Friday, September 2, 2016

The Importance of External Measurements

People who give fitness or fat loss advice often tell their readers and clients not to pay too much attention to the scale when assessing their progress. This is good advice. Sometimes your exercise/diet program is building muscle, so even though your scale weight either doesn't change or perhaps even goes up, your body composition is improving dramatically.

Then again, sometimes your scale weight stays the same or goes up because your weight management program is failing, your cheat weekends are overwhelming your metabolism, and your exercise is not, in fact, burning 1,000 calories an hour.

The advice to not use the scale is usually followed up with one or two alternatives. One is to gauge your progress by the mirror. This might work for some people, but not for me, and I suspect, not for most. It's too easy to let your mind play tricks on you with the mirror. You're comparing an image, the way you look at the moment, with your memory of what you looked like weeks or months before, and trying to compare them. If you have actually gained some muscle it can be even harder to make a good comparison. Adding a couple of  pounds to your shoulders can really make it look like you lost a bunch from your waist, even if you, in fact, didn't.

I'm sure there are some people who are objective enough to judge themselves just on their appearance, but a better metric is something more objective: seeing how your clothes fit. If the waist of your pants is tighter, you've moving in the wrong direction, even if the chest and arms are also tighter.

Another popular claim people make is that some lifestyle change gives them "tons of energy." My question is always, "how do you know?" If you think some new habit is increasing your energy levels, make sure by tracking some metric. Maybe look at how many naps you need during the week, or how often you hit the snooze button, or how many workouts you skip (or don't skip) because you're just too tired. If those numbers change, you're onto something. If they don't, then you might just be fooling yourself.

I'm not bringing this topic up at random. I let myself slide quite a bit in body composition over the last year or so, eating out at restaurants two or three times a week instead of once, joining the kids for a special ice cream treat every week instead of every month, and generally not doing enough exercise to overcome my very sedentary job.

It took a trip to the doctor and a bodyfat analysis (plus some blood tests that came back saying "you should already be dead") to wake me up.

And, in retrospect, my clothes don't fit as well as they used to. I'd gotten into the habit of not wearing certain pants, and looking back I think it's because they're a bit tight. It was a gradual change, and items do phase in and out of my wardrobe regularly, but I was avoiding certain clothes probably in part because they made me think I was doing better weight-wise than I really am.

I suspect that the same kind of problem creeps in with many martial artists. I don't mean that they're having problems with weight management necessarily, but of gauging their progress in their skills. I suspect that many of us reach periods of stagnation with our movement quality, where we might go months or years learning new forms or techniques but not really getting better at how well we do the basics.

The solution?

There's no single answer, but I really think (and I've mentioned this before) that every martial arts school should have a video camera - not necessarily the highest quality - and some kind of setup where they standardize the position (the camera goes here, you stand there, that sort of thing). And every practitioner should videotape themselves doing a couple of kata - maybe always a very basic one, then one or two more advanced - perhaps every 6 months.

I've been saying this for years and haven't done it. Next year I'm going to definitely invest in a camera and start keeping a library of records of my movement.

You should too, and let me know how it goes.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Worried Well, Subclinical Sickness, and your Right to Seek Health

[This isn't a post about psychiatry, but I'm going to start there... please bear with me.]

I'm not a psychiatrist, but I dated one for a year and a half, so I'm highly qualified to talk about all things having to do with psychiatry.

Psychiatry is especially interesting to me because psychiatry has a long tradition of acknowledging that its field is hard to define. What constitutes a psychological illness, exactly? The question was considered difficult enough that the American Psychiatric Association publishes a book (the DSM) to list the "Mental Disorders," and disorders are added and removed from the list with each revision (homosexuality being a particularly famous example of something listed as a disorder in earlier revisions, then removed).

While there is plenty of controversy around the DSM, I'm sure there are also plenty of core disorders that we can all agree 'count' as mental disorders, mental conditions that make a person an immediate danger to themselves or to others. But there are equally lots of mental conditions that we'd mostly agree are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Suppose someone is feeling anxious because of a difficult job situation, and has some trouble sleeping. It would be strange to call that a mental disorder, or to say that person is ill. Yet I also think we'd agree that it would be nice if that person could get some help.

Luckily, the psychiatric community has a term (which I love) for people who might want some 'help' with their mental condition, yet don't qualify as actually having a full blown mental disorder - they're called the "Worried Well."

What I love about this term is that it expands the scope of practice of practitioners in the psychiatric community to those who might not have diagnosable mental disorders. It says, "you don't have to be REALLY sick in order for us to try to help you."

I don't mean to suggest that this notion is altruistic. Obviously, psychiatrists and psychologists don't want to restrict themselves to patients who fit in to some category in the DSM-V, they need to make money. But it's still a valuable notion, that nearly anybody experiencing psychological suffering, even if it's not DSM-V worthy, can legitimately seek and possibly receive help.

For a variety of reasons, some historical and many economical, many (not all) non-psychiatric physicians are less likely to acknowledge, treat, or research concerns that don't meet the criteria for an actual diagnosis. I like the term subclinical to refer to these things.

What do I mean by subclinical?

Suppose someone feels tired and worn out all the time, but not to the point where that person can't hold down a job or fulfill their responsibilities. What's a typical doctor going to do about it? Probably run a bunch of tests to rule out things like cancer, anemia, and a host of other disorders that count as an actual diagnosis that can be checked off on a electronic medical record or submitted to a billing company. What if those tests come back negative? I'm sure many decent doctors would make some generic recommendations, like telling that person to sleep better or improve their diet, but generally speaking there won't be any aggressive pursuit of any remedy.

Have a lower libido then you had as a teenager? Your physician might test your hormone levels, but if they come back within the normal reference range you're probably out of luck. You might get a casual recommendation to try some herb, but rarely more than that. If you're older and have minor aches and pains many physicians will just shrug and tell you to make the best of it.

I'm not blaming physicians. They need to put something on the bill they send to the insurance company to explain why they treated you, and "feeling meh" is not a box you can check (I looked).

There's a trickle down effect from this. Since physicians aren't really in the business of treating issues that don't qualify as an actual disorder, they're not really interested in doing or reading any research on the topic. And, to be honest, it's probably a lot harder to research "causes of feeling not too great," simply because feeling not to great is very hard to measure and quantify.

Things are improving in some ways. I know there are tons of great doctors who try to help any way they can. Doctors who specialize in functional medicine often seem to address these subclinical concerns more seriously. I'm sure that in other scenarios where you are willing to pay out of pocket for treatment you can get a physician to take these things seriously. But in my experience there isn't a very broad middle ground between the physicians who will treat what your insurance will cover and the very expensive ones who will do whatever you ask for because you're paying through the nose for it. And even if you find the physicians who will help you with your subclinical issues, they don't have the same body of research to fall back on that they do for diagnosable disorders.

But without the guidance of a physician and the medical establishment, most lay people end up turning to the internet, or their personal trainer, or the salesperson at GNC, or their hairdresser, or whoever, to find 'solutions' to what ails them. And sometimes that information turns out to be helpful, and sometimes, not so much.

At this point, if you're still reading, even if you agree with what I've said, you might be wondering what the point of the article is. Well, there actually are several.

1. Keep in mind that medical research is aimed at the clinical, not the subclinical, in what it measures and how it evaluates results. So research that aims to determine whether gluten (see what I did there?) affects health can't, and won't really try to, evaluate subclinical effects. If you see some article headline claiming that, "Gluten Consumption Doesn't Impact Health!" they don't really mean that gluten doesn't make people feel slightly worse, because they didn't look at that. They only looked at whether gluten led to an increase in something diagnosable. The gluten they were feeding their subjects might have  made them all feel a little bit more meh (or blah if you want another adjective), but the researchers weren't asking that question.

2. You have a right to seek help for your subclinical symptoms. Ask your doctor about them, you might be pleasantly surprised. But even if your doctor won't help, try things on your own, like dietary changes, exercising more, more or less fiber, whatever (don't be stupid, don't try just ANYTHING), because you have a right to try to feel good. Just because some ailment or issue doesn't warrant major medical intervention doesn't mean that it's not real or that it's not meaningful.

3. If you can find a doctor willing to prescribe meds off label or seriously investigate your issues, try to do that. It might cost you something out of pocket; you have to decide for yourself how comfortable you are with that, and how much money you've got. [Note: there is room for a debate about how this sort of treatment ought to be paid for, in a perfect world, but I'm not interested in having that argument here.]

4. Other people might dismiss your concerns. I can't tell you how often people have suggested that 'avoiding gluten only makes sense if you have celiac disease.' We don't have a culture that emphasizes taking care of ourselves (for example, we don't value getting enough sleep, and we admire people who seem to function well on very little sleep, even though sleep is a key factor in maintaining good health). This is especially true of aging related issues. Many, many people will look askance at someone who wants to maintain their physical fitness into their later years. I'm not telling you to argue with those people, but stick to your course. If you want to improve your quality of life, do it. You don't have to have an actual disease to want to improve your health. And the fact that others approach their declining health and fitness with a fatalistic attitude doesn't mean you need to.

Many of us function suboptimally our entire lives, and we ALL lose functionality as we age. Not all, but many of those conditions can be treated, some by readily available lifestyle choices, some with prescription medications. If you're not operating at a level that makes you happy, change something! Your situation might not be fixable, but I bet you can feel better if you make the right choices.

And if you're looking for a good place to start when making those lifestyle changes, consider taking up a martial art!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Why We Binge Eat (maybe)

I've been chubby my entire life. I once dated a fairly slim woman whose mother was equally slim. One day, while talking about pie, she (the mother) wondered why anybody ever overeats pie - she asked, "why don't you just have a single piece of pie, then stop?" She legitimately didn't understand. Don't worry, I resisted the urge to punch her. It was hard.

Not everyone who trains in martial arts needs to lose bodyfat, and not everyone who needs to lose bodyfat has a problem with binge eating, but I suspect that a significant number of us belong to both groups. I personally have had problems with binge eating for my entire life. I'm the type of person who usually consumes fewer than 3,000 kcal/day, but I can easily scarf down 2,000 + kcal in a single sitting and still find myself tearing through the refrigerator looking for more food. I've eaten half gallons of ice cream in a single sitting. So I've thought about this topic quite a bit.

There are a few odd things about binge eating.

  • Most binge eaters do NOT binge every time they eat, but only on certain occasions. So it's not as simple as saying that for certain people food is "addictive" or that they can't control their food intake.
  • Binge eaters will repeatedly binge despite the unpleasant immediate (upset stomachache) and long term (unwanted weight gain) side effects.
  • Binge eaters will often eat long past the point of enjoying the eating experience - the food no longer tastes or feels good to eat.
  • Food does not seem to have the kind of chemical impact that might explain this behavior, the way illicit drugs or alcohol do - we don't see the kind of dopamine spike from donuts that we get from snorting cocaine, and eating doesn't in itself impair judgment (making us more likely to continue eating) the way psychoactive chemicals (like alcohol) do.
So why does this happen? It seems counterintuitive that people would engage in this sort of behavior, yet many of us do. Over and over again.

I've always had a few hypotheses about binges (these are not original to me). First, binges were the result of out of control blood sugar - if our blood sugar got too high ("spiked") and insulin levels rose too high, the excess insulin would drive blood sugar down too low, triggering a binge. In other words, low blood sugar triggers a binge. Another hypothesis was that if we dieted too long or denied our favorite foods for too long a kind of psychological pressure would build up, resulting in an inevitable binge, like a volcano erupting. Third, binges were the result of some nutritional deficiency, the body's way of desperately trying to acquire some micronutrient that wasn't present in the diet.

I was listing to my new favorite podcast, Sigma Nutrition, and in episode 23 the host interviewed a man named Marc David who works in the field of nutritional psychology. I highly recommend listening to the entire show, but at one point Mr. David suggested a cause for binges that really resonated with me.

Please remember the important distinction between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems - the sympathetic is activated during fight or flight situations, when you are stressed or anxious. The parasympathetic is activated when  you're relaxed and feeling safe and secure. The sympathetic directs blood away from the gut and into the limbs (so you can run or fight), the parasympathetic directs blood back to the gut (so you can digest your meal) and lowers blood pressure and overall stress.

Now obviously a big meal puts an unusual stimulus on the body - not the kind of stimulus that would make us need to run or fight, but a stimulus that forces the body away from the sympathetic system and towards the parasympathetic. In other words, really overeating signals your systems that you need more blood in your gut, not less, to digest that meal. And that can only happen when the sympathetic system is depressed and the parasympathetic system is activated.

In other words, overeating leads to an immediate, short term activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which makes you relaxed, calm, and feeling safe and secure.

Now, if you're a binge eater, think to times when you binge eat. I'm going to bet you anything that most binges are triggered by stressful situations, times when you're unconsciously seeking to relax and de-stress, times when life has pushed you into the anxious, jittery end of the parasympathetic-sympathetic axis. 

In other words, for at least some binge eaters some of the time, binge eating might not be the result of a craving for food. It is, instead, the result of a craving for deep relaxation.

Why does it matter why we binge eat?

The approach we take to avoid binge eating has a lot to do with what we believe causes our binges in the first place. If you think that your binges are the result of out of control hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), you're going to try to avoid binges by altering your diet to keep your blood sugar normalized (which isn't a bad thing in itself). However, if your binges is really caused by stress, the blood sugar regulation might not help, and then you're both demoralized and failing to control your binges.

If you think your binges are caused by micronutrient deficiency, you might attempt to stave them off by eating a nutrient rich diet, or carefully going over food logs to find the 'thing' you're missing. Again, this would be doomed to fail. And if you're convinced that binges are caused by some psychological pressure from food deprivation, you might schedule 'cheat' meals (or cheat days! cheat weeks!) in a vain attempt to alleviate that pressure in a somewhat controlled way.

And this, I think, is why so many binge eaters fail to control the binges. 

However, if Mr. David's suggestion is correct, and binges are the result of a search for parasympathetic stimulation, what could we do to address that?

Maybe the way to stave off an oncoming binge is to do something deeply relaxing. Take a walk in the woods. A bubble bath. Meditate for 20 minutes. Watch a comedy show. Whatever you do to de-stress.

This is, of course, easier said than done. Please don't punch me for suggesting that you can overlook that pint of Ben & Jerry's in the freezer by meditating. But it can't hurt to try, can it? 

One 'trick' I use is to promise myself the thing I'm craving... but only after some intervention. I'm not denying myself the ice cream, I'm promising it to myself, but only after the walk, or the meditation. Then, once the intervention is over, re-evaluate and you might be okay breaking that promise and skipping the binge.

Take home point: being aware of your position along the parasympathetic - sympathetic axis may help you alter hard to control behaviors, like binge eating, more efficiently.

And if all else fails, please remember that your binge has not ended the world. Get right back on the healthy eating horse and waste as little time in self recrimination as possible.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

2 Exercises To Improve Your Competition Kata

I was at a tournament this weekend (Go En, a tournament/ promotion/ seminar week in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the founding of my style, Seido Karate, by Kaicho Nakamura), which isn't something I've done before.

It was a very big tournament, so I got to see a lot of people doing kata competition, with really varying levels of skill. What was interesting was that it seemed as if the better half was separated from the bottom half of competitors by a couple of very specific characteristics which could be addressed (at least in part) through a strength training program.

In other words, I saw some things that might not help the third place person beat the first place person, but that could probably help most of the competitors who finished near the bottom see some quick improvements that might move them towards the middle of the heap.

Owning the Level Change

What does that mean?

The first trait that put certain competitors towards the top (or bottom) of the competition was owning the level change. Karate doesn't have the same kind of super low, deep stances that you'll see in certain kung fu styles (at least not in very many places), but there are still distinct level changes. Your hips should drop noticeably between a fudo dachi and a kiba dachi, or between fudo dachi and kokutsu dachi (standing position to horse stance or back stance), for example.

In my experience very, very few people have problems getting the proper depth in stances because of a lack of flexibility. Almost everyone (barring those with some kind of structural injury) can get into a proper back stance or front stance - the problem is holding that depth, which puts a lot of strain on the quads and hip extensors, or moving in the stance while maintaining a low elevation, which also requires a lot of leg and hip strength.

If you think you're too inflexible to hit a deep stance, try laying in bed, maybe on your back or side, and pull your legs into the right position. If you feel tightness doing that, you may have a flexibility issue. But I bet the real obstacle is muscular pain.

Owning the level change is not just about getting into deep positions, but about descending into them quickly and (apparently) effortlessly, and then popping up (when appropriate) dynamically. In other words, you have to be able to drop down quickly, stay level where you ought to (no bouncing up while shifting stances), then pop up easily and quickly when switching into a higher stance.

How do we own the level change?

Developing the strength you need to get deep, stay deep, and move while staying deep can be done with traditional weightlifting exercises. You could deadlift or squat with a barbell and it would certainly be helpful.

However, a standard barbell squat might not be the best tool for this job for a couple of reasons. First, it requires safety equipment (a rack) and space and a bar and plates that aren't cheap and that take up a lot of space (none of which is a problem if you use a gym, of course). Second, the barbell squat trains your legs together - both work at the same time. When you get into a deep stance other than kiba dachi, most of your weight is often on one leg or the other, not both (zenkutsu dachi, kokutsu dachi make obvious examples). And when one leg has to work without the other to support you additional muscles are called into play to stabilize the hips and keep them level - hip adductors and abductors and rotators that just aren't challenged (sufficiently) in the traditional squat.

So how can we work these muscles?

If you have access to a gym, you can do rear foot elevated split squats with a barbell (or a trap bar). Basically, you start by either putting a bar on your back or holding dumbells or finding some other way to load yourself. Then you stand in front of a bench. Keeping one foot on the floor, lift the other foot and put it on the bench behind you. Then squat down and (hopefully) up. Most of the load will be carried by the front foot.

This is a great exercise, but I think people tend to cheat on depth - they don't go deep enough, and more than just building strength, the kata competitor has to build strength in the lower positions that they might need for certain stances to look good. It's also a somewhat awkward movement if you don't have a spotter to help you get set up.

An alternative exercise that doesn't require any equipment is the pistol. With a pistol, you don't need weight. Instead, from a standing position, stick one leg out in front of you, in the air, keeping the knee straight. Then squat down until your butt cheek is touching your calf, then stand back up.

I like pistols, but I find them kind of hard on my knees, and very hard to learn. It takes a lot of mobility and skill to do them correctly. And honestly, if you can do any significant number of pistols, leg strength just isn't your issue in kata - you're already strong enough that it isn't thigh strength that's limiting your kata performance. So I tend not to make them my go to exercise.

So my recommendation is the skater squat (which does have other names):

To do:

  1. Stand in place, feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Lift one (let's say left) leg off the ground, picking your heel up so it's close to your buttock.
  3. Squat down until the left knee just barely touches the ground. Your upper body will be leaning forward, and you can hold onto something in front of you for balance (I use my kitchen counter). The left knee is still bent, so the left foot never touches the floor.
  4. Stand up, using just the strength of the right leg.
  5. Either repeat for several reps on the same leg or switch legs with each rep, depending how fit you are (more fit = more reps before switching).
  6. Once you get good at these, you can add weight (wear a weight vest or hold dumbells in your hands) and add a jump to the end, so you're driving up and jumping with just one leg.
Skater squats are significantly easier to do than pistols, aren't as taxing on your knees (your knee never really goes into maximum flexion), and will build plenty of strength in the range of motion you need to maintain and move in a nice, deep karate stance.

Core Stiffness

 The second physical trait that seemed to separate the not - as - good competitors from the upper tier competitors was core stiffness.

What is core stiffness?

Imagine two people: one has a steel rod for a spine, the other has a spine made out of a Slinky. Now imagine how they move - imagine what their upper bodies would do, for example, when they throw a hard kick, or rotate into a punch.

You don't want a lot of extraneous motion (i.e. flopping around) when you deliver your techniques. Nothing impresses more than a high, clean quick - except a high, clean kick with your upper body locked in tight as a rock.

How do we get core stiffness?

There is not, as far as I can see, a single best exercise for core stiffness. A few I like,. roughly in order of difficulty, are:

  1. Crunches and leg raises.
  2. Planks/pushups
  3. Single arm planks/ single arm pushups.
  4. Planks on an exercise ball, rotating your base (forearms) in circles as you do them.
  5. Ab wheel roll outs.

Kick Height

I've written about this before. I have some new thoughts on this topic, but I'll save them for another day. Let's just say that a clean, well executed kick at head height usually impresses more than the same kick to the stomach area (although, do the kata correctly before any other considerations).

In short, a few basic strength training exercises might be all you need to take a big leap forward in how good your kata look. If you have these weaknesses, shore them up and see how much that helps. Having said that, nothing you do with regards to strength training is going to replace actual kata practice, only enhance it somewhat.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The biggest key to success in Karate: Find your Fun

[This post meanders, for which I apologize in advance.]

For my style's 40th anniversary extravaganza (which is starting as I type this!) the participants are being divided into teams with meaningful names related to our art - Team Egoless, Team Empathy, Team Hope, you get the idea. We'll compete in a bunch of fun, not terribly serious events, a lot like color war in summer camp.

Given the name and theme of this blog you'd think I'd want to be placed on Team Fast Twitch Muscle Fiber or Team Burpee or Team Cardiac Output (I made those up), but to my delight I have been placed on Team Fun.

Now I've tended to be the kind of person who takes my martial arts training somewhat seriously. My primary goal was to be better and more skilled, not to have the most fun (or get promoted the fastest). When picking a school and evaluating my training I have not tended to look at the fun factor. I'm pro-tradition and anti-McDojo.

Part of the problem with "fun" in martial arts is that all too often people associate the word 'fun' with 'easy.' Sparring might be fun, but not as much fun as obstacle courses. Pushups are even less fun than sparring. Pushups on your knuckles on a concrete floor does not meet most definitions of the word 'fun.'

And there are teachers and schools where this apparent dichotomy is emphasized. I'm sure we are all aware of martial arts instructors (even if we only know them from movies) who make a point of being grim, humorless, and stern at all times.

On some level there is some merit to that line of thinking. If 'fun' means horseplay and lack of order, the class can be less productive. You don't want a 'fun' class where the students horse around all the time and never train.

But  you can work hard while cracking jokes (trust me, this is my standard state of being). You can make your obstacle courses challenging, you can make your hardest workouts enjoyable with a little personality and a little creativity.

Exactly what that means and how it pans out for someone training is probably going to be different for different people. I don't like sparring to the point of injury - it's not fun for me. Other people obviously get a lot of joy out of that kind of challenge. I don't mind a grim, hard nosed instructor, but other people find such people intimidating.

If you can find a martial art that is fun FOR YOU there are tremendous benefits. You start to look forward to class instead of dreading it. You train more when you don't have to. You're less stressed (meaning, more towards the parasympathetic nervous/hormonal state, which is good) about the training.

When you train not because it's fun but because you think of it as some sort of obligation, or even if you train to achieve some goal (getting a black belt, becoming skilled), life is just hard. I suspect that's part of the reason so many people who train for a belt/promotion end up quitting after they get the belt. If they haven't discovered the fun in the training itself, they don't have a good enough reason to continue.

If your training is fun (to you!) you will:

  1. Train more diligently;
  2. Train harder;
  3. Be much more likely to continue over your lifetime;
  4. Make better friends;
  5. Ultimately be more skilled, because of all of the above!
The key, and it isn't terribly difficult, is finding YOUR fun in your martial art. Like to drink a lot and socialize? Find a school with plenty of adults. Love the crossfit style workout where you almost puke at the end of each session? Find a school where that happens. Don't like that? Find another school. 

Wherever you train, a couple of tips to making it MORE fun for you (without undermining the school's philosophy or structure):
  1. Be better prepared. Being in good shape makes hard classes a lot more fun.
  2. Carefully track your progress. Try filming yourself periodically doing your kata, so you can see over time how much better you've gotten. Skill is fun!
  3. Don't be afraid to back out if it ISN'T fun. If your teacher starts emphasizing the kind of hard sparring that leaves you injured all the time, it might be a sign to find another place to train. If your teacher forbids all contact, and you really enjoy mixing it up a little, it might also be time to change things up. If you train someplace that just can't be fun for you, try to fix it (maybe just take a different class in the same school).
On some level, the question, "Should Martial Arts Training Be Fun?" seems ridiculous, like the studies that attempt to show reasons why we should be having more sex (isn't more sex enough of a reason?) But we do glorify hard, grueling training, and, perhaps especially in traditional martial arts, we tend to perceive 'real' 'authentic' training as grueling, difficult, and humorless. As if fun training is somehow inherently less effective, because we think that the effectiveness of a workout has to be proportional to how much suffering it entails.

Instead, workouts should be fun. Maybe grueling humorless training is fun to you - maybe not. But regardless, find a way to make martial arts fun for you, and you'll get far more out of your practice.

And if you see me at Go En please say hi!


Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Parasympathetic Life: a combined theory of everything that really matters

There is one particular principle that has helped me understand what's going on with my life and health more than any other, and that's the notion of the sympathetic-parasympathetic spectrum. This one organizing principle can help you understand everything you need to know about how to live a healthy life.

Your body is an amazingly complex system of interconnected processes, chemical, neurological, and mechanical, that can all shift in different directions. Thousands of hormones, nervous systems, and other biological happenings that can be turned up or down in an overwhelming array of combinations.

However, very few of these systems are really independent. You can get a rise in, for example, insulin, by tasting some sugar. But that rise in insulin will never come by itself. That insulin surge will affect many other systems in your body in many complex ways.

You could spend a lifetime trying to unpack all these connections, and that would be interesting, but you might not have time or energy or aptitude for doing so. Luckily, a lot of these systems are organized in some ways that are not terribly difficult to grasp.

Now of course everything in this post is going to be a simplification. But it's a useful simplification, and most of the time most of these systems behave more or less the way I'm going to describe. So while this way of thinking about your body won't capture every possible condition or disease state, it will provide a really great beginning to understanding how your body works.

Instead of trying to figure out the ins and outs of every single hormone and biomarker separately, we're going to put them in two rough categories: sympathetic and parasympathetic.

Put simply, the sympathetic system is the one that gets activated in fight-or-flight situations. When you're anxious, under stress, or under threat, a whole bunch of neurological and hormonal things happen to help you survive the immediate danger. They're all complex and unique flowers, but for the sake of this post we're going to lump them together.

The parasympathetic a system is the other side of the coin. It's the set of hormones and nervous impulses that are firing and elevated when you're relaxed and safe.

It's not a case of all one or all the other. Your adrenaline levels don't drop to zero when you're relaxed, for example. Think of these things as lying on a spectrum. At any given point in time you're either towards the parasympathetic (relaxed and happy) end OR towards the sympathetic (scared and anxious) end or somewhere in the middle. No single hormone or organ is going to give a complete picture of how sympathetic or parasympathetic you are, so we're going to be using some inexact language to describe this spectrum.

It's not a case where you're supposed to be always on one end of that spectrum or the other. It's normal and healthy to get sympathetic sometimes. But, and this is NOT an idea original to me, we evolved to spend most of our time on the parasympathetic end (chillin'), and dip into the sympathetic end only for brief (and probably intense) periods when we were in danger - for example, when being chased by a wild animal. The sympathetic state isn't exactly bad for you, but it's all about sacrificing long term well being for short term survival capacity. In fact, the only way to increase your overall capacity - to get stronger and more fit - is really to push yourself into sympathetic states for controlled periods of time.

The danger comes when we spend too much of our lives in a chronic sympathetic state. When you're stressed all the time there aren't enough chances for your body to recover and rebuild and heal, and that's bad in all sorts of ways.

Here's a second part of this principle that is really, really important: the way your body puts you towards sympathetic or parasympathetic is dumb. REALLY DUMB. As in not sensitive to context AT ALL.

What I mean is, your body tends to lump all the inputs and outputs of these systems together. So, for example, having high blood sugar (sympathetic response) is a GOOD response to suddenly seeing a hungry bear (a sympathetic stimulus), because you want a lot of glucose swarming around for you to use while running from the bear. But it's a TERRIBLE response to seeing your angry boss - there's nothing useful about that glucose in that situation unless you're inclined to get into a fistfight with your boss. And that extra sugar could be doing all kinds of damage, especially if your boss is always angry with you and your blood sugar is regularly elevated.

So if we want to maximize health and well being we have to manipulate our body's response. Simply put: your body, left on its own, is remarkable, but in many ways does not handle modern life very well.

In order to do that, we have to be aware of what makes us more sympathetic, what makes us more parasympathetic, and when we want them.

What pushes us towards the sympathetic state?

This is an incomplete list, but a lot of things can push us towards either end of the spectrum. I don't think any of these will be surprising, but there's something I find very interesting about putting the list together and looking at the whole thing.
  • Stress - anxiety about life, jobs, relationships, hardship, and also any kind of life change (good or bad), worrying about one's responsibilities.
  • Intense exercise (The more intense, and longer the duration, the deeper into sympathetic state it drives you).
  • Sleep deprivation (and possibly getting too much sleep).
  • Sleeping at the wrong time (sleep/wake cycles out of sync with the sun, like night shift workers).
  • Caloric deprivation (not eating enough) or nutritional deficiencies (not eating enough of something in particular).
  • Pain (for example, from some chronic injury, like a bad back).
  • Social isolation (no friends).
  • Infection/illness.
  • Excessive stimulant consumption (caffeine, crystal meth, etc.)
  • Certain kinds of music (think speed metal).

What pushes us towards the parasympathetic state?

  • Socializing.
  • Meditation.
  • Sufficient food/nutrient intake.
  • Low level physical activity - stretching, long slow walks, especially in nature.
  • Laughter.
  • Moderate intellectual stimulation.
  • Low to moderate alcohol consumption.
  • Sufficient rest.
  • Other kinds of music (whatever they play in elevators).
These are not complete lists, obviously, and the impact of each of these is probably going to vary from person to person. Some people turn into happy noodles after an hour of yoga, others just feel uncomfortable. You have to figure out for yourself which activities work best for pushing you in one direction or the other if you want to control your own parasympathetic state.

Why is it important to be more or less parasympathetic? Well....

What are the effects of being more sympathetic?

  • Higher heart rate.
  • Higher performance (run faster, jump higher).
  • Higher blood sugar; poor blood sugar regulation.
  • Compromised immunity (don't fight infections well).
  • Poor recovery from workouts.
  • Fat accumulation and systemic inflammation.
  • Better concentration.
  • Less creativity/ poor higher level thinking.
  • Poor digestion.
  • Stimulate adaptions (muscle growth, increases in endurance, etc.).
  • More regular heart beat (more like a metronome).

What are the effects of being more parasympathetic?

  • Lower heart rate.
  • Better recovery from workouts.
  • Improved blood sugar control and resistance to fat accumulation/ease of losing fat.
  • Improved digestion.
  • Reduced physical performance (not as strong, fast, explosive).
  • More creativity.
  • Better healing.
  • Adapt, assuming there has been a stimulus (see the section above).
  • Less regular heartbeat (less like a metronome).

Let me sum up:

It's good to be deeply parasympathetic, most of the time. It's good to be deeply sympathetic ONLY for brief periods of time - long enough to stimulate the adaptions that make you more fit. It's bad to be sympathetic all the time.

What does this have to do with fat loss?

Fat loss is one (not the only) example of an arena where the importance of understanding the sympathetic-parasympathetic axis is important.

First, think about the things that we 'know' contribute to fat loss. Lots of exercise, stimulant consumption, caloric deprivation, fasting. These things are not really controversial on their own.
Now look at which 'way' along the sympathetic spectrum those things push us. All towards the sympathetic side of the spectrum. Now look at the effects of being chronically sympathetic.

Funny, huh?

Most of the things that contribute to fat loss also tend to push us into a sympathetic state, which itself has many effects which prevent fat loss.

Read that again. Caloric deprivation and high intensity exercise will help you create a caloric deficit and burn fat, but also contribute to pushing you into a sympathetic state where inflammation goes up, insulin regulation gets worse, and fat loss is slowed.

Is the point that fat loss is impossible? Of course not. But if you're already on the sympathetic side of the spectrum, if you're already stressed, tired, drinking too much, socializing too little, and not managing personal stress, and you ADD fasting and high intensity interval training to the mix, you MIGHT not get the fat loss results you think you will. 

On the other hand, if you're young (relatively few responsibilities/stresses), healthy, with a rich social life, you're probably deep into the parasympathetic end of things. Then, if you want to get in shape, and you add Crossfit and intermittent fasting and low carb, you might end up getting great results. You might become a personal trainer, showing off your six pack abs, and whipping your forty year old clients to feel crappy about themselves for not being as successful as you are. The fact is, though, that they're probably not lazy or cheating on their diets - they might be stricter than you are. But their lives leave them less capacity to absorb stressors without tumbling into the sympathetic end of the physiological spectrum and destroying any chance they have of making progress.

Bottom line here: Sometimes more is less. If you're already stressed, you might have more success on your 'diet' by making sure you start getting more sleep and having a good laugh every day and meditating, instead of just doing more exercise and cutting out more calories.

Can we measure, with an actual number, how sympathetic we are?

Yes, we can.

You probably already have a pretty good idea where you are on the spectrum. If you want something to quantify it, use your heart rate variability (HRV). This isn't the same as saying your heart rate is high or low - HRV is a measure of how much the beats of your heart vary. The more sympathetic you are, the more regular (less variation) there will be in the time between your heart beats.

You can measure HRV in a number of ways. including BioForce and the S Health app on a Samsung phone.

What's important isn't so much having a good score as learning what makes your score get better (less stressed) or worse (more stressed) and learning how to change your lifestyle accordingly. Some people get driven way sympathetic by a little alcohol consumption; others don't.

Get a BioForce and start tracking your HRV. See what kinds of things make it go up and down. If you can, make adjustments so your score gets higher. You'll be healthier and fitter for it!

What's the real take home here?

There's a couple of key points lurking in this.

First, understanding where you stand on the sympathetic -parasympathetic spectrum might really help you understand why you're not recovering from workouts, getting sick, or losing weight the way you think you should be.

Second, understanding this spectrum might help you pick lifestyle changes that will help you achieve your goals but might not have seemed intuitive. When people aren't recovering from workouts, they might think to try to eat more protein or stretch more. They might not realize that going out with friends or meditating might do just as much to improve their ability to recover (by pushing them towards the parasympathetic).

Meditation just might do just as much for your physical abilities as another workout.

Aim for a parasympathetic life (punctuated by short, intense, sympathetic bursts). You'll be healthier, happier, and a better karateka.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

SVT FAQ: common questions about aerobic base buildling

The title of this post is a lie; I haven't gotten any questions about SVT, but these are questions I think people might have after reading that post.

Is SVT enough to meet all my endurance training needs?

No! Sadly, low intensity work like SVT by itself won't make you fighting fit. It will contribute to a small degree to your fighting fitness (your ability to do higher intensity work) without wrecking you, and it will make you more fit for everyday life (push you into a more parasympathetic state). By itself it won't be enough to get you through a vigorous sparring session. For that you need to add in some high intensity work of some sort (like, for example, sparring session!).

How do I know if I need more SVT (if I need to build my 'aerobic base')?

Joel Jameson recommends tracking your resting heart rate (RHR) to see how much SVT type training you need and can benefit from. Roughly speaking, take your heart rate while relaxed, preferably lying down, and totally calm. If you hit a number below 60 you're probably good. If you can get it lower, that's great (there's probably a minimum value that provides benefits - I don't know what that number is; I'd guess that if you get below 50 there's no value in trying to get it lower). 

If your RHR is over 70 you can definitely benefit from more SVT. More importantly, do whatever you can fit in, and once your RHR stops dropping, see how much you can back off while maintaining that lower number. 

How much SVT can I do per week?

Unlike higher intensity training you should be able to do SVT pretty often. When I do the interval style training (squat kicks and so forth) I get some delayed onset muscle soreness, enough that I can't do those sessions more than every other day, but I'll fit in sessions on the treadmill in between them. I've done 2 sessions per day (50+ minutes each) and not wrecked myself. I'd say that available time is a bigger obstacle than neurological limitations - much different than high intensity work, where (especially if you're older) you probably can't do Tabata style HIIT every day even if you have the time to do so without wrecking your nervous system and making yourself useless.

Can I fit SVT into a martial arts class?

I think you could. I imagine a scenario where everybody straps on a heart rate monitor for class just as casually as they would their gi or obi, then follows a customized program depending on their intensity goals for the session.

It would be relatively easy to structure a skills based class (where you're focusing on learning new patterns, sharpening techniques, maybe doing some low impact self defense work) to keep people's heart rates in the target zone. Maybe give each student the freedom to drop down and knock out a set of pushups or squats whenever their heart rate dips too low.

Having said that, I have never heard of a traditional martial arts class working like that. Maybe one day!

Will SVT get me shredded?


Look, you'll burn calories doing SVT. I suspect (not sure) that a lot of SVT will actually help certain people lose some bodyfat - specifically people who are overly stressed, inflamed from elevated systemic cortisol levels, and in need of something to relax them. It's the same principle as people losing bodyfat while on vacation or on a cruise despite eating more calories - the shift towards a parasympathetic state reduces inflammation and can help drop some pounds. 

But over the long term working at a heart rate of 120-140 is simply not going to burn as many calories as higher intensity workouts.

SVT does have the advantage of being easy to do for longer periods of time. I can't do high intensity work for an hour a day, but I can do SVT for that long. So you can get some extra fat burning in with SVT above your higher intensity work.

Who would benefit most from SVT?

I suspect I'm in the target group of people who get the most out of this type of training - I tend to be very sedentary, but when I work out at all, I work pretty hard (high intensity). As a result, I've always had a relatively high resting heart rate, even though I can push my max heart rate really high. I've always been the kind of person who is regularly tired and lower in energy but fairly capable of handling a hard martial arts class or a lot of high intensity sparring.

If you tend to do a lot of lower intensity sports type stuff - if you're the type who spends significant time each week casually riding a bike, playing some recreational sport, or taking the occasional easier martial arts class - you might already have a sufficiently developed stroke volume to the point where SVT just won't help you (it still probably won't hurt!)

Looking over my own life I almost never get my heart rate elevated but not too elevated. SVT seems to have really helped me. 

What are the disadvantages of doing SVT?

Well, that's the great part - there aren't many. Work in this intensity range just won't cut into your reserves all that much.

Now, if you only have a few hours a week for exercise, SVT might not give you the most bang for your buck. If your RHR is around 60 you'll probably get more out of working harder than out of doing SVT. But if your RHR is above 70 and you're tired all the time, try SVT and see if it helps.

I suspect it will.

Do you have any more fun acronyms to share?

I do! I have a weakness for acronyms. They're coming.

Haven't you said before that lower intensity training was useless?

Yes, I have! I was wrong.

This is a journey. I'm trying to figure out the smartest way to train for a traditional amateur martial artist . I don't know everything. I've made tons of mistakes. I might come back 6 months or a year from now and say that SVT is a bad (or just less than optimal) because I will have learned something new about some aspect of adaptions to training. But then I'll write another blog post and explain the process that got me there.

In conclusion...

If you have any questions, please ask. If you have any experiences to share, please do! But remember, the best workout is the one you'll do. If you try some style of training and hate it, try something different. Your best chance for long term progress is doing something you enjoy.