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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I’m not adapted to this

I was recently on a months paternity leave. Paternity Leave went something like this:

  • Wake up in the morning between 6 and 7am, and going to bed at 9pm. Essentially rising and falling with the Sun
  • Following my work-out routine as normal or as best I can
  • Lots of time outside, in the fresh air, under the sun, walking baby
  • Constantly on my feet – the days passed so quickly taking care of baby and trying to get everything done

I returned to the office this week and my routine was something like this:

  • My day revolves around a 9 to 5 schedule
  • Workouts are either done very early in the morning, or very late in the evening
  • Lots of time inside, in air-conditioned air, in artificial light
  • A sedentary lifestyle, sitting at my desk for the majority of my day

What happened with this sudden change from home to office? I was sick by day four. Take any animal, remove it from its natural environment, and it will get sick, either mentally or physically. In animals its sometimes called Zoochosis.

Humans live in a self built cage. We’ve used our intelligence to advance medical science so we live longer, and at the same time, we’ve completely altered the world we live in so that our environment no longer matches the one our evolutionary adaptations make us suited to. Evolution is about adaption, and if I listen to the warnings my body is giving me, its saying my body is poorly adapted to life in a chair, under artificial light, breathing recirculated air.  Being outside and moving, is the best path to staying healthy, its just a pity that won’t pay the mortgage.

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I’d rather be outside

Training Outside

With the nice summer weather the gym can be a depressing place. Why am I training inside, with this artificial recycled air on this glorious summer day? This is how I used to feel in summer when I had a gym membership. I haven’t been a member of a gym in a while, I train a lot outside these days. A first I missed the gym, but now I love being outside.

Getting out into nature and the fresh air helps promote feelings of wellbeing, I can’t explain why, but the outside has that effect on me. I especially like a hit of Vitamin D. The sun is great source of Vitamin D, which is essential for healthy skin. It doesn’t have to be sunny either, the sun is always up there, even in winter.

Training outdoors is good for mental stimulation too. The gym is pretty static, it doesn’t change much. Doing bicep curls staring at the same wall is so boring, running on a treadmill, equally so. In the outside world, you’ll see more. The constantly changing scenery excites and stimulates your brain.

Now is the perfect time to try training outside because the weather is so great, but it doesn’t have to stop once Autumn and Winter come. Get used to being out in the rain, sun, day and night. You’ll get used to it, you’ll feel more alive.

Training Outside
Training Outside

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