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[Quote] John Boyd’s “To Be or To Do”

Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments. Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?

Colonel John Boyd

The Unhappy Truth About Positive Psychology

The Unhappy Truth About Positive Psychology.

This is a wonderful read to kick off the New Year, if you’re into reflecting on arbitrary milestones.

Flourishing involves how we live more than what we feel: engaging life whole-heartedly – which includes responding to adversity to the best of our ability – and treating other people honorably. We thrive when we realize the best within ourselves, while enriching the lives of other people.

Or just keep up with the mindless self-antagonism and the band-aid of useless motivational aphorisms.

Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults

Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults.

This study popped up on the social media yesterday and it’s caused quite an uproar among the pro-lifting crowd, mainly thanks to the last lines of the abstract which seem to say that “cardio is better than lifting weights”.

I don’t want to get into a full dissection of this paper, because I think, like most media-driven study-hysteria, it’s importance is overblown. I’d like instead to go over some thoughts that occurred to me as I read through the findings which might help slot these findings into a pragmatic framework.

  • I’ve had prior experience, both directly and in advising others dealing with “stuck” clients, with overweight and obese people not responding to the prescription of “just lift and watch your diet”. You can conjure up your own Pubmed explanations for why this might be, but the reality of it is that some folks just don’t respond well to that plan, and I don’t believe it’s because they are “really” just eating too much.
  • What has, however, worked consistently is taking these people away from an exclusive emphasis on lifting (and intense interval cardio) and getting them to do add light to moderate aerobic cardio. Even a half-hour to an hour of aerobic cardio, something as simple as a walk (my rule is “do something that makes you breathe hard”), can make all the difference, and suddenly the fat starts to come off.
  • Despite the internet trope to the contrary, I have known even “normal weight” (meaning normal body comp) people who see no substantial visual changes from lifting weights alone. Yes, they develop more muscle and drop body fat (by percentage), but the way those changes distribute just creates a “does this guy even lift?” effect. Underweight people (“ectomorphs”) of either gender will naturally tend to “shape up” via lifting, as will pudgy people who might otherwise be naturally lean outside an environment encouraging overeating. People who seem to have a genuine biological tendency to be heavier and “thicker” (“endomorphs”) don’t always seem to get this benefit, and they really seem to need aerobic cardio along with diet and lifting to see the best effect.
  • Most of these people have been women out of their early twenties. Whether this applies across the board or is an artifact of my own construction I leave to the reader, but I do believe there may be some genuine metabolic reasons behind this. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that this can apply to people of any age or gender, though, as my experience need not be representative of the statistical reality. The point is having the strategy when you run into the roadblock.

What this paper found doesn’t conflict with these observations.

The two modes of exercise consistently differed in their effects on body composition. Body weight and fat mass significantly decreased in both AT and AT/RT but not in RT, suggesting that aerobic exercise is more effective in changing these measures. However, the change in lean body mass in both RT and AT/RT was significantly greater than that in AT, a finding supported by similar observations for the measure of thigh muscle area. Having the benefit of both modes of exercise allowed AT/RT to decrease body fat percent significantly more than either AT or RT, due to decreased fat mass combined with increased lean body mass. Similarly, there was an apparent additive effect of the two modes of exercise on waist circumference, as AT/RT significantly decreased waist circumference more than AT or RT.

I have some questions about their methods for assessing calorie intake, but for the moment let’s just assume that their report of intake as being more or less equivalent between the three groups is right.

You could then say “Well with a tighter diet these folks would lean out by just lifting weights.” Let’s grant that this is true, although it need not be. Even so, there are people, and I include myself among them, who’d rather have the food and spend the time training harder. This need not even be a physiological effect, but rather an effect of “living what you want to be”, so to speak, and that’s a factor I’ve come to believe is far more important than any reductive measure of ‘efficiency’.

As I’m reading this, that strategy is validated: “there was an apparent additive effect of the two modes of exercise on waist circumference, as AT/RT significantly decreased waist circumference more than AT or RT.”

That may not seem like much, but I think that this sentence, when taken with the finding of increased LBM and reduced fat mass, is the real clincher. Even though, strictly speaking, there may be no superiority to the combined modes of exercise in terms of absolute fat loss or weight loss, that’s beside the point.

The authors reach that conclusion based on ‘time-efficiency’ and an assumption that it is the absolute reduction in fat mass that is definitive of health. While I can admit (grudgingly) that the former will be a factor of importance to some people, I can’t entirely accept the latter. Amounts of fat mass are certainly important, but if we’re going to talk of health then we can’t really leave out the importance of LBM, the distribution of fat mass relative to LBM (which, as measured by waist circumference, we saw improved in an ‘additive effect’ by the combined modes of training), and the myriad positive effects of placing the body under regular loading.

I don’t entirely agree with the author’s conclusions, but the study itself is interesting and I believe that, if anything, it suggests that those looking to reduce fat mass and improve the distribution of lean and fat mass should be lifting and keeping some conditioning work in the mix.

Set points, settling points and some alternative models: theoretical options to understand how genes and environments combine to regulate body adiposity

Set points, settling points and some alternative models: theoretical options to understand how genes and environments combine to regulate body adiposity.

This is a paper I’ve linked before, and for good reason. It’s refreshing to see what the fields of nutrition and obesity research are actually doing, as contrasted with the caricatures and kooky pseudoscience passed around the internet (i.e. “starvation mode”). It’s also a neat illustration of how biology and environment interact to regulate body weight, which is a factor often left out of the deterministic causal-chains-of-biomolecules thought process.

In a larger scope, it also illustrates why we should be very careful of saying that any given thing “causes” or “explains” any particular outcome in a tightly-knit network such as regulation of body weight. Neat and tidy stories about molecules appeal to human brains but don’t always reflect the reality in any meaningful way.

“Because evolution”

Evolutionary theory, including all those sub-fields where evolutionary is a modifier, is well on its way to becoming a tool of pseudoscience in performance and nutrition. “Evolution” is invoked not only to explain, but to justify things like behavior, moral judgements, and yes, even what we eat and how we train.

Evo-psych is a common transgressor, popular among nerds as it tries to “explain”, among other things, why men and women behave in certain ways. Thanks to serious methodological issues and the inherent problems with figuring out causality in complex biological and cultural interactions, it’s hard to take seriously. Such pseudo-explanations have more in common with making things up than with serious investigations into the “why questions” of human nature (even being charitable, it’s hard to see how essential biology and social construct are disentangled).

There’s no denying that, insofar as our current biology can be said to have evolved “for” the purpose of survival (we can excuse the teleological language), evolution provides a kind of explanation for why things happen to our bodies as they do.

Only in broadest terms, however. Adaptationism remains controversial, meaning that our biological traits need not be fitness-enhancing “designs” but may just as easily be historical accidents, or as epigenetics is currently showing us, shaped by the environment. Evolution explains how, in a global sense, rather than explaining why in specific terms.

Can’t lose fat? Body getting ready for starvation mode, because evolution. Can’t put on muscle? Body doesn’t want to add muscle because muscle is expensive and evolution. It might be fun to blame this stuff on evolution, but this should not be confused as any meaningful insight into how your body works, and it certainly has nothing to say about how we should address it as real-life solutions.

“Because evolution” is not the right answer to questions of training and nutrition.

The Fish Oil Dilemma – Panacea or Poison?

There’s been a little controversy happening lately over what role, if any, fish oil should have in a ‘healthy diet’. I’ve been taking the stuff myself since around 2003, after reading much the same research that drove everybody else to it. Fish oil, or more precisely the omega-3 EPA and DHA in it, can sometimes seem like a miracle drug, with benefits for everything from heart disease to joint health, fat metabolism and brain function.

There’s a lot of information out there as a quick scan of Pubmed will reveal. It’s safe to say that the scientific consensus — which, however tentative and provisional, is the only real ‘truth filter’ we have with regard to health matters — is on the side of at least a moderate intake of omega-3 fats.

But then we have a spanner in the works in the form of Ray Peat. Peat is an outsider who has a large portfolio of writings on human health and nutrition, and while I know little about him, he does touch on these topics in an interesting way. Relevant here is his article “The Great Fish Oil Experiment”. Here, Peat says exactly the opposite: the consensus is misleading, biased, and these polyunsaturated fats (a category which includes the omega-3 fatty acids) are actually dangerous.

My interest in fish oil has little to do with cardiovascular disease or joint health. I am, however, keen on it for reasons of mental health. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a strong connection between my fish oil intake — and lack thereof — and my sense of well-being. The spells where I’ve gone without fish oil for longer than a few months have been, to be blunt about it, hellish. It starts to feel like I’m disintegrating from the inside out, and it’s not a fun place to be.

The last few months of 2010 were one such episode, and on resuming fish oil the whole thing reversed itself in a matter of days. More recently, I took a month or so off after a few us of started toying with Peat’s recommendations, and it wasn’t long before the same symptoms returned, and then quickly vanished after getting omega-3 back in the diet. Needless to say, I’m sold — even if it’s a placebo effect, quality of life is worth it. Fortunately there are plenty of hints in the research, by way of actual clinical trials and meta-analyses, that bolster my findings so there’s a good chance I’m not making it all up.

Here’s the thing, though. I do fine on low doses, talking 5-12g per day, and that’s roughly what these studies are suggesting. My impression is that, since my diet isn’t particularly PUFA-rich, that amount is reversing whatever deficiency I have, topping up the tank so to speak.

But how common is it now to see people taking insane mega-doses of fish oil, upwards of 30-40g a day with the typical American thought process: some is good so LET’S TAKE ALL OF IT!! Peat is right, I think, to point out that these are complex systems that do not respond well to that logic. Some can be good, and more can be lethal. We would do well to bear that in mind, rather than applying the usual blunt instrument of medicalizing all our problems, as if everything ‘wrong’ needs a pill (or miracle food or what have you) to solve it.

This is a fine instance to demonstrate why we need to be aware of the conditional nature of science’s discoveries, rather than uncritical acceptance, and to exercise a little epistemic humility with respect to what we believe to be true. This isn’t a religion, and I think Peat is raising points that demand consideration. I will say that I’m not enamored of the narrative defenses he deploys, the accusations of scientific misconduct and so on, and I believe that hurts his argument (and if the well is so poisoned, on what grounds can we believe what Peat is saying when he drinks the same water?).

That said, I’m being more cautious of my fish oil intake, too.

Is anything more useless than the “form check”?

I’m not sure who thought it would be a good idea to post videos of squats and deadlifts on the internet to get a “form check”. This almost always turns out to be the blind leading the blind, and even when it isn’t, has anyone actually made their form “better” by reading a list of generic form cues? What does “better” even mean? Do people even have a benchmark in mind when they ask for advice, or are they just giving in to their own neuroses?

“Better form” is the leprechaun of internet fitness communities. Want a better squat? Get under the bar and practice it until you can handle over double body weight. Better pull? Pick the thing up. Figure out how your body wants to move under load. It can move just fine without “expert” biomechanical advice. Doing the thing and paying attention to what happens is more valuable than any internet checklists.