases depending on the region). Animal meat and fresh vegetables were the staple foods that have sustained humans for hundreds of thousands of years. Fruits were seasonal, in tall, difficult to access trees  and competed for with more nimble animals and thus only available in relatively small amounts. Even honey was protected by bees. Where today we can have something sugary sweet whenever we want in large amounts, foods full of glucose and fructose were a rare treat for our primal brethren. Nevertheless, thanks to a combination of poor science, selfish economics and shortsighted governance, we have the USDA approved Food Pyramid above. Odds are, anyone who went to school after the 1960s learned this as the key to a healthy diet. I bet I didn't even need to include the image, everyone knows it. How could we have been so wrong? Not only is it backwards in term of carbohydrates, but look at those tiny little white triangles representing sugar. How on earth can the foundation of a healthy diet include sugar? If you want to refresh your memory, click here to see the Primal food pyramid. The one that is actually good for you. 
Eat less carbs, be more healthy. This is the most important rule people need to know.
This chart shows the simple relationship between the bodies natural ability to burn fat efficiently, which is what we all want and need to be able to do in order to maintain good health. It also shows the disruption carbohydrates do. Generally, and if we're speaking entirely of weight control, there is a range between 100 and 150g of carbohydrates per day that the average person can eat without gaining any weight. Any more than 150g and you enter the "Insidious Weight Gain" zone. Here, your carb intake is high enough that your body looks to them for all energy conversion rather than fat. If you train hard enough (60 minutes of intense daily workouts), then you can offset the insulin boost. If not however, any carbs not used are converted to fat and packed away, leaving a trail of sugar behind. 

Most of us aren't performance athletes
If you love it, go ahead and train like a marathon runner, but if your goals are just to look and feel good, and fight off disease, it shouldn't be that difficult. 
The reality is that food and activity are the cornerstones of any approach to improve health and the Primal way is no different. What is unique, is the principles of what you eat and why, and the significance this has on overall health. It’s a common belief that living healthy is mostly based on what you eat relative to how much you exercise. Most diets and workout plans will say this. Primal Living uses a ratio of about 80:20. Why is it then, that so many people spend 45 minutes to 2 hours of painful, boring and expensive time exercising on most days just to be healthy? Is that really necessary? If you’re a competitive soccer player or triathlete, all the power to you, it’s commendable that you have a passion and are so dedicated to it. Most of us don't have that passion. Most of us just want to feel better, look good , and reduce our chances of having a stroke while we still have a mortgage. 

Another big benefit with Primal is that I can miss workouts pretty regularly without feeling any effects. Sick, tired, busy or just not feeling like it isn't a detriment to my weight, energy levels or performance. 
Besides, this is isn’t about the triathletes. This is about the everyday worker that has a family history of heart-disease and wants to be able to play with their grandchildren. Why do they need a a carb-boost every 3 hours? Just so they can workout every afternoon? Or, do they work out every afternoon so that they can eat that jam bagel every morning and bowl of pasta every night? Is the point of eating and working out to ensure that we can and need to do both, or is the point of both to live a healthy life that satisfies us? Personally, I know I'm pretty lazy. Whether it's because of work, entertainment, leisure or rest -  I don't want to have to spend 1 hour a day exercising just to be healthy. I also don't want to feel like a failure and put on weight if something happens and I can't work out for a few days or weeks. It shouldn't be that hard and it doesn't have to be. 

Next week, I will discuss some of the similarities and differences between the other noteworthy high-protein/low-carb diets - Paleo and Atkins. I will also  try providing some insight into my personal habits and daily routines for those that may want a practical, real-world picture of an average person and how they go about maintaining their health long-term without trying very hard.

For any more information, or the scientific research behind any of this, head to MarksDailyApple as a starting point. On that note, just so we’re clear, this is heavily backed by current and increasing bodies of academic research based on health, nutrition and evolutionary biology. What I’ve tried to do is provide a very simple, layman's description of what this all entails.

22 October 2014

Primal Living part 1 - The blueprint to long-term and enjoyable health without trying very hard

What is Primal?

First of all it's not a diet. Where typical diets tend to focus on working to adhere to strict eating and exercise programs to achieve fitness goals, the Primal lifestyle reflects a complete transformation in how "being healthy" is thought of, understood and therefore, approached. Diets and training plans have always been funny to me as there's almost an inherent tone of being temporary. This piece is about living according to the Primal Blueprint and achieving long-term health and happiness.

Primal Living was developed by +Mark Sisson and is outlined in the original (but first of many) book on living primal, the Primal Blueprint (I bought ebook on Google Play). Primal living is built on the the idea that as humans we have the ability modify the capabilities of our genes and how they metabolism and process everything about our bodies (within reason). One of the many mantras is to turn yourself into a "fat burning beast" by training your genes to burn fat more efficiently and lose weight, look better and get healthier all with minimal effort. This may sound too good to be true, but it isn't. To say minimal effort doesn't mean there's a magic drug or food that does everything for you. We're actually talking about not having to spend 5 to 10 hours a killing yourself with workouts only to feel depleted.

Eating Primally

Like anything related to health the key principles of the Primal Blueprint revolves around food and exercise. However, the fascinating thing is how radical primal nutrition and exercise are compared to the traditional western diet.
This entire infographic which very simply outlines the primal principles can be found here 
This is the Primal Food Pyramid. While it may look similar to the one we all learned in school, emphasising diets rich complex carbohydrates and free of fat and cholesterol, it's almost entirely backwards. The key here is to eat as much fresh meat and vegetables as you like. Beef, pork, bacon, seafood and chicken (dark meat included) are all good. Couple good meat with colourful vegetables and that's most what primal Living is all about. The poisonous substances to avoid whenever possible are those that are high in carbohydrates whether natural or not, primarily the sugar, grains polyunsatured oils and beans or legumes our bodies are not meant to digest healthily or efficiently.

The most interesting thing for me is the positive note around fat. As long as I could remember, I've heard fat is the enemy and that it will lead to heart attacks and obesity. We grew up on skim milk and fat free margarine. "Eating fat will make you fat" seemed logical and was simple enough for most of us to understand.
Why are muffins and sugary cereals considered breakfast food? 
Without going into much of the complicated research behind everything (MarksDailyApple has all the education you could ever want and a very enthusiastic and welcoming online community), as far as food is concerned, these are the bullet points:

1. Your body needs protein and animal meats are the richest source there is
2. Healthy fats satiate you (keep you fuller longer), are the best source of sustained energy and are crucial for brain health (I strongly recommend Grain Brain by Dr David Perlmutter)
3. Carbohydrates cause spikes in insulin levels, inflammation and trigger hormonal responses making you feel more hungry. They do give you energy, but only in short bursts and if they aren't burnt off, get converted into fat anyway.

Primal Fitness

Here we have the pillars of the Primal workout. Much like the food pyramid, it's very unconventional. The most shocking, and slightly disheartening thing for me, is the absence of jogging. This isn't a coincidence. The Primal Blueprint actually advises against any exercise that is of medium intensity done for prolonged periods of time. As someone who does have a love for the 30-45 minute run, I'm not a fan, but am coming around to the principles. 

Basically, what we should do most often is move slowly - walking, cycling, hiking and any other form of light cardio that can be done as often as we have time for. The next step is for strength training a a couple of times a week where you "lift heavy things". Lastly, every week or so, do a few sprints, but cycling, skipping and swimming works as well. The key is to just move as fast as you can for 10-20 seconds and rest in between reps. For a brief snapshot of what I do in terms of fitness (with a detailed piece next week), this is a very brief breakdown:

1. As much as I can: Walk. The dog, to work (I live 1km away), around the block or around the house or yard. If I can make an excuse to "move frequently at a slow place" by parking further away from something or do an extra lap of the shops I will.
2. Every 2-3 days: A 15 minute session of pushups, squats and situps. No weights. For "lifting heavy things" I just use my body.
3. Once a week (or two): I jog down the street to a local soccer field and "sprint" half the length 6-10 times walking back each time, then jog back home.

This is basically it as far as dedicated "ok, time to exercise" time goes. Overall it probably adds up to no more than 2 hours a week. Granted, this is a bit low, but so is my personal bar. All I'm trying to do is maintain the weight, body shape and feelings of vitality I have now. If I was chasing personal bests, trying to slim down, or trying to bulk up, I'd be putting in a bit more than 2 hours a week.

Being healthy is 80% dependant on your health, so working out is really just a matter of giving your body a bit of time to move around and boost circulation and give the muscles the test they need to stay vital. I love playing basketball and I love running, so I do those whenever I the opportunity arises but we're talking once a month if that am I ever spending a sustained hour of dedicated exercise unless I am loving it. The days of pushing yourself beyond the point of enjoyment for hours on end are finished. 

Humans have survived for thousands of years before gyms, marathons, treadmills, breakfast cereal, bagels or spaghetti bologna is existed. For all of this time, the main killers were infectious diseases and predators. Now, science and technology has taken us to a point where most diseases and almost all predators aren't things we have to worry about in the cushy western world in which we live. But with all of these advances, why are obesity, diabetes, cancer, alzheimer's becoming more prevalent every day? For the last 40 years we've been told it's because we're eating too much fat and not enough complex carbohydrates. Fat free, high carb food is everywhere, so why aren't we getting healthier?

Next week, I will go into the (very basic) background of the Primal analogy built around the idea of "ancestral health". I'll also try to finish with a very simple, yet accurate recount of a how my daily life follows and what Primal living means for me. If you're interested in reading more about the benefits of living the Primal lifestyle,  head over to MarksDailyApple.Com. 

12 October 2014

Help me choose a Fitness Tracker

Fitness trackers seem to becoming common ground these days. Thanks to the capabilities of the modern smartphone, GPS tracking, activity sensing and the communication across all devices, keeping statistics on your steps, movements, distances and sleep both easy and robust. At least for those that aren't elite athletes, these these affordable and somewhat stylish fitness accessories may be the personal trainer and assistance many of us would love.

Choosing between options from +Fitbit +Jawbone +Garmin and +Runtastic is proving to be a big challenge for me. Here is a basic breakdown of the most highly touted fitness trackers I've found, and would love your insight on experiences you've had with them. 

I've been doing my research, and speaking to those that have one for about a year now in trying to decide on whether or not it would be a good purchase and if so, which one to get. My big fear is that all of that activity tracking may end up being gimmicky after a few weeks. Readings do suggest that that app activity and usage drops a fair bit after 6 months. This seems reasonable to me. People have a very hard time sticking to and caring about going to the gym or their latest running program for the long term, so it's not hard to imagine getting apathetic with this. How long could people actually be interested in knowing about their steps and calories each day? I really could see myself not caring to put it on after a couple months thinking to myself "I think I know, there's no real need by now".

That being said, the price of these is quite reasonable ranging from $80 to $200 depending on the features desired. A quick scan of comparison models and prices are as follows:

Price (AUD)
Fitbit Flex
Looks good
Reputable Brand
Very highly rated
No display
Jawbone Up
Looks OK
Highly rated
No Display
Stands out more than I’d like
Doesn’t wirelessly sync
Jawbone Up24
Looks OK
Highly Rated
Wirelessly syncs

Garmin Vivofit
$120 (+30 for heart rate monitor)
Garmin is a top GPS brand
Understated design
Bulkier than I’d like
Not very stylish
Garmin Vivosmart
$200 (+30 for heart rate monitor)
Very stylish
Hidden display
Minimal design
Garmin brand
Touch display may be annoying
Runtastic Orbit
Runtastic is my favourite running app
Potential as app evolves
Can be worn on wrist or as a belt clip
Doesn’t look very good.
Information and images for Garmin and Runtastic come from their respective websites. All other product information comes from retailer JB-HiFi

This table pretty much covers my lines of thought with these devices. My number one choice would probably be the +Fitbit Flex I like the design and seems to work very well considering the reviews and following. I really want a proper display on anything I wear on my wrist. I really do not like the idea of having to wear an accessory in addition to my watch. I could go without a watch, but I'm not doing that. I'm a watch guy. A display would also relieve me of the urge to pull out my phone to check things out. I would really prefer to be able to make a quick glance at my wrist to see things. 

The preference for a display has me leaning towards either of the Garmins or the Runtastic Orbit. The Garmin Vivos seem to be useful as a running watch at the same time, something that none of the others I've looked at can say. The minimalism of the Vivosmart is very attractive in my opinion. I do not want something I feel would be garish and draw a lot of attention from people. As before, I really like the ability to easily glance to see the time, distance or steps I've tallied throughout the day. I have seen people with Jawbones that admit that they now have yet another reason to look at their phone constantly. In a roundabout way, this may mean the Fitbit Flex again is the best one for me. The LED indicator does express information, but it wouldn't be very detailed so it wouldn't be intrusive.

+Runtastic is my running app of choice. and therefore going with the Orbit, an accessory made by them seems like a natural move. The display-issue is covered, with most of the information easily accessible without the need to pull the phone out of the pocket and draw too much attention away from what else I'm doing. The biggest flaw is the design, it seems really big and bulky. Perhaps this is why there's an included belt clip accessory. 

At the end of the day, I am confident that this isn't exactly a life and death decision. Across the board, none of these options will break the bank and they are all so similar there won't be much risk of making a poor decision. I suppose I am really just grappling with how much use I will get out of this. A display to me is important because I would like it to be a watch I wear constantly since wearing it constantly seems to be the most beneficial. That being said, if I wanted to wear a normal watch, it might be odd feeling like I have two watches on. In which case, a non-display minimal option may be best. 

What are your thoughts on this? Do yo have a fitness tracker you love? Do you have one you no longer have much interest in? Based on my comparisons and your own knowledge and experiences of these devices, which would you recommend? I'd love your hear your two cents. 

05 October 2014

Running Socks - Lightfeet Evolution

Unless you're a runner, you probably haven't thought much about the type of socks you wear. If you are a runner, however, odds are, socks are one of the first things you organise when planning a workout. In fact, for seasoned runners, offering advice to beginners, one of the first recommendations made is in regards to the quality of socks worn (RockcreekRunner has a great simple piece on the importance of good socks) . As runners know, quality socks that are lightweight, breathable, durable, manage temperatures and moisture, and are therefore comfortable is paramount in an enjoyable and successful run. Every year season +Runner's World Magazine advises of the best new socks worth trying out. Personal experience has taught me to actually be less willing to compromise on my socks than with anything else I take with me on my workouts. I can experiment with different shoes and clothing, but I have found that the tolerance window for socks is much narrower, and if I can I will run with Lightfeet Running Socks.

They come a pretty full range of colours
Lightfeet is an Australian company started in 2001 by Australian Sports Podiatrists Graeme Simpson and Dan Thomas. The goal was to design and manufacture solutions to foot problems alternative to expensive orthotics. Where the footwear (sandals) and insoles (sport, work, etc) address a larger range of the general population, the line of running socks is a very focused catalogue of  socks comparable to the likes of Nike, Asics, New Balance and the ever popular Thorlo and WigWam brands famous amongst the dedicated running communities.

$35 is a lot, but to be fair I've noticed I get usually 2000 kms (3 years for me) before they need replacing due to weakened elasticity, holes, etc. 
Like all running socks, the priorities are to keep your feet cool, free of moisture and minimise friction. Lightfeets achieve these goals through various technologies:
  • COOLMAX for moisture management and temperature control
  • X-STATIC for anti-odour and antimicrobial protection via 99.9% silver thread (exclusive to EVOLUTION which is what I wear)
  • Arch support contours to the shape of the arch to hold the sock in place
  • Padded protection to provide cushioning and reduce friction under the heel and forfoot as well as across the metatarsals to prevent blisters
  • Airflow venting and mesh for fresh air circulation between toes and forefoot
  • Seamless technology to prevent friction and pressure points
  • Anatomical design with specific left and right foot shaping for optimum fit
  • Made in Australia 100%
  • Designed by Australian Sports Podiatrists
  • RRP of $35 AUD ($30 USD at time of writing)
Left and right sounds gimmicky but it really makes a difference. These are very similar to Thorlo's Experia range. There are others, but the anatomical left/right design is a stand out distinction

What stands out the most about these socks is the fit. The band around the midfoot add a slight amount of compression allowing for a noticeably more snug fit. The anatomical design seemed gimmicky at first, but the benefits are very apparent when you actually put them on. As you can see, the air vents as well as the overall construction of the sock follows the shape of each foot to ensure that all of technical features are placed at the most appropriate spot of the foot. This is most easily seen across the top of the foot at the base of each tow, where the webbing is. Left and right fitting socks mean the mesh air vents are perfectly aligned with these contours.

It's tough to see, but there are small vents just above the green/gray border. The left/right design allows them to slow right at the webbing in between each toe. 

Of course, the bulk of the benefits in good running socks are most apparent while running. The most positive comment I can make on Lightfeets is that they are almost completely absent in attention when I'm running. There' no discernible friction, sweat, heat or blistering  with these socks. Obviously, the shoes factor in a lot as well, but compared to the dozens of other comparable socks I've tried, the Lightfeets are among the best in keeping my feet dry, airy and blister free during my run.

The arch band, bottom cushioning and breathable upper are clear here
Last week, I went on a spur of the moment 5km jog with a generic pair of Nike running socks I own. Almost immediately, I noticed my foot sliding around upon impact and could feel the resultant heat building up from all of that friction. When finishing up, taking my shoes off revealed two very wet socks as well as slight callousing on the inside of the ball of my foot at the base of the big toe. While none of this was detrimental in any way, the run was definitely a little more difficult and uncomfortable than it needed to be. Now, whether you're a competitive marathon runner or just hoping to survive 15 minutes of light jogging, anything that can make the run safer, more comfortable and less painful, is essential if you want to continue long-term.

These are the mini cuts. The red pair is mini-crew which is about 2 inches higher up which I prefer but were not available at the time of purchase. 
Amazingly, the experience is completely different with Lightfeet socks on. Workouts are still challenging, but rather than being hampered down by a developing blisters or skin irritations, I can focus my thoughts on my pace and breathing, take in my surroundings or just let my mind wander. Running is just better. So the next time you're looking for running fear, don't forget to pick up a few pairs of quality running socks. Lightfeet is of course my favourites, but any of the brands I've mentioned make great ones, and if you have a shoe shop near you that specialises in running, they're sure to have a good selection. They need to be lightweight and breathable, control moisture, and minimise friction - these are the keys to look for.

The Chill agrees