Active Longevity

‘Life’s too short’ seems to justify a lot of bad habits and behaviours. If you debate a smoker about the downsides of smoking he may reply with ‘you could be run over by a bus tomorrow’ or ‘my uncle Frank lived to 93 and he smoke at least 20 a day for 80 years’. Neither valid points but people are very good at justifying things to themselves. Something that generated an interesting conversation with a friend of mine the other day was whether living a long life was worthwhile – many think of living a long life as being sat in a nursing home waiting to die for several decades. When I think of a long life I think of being healthy, active, mobile and generally feeling good for as long as possible.

Being in my mid-thirties many of my friends are married with kids and have been letting themselves go, as it is seemingly acceptable for dads of a certain age to do. Many have ‘minor’ health problems such as digestion issues and bad backs but none are hospitalised with anything life threatening. They seem to see this as inevitable and whilst I’d agree that ageing is unavoidable I’d argue that it can be delayed significantly. I follow Laird Hamilton on Instagram and he recently celebrated his 53rd birthday and he is incredibly active as a big wave surfer and has muscle definition most 25 years olds would be envious of. There are a lot of people significantly prolonging their period of active longevity through various methods of nutrition, exercise, sleep, mindfulness and various ‘bio-hacks’.

What gets most of us

“If you’re over 40 and don’t smoke, there’s about a 70 to 80% chance you’ll die from one of four diseases: heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, cancer, or neurodegenerative disease.” – Peter Attia (if you don’t know who Peter is Google him)

 

 

All the diseases mentioned in the quote above are at least influenced by lifestyle. If you’re very unfortunate your genes can significantly increase your risk of getting these diseases but for most of us we can increase our quality and duration of life by living healthier lives. Also most of them creep up on us fairly slowly so give us plenty of warning to do something about it – although most of us ignore the symptoms. For example some would argue heart attacks are very sudden but I’d suggest that symptoms of increased risk of heart disease, such as obesity, are very visible for a long time before the heart attack gets you.

What am I Doing About it?

For me nutrition is the number 1 factor to address as I think it isn’t too difficult to significantly improve things for most people and it can move the needle the furthest in terms of positive impact. (nb unless you smoke cigarettes in which case make stopping that your priority!)  After gradually improving my diet for several years I’ve now settled on something I think works well for me which is The Perfect Health Diet (Google it!) with 2 or 3 periods of Ketosis per year. I’m deliberately not going into too much detail on the subjects mentioned as I’ll pick up on them in other post or you can fine information online.

With exercise I think there are a few areas to address as you get older and markers to be aware of. Mobility has become more and more important to me so Gymnastic Strength Training has become the cornerstone of my workouts. I think maintaining (or improving) muscle mass without restricting mobility or stressing the body too much is important. For this I do occasional deadlifts (only once every 2 weeks to avoid too much stress) and some HiiT training that involves Kettlebells and weights. I’ve cut steady state cardio out completely other than for a few minutes of warming up. I’ve another post that goes into more details on my exercise programs here. For VO2 max the HiiT takes care of that and I now also do intervals on a static resistance bike once every 2 weeks – this gives me a good way of tracking progress. If exercise has never been your thing find something that works for you – even going for a walk can be significantly better than doing nothing.

Sleep has long been very important for me and is often overlooked. To improve sleep I’ve introduced the following measures:

  • Blacked out my bedroom windows so it is genuinely dark at night
  • Play white noise during the night which helps eleminate any background noises that may wake me up
  • Made sure I don’t look at any blue light emitting  screens within about 2 hours of bedtime
  • Kept to regular bedtimes as far as possible (i.e watching one more episode of a box-set is not a reasonable excuse to stay up but going out for a friend’s birthday at a weekend is)
  • Minimised things like caffeine and alcohol too close to bedtime

There are other areas that I am keen to explore as I age. Another area that is overlooked is mental health – my work keeps my brain engaged on a regular basis and I also read a lot – both fiction and non-fiction which I think is sufficient for now. Another thing that is thought to maintain a healthy mind as you age is to learn something new such as a language or musical instrument so this will be something I explore in the not too distant future. Meditation and mindfulness also seems to be getting a lot of press at the moment and this is worth exploring. I find sitting and meditating quite difficult and prefer to go for a walk or do something slightly more active – I’m not sure of the impact of this compared to more typical meditative practises but I find it easier to process my thoughts this way and it gets my outside and moving. I will give mediation another go at points in the future and from listening to others who practise regularly it is often something that doesn’t take that well the first few attempts so I’m happy to revisit.

My measure of success will be how active I am as I age. I plan to still be surfing and working out well into my old age but only time will tell how successful I’ve been.

 

 

 

The Power of When Book Review and Circadian Rhythms

I’ve worked out over the years that I get a lot more done first thing in the morning (between around 6am and 9am) than any other time of day. According to Dr Michael Breus, author of The Power of When, this aligns with my Lion Chronotype! This might be the case but it also coincides with when no-one else has really started calling or emailing me so I don’t get interrupted like I do later in the day. After listening the-power-of-whento Dr Breus on Ben Greenfield’s Podcast I was prompted to pick up his book.

There are some interesting ideas relating to our body clocks, different Chronotypes and the best time to do various things throughout the day. However I’m not sure I’d recommend the book too strongly as a lot of the information I found slightly irrelevant and the rest is available on the Power of When website (The Power of When website) and Ben Greenfield’s podcast (https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/podcasts/) for free. A more detailed review of the book can be found below but I would recommend checking out Greenfield’s Podcast and if you’re into ‘health-hacks’ he has some other really interesting material there.

In the Power of When book Dr Breus reframes conventional wisdom of ‘early birds’ and ‘night-owls’ into 4 categories he calls Lion, Bear, Wolf and Dolphin, which he calls Chronotypes. The book and Ben Greenfield’s podcast on the subject cover these in more detail but Lion’s tend to rise early and be more responsive and productive in the morning whilst tiring early in the evening. Wolves on the other hand struggle with early starts and stay up later into the night. In my opinion these types of classifications tend to be on a spectrum rather than distinct categories but I can out as a Lion in the Chronotype quiz (fairly near the Lion / Bear border!). The book and Ben Greenfield’s podcast on the subject cover these in more detail but Lions tend to rise early and be more responsive and productive in the morning whilst tiring early in the evening.

Book Highlights:

For me the quiz, which is linked to above, was fairly interesting to find out what Chronotype best fit with me and the characteristics of that Chronotype. I think some people who may struggle with sleeping or feel tired during the day may find that some awareness of your natural body and hormonal rhythms would be useful. It may even prompt some people to restructure their day for more productive.

The bulk of the book is looking into any activities you may do in a typical day and then suggests when it might be best to try and complete those activities and why, for each Chronotype. So they cover relationships, fitness, health, sleep, eat and drink, work, creativity, money and having fun.

I found some of the later sections on Chrono-seasonality interesting. The premise being those living in places where the length of days and nights varies dramatically between winter and summer will typically want to sleep more in the winter and less in the summer. In the UK, where I live, we get very short winter days and short summer nights. I decided to black out my windows as I found that in the summers, when it gets light around 4am, meant I slept quite poorly. I’ve also been fortune to travel to some tropical destinations and found I’ve always slept really well. For example at Christmas I was in Costa Rica and I typically woke up with sunrise around 5.30am, was outside most of the day getting tons of natural light and then crashed out around 9.30pm which is a few hours after sunset.

Limitations:

One point is I felt that some sections seemed a bit surplus to requirements and actually the bulk of the interesting stuff could have probably been covered in an article. So it felt sometimes like the author included anything and everything to pad the book out.

I think the main limitation of the book is that some of the recommendations are a little unrealistic for some people and our lives get in the way. For example, I think sleep is a really important part of being healthy and something most people don’t get enough of. I’ve got lots of friends who have stressful jobs and young kids and simply don’t get enough sleep. In Dr Breus’ book he advocates a sleep pattern and trying to stick to that even at weekends when some may like to stay in bed longer. In my humble opinion if you’ve only slept 4 hours a night Monday to Friday then I would sleep as much as possible at weekends to catch up. Obviously the optimum strategy  is consistent bedtimes and wake up times that fit with your natural body clock but that isn’t realistic for most. This is true for a lot of other recommendations in the book – most people have fairly strict schedules when it comes to work hours, when kids need to be dropped off and collected from school, etc….. so simply can’t change most of this schedule. That said if these things are meaning you aren’t sleeping enough then a dramatic life change – like moving house or changing jobs – is certainly worth considering.

If you want to check the book out you can buy it on Amazon here – the Power of When – but I’d recommend instead listening to the relevant podcast and taking the quiz as linked to above before doing so.

 

 

 

Habits and Will Power

‘Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going’ – Jim Rohn

It is the beginning of February and I’ve just returned from my local gym. The place was much less busy than it was around 2 / 3 weeks ago. This happens every year. We’re about a month away from when people were declaring their New Year’s resolutions, many of which were a full life overhaul with regular workouts, healthy diets and self improvement across the board. I also find the predictability of this a little depressing – people really do think ‘it’ll be different this year’ but rarely do their proposed radical life changes stick. It’s been well researched and the reality is that willpower and motivation are finite, so to make lasting changes you need to make things habit and you can’t change all your habits overnight.

In my personal experience I’ve had the most success with new diets, exercise and ways of living by making small changes and gradually introducing new behaviours. Firstly on the point of a ‘diet’ I don’t mean some temporary fad that will make you weight yo-yo but a permanent change to what you eat. I thought it might be useful to highlight some small changes people tend to find they can benefit from. These will obviously depend on what you currently eat, drink and how you exercise (if you exercise!).

So, for example, if you have a terrible diet a plan to improve things could be:

Month 1: Stop drinking calories: No sodas, no juice. Stick to water, tea and coffee (ideally without milk) should be the aim. Sodas don’t satiate you at all but do provide a dose of sugar and calories. Even Diet Sodas with zero calories can trigger an insulin response and also the sweeteners themselves are typically bad news. If you’re used to sweet drinks then drinking something like Green Tea can be an acquired taste. However, once acquired most people enjoy it and the long term heath benefits are significant. This small change may seem easy to some but require a lot of willpower for others – make this one change for 30 days before looking at other areas…………

Month 2: Improve your breakfast: Most people don’t eat enough vegetables and the 5 a day UK government guidelines I think is way too low. I typically have eggs and veg for breakfast – the veg being mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, red onions, chilli and spinach (try to include something green) all cooked in coconut oil. Delicious and satiating. You can vary this up with other veg once you’re in the swing of things and have the taste for it. If you still crave carbs in the morning try the eggs and veg with a piece of toast – preferable a gluten free options like rye bread – or add some sweet potatoes into the veg mix. Of all the meals breakfast is fairly easy to control for most people as they can have it in the home. If prepping all that veg everyday seems like a lot of work you can cut the raw veg up at a weekend so it is ready to cook and pre-roast sweet potatoes. Or you can make a large vegetable frittata which can last a few days in the fridge. The frittata option also works well if you are eating breakfast away from home as you can cut a slice or two before you head out. Try it for 30 days to get it to stick – I’ve been eating breakfast like this now for around 4 years.

Month 3: Improve your lunch: Sandwiches seem to be the go to lunch in the UK. I’m not an advocate of the food pyramid and think that most grains aren’t great news. If you disagree with that breads can still contain a lot of salt and sugar so do be careful about your intake. I also find that I get hungry again fairly quickly after eating sandwiches so want looks like a low-calorie option gets me snacking later on. Lunch on the go can be a minefield and if I’m forced to eat something quick when I’m out and about I try to go for something like sushi at Itsu but I realise this may not be possible for most people . An cheaper alternative would be to make something at home to take with you to work, college etc….. I like to have some carbs at lunchtime so will make a salad at home with some sweet potato cut into cubes and roasted, plenty of leaves, tomatoes, cucumber, home made coleslaw (just cabbage, carrot,  olive oil, salt and pepper – no mayo) and some protein – this can be some quality organic ham, tinned fish like tuna, mackerel – whatever you feel like. The only cooking is the sweet potato cubes but these can be roasted in a big batch at a weekend and kept in the fridge.

Month 4: You guessed it – improving your dinner. Dinner is a meal that some people are fairly good with and others are just used to grabbing something convenient or having a take-away. If time is a problem batch cooking so you can reheat can work well. As with other meals include plenty of vegetables. I typically stick to rice and sweet potatoes for my carbs but occasionally have regular potatoes or rice noodles. For my protein – over the course of a week I’ll have a couple of dinners with beef (sometimes mince – stick to grass fed) a couple with fish (a white fish and a salmon) a chicken dish and then some variety like goat, duck, ostrich steaks….. Think quality and variety when choosing protein options. If you typically buy the cheapest possible options in every field meat and dairy is one area I’d encourage you to buy organic and naturally reared options. Organic grass-fed beef is very different in nutritional value and taste than standard commercially farmed stuff. With vegetables it is arguably less important as an organic courgette, for example, may not be distinguishable in taste or nutritional value from a non-organic one.

Month 5: Read ingredients and fine tune your choices. There are a few areas that will probably still be far from optimal if you are only 5 months into a new way of eating. Such as the fat you cook with – some people are scared of fats like butter and choose vegetable oils like sunflower oil to cook with instead. Firstly from a calorie point-of-view they’re all the same – 1 gram of fat is 9 calories regardless of whether it is lard, butter, sunflower oil, extra virgin olive oil or  coconut oil. However, a lot of research has been done that suggests that vegetable oils can be carcinogenic (Google or read books like the Perfect Health Diet). Also the saturated fats in coconut oil and butter are now becoming less of a concern. Coconut oil tends to be my ‘go to’ cooking oil as it is stable at high temperatures and full of Medium Chain Fatty Acids. I’ll look at different fats in another post another time as I don’t want to go off topic here! When it comes to food labels I try to avoid anything with vegetable oils, soya, added sugar and other sweeteners like high fructose syrups. Unfortunately these three things are probably in 90% of items in your local supermarket!

Month 6: Track and tweak your calories. I don’t think minimising calories and fat is a smart long term strategy. Most people who limit calories in the short term as part of a rapid weight loss diet end up failing as they aren’t eating a sustainable diet. For many that can happen all in one day – a low calorie / no breakfast followed by a light lunch tends to result in late night feasting. I don’t advocate measuring and writing down everything you eat forever but doing it for 2 or 3 days can give you an appreciation of the calories and nutrients you’re eating.

You might think 6 months is a long time to implement changes but not starting won’t make it any quicker! You’ll also start seeing gradual improvements as you go and more importantly you’ll improve your habits and the changes will be lasting.

This gradual change approach can be applied to other areas of life improvement. So if you’re already getting your nutrition right then there might be other areas that need focus and applying this thinking may help you make lasting positive changes.

But I don’t have time! This is a common excuse we all have used, I know I have. I’ve changed my view on this in recent years – we all have the same number of hours in a day so it isn’t about time it’s about priorities. Make eating well a higher enough priority and you’ll have time for it.

HiiT, Gymnastic Strength Training and Mobility

I went to my usual gym yesterday and it was around 5 times busier than normal. Early January is predictably a busy time of the year for gyms. Something that is equally predictable, albeit more depressing, is that the vast majority of people who attack their New Year exercise regime with vigour for a week or two, won’t be continuing beyond their training beyond the end of January. I think there are a few key reasons for this:

  1. People tend to thrash around on cardio machines until they’re pools of sweat but don’t see much in terms of results
  2. A lot of guys will hit the weights hard and at best have very bad muscle soreness and at worse give themselves an injury
  3. Thirdly I think most people either ignore their diet or at least get it wildly wrong and if weight loss is the goal what you eat should be the first thing to look at. I don’t think restricting calories dramatically for a few weeks in the New Year and then going back to the crap you were eating before is a particularly healthy or beneficial way of going about things

I’ll look at the diet side of things more in future posts as there is a lot to cover there but for now I’m going to give an overview of the exercise I do. I’m not an elite athlete or Men’s Health cover model but I’m 6 foot 2 inches tall and a relatively lean 87 kgs (sorry for mixing metric and imperial measurements!) and keep active. My natural build as a teenager was always very skinny and the exercise mentioned here has seen me put on as reasonable amount of muscle and improve my mobility. I had started to put on a bit of fat a few years ago which I’ve subsequently lost – I put this mainly down to improving my diet but exercise is an important part of my healthy lifestyle and I think everyone could benefit from the exercises listed here. I also haven’t been ill for over 3 years (not even a cold) and whilst I think most of this is also down to diet, exercise plays a part.

HiiT

High Intensity Interval Training (HiiT) has been fairly popular for a while now and has been something I’ve done regularly for around 3 years. There are various forms of it and a quick Google will find countless articles, workouts and YouTube videos with some useful tips. I basically don’t do any steady state cardio at all anymore and do HiiT instead – I used to run a lot but started to get minor injuries – mainly very tight Achilles tendons that were painful everyday I woke up (foam roll and stretch your calf muscles and stop running if this is you), occasional knee pain and occasional lower back pain. My HiiT workouts typically follow one of two categories and both involve an interval timer on my smart phone (I use IntervalTimer in the App Store).

My very short interval workout is a Tabata session – this is 8 rounds of 20 seconds of very high intensity with 10 second breaks between. This means your workout is done in 4 minutes! For the exercise I think the resistance bikes are a good option as you can get your big muscle groups screaming very quickly – nb normal exercise bikes tend not to work as well as you can’t vary the resistance as quickly. Alternatives could be a rowing machine on full resistance, battle ropes, jump squats even sprints if you are outside and don’t have access to a gym (ideally sprint up a hill to add resistance). The key here is to pick an exercise that will get your heart rate up and have you out of breath in the 20 second interval so intensity is the key. I either do this when I have very little time free in a day or tack it onto the end of a workout. The science of this is beyond the scope of the blog but there are lots of resources on line about this but I find Ben Greenfield to be a reliable source on diet and fitness and he has a guide to Interval Training, including the Tabata Method.

My longer interval workout can last around 20 minutes so still fairly short and sharp compared to most people on the cardio machines. Here I will typically do 10 different exercises in a circuit, each for 20 seconds, with a 10 second interval between then. I will complete 3 circuits of the 10 exercises with a 2 minutes rest between each circuit. Exercises include stand press up, jump squats, kettlebell swings, mountain climbers etc…. I have a ‘no equipment version’ that I can do in a hotel room or anywhere I have no gym but a bit of privacy! You can experiment with different interval lengths and rest times and if this is new to you break yourself in gently. I used to do 30 second intervals but reduced it to 20 seconds as I found I was pacing myself a bit on the exercises – remember intensity is the key so don’t make the intervals or workouts too long if intensity is suffering.

Gymnastic Strength Training and Mobility

Gymnastic Strength Training (GST) is something that is relatively new to me and is another thing I was put onto by Tim Ferriss. He had a person called Christopher Sommer (Coach Sommer) on his Podcast and Coach Sommer is a very experienced Olympic gymnastic coach who has developed a program for normal mortals to benefit from gymnastic strength training. I started a Foundation course from their website (https://www.gymnasticbodies.com/) around 3 months ago. I’ve noticed some improvements in certain areas like mobility and posture – some of the benefits take a long time to develop as it isn’t just muscle strength but building stronger connective tissue and greater range of motion in key areas like shoulders and hips. This won’t make you a professional gymnast but if, like me, you spend a lot of your day sitting at a computer and not moving as much as you’d like I’d suggest some training like this. If GST isn’t for you I think some similar benefits could be gained from yoga and Pilates but I think GST provides some unique moves and strength / mobility in important areas not necessarily covered as well in other exercises. There is a cost to the Gymnastic Bodies courses but you can find some free initial info around the web – here are a few places:

  1. A YouTube Video with some introductory moves
  2. Tim Ferriss’s Podcast On Gymnastic Strength Training With Christopher Sommer
  3. There is an iPhone App called Power Monkey Fitness that has some similar moves and content – this isn’t anything to do with Christopher Sommer and isn’t as structured as his courses on Gymnastic Bodies but I believe there is some good free content there
  4. Instagram – search for GymnasticBodies, GST, GymnasticStrengthTraining and you’ll find lots of inspiration and short videos

A lot of people start GST but get frustrated with the slow progress – a quote from Gymnastic Bodies nicely summed this up:

IT’S A SLOW PROCESS, BUT QUITTING WON’T SPEED IT UP

Mobility

The mobility element of my training is largely now covered by the GST I do. However as I have gotten older (I’m now 36) I’ve increased the amount of mobility work I do as part of my work out and feel this is a really important factor in keeping injury free. A relatively well known mobility guru is a guy called Kelly Starrett and his book ‘Becoming A Supply Leopard’ is well worth checking out. If you’d rather find some free information on Kelly he has loads of YouTube videos so check those out.

One point regarding mobility – this is not the same as flexibility. Being flexible without strength in the extremes of your range of motion can be dangerous and make you prone to injury. Mobility ensures a broad range of motion and strength in the associated muscles and connective tissue to minimise injury risk.