Getting my mind right with the cold

After posting a couple of weeks ago about how I was having trouble adjusting to the cold and dark, I got a comment from Srikanth Perinkulam suggesting that I take a look at What Doesn’t Kill Us by Scott Carney, which I have now done.

The book grabbed me right from the start. The forward by Wim Hof is delightful. The preface sets the stage for the climactic event. In the introduction the author suggests that his spirit animal is a jellyfish—a comforting thought for someone like me whose totemic animal is the sloth.

Because the first few pages were so interesting, I suggested that my brother use Amazon’s “look inside” feature to read them, but he was unwilling to do so—pretending to be daunted by the fact that the “look inside” feature depends on scripts he had turned off in his web browser. He also declared the book to be “pseudoscientific drivel.” (A comment that must have been—since he wouldn’t read even a few pages—based entirely on the subtitle: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude, and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength.)

Of course it’s not a scientific book, but rather a journalistic one, and my urging was because I thought he would appreciate how well the story was set up—and the jellyfish spirit animal. After all, my brother’s totemic animal is the slug.

The book does talk a good bit about new scientific research into how the body responds to cold and other stresses. Part of the background that is being reported on is emerging evidence that humans have some degree of control over all sorts of autonomic responses, and that one path to gaining that control is by exposing yourself to stresses that trigger those responses, so as to gain an opportunity to practice exerting control.

One area that’s still disputable is how much of that control is real, and how much of of the observable changes are really a matter of “getting your mind right” about the stressor—maybe all of the changes being measured, such as increased mitochondria turning white fat into beige fat (or turning muscle that preferentially burns carbs into muscle that preferentially burns fat), are merely incidental, and the real difference is just deciding that being a little bit cold isn’t so bad.

Since that was, after all, why I was reading the book, that would not be so bad either.

Last winter, when I got off to a better start than I had this year, much of the change in attitude had been prompted by Katy Bowman’s comments pointing out that the actions your body takes in response to cold (vasoconstriction, shivering, activation of the arrector pili muscles) are all movements—movements that, like squatting and crawling, are done all too rarely these days by most people.

The arrector pili muscles in particular intrigue me. Always described as a left-over muscle that helps animals keep warm by making their hairs stand up for extra insulation, it seems like an awfully complex mechanism to have been so well conserved in humans if that’s all it was for. I suspect they have additional uses. Perhaps the calories burned pulling on hair follicles provides a bit of local thermogenesis that can stave off frostbite without the risk to core body temperature that would result if the area were warmed by blood-flow.

Carny talks a bit about vasoconstriction, suggesting that the pain associated with it is due to the fact that it’s such an uncommon movement in most people. If you train yourself for it, he says, it becomes much less uncomfortable.

Carny also has interesting things to say about non-shivering thermogenesis, which is produced by specialized mitochondria that live in brown fat and beige fat (but also apparently in muscle). In particular, he says that the process of converting white fat to beige fat starts with temperature sensing nerves in the skin! I would have assumed that difficulty maintaining core body temperature would have been the initiator, but apparently not: All you need to do is get your skin cold. This means that going for cold-weather runs will do the trick, which has to be the easiest possible way to do it, because your body produces enough heat while running to scarcely feel cold at all.

Thinking about this sort of thing makes it easier for me to get my mind right with winter.

Also helpful is that we’re getting a few days of less-cold weather. It’s still cold enough to provide the necessary circumstances to induce some cold adaptation, but not so cold that I immediately turn up the thermostat and pull out my warmest parka whenever I need to go outside. In fact, I’ve been making  a point of dressing slightly less warmly—choosing a jacket one notch down—than I would if comfort were my only criterion.

I expect that by the time full-blown winter weather arrives, I’ll have gotten my mind right.

Feeling good versus feeling young

A friend of mine posted to her Facebook page recently criticizing a whole category of ageist comments along the lines of “You’re only as old as you feel.”

It caught my interest in particular because I’d been mentally composing a post about how I just turned 58, but I’m not suffering the aches and pains that supposedly go along with getting old. My friend’s post reminded me that referring to this as “feeling young” is problematic. And yet, I find that I come down on the other side of this issue. Sure, there is a certain irrefutable accuracy to say that your age is the current year minus your birth year, but age is many things besides a mathematical calculation—at a minimum it’s a social construction, and also perhaps a collection of biological circumstances.

It’s true that what I mean—and what perhaps I should say—is I feel good. Better, in fact, than I’ve felt in years. I’m stronger, more flexible, and more agile than I’ve been in longer than I can remember. I move with more ease, more power, and more control. I have more endurance. I’m certainly more comfortable in my own skin.

A lot of this is just good luck, of course—good genes, avoiding serious injuries and serious illnesses so far.

Beyond good luck I credit my movement practice for most of the rest. Taiji. Walking and hiking. Running (merely an adjunct, but one I enjoy in particular). After years of lifting with machines to little noticeable effect I now do almost all my strength training with bodyweight exercises and am having much more success. (The main exception to pure bodyweight exercise is doing kettlebell swings for my high-intensity interval training, which I ought to write about because it seems to be doing some good, and is also quick and fun.) Push hands I wrote about recently. Animal movement ditto. So new I haven’t had a chance to write much about it yet, I did yoga for the first time last week.

But to bring this back full circle, I’m not so sure that it’s wrong to talk about “feeling young.” My friend is right—growing old is a privilege not everyone enjoys. It is indeed better than the alternative: dying young. But just as I can see her objections to denying age (as if refusing to acknowledge it meant something), I object to denying one’s felt experience. If someone says that they “feel young,” does an appeal to mere arithmetic justify correcting them?

Certainly I am not the only person to feel this way. There are always people trying to express health and fitness in terms of age. There are websites that will suggest a guess as to your physiological age vaguely based on your weight and your activity level. Various practitioners of various disciplines will measure specific things ranging from your maximum heart rate to the length of your telomeres and use the results to calculate a biological age.

They’re all pretty dubious, but I find that I do not object in principle to thinking and talking about concepts like health, fitness, and vitality in terms of age. Even though there are many unhealthy young people and many old people who are fit and vital, I think the notion resonates in a useful way.

As for me, I feel good. I also feel younger than I’ve felt in years.

Expanding my movement practice: Animal movements

My most recent addition to my movement practice, just started, is animal movements.

These are basically just ground exercises where the shapes are inspired by animal movements: Bear and Crab crawls, Ape and Duck walks, transitions from one to another.

Playing on a fallen log at the Nature Playscape at Homer Lake

My hope is that doing them will help me connect some of my mobility practice with movement (as opposed to static stretches). My hip mobility and my toe and ankle dorsiflection are limited enough that I can’t do certain things that I’d like to do—in particular a deep squat, but also a particular kneeling-to-standing transition. Probably other things I can’t think of at the moment.

For three years I’ve been working on these aspects of flexibility/mobility and I’m making progress, but I’m not there yet. I’m not sure what it will take to get there, but one possibility that comes to mind is that I haven’t tried to connect these things with other movements. I’ve done isolated stretches, and I’ve done assisted/bolstered versions of the movements, but I haven’t tried to use the movements as part of a sequence of other movements. Very possibly my difficulty is not merely my muscles being “too tight,” but rather springs from a the lack of a proper mind-body connection linking these moves and other moves I do.

My hope is that the animal forms, by giving me an opportunity to pass through these postures (rather than merely trying to hold them as static stretches) may help make the mind-body connection in a way that lets me relax into the postures quicker than just more stretching would do.

In any case, I’ve been meaning for a long time to increase the amount of ground exercises I do and not getting around to it, and animal movements—by giving me a framework for that—have finally gotten me started.

I don’t think I’m going to stick with the animal forms for long. There are plenty of natural human ground movements which are largely similar, but some of the animal forms modify them to justify the name, and although that can be fun, my own affinity is always going to be for natural human movement.

Still, tolerating the silliness can lead to impressive results in terms of power and control. Check out for example, this video of movement guru Mike Fitch demonstrating what an animal movement practice he calls Animal Flow looks like:

Once I’ve established the habit I’ll look to transition away from animal forms and just do combos of human-style crawling, rolling, sitting, squatting, kneeling—and the transitions between them.

Expanding my movement practice: Push hands

I haven’t written much yet about adding push hands to my movement practice, mainly because I don’t feel competent to describe it well.

Push hands is a taiji training technique—a way to learn how to accept and redirect force. I view it as falling roughly at the midpoint between taiji as moving meditation and taiji as a martial art.

My taiji teacher wasn’t really interested in push hands, I think because he wasn’t really interested in the martial aspects of taiji. He did give us the barest exposure to pushing, so I wasn’t a complete novice, but nearly so.

I am interested in the martial aspects of taiji, so I was delighted last year when I met a couple of people who were interested in pushing. We got together several times last fall, then let our training fall by the wayside over the winter, but started meeting again once the weather turned nice in late spring.

One of the friends I push with describes push hands as a test or diagnostic for your form practice: If your form practice is sound, you will be good at push hands.

Already my push hands practice is informing my form practice, as I learn to shift my weight to move, but simply to turn my waist to accept and redirect energy. I’m trying to learn to keep my shoulders down (a work in progress), and I’m trying to learn to keep my arms and shoulders connected to my core (same, but with less progress).

Great fun.

Gathering garlic mustard

I’ve been occasionally joining Jackie when she does stewardship workdays at natural areas around the county as part of her Master Naturalist work. They’re fun, and they fit in very well with my shift away from exercise and toward movement. Our work Sunday, clearing garlic mustard from the South Arboretum Woods, is a great example.

(Garlic mustard is a nasty invasive, largely because the first-year growth leafs out very early, and covers the ground almost completely. Native plants emerge a little later in the spring, by which time they can’t get enough light to get going. The upshot is that the understory loses most of its natural diversity, becoming just a vast carpet of garlic mustard.)

What we did Sunday was make our way through the woods, spotting and then pulling up all the second-year garlic mustard. (It’s a biennial. The first year is the low ground cover. The second year it puts up a flowering stalk and produces seeds. If you can get the flowering stalks before they set seed, you can make a dent in the local garlic mustard density.)

What struck me was how similar our activity was to “gathering” à la hunting and gathering. It was physically similar—walking through the woods, and then squatting, bending, reaching, and pulling. It was also mentally similar—doing exactly the same pattern-matching that someone seeking to gather edible or medicinal plants would do.

I suspect that both of these aspects of this activity enhance the well-known beneficial effects of “forest bathing” (aka spending time in the woods).

The area we were clearing has a lot of downed branches, big and small, some partially or completely hidden by the ground cover, making for a complex walking surface—more good stuff for both the body and the brain.

Of course, volunteering for and participating in a stewardship work day produces all sorts of additional benefits—in particular, doing something good for the local communities (both the human community that uses the space and the natural community that inhabits it) is rewarding, as is making social connections with the other volunteers and engaging together on a common effort.

Every time I do one, I am reinforced in my desire to do more stewardship workdays, despite my slothful nature.

(The picture at the top is another view of the Cecropia moth that Jackie spotted while we were there.)

Lift by Daniel Kunitz

My brother shared this comic with me a while back. I think it captures something—something about CrossFit, but also about how people react to anyone who’s “really into” anything.I’m not a crossfitter, but my expanding interests in fitness and movement have produced similarly horrified reactions to the prospect of having to engage with me on the topic—less frantic only because people are not literally trapped in an elevator with me.

I bring this up because the recent book Lift, by Daniel Kunitz, can be read as a love song to CrossFit (although he has done a pretty good job of discreetly tucking away most of the CrossFit stuff near the end of the book).

The book is more than just one thing, and even more than a love song to CrossFit it’s a fascinating cultural history of fitness.

Kunitz uses the term New Frontier Fitness to refer to the whole emerging cluster of practices centered around the idea of “functional” fitness: CrossFit, MovNat, Parkour, AcroYoga, obstacle course racing, and any number of gymnastic and calisthenic exercise practices. Kunitz doesn’t mention Katy Bowman’s work, but it obviously fits in as well.

Doryphoros MAN Napoli Inv6011-2A key thesis of the book is that the motivating genius of New Frontier Fitness is not without precedent: It springs directly from ancient Greek ideals of fitness, and he references both ancient Greek representations of a fit body (such as the Doryphoros sculpture) and statements by ancient Greeks not unlike Georges Hébert’s admonition “Be strong to be useful.”

This cluster of ideas—in particular that fitness was a moral and social obligation, but also that functional fitness produces a beautiful body as a side-effect (rather than as a goal)—largely disappeared after the Greeks, except in tiny subcultures such as the military. It has only reemerged in the past few years as the various things that Kunitz refers to as New Frontier Fitness.

In between—and the 2000-year history of this makes up of the center of Kunitz’s book—there were many things that were not this particular tradition of functional fitness, but instead were aimed at producing a particular type of body (body-building, aerobics, etc.)

It’s impossible for me to talk about Daniel Kunitz’s Lift without comparing it to another book—Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes. They are similar in at least two ways. First, they both compare modern fitness culture to that of the ancient Greeks. Second, they both appear to have been written just for me.

A third book that I read recently but haven’t written about is Spark, by John J. Ratey, which overlaps in the sense that all talk about intensity as a key aspect of exercise to produce functional fitness. (If all you’re interested in is appearance and body composition, you can get most of the way there with a diligent application of low-intensity exercise, but some amount of intensity is highly beneficial for functionality and brain health.)

All three books are worth reading.

Image credits: CrossFit Elevator comic by Ryan Kramer from ToonHole. Doryphoros photo by Ricardo André Frantz.

Writing and moving

I still struggle with the tension between time spent moving and time spent writing, even as I come to recognize that the tension may not even exist. So I love this post by Katy Bowman, on being A Writer Who Moves, A Mover Who Writes.

Culturally, we still hold the belief that the relationship between time and productivity is direct. As if writing consists solely of the output of words, your typing speed being the indicator of how long it would take to write a thousand-word word article (ten minutes) or a novel (one week). But of course, time spent coming up with ideas and themes, and organizing and reorganizing these threads in our minds, is also “writing.” The trouble is, we’ve come to see sitting at a desk as an integral part of the writing process. We imagine the mulling, the idea-forming, the organizing, the process—the creativity—can occur only when the butt–chair circuit is closed. I (and researchers) have found the opposite to be true: movement can be a conduit for creativity.

Today I will live this truth: I will move and I will write.

Movement in 2016

This year didn’t have a stunt like last year’s Kal-Haven Trail walk. Instead I tried to spend the year turning my realization that “getting plenty of exercise” is a poor substitute for “moving all day” into something that guided my behavior all the time.

I did not have perfect success. I still spend too many hours sitting at my computer during the day, and then spend too many hours sitting and watching videos in the evening. Neither did I fail. I included movement throughout the day most days of the year, especially through the spring, summer, and fall.

Although movement was my focus I certainly did not give up on exercise. In particular, I used exercise to make progress on developing certain capabilities that I lack.

Exercise

I had four specific things I was going to work on for 2016: squatting, toe flexibility, hanging, and wall dips. I made good progress on all them except the toe flexibility.

Squatting

My limitations in squatting turn out to be almost entirely mobility. (My personal test for this is the goblet squat. Using a modest weight—just enough to serve as a counterbalance so I can get down into a deep squat—I can do a dozen reps.)

The other ways (besides a counterbalance) to compensate for squat-limiting mobility issues are heel bolstering, hanging onto something in front of you, and taking a wide-legged sumo stance. I don’t practice the last, but use it when I want to look in my mailbox (which is down low) or into a low cabinet or the bottom of the refrigerator. I don’t much practice hanging onto something while squatting either. Most of my practice has focused on bolstering.

With a modest amount of heel-bolstering I can now get down into a deep squat, and linger there comfortably. Almost every day I do my calf and hamstring stretches and then do some squatting with progressively lower heel bolstering. I haven’t done as much hip flexor stretching as I probably need to. I’ll add that to my daily routine, both for the stretching itself, and also for the motor control practice—I’m kind of wobbly doing a hip flexor stretch, which probably causes all the related muscles to tighten up some.

Hanging

My hanging is probably where I’ve made the most progress. I can now hang for long enough (90 seconds) that there’s time to do stuff while hanging—things like swinging back-and-forth or side-to-side, pulling my knees up toward my chest, or raising my legs up in front of me.

To just hanging I added negative pull ups. After an ill-advised increase in volume hurt my shoulder in July I eased up just a bit, but still made good progress, working up to 3×5 negative pull ups.

When that turned out not to have enabled even one pull up, I changed the exercise just a bit: Now I’m doing the negative pull ups even slower, trying at each point to see if I can (from that point) lift myself up, or at least stop my descent.

Soon. Soon I will be able to do a pull up.

Wall dip

I thought I was ready to do wall dips a year ago, because I could do wall supports—support myself with my hands on the top of a wall. I could even sort-of do one wall dip—lowering myself and then pushing back up.

I didn’t train that exercise enough in the summer, largely because I didn’t have a good wall to practice on. When I came back to it in the fall, I found that going from one wall dip to two wall dips was quite challenging.

Something that is well-known in the bodyweight exercise community—that I know, but always seem to have trouble applying to myself—is that when an exercise is too hard you should back off to an easier progression.

So, just now that it’s winter, I have finally backed off a bit to an easier dip progression: bench dips (where you have your hands on a bench behind you, with your legs stretched out in front of you, and you lower and raise yourself with your arms while some weight rests on your heels).

I’ve already worked up from 1×8 bench dips to 1×12. Pretty soon I’ll be doing 3×12. Then it’ll probably be time to return to wall dips. I’ll also keep up with my wall supports, when I happen upon a good wall.

Toe stretches

The area where I’ve made the least progress is toe dorsiflexion. That’s been kind of frustrating.

This may be one area where what I need is not just more stretching (which hasn’t seemed to do any good at all) but some sort of deeper tissue work to break up adhesions, recover space in the joint capsule, etc.

It just now, while writing this, occurred to me that I probably I need to expand my focus to include my whole foot and not just the toes. So that can be my winter practice: the same, plus extra foot mobility.

Pushups

I’m adding a fifth area of focus for 2017: Pushups.

They had not been a priority before, because pushing strength in that plane is not particularly important for parkour. And yet, it’s such a basic exercise, it seems silly not to give it a little attention—particularly because I was actually really weak in that area: I could barely do one pushup.

I just decided to add pushups a few weeks ago, about the same time I figured out I should back off from wall dips to bench dips. So when I found I could barely do a pushup, I quickly realized that I should back off to something easier for that move as well. So I’ve just started doing bench pushups (hands on a bench, rather than on the floor). I can do 1×8 of those as well.

Because trying to do a pushup is so easy, I probably won’t wait until I can do 3×12 bench pushups before switching back to regular pushups; I’ll just include an occasional few (as many as I can do) in the mix. Once I can do 5 or 6, I’ll switch back to actual pushups.

Non-Exercise Movement

Walking

Without a stunt walk to work up to, Jackie and I did not walk as much this year as last, but we did plenty of long walks and at least one very long walk. Some of our walking is exercise, but most of it is either just a way to get places, or else companionable social time together—often both.

Running

I also did a good bit of running, especially before August. As I’ve been doing more and more these past two or three years, I skipped most of the short and medium runs, letting walks stand in for those, and just did the long runs. That worked surprisingly well, and in July I did a 7.25 mile run, my longest run in years. This is probably a slider as to whether it counts as “exercise” or not, but I do it as much because I enjoy it as I do it for fitness, so I think it legitimately goes here.

Parkour

Early in the summer I did some training with the campus parkour group, which was great fun. I found it a bit stressful: I’m not strong enough to do some of the basic moves, and I’m too timid to commit to some of the ones I could do if I’d just go for it. I quit going in July when I hurt my shoulder, and then never got started again. I will go back. Maybe being stronger will help some with the timidity as well.

Taiji

I’ve continued to teach taiji, and to do taiji for myself when I’m not teaching it. The qigong practice that we start each session with provides a pretty good mobility routine (although lacking in the things I mention above: hip flexion, ankle dorsiflexion, and toe dorsiflexion). It builds strength (especially leg strength), balance, and precision (matching movement to intention). It includes a meditation practice—in each class we sit for a few minutes and stand for a few minutes, as well as trying to approach the form itself as moving meditation. It fills so many rolls it goes way beyond exercise (although it’s that too).

Push hands

One new thing I added—perhaps the most fun of all—is push hands. Closely related to taiji and qigong, it’s kind of a transitional step between taiji as a moving meditation and taiji as a martial art. It deserves a post of its own, so I won’t try to describe it here, and instead just thank the new friends I’ve been able to push with and say how much I’m looking forward to practicing again now that the holidays are over.

Volunteer stewardship work days

This doesn’t really describe a category of movement at all, which is I guess the way in which this is totally not an exercise.

Jackie’s master naturalist program includes a substantial volunteer commitment. It can be met a lot of different ways, but one is working in the various parks, doing things like clearing invasive plants, planting native species, and so on.

I’ve just done a few of these, but spent a couple of hours each time moving. Some of the movement—in particular, gathering prairie seeds—must have been identical to what our ancestors would have done in gathering seeds. Others were perhaps slightly different—we had saws and pruning clippers that our earliest ancestors would not have had—but once something has been cut, the lifting and dragging is right back to being the exact same movements that humans have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years.

I’m always torn this time of year, between looking forward to spring and being able to move outdoors again, versus motivating myself to get outdoors anyway (also: finding ways to move more indoors). I’m trying to discipline myself not to just defer my plans to the spring even implicitly such as by saying “I’m looking forward to spring and being able to move outdoors again.”

I’m pleased with 2016, a year of great progress in my movement practice, and I have every reason to hope that 2017 will be even better.

 

Original opulence via simple living

Just from her title I was pretty sure that Christa Whiteman’s post Living simply: reclaiming sanity + authenticity would be right in my sweet spot, and I was not surprised to find more than a little overlap with what I’ve been saying for years at Wise Bread. I’ve talked about living a life of “luxury and splendor,” but recovering our “original opulence” sounds good too.

Christa suggests three starting places: food, movement, and stuff—adding that the proper course to take is a spiral, coming around to the same points over and over. She is right—where you start means little—and yet, her course is so completely different from my own I thought it might be worth pondering those differences to see if they told me something useful about what I’ve been doing, and about how I’ve been writing about it.

As anyone who has read my work at Wise Bread knows, I’m all about the power of frugality as a tool for living a life of full of exactly what you most want: Basically, I started with the “stuff” piece. I probably have a hundred articles on various aspects of figuring out the difference between needs and wants, covering your actual needs, identifying and focusing on those few wants that matter most deeply to you, and dealing with others who care how you satisfy your wants.

I wrote quite a bit about food, too—about how to eat at the intersection of cheap and healthy. I’ve just now reread a few of those posts and I’m pretty pleased with them, even if I’d write them differently now.

Christa’s third piece is about movement, and that is where my writing at Wise Bread falls short. In fact, I’ve really got exactly one post that’s right on topic. The editors gave it the unfortunate title of Get a Great Workout for Free With 11 Simple Moves, but it’s straight-up natural movement advocacy. Before that, I had some good stuff on how walking and bicycling for transportation were frugal and healthy, but it had a pretty limited perspective.

I think I need to write some more pieces on both food and movement for Wise Bread. I can certainly write a new Wise Bread post on how to eat paleo on the cheap. (Not that I eat a paleo diet, but there’s a lot of overlap between what’s expensive in my diet and what’s expensive in the paleo diet.) Maybe I can also write some more movement pieces. What should be the focus, I wonder. The frugality of natural movement for exercise? The frugality of staying healthy? Or the luxury and splendor of being a fully capable human? I guess I’ve done that first one. Hmm.

Anybody who talks about natural movement needs a picture of themselves squatting on a fallen tree in the forest.
Anybody who talks about natural movement needs a picture of themselves squatting on a fallen tree in the forest.