The Intersection of Health Research and Actual Fitness Improvements

Daniel Duane writing for the NY Times had a really interesting piece concerning the application of research results to workout routines:

The problem is that everybody in the fitness industry grabs onto this basic science — plus the occasional underfunded applied study with a handful of student subjects — and then twists the results to come up with something that sounds like a science-backed recommendation for whatever they’re selling.

Regardless of whether you’re a regular weekend warrior or a fitness fanatic, you’ll likely find yourself having reached some of the same conclusions in the past. Duane raises some interesting questions centering around personal training and the fitness industry in general. This struck me as a particularly common complaint or realization:

As for personal trainers, I’ve known great ones. But the business model is akin to babysitting: There’s no percentage in teaching clients independence by showing them basic barbell lifts and telling them to add weight each time. Better to invent super-fun, high-intensity routines that entertain and bewilder clients, so they’ll never leave you. The science of muscle confusion, in other words, looks a lot like the marketing tradecraft of client confusion.

It’s akin to the old adage “Give a man a fish, feed him for the day; show a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” It’s no secret that personal trainers build their income and their livelihood off repeat business. Resigning clients are a wonderful thing as they help guarantee a certain level of income for trainers in a business that is anything but steady.

However, to Duane’s particular argument, there are a lot of contributing factors that feed in to this public mistrust of trainers. I covered a handful of them in this post on what’s wrong with the personal training industry and how it can be fixed:

  1. As an industry, we went a bit overboard with the whole functional fitness craze trying to convince every client that they needed to be standing on a BOSU ball doing single-leg squats with a dumbbell in each hand. I’m not even sure where this all started, but it caught on like wildfire throughout the personal training industry leading to everyone ditching main barbell moves in search of their “functional” counterparts.
  2. There are a ton of sleazy salespeople in the world of personal training that are fantastic at getting you to sign a contract but terrible at delivering results. They’re trained in the latest sales tactics and use proven arguments to get you to hang around when you know you should quit. These people help to ruin the industry for the great trainers that are out there delivering results at a fair price.

If you think you’re getting screwed over by your trainer, follow the list here to help make personal training work for you. Seriously, ask questions, demand explanations, and take charge of your sessions. It’s one thing to sit back and complain about how you’re getting taken advantage of in the gym arena; the much better option would be to take ownership of your training sessions and demand a good return on your investment.

Duane continues:

The human body is an adaptation machine. If you force it to do something a little harder than it has had to do recently, it will respond — afterward, while you rest — by changing enough to be able to do that new hard task more comfortably next time. This is known as the progressive overload principle. All athletic training involves manipulating that principle through small, steady increases in weight, speed, distance or whatever.

Progressive overload is the foundational principle for strength training, and one that I’d argue everyone is familiar with in some form or another even if they’ve never been inside the walls of a gym. It’s a lovely principle that fails to hit home in today’s society.

Our society is based on immediate results and big “bang for your buck” purchases. As Ryan Holiday states in The Obstacle is the Way:

We are A-to-Z thinkers, fretting about A, obsessing over Z, yet forgetting all about B through Y.

Ryan was referring more to business in the book, but it applies to literally everything today. We want short-term success, and we want it now.

Duane goes on to conclude:

So if your own exercise routine hasn’t brought the changes you’d like, and if you share my vulnerability to anything that sounds like science, remember: If you pay too much attention to stories about exercise research, you’ll stay bewildered; but if you trust the practical knowledge of established athletic cultures, and keep your eye on the progressive overload principle, you will reach a state of clarity.

If only it were that simple! First, most individuals in our culture are completely mystified with exercise in general. So much hocus pocus exists in the fitness industry today that novice gym users literally have no idea what the “right” thing is to do when they walk in the gym.

Should I try Crossfit or go for yoga?

Is it bad to squat with my knees going over my toes?

Should I use machines or free weights? Well, scratch that; the free weight area is clogged up with muscle-bound dudes wearing tank-tops. I’ll just stick to cardio.

The “keep your eye on the progressive overload principle” sounds great in theory, but it lacks any real application. For that advice to be practical, the general public would have to have some actual understanding of how to structure a workout or actually achieve their goals. Unfortunately, 80% of Americans lack that knowledge altogether.

The solution isn’t just to start ignoring mainstream health and fitness news (although that’s a solid start). The key is learning to be your own editor. No one is going to filter the truth from the lies for you. It’s up to you to take ownership over your health and fitness. If following the principles of progressive overload is enough instruction for you, have at it. For everyone else, build your base of fitness knowledge and a team of trusted friends and advisors. Do your homework on new theories that hit the market. Settle for results, nothing less.

Buy the Internet You Want to Read

Each month, I donate somewhere in the neighborhood of $15-$20 to publishers across the internet. It’s no large sum by any means. In reality, if I just refrain from eating one meal out or make an espresso at home a few afternoons during the week, that money will fully be recouped. Why dish out $20 a month to writers and bloggers that I’ve never met or really know at all outside of their Twitter handle and online content?

It’s simple; I believe in buying the internet you want to read and supporting publishers that you enjoy/gain insight from.

The publishing landscape has changed quite a bit over the last decade. There’s been a dramatic shift away from print material in favor of online content. Alongside of the shift in medium has come a growing level of content availability. It’s easier than ever now for someone to log on to a content platform like WordPress.com, Squarespace, etc and create a website. Within minutes (seconds even), they can be posting their words out there for everyone to see contributing to the ever-growing amount of content in the world.

The change in content medium and competition isn’t the only shift that has occurred. There’s been a dramatic shift in publisher revenue as well. The general idea among novice bloggers and general readers is that blogging is a relatively easy and lucrative adventure. Create a site, throw some adds up, string a few words together, and boom – an income-generating blog is born.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Before I started at Automattic, I was fortunate to work for Federated Media (now called Sovrn). In my entry role, I was a sales associate that spoke with publishers asking them to join our display advertising network. If they joined, I sent over some code for ad tags, they threw the code up on their site, and we both waited for the riches to come pouring in (My pay was somewhat related to their performance).

Often times, instead of getting elated emails (“We did it!” “Thanks for the new car!”) from bloggers, I’d get the dreaded phone call I had hoped to avoid – “How in hell did I only make $0.80 last month?” The answer was a hard one to explain and involved educating them a bit about how ads actually generate revenue.

When you visit a webpage that has ad codes embedded, your information is immediately pinged across the internet in the form of a cookie. Advertisers “bid” on the ability to show you an ad based on a variety of factors including your past browsing history and internet purchases among other things. If multiple advertisers want to show you an ad, there is a quick bidding war and the winner returns an ad that pops up on your screen as the page loads. This all happens in fractions of a second, so quickly that you don’t even notice it slowing down your page load. This is happening billions of times a day across millions of sites on the internet.

So, how much are you worth to the advertiser on average? Probably not as much as you may think.

Advertising spend is tracked in what’s referred to as CPM or cost per thousand (the actual acronym stands for cost per mille, which means thousand in Latin). The acronym isn’t important; what is important is that this number reflects what publishers can expect to earn on average for one thousand visitors. CPMs ranges depend on many factors, but average numbers are in the neighborhood of $0.60-$4.00. Remember, that price is for one thousand visitors. So, say you have five thousand hits on your site on a daily basis (a solid size for an independent blogger). You’re probably feeling pretty accomplished (as you should!), but at the end of the day, that traffic level is bringing home $10.00 (based on a $2.00 CPM with one ad on a page). Not quite the dream many publishers envision.

If you’re running the numbers in your head, you’ll understand that sites need to have considerable levels of traffic in order to depend on display advertising for their main source of income.

Most publishers have figured out that they can’t rely solely on display advertising to pay the bills. Depending on one source of income for your livelihood is a dangerous game, particularly when that source is display advertising. You’re virtually living at the mercy of powerhouses like Google, which has proved to be an ineffective method in the long haul.

So, in come other advertising methods: affiliate links, direct sponsorships, video pre-roll ads (the kind that tries to get you to buy something before a YouTube video plays), rising star units (the kind that drops down at the top of a website), skins (a background image that sites behind your favorite site) to name a few. In short, advertisers are trying new and innovative ways to get advertisements in front of your face.

You can’t blame them.

This puts publishers in a bit of a bind. Regardless of how much you cut down on overhead, you have to keep the lights on at night and food on the table. The drive for higher revenue means publishers most resort to one of a few options:

  1. Generate higher levels of traffic to drive more ad revenue
  2. More ad spaces on their site (Average CPM * # of ad units = ad revenue)
  3. More intrusive ads on their page (forced ads like video pre-roll pay more than display ads)

None of those options improve the user experience.

Many publishers have now started offering memberships and accepting donations from their readers in an attempt to keep the lights on while also not lowering their publishing standards or covering up their site with unnecessary ads. It’s easy to sit back and shake your head while these publishers have their hand out looking for supplementary income. However, it puts part of the responsibility for improving the internet in the hands of the reader, and that’s a magical thing.

Every time you visit a site, read an article, or share a link, you’re casting a vote. You’re saying, in effect, that you want more of this type of content. If you spend the majority of your day perusing YouTube channels like Dom Mazzetti, you’re telling Dom that you want him to make more videos and produce more content.

Over time, these individual votes help shape the content of the internet.

This isn’t some impassioned plea asking you not to visit Buzzfeed or fill your browser history with meme sites. Instead, it’s meant to point out the critical role that readers play in shaping the internet. It’s getting harder and harder for large publications and independent publishers alike to stay afloat and continue kicking out awesome content.

If you’re a big fan of a certain site or a certain publisher, consider kicking them a few bucks each month or staying subscribed to their magazine. It’s likely not going to affect your situation very much, but it may have a profound effect on them.

You have a vote in shaping the internet.  Cast it wisely.

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing

Author: Andrew Smart
Title: Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing
Published: July 30, 2013

When I set out to read this book during May, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew the book was about the benefits of shutting down the mind for longer periods of time during the day rather than adopting the traditional “working at all hours of the day” mindset. However, in many ways, the book surpassed my expectations.

Harping on the dangers of our current working culture, Andrew presents example after example of respected philosophers, poets, and thinkers in our history and details how idle time was crucial to their greatest achievements. He offers up the story of Isaac Newton for example, who came to the conclusion about gravity while daydreaming in his garden. There are countless more examples that stand in stark contrast to the typical view of work today.

Many of the obstacles in our path to idleness are easy to see. Cell phones, for example, ensure that you can stay in constant communication with others (both at your job and elsewhere) through email, Twitter, Facebook, and any one of the other twenty thousand social media apps on the market. In the book, Smart argues that if we’re constantly available to be reached through our smartphones, are we ever really “off” at all? (I’d tend to agree with “no”).

The benefits of idleness aren’t just hypothetical. The book actually delves deep into the science of the mind, particularly into something referred to as the “default mode network”. This network is a complex interwoven series of connections throughout the brain. During periods of idleness (when you aren’t thinking about your to-do list or getting things done), this network fires up and enables unique ideas to surface and original connections between ideas and thoughts to be generated. The theory goes that this network is essential for true creativity.

So, exactly what am I going to do with this information tomorrow? That’s difficult to say. I’ve experimented with my work schedule quite a bit in order to enable more idle time during the day. I don’t think manipulating the schedule is the only answer however. I think larger gains can be made through flipping your mindset and abandoning things like email and Twitter when you’re truly supposed to be “off”. I’m planning on experimenting with some opportunities like “dead time”, a cutoff point each night where electronic devices go into airplane mode until the next morning. I think there are endless opportunities for progress here. The key is just to take it easy a bit more and accept that daydreaming and doing nothing can be beneficial.

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The Choice-Minimal Lifestyle

I’ve been a big fan of the Tim Ferriss podcast ever since it started a few weeks back. He’s had some extraordinary guests on the show so far. One podcast in particular struck me as very unique and interesting. In a shorter version than his traditional podcast (which are 1-3 hours in length), Tim read an essay called “The Choice-Minimal Lifestyle: 6 Formulas for More Output and Less Overwhelm”. I thought it was absolutely brilliant and immediately tweeted it out.

One particular “formula” that I’ve been putting into practice is routine:

Don’t strive for variation—and thus increase option consideration—when it’s not needed. Routine enables innovation where it’s most valuable.

Through this one simple switch, I’ve found that I have more free time now to pursue tasks that are actually mentally draining rather than focusing on smaller items like when will I start working or what I’m wearing during the day.

If you’re interested in reducing the amount of stress in your life, I’d encourage you to read the full essay here.

The Evolution of Fitness Trackers

Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing some of the most advanced fitness trackers on the market (including one that can predict and quantify your movements in the gym). At the same time, I’ve also expressed my hesitations on the current push for the quantified self movement. Currently, I feel like the movement presents users with an overwhelming amount of data, but in my opinion, it doesn’t spur behavior change, which is the only point of tracking the numbers in the first place. Data without understanding is absolutely meaningless. As I’ve mentioned before, Exist, an app created by the two developers at Hello Code, is set to change that. I’m really excited to see the kinds of tools they put in the hands of consumers and where their small app can take the quantified self movement as a whole.

In the spirit of dreaming big, I thought it would be cool to share some areas that I’m hoping fitness trackers improve on in the new few years. No doubt some of these are already being worked on at the moment. Many of the items I’m proposing aren’t anything spectacularly new or innovative. However, they are tough to implement. So, keeping that in mind, here’s a wish list of where I would like to see quantified self movement in the future.

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Creativity, Inc.

Author: Ed Catmull, Amy Wallace
Title: Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
Published: Apr 8, 2014

I picked up this book as soon as I saw it was coming out. I’ve always loved Pixar films. They’re entertaining and extremely well made. I don’t know much about the animation business, but they always seem to be pushing the envelope and leading the industry.

The book, written by Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, details a bit of the history of Pixar as well as some overarching themes of their company that have helped them to produce so many box office hits. Ed lays out some foundational elements that he believes have shaped the company so far – particularly candor and honesty.

I expected to read quite a bit about how Pixar is run and how they develop movies. Catmull definitely delivered. He described in detail the Braintrust meetings, where company leaders get together in an honest and open environment to discuss the progress of movies in production. He goes on to stress the importance of being upfront and honest with feedback even delving into some experiences where allowing a movie to flounder cost them quite a bit of man hours and finances for a film that never hit theaters. Even more, Catmull described many of the roadblocks they have run into along the way and offers potential solutions.

At the end, the book discusses the Pixar merger with Disney, a huge undertaking no doubt. Catmull describes how he has attempted to fiercely protect the culture at Pixar and the difficulties of managing two huge creative companies at once.

This book certainly wasn’t a how-to when it comes to cultivating a creative culture. There isn’t a step-by-step guideline in the book that leads to creative genius being formed. Instead, Catmull relies mainly on past experiences and reflects back on how those experiences drove decisions and pushed the company forward. I found the book to be interesting and informative from the point of reading about the origins of Pixar. As for take home implementation, readers can find that to. Although a few of the ideas that Catmull reflects back on may not be possible for smaller creative groups, the underlying message is certainly applicable. If nothing else, it’s interesting to read about the history of Woody, Buzz, and all of your favorite digital characters.

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April 2014 Review

Yesterday marked the end of April and the start of a new habit. This past month was interesting so I thought it would be helpful to reflect back on the habit I focused on in April (meditation) and how I ended up performing.

Long story short, I didn’t perform as well as I had hoped. In summary, I meditated 18/30 days in April, not terrible but not great either. I started with the Headspace App 10-day intro to meditation. During that time, I was 9/10, meditating for 7 consecutive days before missing a day. However, when that program was over, I felt a bit lost as to what to do next. I thought about shifting over to a new app, but then, I ultimately decided that I would just build and evolve my own meditation practice that didn’t revolve around an app or specific programming. I finally settled on just listening to some relaxing music (kudos to Twitter peeps for recommendations) and practicing deep breathing.

If you’re just starting out, I would suggest following something similar to the Headspace 10-day program just to get your feet wet. The intro helps to dispel some common myths about meditation and what you should be thinking about and feeling during your 10-minute practice each day. After that though, I think it’s definitely okay to freestyle your practice and make it you. Here are some things I learned along the way:

  • I preferred to meditate at night before bed. I found it to be a calming way to ease my mind and a “hack” that helped to improve my sleep.
  • Deep breathing goes a long way. I’m guessing quite a few people reading this are “chest breathers” rather than “belly breathers”. Meditation is beneficial if it only just teaches you how to breathe correctly.
  • Sitting in silence for 10 minutes can be disturbingly challenging. I found my mind wandering quite often or thinking about the next thing I needed to accomplish.
  • It’s a great way to relieve stress. I found that I was pretty crabby on days that I didn’t meditate (there were quite a few).
  • If you can’t make time or find yourself failing to meditate for 10 minutes a day, try two 5-minute sessions. I read this tip from someone on the Lift App, and it worked really well for me.

I’m certainly not a zen master at this point, but meditation is something I’m going to try to keep up with over the next few months as I think it really offers some amazing benefits. However, my “practice” is going to change a bit. I’m going to shorten the actual meditation portion (the deep breathing with soft music) to five minutes a day. Beforehand, I’m going to add in 5-10 minutes of foam rolling before bed. I’ve found that I can still practice the deep breathing while foam rolling, and I’ve been hearing about how foam rolling can activate a parasympathetic response in the body (a fancy term for calming you down). I’m eager to see how/if this improves my sleep.

As for books, I didn’t finish any this month although I started Creativity Inc. If you’re still keeping score at home, that puts me drastically behind my goal of finishing three books a month. I’m going to try to pick it up next month by finishing Creativity Inc. and tackling the following:

On the plus side, I was busy writing a few articles this month. I had three pieces published:

Looking ahead – what am I going to focus on for May? Well, the plan was to take one cold shower a day, partly because I’m going to be camping in Zion National Park for the next handful of days making a shower unavailable and lessening the amount of times I would need to do this. But, that’s cheating. I really just don’t have any interest in taking cold showers despite what the research may say. I’m likely going to focus back on reading since I let that slip this month and continue to investigate this whole meditation thing.

5 Hormones That Have a Big Effect on Your Health

Normally, the evil villain thwarting your physique goals comes in the form of chocolate chip cookies or an extra slice of cake. Spotting the culprit? Well, it’s as easy as pie. But what if the obstacle that stands in your way is much smaller, even microscopic? You might not be able to see your hormones, but they play a constant role in how our bodies function; they’re the chemical messengers that travel, via our bloodstream, to every organ and tissue in the body. They influence fat storage, sex drive, energy levels, brain health and a host of other vital functions.

Hormones are such an integral part of your health and fitness. It’s a shame that more people don’t know the basics. With the help of Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, I detailed five important hormones you should be aware of and how they’re impacting your health.

You can read the full piece here.

This is Your Brain on Exercise

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I had a post on the Crew blog yesterday centered around what exercise can do for your brain. I broke down how exercise improves learning capacity and why you should include some difficult exercises in your programming. I also researched why exercising while learning isn’t the best option:

If exercise is so good for the brain, then riding a bike while reading must be the magic combination right? Unfortunately, it turns out exercising while trying to learn won’t turn you into a memory magician. During exercise, your body diverts blood away from your brain to the working muscles. This leaves you in a less than optimal state for learning.

You can read the full post here.

Photo Credit: jacsonquerubin