Book Review: What Doesn’t Kill Us

This book has been on my list for some time. I finally got round to reading “What Doesn’t Kill Us” by Scott Carney. Carney is a writer and journalist and by his own standards, was neither a fit nor unfit man, just “normal”. Carney accepted the trapping of his mid-thirties; stomach, not as flat as it had been, back pain, just one of those things. Then he saw a photo of a man called Wim Hof, 20 years his senior, sitting in the artic in nothing but his swimming togs.

Seeing this photo of Wim Hof sends Carney on a journey to learn the Wim Hofs methods of controlled breathing and cold exposure that seem to give practitioners of Hofs methods super human abilities. Hofs teachings and Scotts own journey of exploration leads him to comes up with the three pillars of physical fitness. Diet and exercise are pillars one and two, and this is something I’ve always focused on, and the third pillar is environmental stress, like exposure to cold and hot temperatures, something I’ve never considered. The book argues that this third pillar is needed if we’re to reach our full potential.

Humans are more capable and adaptable than you might think, and this book is full of examples. The body can adapt to environmental stress very quickly. In high altitude for example, you’ll produce more red blood cells, in hot temperatures, you’ll sweat less salt and produce less urine. Carney gives accounts of people using Hofs methods to manage the symptoms of Parkinsons and autoimmune problems, and even to speed up recovery after surgery. Carney does allow for some influence from the placebo effect, which is also powerful, but this only reinforces a key theme of this book, the power for the human body and mind.

Carney shows how the invention of technology often correlates with a general weakening of our species. GPS for example has reduced our ability to navigate the way our ancestors could. Carney gives the example of Tupaia, a Polynesian navigator in the 18th century who helped guide European explorers by his ability to read the waves of the sea to pinpoint himself. Is Tupaia a superhuman, or is this something that is innate in everyone and we’ve just lost touch.

To me the most amazing thing about Carneys journey and Hofs methods is how simple it appears to be. All that it takes is routinely practiced controlled breathing and exposure to the elements. Carney does warn that every person has their own limits, and if you cross that line it gives nature an opportunity to take a fatal toll. But in general, exercising the stress response through cold exposure allows a person to assert a measure of control when the environment gets challenging and helps reconfigure the cardiovascular system and combat autoimmune malfunctions.

The book is a narrative of Carneys journey, its not a guide book in how to achieve these results, but thats a good thing. I wanted an entertaining read, not a guide book, and this book delivered. Where the reader goes from here it up to them.

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Eating less meat

Eating meat, or any animal produce, is a topic that people get very passionate about. Articles like this one is the Guardian are pretty scary and I’d encourage a read. My two key takeaways from reading the article, one is that humans and livestock make up 96% of all mammals, thats a frightening thought. All the cool mammals at the zoo, they barely exist in the wild because they’ve had to make way for humans and our food. And two, people in the West need to cut meat consumption by 90% to try and stop the damaging environmental effects associated with the consumption and production of meat. Stop eating meat and switch to vegetables is the message.

On the other hand, I’ve heard arguments against the growing of crops which is where we get all our veg. Modern intensive agriculture uses a lot of pesticides and fertilisers that are also bad for the environment. Ploughing a field destroys the topsoil and you lose carbon capture because you’re not giving roots time to bed in before they’re pulled out. This logic suggests that in an ideal world we’d ditch the vegetable farming, re-wild our fields, and use them for pasture raised animals. Although I don’t see that solution supplying enough for 7 billion humans.

It seems like you’re destroying the environment either way. My personal take from my own limited reading is that humans are meat eaters. But we’ve evolved to eat what we’ve hunted, which is substantially less meat than whats in most Western diets. I would typically have meat in two out of my three meals a day, and on the weekend if I have a fry, there could be meat in all three of my meals. The availability of meat today is at odds with the amount we’ve evolved to consume. I couldn’t shake the thought that all this meat was wrong for the human diet.

I set myself a challenge to eat less meat by just being aware of it. I don’t know if this will stop global warming at all, and as I said, I do think humans are meat eaters, but we’re not meant to eat so much of it. I tracked my results across 30 days. Over the 30 days, I had 9 meat free days. I could cheat and say it was 10 days as on one of the days my meat intake consisted of chicken soup which seemed light on the chicken. In any case, thats just over a week a month that is meat free. Make what you will of these results but I was proud. I was also surprised that it was easy, imagine if I’d make a real effort. I noticed no change in my training or energy levels. I won’t be going full on vegan or full on carnivore, but I will be reducing the amount of meat I eat because its just not needed and it can’t be good for you.

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This was a great Secret Santa gift from a colleague – easy meals
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Yummy
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Also Yummy

 

Travelling makes me sick

The body is finely balanced, and grows accustomed to routine. Most of us have routined and predictable lives. In my case, I exercise a certain amount, I eat certain foods, go to bed and wake up a certain times, in short, a fairly predictable routine. And the body grows accustomed to this. A sudden change, and the whole chemical balance is thrown off and the result, you get sick.

A holiday is a sudden change. Suddenly you can be in a different time zone, eating different foods, and because it is a holiday, you stop exercising. A shock like this weakens the immune system. I’m notorious for getting sick when I travel too far. I travelled to Las Vegas recently. I was determined to not get sick. I planned on eating well, using the hotel gym, and even more conveniently, using some fitness apps on my phone that don’t even require me to leave the hotel room. The plan was to deviate as little as possible from my “normal”.

Sadly, I did get sick. By the time my head hit the pillow in my hotel room, 24 and half hours after I’d woken up, I had a sore throat, headcold, and coldsore. It seems my body is more delicately balanced than most. I had packed plenty of medication knowing this to be the case.

Even if you’re not as fragile as I apparently am, lots of people get sick on holidays, or around Christmas because of the break in your routine. Your body adapts to your routine, change it, and the shock can make you sick. This applies to micro as well as macro changes. For no reason in particular, I’ve always combined cheat day with rest day, until recently I heard bodybuilder Dennis James question why anyone would do this, its a shock to the system. Cheat day and rest day should not be the same day to minimise the shock.

The lesson, any changes to your routine should be small and gradual.

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Airplanes – recycled air for 12hrs
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Airport Yoga Room – more of this please

 

Carbs

I’ve known a few people to cut out carbs as way to get healthier. Although I’d be skeptical if the goal is to get healthier or to look better. Carb molecules encourage your body to store water, so by eliminating them, you’re essentially wringing your body like a sponge. So the pounds will fall off pretty quickly on a no-carb diet. Quick and easy weight loss success on a no carb diet is just dehydrating yourself and its just water weight you’ve lost.

On a slightly longer term view, a low carb intake means less muscle mass. Without the glucose found in carbs to burn off, your famished body turns to precious amino acids instead, causing you muscles to catabolise. And with this quick reduction in lean mass, your metabolism starts to stall, burning fewer calories, making real weight loss harder still.

And its not just your body, its your brain too. Your brain uses up over half of your bodies glucose stores. A few days into a low-carb diet and you’ll struggle understand all the subplots in the latest Fantastic Beasts movie.

Its true not all carbs are created equal. Refined carbs have been associated with obesity. I recently heard a phrase I like and it went something like this, “don’t ask if its good for me, ask when its good for me.” If you’re a professional athlete, you can handle a lot of carbs. If you spend most of your time watching Netflix, you should limit your intake.  Foods don’t exist in a vacuum, you have to look at your carbs in the context of everything else you eat and do. Its all about balance, and some days that means a pasta.

Eat to fuel your body for performance, not to look good.

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Pasta and broccoli – thats lunch sorted for a few days

Taking a break from training

Sometimes it is important not to train. Over the Christmas holidays I’ll dramatically reduce my training. I want to see friends and family, eat Christmas dinners, selection boxes, mince pies, Christmas cake, drink Coca-Cola, and spend a lot of time sitting. Its a big swing from one extreme to the other. My Christmas holidays could be considered unhealthy, especially my Christmas diet. While you don’t need to go to my Christmas extremes and stuff your face with chocolate, cake, and coke, but it is as important to plan breaks from your training.

Even without a obvious breaking point like Christmas, its important to remember that good health is supposed to be a pleasure, not a chore, and scheduling deliberate breaks can stop you forming negative associations with your training. Enjoyment is a crucial factor in sticking to a fitness plan. Without enjoyment you’re likely to quit. Even the most varied of training plans can become stale, so a short break is good to re-energise your enthusiasm.  A scheduled break will also prevent overtraining. Overtraining can lead to spikes in cortisol, which at high levels leads to muscle weakness and weight gain, so a break in your training may well help you achieve your training goals, rather than set you back. So go ahead, take a break. Happy Christmas.

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Tea, Donut, and relaxation

Realistic Aesthetics

Recently I saw Sylvester Stallone posted the picture below from the set of Rocky 3. He describes how between scenes, he had to go to the corner and turn up-side-down to get blood back into his head. In order to look the way he did, his body fat was 2.9%, which made him light headed during scenes, and in order to continue, and not faint, this up-side-down trick was needed. Stallone goes on to say that while he looked in great shape, he was far from it. Transforming his body for Rocky 3 left him very unhealthy on the inside, despite outward appearances. I admire Stallones honesty.

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I’ve read similar things in the pages of Men’s Health magazine from today’s action heroes. Daniel Craig became a vegetarian for a time after James Bond because the diet needed to get his Bond-look was, in his opinion, disgustingly high in meat. Chris Hemsworth was eager for a run because his Thor training regime specified zero cardio work, at one point he stopped training when he outgrew the Thor costume. Henry Cavill says the Superman physique disappears very quickly after filming because it’s not designed to be sustainable.

The action hero physiques you see in the movies are built on training regimes designed to make you look a certain way for the brief period that you are filming. They are driven by aesthetics, not health, and they are ephemeral, not sustainable. That’s not to take away from the effort that these guys put into attaining their physiques, the hard work is very real, but the results are primarily aesthetic in nature, and the schedules not conducive to even their own lives. Aesthetics are important for your mental health, we all like to look good, but don’t base your training goals on what you see in the movies. I work in an office from 9 to 5, so more realistic goals are required.

How much fruit and veg?

I recently read that the Japanese government gifts their citizens a silver sake cup when they reach 100 years of age, and that the policy is being reviewed because last year it cost the Japanese government $2 million. In Okinawa, Japan, you’ll find the world’s highest prevalence of proven centenarians. Not only do they have the highest life expectancy in the world, but also the highest health expectancy, they remain vigorous and healthy into old age. I’m sure there are many reasons for this longevity, and diet must be one.

In Britain and Ireland we’re all familiar with the “five-a-day” maxim. The Japanese government recommends up to 13 portions of vegetables a day, plus four portions of fruit. A spokeswoman from the British Department of Health (I assume Ireland just copied these guys) said of the five-a-day campaign, “There must be a balance between what is healthy for the British public and what is feasible”. In other words, 5 was chosen because its a sufficiently low, unthreatening number.

Below is my attempt at an Asian style meal: rice, egg, spinach, and steak. Delicious yes, but a very Western slant on Asian cuisine, with just one portion of veg. It doesn’t help that the variety of interesting fruit and vegetables that grow in Ireland is low.

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There are many ways in which eating fruits and vegetables is beneficial for health. Both are high in fibre, which makes you feel fuller for longer, which can help reduce unhealthy snacking. Fruit and vegetables are also a natural source of numerous vitamins and minerals that are essential for maintaining good all-round health. I eat a lot of fruit, but I’m not so good with vegetables (the better of the two). If I want to live to see the year 2086 and beyond, I’ll have to add more veg to my diet. More fruit and veg, good advice for all.

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