Spreading the Word

April 2, 2009

At heart, I am a bit of a preacher. When I come across a way of thinking or a way of doing things that clicks for me and makes my life easier in some way, I feel compelled to tell others about it, sometimes to the annoyance of friends. I’d probably make an awesome Jehova’s Witness.

For the most part, my friends and family have responded positively and with curiosity to the paleo lifestyle. It certainly is different and simpler than all those diets floating out there. A few of them have adopted the lifestyle in earnest and are having great results, which is great to see.

I have a couple of friends who enjoy sitting in the pub for six hours or more, drinking beer on weekends. For the most part, they see the wisdom in paleo food choices, but there are some things like beer and pasta that they are not ready to give up yet. Thankfully they also enjoy getting outside and hiking around in one of the many urban parks we have, or in the Rockies which are just an hour away.

A few weeks ago, when the rivers were still mostly frozen-over, we all went out for a hike. We found the paths in one direction closed for maintenance, so we headed back the other way. But when we passed close to the river, my inner caveman took control and, full of curiosity, I stepped off the path and approached the river. It was flowing, with some large frozen spots, and there were a lot of small and medium sized rocks along the bank.

It turned out that the three of us had a great time doing nothing more than picking up those stones and chucking them as far as we could, trying to break up the ice patches with them, testing the strength of the ice under our feet (with safety in mind), and just playing. We didn’t need any alcohol, any loud music, nor any television. Our minds and bodies were engaged simultaneously. I was very pleasantly surprised when they told me how much fun they had.

Life before civilization certainly wasn’t boring. No two days were the same, and no two places were the same. What is boring is the typical city street, our houses, our offices, and all the rest of the utilitarian, mechanical spaces we find ourselves in every day. But I’m sure the parkour enthusiasts would heartily disagree with that! Maybe I’ll try climbing a carefully pruned municipal tree and enjoy the strange looks I will get.

Intensity. Brevity.

March 31, 2009

A friend of mine recently asked me to explain the “how-to” of this paleo lifestyle that I’m trying to lead. While explaining that exercise should be kept brief and intense rather than drawn-out and strained, I stumbled upon a point that I hadn’t really thought about before, but that rang true.

Intensity and brevity describe very well most if not all of the things we humans do naturally. Think of little kids and how they play. Remember back to when you were little. What games did you enjoy?

Tag, hide-and-seek, red rover, hockey, basketball, baseball… What do all these games have in common? They all are based around sudden bursts of energy, followed by extended periods of rest or slow movement. No group of six year olds is going to go out for recess and decide to jog at 70% of their max heart rate for 15 minutes.

I think kids set wonderful examples for adults to follow. No goals. Just move and have fun. But we modern-day adults are stuffed into rigid daily routines. We’re made to perform the same task for eight hours a day, day in and day out. We’re made to eat mostly the same things at the same times. I’m sure those of you with children know that if their minds and bodies are occupied, they’ll eat when they’re good and ready.

But we adults aren’t beyond saving. We, too, exhibit brevity and intensity in the things we are naturally inclined to do. When we find something funny, we don’t chuckle all day long. When we argue, we do so in concentrated bursts (that may or may not span a couple days). When we have sex, it is brief but passionate. Conversations ebb and flow; we can have nice, leisurely chats that last for hours while hitting on something truly interesting and stimulating just a few times within that period. Despite what we’re supposed to be doing at the office, our work patterns are similar. Work for a bit, goof off for a bit. If you look at natural human behaviour, I’m sure you’ll find this pattern everywhere. It’s when we force ourselves to keep going and going that the stress really builds up.

That’s one of the reasons why I shake my head at the notion of running on a treadmill or pedaling a bike at a steady pace for an hour or more. Sure, I did run two half-marathons, but there’s a good reason I never plan on running one again.

I think we are happiest and most relaxed when we follow patterns of brief, intense activity followed by extended periods of rest, play, and light activity.

Getting Out of the Gym

March 29, 2009

Some people feel at home in a gym. I’ve never felt completely comfortable. In my experience, gyms are either a hard, dungeonesque environment or bright, airy spaces full of all manner of isolation machines. Middle-Ages or High-Tech. Nothing Primal.

Over the past year, I’ve been moving further and further away from the machines in favour of free weights. I don’t even do seated dumbell presses. What’s the point of doing that when you can stand? It’s easier to lift more weight that way sitting down, I guess. I feel the same way about leg press machines. Compared to actual squats, what does the leg press strengthen better aside from your ego?

Anyway, free weights and body weight exercises like pullups and dips feel much more satisfying to me. They just feel “right.” Sure, I can barely do more than three pullups at a time, but they give me a bigger sense of accomplishment than the lat pulldown does.

We’ve been having some good weather in Calgary lately, and the other morning I was feeling way too energetic to be inside, so even though there is still a good three inches of snow on the ground, I put on my Vibram Fivefingers and went out to the park to play around.

Sprinting through the snowbanks in almost-bare feet felt good.

I found trees that were interesting shapes and tried to climb them.

I spent twenty minutes playing on a rope jungle gym, pulling myself up and down and through the weblike structure, forbidding myself from touching the ground.

I threw rocks into the Elbow River. I walked, trotted, and sprinted along the winding path beside it. I left the path to climb hills or jump on little stone monuments. I was out there for over two hours in a fasted state, with no discomfort. I could have done that all day.

It was so interesting to use my muscles in such unscripted ways. Now that I’ve developed them, I can better feel which muscles are doing which tasks. It was an enlightening experience.

Once the snow melts and I can get out there in the warm sun with friends, do hand-walks and cartwheels, and use nature as my gym, I have a feeling I won’t want to go down into the dungeon to work out anymore.

My Story

March 27, 2009

For over a year now, I’ve been trying to implement the practises of a “paleolithic” lifestyle, espoused by role models like Arthur De Vany and Mark Sisson. Basically speaking, it means getting back to a way of life that mimics the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived, before the advent of agriculture. It’s the way our bodies have evolved to live and thrive. We haven’t had time to adapt genetically to our modern day patterns and stresses.

This is maybe chapter three in my weight loss saga. From the age of eight or so, I started to get fat. I was never morbidly obese, but was definitely fat enough to be embarrassed.

When I was 19, I decided to get a gym membership. My only experience with a gym before that was the basement weight room in my high school. This gym was open and bright and full of confusing machines. I was assigned a “trainer” who gave me a list of exercises and a chart for my progress, and more or less left alone. I would walk about 6 km there and back two or three times a week, exhaust myself, come home and have a big pot of macaroni and cheese or Chunky Soup. For some strange reason, I wasn’t getting results … so I quit after a few months.

At my heaviest, at age 23, returning from a one-year teaching job in northern Japan, I was 5’10” and 260 pounds. One day, I just decided that enough was enough and began exercising in earnest and really focusing on my diet this time. I got an elliptical trainer and used it religiously, continued to walk everywhere (walking is something that I have always enjoyed, no matter how much I weighed), and along the lines of Conventional Wisdom, tried my best to eat low-fat foods and whole grains. I won’t lie: there was some great progress. At 260 pounds and with a continuous effort, there would have to be. I got down to about 220 before the results slowed considerably.

Around that time, I decided to go back to university, which meant moving from Regina to Victoria. I had no car and a limited budget which meant walking more and eating less, and I managed to get down to just below 200 pounds. I vowed I would never pass the 200 pound mark again.

But then I hit a plateau for several months. Over those few months, I moved back to Japan to teach English again and work towards becoming a translator. The company I worked for participated in the yearly half-marathon held in October around Lake Suwa in Nagano. Even though I was at a plateau, I was feeling better than I ever had before, so I decided in April to participate. It wasn’t until June that I started training in earnest.

Jogging became my new thing. Three, four times a week I would train and marvel at the increase in my endurance. I’d follow up a run with a big bowl of brown rice and some chicken. I ate with my students at the junior high where I worked, and every lunch included a big bowl of white rice. Breakfast for me was also brown rice, with some seasoning. By October I’d lost maybe five pounds. But I ran the half marathon and felt proud of myself. I did it again the next year and shaved 10 minutes off my time, and another 5 or so pounds off of my frame. But ten pounds in two years, being that active? Give me a break.

A couple months later, in late 2007 or early 2008, my friend and martial-arts-guy Marcus introduced me to Art De Vany’s site, and his ideas of “evolutionary fitness.” Through his site I found Mark Sisson and his “primal blueprint.” It clicked right away. It all made perfect sense.

Literally overnight I ditched the brown rice and switched to eating more meat, tons more fresh vegetables, nuts, berries and fruit. I cut out grains, beans, potatoes, and sugar (except for a weekly cheat that I allowed myself). I stopped jogging. I had joined another gym the previous summer, and I changed my routine from the typical one that leaves your average gymgoer a sweaty, exhausted mess to one of higher intensity but shorter time, lifting heavier weights. From January I incorporated intermittent fasting as well.

By late spring, the scale said I’d lost 15 pounds. I’m certain I lost at least 20 pounds of fat, and gained muscle. I was looking great, but most importantly I was feeling fantastic. My energy levels were high and solid all day long. My skin was clear. I was strong for the first time. I was never sick.

Since then I’ve been refining the way I incorporate EF and the PB. I weigh about 173 pounds now, and would like to lose my last 10 to 15 pounds of fat. I would like to be at about 10% body fat. I guess it’s true for everyone that these last few pounds are the most difficult to get rid of. But once spring gets here (on the Canadian prairies, it doesn’t arrive until mid April at the earliest) I can get outside and play like I haven’t played since I was a little kid.