[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.

“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.

Leverage Volatility

Earlier today I was pointed to an article by Nassim Taleb on volatility and uncertainty. Regulars will recall that randomness, uncertainty, and variability have been topics of fascination for me lately. Taleb has been key in making these tumblers fall into place, largely thanks to The Black Swan.

Taleb’s discussion of uncertainty, of his ‘negative epistemology’, resonated with me, not least of which because it unmasked the appearance of certainty and control that pervades our comfy first-world lives. As I’ve related lately, I think this illusion extends to fitness communities on a deep level. The resulting obsession with analysis creates a mess: dichotomies between “bro” and “science”, overwhelming neuroses about squat form and diet macros and who even knows what else I don’t see since I quit reading forums and Reddit.

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Fitness Scientism: Systemizers and Reductionists

Nassim Taleb has the best definition of “nerd” that I’ve ever come across. Nerds are people who cannot think outside whatever box they’ve been given. Engineers, physicists, mathematicians, IT professionals and many economists all make fine nerds. They perform expert, high-level operations within the confines of what can be exceptionally narrow disciplines — and have little ability to think outside that domain.

What nerds do can be impressive, but it’s important to understand why. Nerds do impressive feats that require computational brute-force and only apply to very specific activities. They fail, however, when trying to move beyond the confines of their specialties. They lack flexibility and the capacity to break context.
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Thinking About Complexity

It’s easy for us in fitness (inclusive of both exercise and nutrition) to think of the human body in mechanical terms. Our analogies and metaphors are meant to evoke a sense of genes, biochemical pathways, and living cells as rigid clockwork and orderly assembly-lines making up a larger machine.

The best way to describe a non-equilibrium system is to think of it as a “whole” rather than a set of “parts” that just happen to work together. This is not easy to do. The machine analogy is pervasive and the internet fancies itself scientifically literate by way of fantasies constructed from Pubmed abstracts, all of which leads us to think that the parts, rather than the web of relationships, are important.

Complex systems, of which life is a particular instance, exist in the relationships between many individual parts acting in together to create a whole. We discuss hurricanes by describing the properties of hurricanes, like wind speed and the shape of the eye, rather than zooming in to all the water droplets. These properties give hurricanes a distinct structure, but that structure exists within incredibly violent, uncertain, and constantly-changing conditions. The water droplets work “up” to create the hurricane structure, and the hurricane structure works “down” to keep the water droplets moving in that pattern. You wind up with a system that is inherently unstable and, because of that whole-part relationship, orderly in spite of that.

How this ties back to fitness may not be immediately obvious, but there are two related claims that prompted my thinking on this matter:

i) Risk of injury increases with the amount of exercise done.

ii) The amount of exercise you can do depends on your ability to recover from it.

For these instances we can treat “amount” as being a number of workouts done each week, so that three workouts per week represents a larger amount of exercise than one. Volume and intensity will matter, but for simplicity let’s just look at the frequency.

Both of these claims are widely believed to be true, commonly cited as factual, and make up the core of many a workout program. I don’t believe either of them is true when taken at face value, and the reason is precisely because they rely on the mechanistic analogy rather than seeing the living body “as it is”.

Since complex systems adopt a condition of “unstable stability” and thus have no equilibrium condition (the way a factory or a clock would), the same rules don’t apply. The same hurricane can exist in hundreds or thousands of states during its lifetime. It can grow, shrink, move faster, slow down, decay into rain clouds, and transform back into a category 5 death-engine. As long as the unique whole-part relationship exists, you have a hurricane.

The same metaphor applies to your body. It’s not quite right to say that you have a “reserve” of recovery, as if you just call down to the store room for power-ups after every workout. You haven’t depleted a battery; there is no battery.

When you undergo any major stress-event, you throw your body out of its comfy state of stability, and it scrambles to bring the house back into order. This process is not fun, which is why you feel beat up and “worn out” after a hard workout. But “exhaustion” and “fatigue” are not the right words for this condition. Your body is coping, not exhausted.

The feeling of beat-up-ness (which applies equally to physiological measures of stress, including serum levels of testosterone and cortisol as well as HRV) represents a “pseudo-limit”. It may feel as if you have reached your limits, and your physical state will show signs of stress, but this condition has far more to do with the feelings, sensations, and emotions generated by your body than it does your genuine physical limits.

Imagine you walk into a maze and every step you take changes the layout. That’s how a complex system works. When you alter any piece in the whole, the whole changes along with it. The whole-part relationship is stable, but not on terms that fit our machine analogies.

If you envision your body in mechanical terms, you can map injury risks and recovery a like along a nice orderly inverted-U curve. One workout means X risk, three means a risk of X+3. Nice and linear. But you aren’t mechanical, and moving from one to three sessions does not simply move you along the pretty graph — it changes the graph’s shape.

Doing more may not involve any increase of risk at all. It might even reduce the risk (yes, I mean to say that training more often may be inherently less injurious than the typical once-or-twice-a-week split methods).

The simple notion of “recovery” is concerned with pieces; the genuine limit requires thinking of the whole, the way the whole changes according to what you do. What can your body really do, if you ignore the “I feel bad” signals and just keep training anyway?

The whole has limits, obviously. Hurricanes run over dry land and starve to death. Living bodies have very real limits to the amount and magnitude of disruptions they can take from the environment. In that vein you cannot endlessly add volume and frequency to your workouts (whether strength or endurance) with no repercussions. Eventually you reach the limits of the whole’s ability to adapt.

My argument is that these genuine limits lie well beyond what is allowed by the pseudo-limits implied by the simple notion of recovery. The machine implies snapshots and “more is less” relationships.

We need to focus instead on the “second-order” effects: the behavior of the whole as an ever-changing system, a system which can experience positive feedback (wherein you “do more to get more”).

The Confidence of Ignorance

[See parts I, II, and III if you haven’t already.]

The Problem with “Bro-Science”

To watch most internet discussions, you’d think that science was a contest to see who could fish the most abstracts out of Pubmed. In areas as fuzzy as exercise and nutrition, there just isn’t enough research, and what is there doesn’t cover a sufficient breadth, to be the final answer to all our questions. If you eliminate any evidence without a DOI number, you’ve crippled your knowledge base. That’s as shameful as any puffed-up Curl-Bro ranking knowledge by weight class.

The internet has taken to calling “Bro science” on any sort of trial-and-error gym-observations, with unfortunate consequences. It isn’t “Bro science” when someone discovers, through trial and error, what works for their circumstances. If that’s the case, then I have bad news for you: so is most everything we consider foundational in exercise science. If someone has trained with a particular program or a particular style of training, and they’ve genuinely gotten results with it, then that is the end of the argument.

I will add a necessary caveat here: we have to distinguish genuine results from what I call “gym delusions”. A gym delusion happens when someone mistakes, say, feeling winded, or puking, or having sore muscles or a case of rhabdomyolysis for actual long-term results. A gym delusion means that the thing being done isn’t actually leading to measurable results like larger muscles, bigger lifts, or lower body-fat. Thanks to a hyper-active System 1, the immediate feeling is substituting for measurable results.
Continue reading “The Confidence of Ignorance”

Fuzzy Science

[If you haven’t already, read Part I and Part II of this series before diving in here.]

It’s All So Fuzzy

Let’s take the question of muscle and what makes it grow. We can answer this question fairly well with some simple observations. Namely, you can go to any gym and you’ll notice that the people with well-developed muscles all tend to lift weights. That’s an anecdotal observation, but fortunately various research studies, both observational studies watching athletes and more direct interventions in the lab, have validated this “no kidding” conclusion.

We’ve got a lot of data that tells us yes, lifting weights makes your muscles grow. That’s an objective fact, in as much as we can ever define objective facts about exercise. If you want to get bigger, you pick up a barbell, or a dumbbell, or at least go to a cable station. You wouldn’t want to start running 10 miles a day. Extremes like this are easy to pick out — and they often tell us nothing interesting.

We turn to science in hopes of more detail. Case in point: it’s more or less true that all the people with big muscles lift weights, so we have that, but notice that little Jimmy also lifts weights and he doesn’t have big muscles. There’s obviously a relationship between “big muscles” and “lifts weights”, but the opposite — that all people who lift weights get big muscles — doesn’t hold true. We’re missing something.
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