Jackie attended the annual Illinois Master Naturalist’s conference last week, and came away with any number of interesting tidbits, but one in particular stuck with me: Forest bathing is like ergonomics.
Both Jackie and I have had our understanding of ergonomics informed by Katy Bowman, who points out:
Modern ergonomics is not the scientific pursuit of what is best for the human body, but the scientific pursuit of how the human body can be positioned (in one position, for eight or more hours at a time) for the purpose of returning to work the next day, and then the next and the next and the next.
What Jackie learned at her conference was that the Japanese concept of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) has roots in the same idea. When Japanese salarymen started dying from overwork, a lack of exposure to nature was put forward as a partial explanation.
If the problem is a lack of exposure to nature, then immersing yourself in nature is an obvious solution. But, of course, actually immersing yourself in nature would take too much time out of the workday. Hence the research into forest bathing is all about finding the minimum effective dose. There is little or no research into figuring out the optimum time for humans to spend in nature.
Keep that in mind when you read yet another article about how just looking at a forest scene for 20 minutes reduces salivary cortisol 13.4%, or walking in the woods for just 40 minutes improves mood and boosts feelings of health and robustness.
I’m not so much interested in the answer to the question, “What’s the least number of minutes I can spend in nature and not die early from overwork?”
I’m more interested in questions like:
If I go for a walk in the prairie, is that as good as going for a walk in the woods? Do I get added benefits if I divide my time between them?
Is doing my workout under a tree in a nicely mowed lawn as good as doing it in the woods?
Is running past a cornfield or soybean field nearly as good as running down a forest path? How about running past a row of osage orange trees? A suburban lawn? Between two suburban lawns on the other sides of 6-foot privacy fences?
If I can’t get to an actual natural area, how should I choose among possibilities like a park, an arboretum, a formal garden, a managed forest, or an unmanaged thicket? How do various water features (lake, stream, creek, natural pond, detention pond, drainage ditch, etc.) affect the benefits?
Is just sitting on a concrete patio outdoors better than sitting indoors?
I have my own tentative answers to many of these questions, but very little data.
I did an experiment a couple of days ago: I tested a combined workout that doubled up two pairs of exercises that I’d been doing separately. Up to now I’ve been doing four sessions each week: two where I do pull ups & pushups, and then two where I do dips & inverted rows. (Together with a leg exercise and a core exercise each workout.)
That was working very well, but it meant 4 upper-body strength sessions each week, which is a lot. Throw in a couple of lower-body strength sessions as well (such as hill sprints or kettlebell swings), plus a rest day, and I didn’t have a day to do anything else. This sort of volume has been well for me so far, but I think I may have reached a limit, and would benefit from a cycle of deeper recovery than just a week of lighter workouts: Except for “de-load” weeks in mid-March and mid-June, I’ve been averaging close to 5 workouts a week since the end of January. I’m thinking I want to take it down a notch.
With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about how I want to structure my training through the fall and winter. One obvious change was to go from four days of upper-body strength training per week to just three. The problem was that I didn’t see an easy way to evenly cover the range of pushing and pulling exercises at a reasonable volume with just three workouts a week, except by doing both pairs in each workout.
Hence my experiment, in which I did just that.
It was not a complete success. I managed to crank my way through the workout, but it was very long and tough. I don’t think I could keep it up three times a week for months.
Happily, while describing my difficulties to my friend Chuck, I had a brainstorm: I could do threes workouts per week—two of them just like what I’ve been doing (one with pull-ups & push-ups, and then another with inverted rows & dips), and then do just one combined workout. That keeps my workouts even, as far as covering all four exercises twice each week, without being quite so overwhelming as trying to do the combined workout three times a week.
With just three upper-body strength workouts per week, I have four days for other stuff, and I can mix and match as I choose. I can do the hill sprints that Anthony Arvanitakis recommends, or I can do kettlebell swings. (Either of those makes a good HIIT workout.) I can go for a run. I can go for a hike. I can do my animal moves. In particular, I can do two rest days, if that seems like a good idea. (Which I think it probably does. At least my Oura ring thinks so.)
This all got started back in February, when I figured out that I was lacking in consistency. (Previously I’d imagined that the problem was a lack of intensity.) Targeting 5 workouts a week has meant that, even when I miss one, I get in more than when I was targeting 3 workouts a week—even if I didn‘t miss one.
I don’t want to give up the consistency, I just want to take the volume down a notch. Hence the struggle. But I think now I’ve got a plan.
I’ve been meaning for a long time to write about the various minimal shoes that I wear these days, and since Xero recently gave me an affiliate link, now seems the perfect time.
First up is the Speed Force, which is Xero’s running shoe.
My experience with the Speed Force shoes is slightly fraught, because my pair arrived right after I aggravated a long-standing foot injury. To recover from the injury I ended up taking a long break from running, so these shoes have only recently started to get the wear-time they deserve.
Despite that unfortunate association, I really like these shoes. They’re the lightest, most minimal shoes I’ve got.
As part of my foot rehab, I’d did some actual barefoot running, which was highly effective: When I was actually barefoot, running didn’t aggravate my sore foot, whereas when I ran in shoes (even minimal ones), the injury would flare up again. That difference prompted me to remember that these shoes had a removable insole to provide just a tiny amount of cushioning. I took the insole out and that was the adjustment that got these shoes close enough to actually barefoot that I could start running again.
I’m sad that I missed almost the whole summer’s running, but I’ll make do with fall and winter running.
For me, these shoes provide exactly just what I want from minimal running shoes: Some puncture resistance and some thermal resistance. (They also provide some abrasion resistance—comfortable, but perhaps part of the reason my foot injury was so persistent. If you run with correct form there shouldn’t be any abrasion; protecting yourself from it just enables bad form, leading—at least in my case—to injury.)
The Speed Force shoes are the maximally minimal shoes I had been looking for. Check them out at my affiliate link. Buy a pair (or any of the other Xero shoes) and earn me a tiny pittance!
There are several other Xero shoes, boots, and sandals that I wear regularly, which I’ll write about over the next little while.
I experimented with animal moves a while back, but for various reasons ended up not getting them added to my broader movement practice. Just recently I’ve been trying them again, and this time they seem to be sticking.
Most of the credit goes to Julie Angel and specifically to her free Move More course, which I highly recommend.
I’ve looked at a lot of free movement courses on the web, and most of them don’t suit me. (A class can work great in person, but a video of that class pretty rarely hits the spot as well, and that’s what a lot of free movement classes tend to be.) Julie’s class is different—better.
Half of this, I suspect, comes down to her being a filmmaker as much as she is a movement coach, so she knows how to use the language of moving images to tell a story (and telling a story is often the best way to teach something). Besides that, this particular class—especially the “animal moves” segment—happened to be just exactly the right level for me.
The animal moves themselves are just names given to perfectly ordinary sorts of quadrupedal ground movement—prone crawling (bear crawl), supine crawling (crab crawl), moving forward or laterally from a squat (frog or ape respectively). Those are mostly useful movements. (Prone crawling for going under something. Supine crawling for going down a steep or slippery slope. I’m not sure how useful frog hopping is by itself, but it’s a progression toward doing kong vaults, so useful for that at least.) Giving them animal names is possibly useful as a memory aid if nothing else. But the whole thing can be taken up a notch by coming up with some transition moves that let you go from one animal move to another, and thereby put them together into a flow, which takes it above just being a useful move and turns it into something more like a dance. An opportunity for self-expression, at any rate.
Various people have come up with such transitions, but until I came across the Animal Moves segment of Julie’s Move More class, I hadn’t found an introduction at the right level for me—everything was either too basic, or else too complex, so I either didn’t learn anything, or else I couldn’t make the jump to actually including the moves as part of my practice.
The three or so animal moves, together with the three or so transitions that Julie teaches come out exactly right. Not too much to learn from a video, but enough that I could go ahead and put together a flow—which means that my training session can be much more interesting than just doing one crawl followed by another followed by another.
Just as an aside, I should mention that the transitions are also useful moves in their own right. They’re not just useful for transitioning from prone to supine crawling, but also useful for things like transitioning from sitting on the ground to standing (and vice versa), or transitioning from one seated position to another.
“Requiring demonstration of inadequate means up-front, rather than on the back-end, creates at best a delay between when a shock is experienced and when it can be ameliorated. “Delay” can mean your kid skips meals, you start rationing your insulin, or your family is evicted from its home. It’s a big deal.”