by Dave Thomas, CPT-NSCA, CNC, USAW1
Ever play Nintendo? I’m talking the old school version. Duck Hunt. Super Mario Brothers. Up up, down down, left right, left right. Great, wasn’t it? Except for how sometimes it just seemed to stop working and would do that annoying screen flash, so you’d remove the cartridge, blow on it and frantically try and get it to work by repeatedly hitting the reset button over and over again. The reset button seemed to be the magical fix to try and get it to work.
I’ve never been one for resolutions as they are often fleeting, short-sighted and often cause more damage than benefit (i.e. short-term starvation in false expectation of long-term fat loss). With the right food and training approach, resolutions tend to take care of themselves year round since there’s nothing that ever requires CPR or a kick start. If I resolve to do something, it’s usually because I genuinely suck at it and/or something I consider very important.
Lately, we’ve been burning it at both ends with a few big projects and member roll-outs, and to be honest, it has left me feeling totally fried. Combine that with the fact that I am about as naturally relaxed as The Ultimate Warrior and it’s really forced my hand at ways throughout the day I can get back to homeostasis a little bit. It’s very much a blessing in disguise of late as it’s created the need to really address a lot of areas that we tend to ignore.
Work. Relationships. Commutes. Much of our life creates stressful responses that trigger our “fight or flight”, or sympathetic nervous system response (SNS). Cortisol goes up. Stress increases. Body fat stays.
What we really want to do is trade some of those SNS responses for parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) responses. This is our “rest and digest” part of the autonomic nervous system and where we recover, restore and chill the hell out.
I’d like to pass along to you today a few ways you can hit pause, step out of the rat race, and get yourself straightened out a bit.
No one is breaking any grounds by recommending one participate in yoga, but for those who do it the benefits really are mind blowing. Personally, I would estimate I feel 50 – 60% tighter and more knotted up when I don’t do yoga, and on streaks where I miss it entirely (like now) I am a walking ball of rubber bands. This then has the carryover effect of creating more stress and more tension and it leads to a very bad scenario where we are in a constant state of physical and psychological stress.
Empirically speaking, I notice a lot of people are resistant to yoga because it’s “that weird thing that hippies and chicks do”. Wrong. If that’s the way you view it, change the lens. Think about it as restoration, not yoga. Restoring healthy positioning, tight muscles and tendons and bad patterns.
Way too many people put this responsibility of stretching and mobilizing on others. This is yours and you need to take ownership of it. Use google. Read stuff. It’s very much out there. If you are unable to participate in regular yoga, then stretch before bed each night. It takes only a few minutes and you will be amazed at how much more relaxed and restored you hit the sacks. Spend ten minutes alone in silence and just stretch it out. You don’t need Supple Leopard, just the gym class basics will do just fine.
Be Less Frantic
It is estimated that the average human being takes up to twenty breaths in a minute. Do you know how many science says we should be taking? Ten (1). We’re twice as frantic as we need to be. You quickly start to understand just how wound up we are in our current state of modern man (and I am no yoga expert, but I would venture to guess that’s a large reason why breathing is given such attention). When you breathe more, you are frantic. Anxious. Moving. When you breathe less, you are calm, relaxed and in control. It will lower your heart rate and lower your stress levels, moving away from a SNS response and more towards a parasympathetic nervous response (PSNS) where we no longer “fight or flight”, but instead “rest and digest”.
Stressful SNS situations trigger a response that jacks up our cortisol and primes us to store fat. Bad days. Lack of sleep. Overtraining.
Restorative PSNS situations trigger a response that levels out our hormones. Yoga. Meditation. Recovery. Sleep. Moving slow.
Which one do you think is better?
Take inventory of your breathing every now and again and slow yourself down.
Less City Miles on Your Engine
I really like Ben House’s work and he makes the analogy of not putting unnecessary miles on your engine. Another way to think about is to equate your work capacity to either highway or city miles. Just like your car is much more happy and efficient in the smooth, flowing lanes of the highway, so too is your body when it’s not constantly stopping, starting, grinding and beating itself into the ground every single day. An area of large focus for Performance360 in 2015 will be continuing to help our members create awareness in their workouts and understand not everyday is Samurai seppeku day.
What are city miles? They’re the miles when you feel like garbage but elect to show up and train hard anyways. The miles when you had a bad day at work and your adrenals are beaten into the floor, yet you show up and think it a wise idea to try and hit a three-rep front squat PR. They’re the miles when you got three hours of sleep but still show up at 6 am to train simply because it’s, “Beast Mode”. They’re the miles when you have hit it really hard for three days and think, “Oh, it’s just a circuit. I will be a fine”.
You know the miles. Stop mindlessly flooring your engine and start being more aware and selective of your training days, effort levels and workouts. One of our founding principles at P360 is not to wage war on your body in the gym. Heed it, please. Train smarter, not harder.
Manage Your Cortisol
Cortisol often gets a bad rap due to its link to stress in modern man, but in reality it is a needed hormone that helps us fight inflammation, only we don’t want too much of it (we haven’t really evolved to produce ‘bad’ responses in our body, the key is how we manage them). The problem is that modern life often makes controlling our cortisol levels very difficult. Not enough sleep, a bad day at the office, trouble at home, a never ending pile of work, too much running and cardio, your team losing on a last second field goal, assaulting your body every single day, even too much caffeine can all elevate your cortisol and cause us undue stress.
“Ninety five percent of diseases are either caused or worsened by stress.” – Dr. Mark Hyman (2)
Additionally, it’s bad news for the highly intelligent as smart folk tend to stress more than the average bear. Baboons are the only other mammals that appear to suffer from depression and other human-like stress sickness(3). It’s because they are evolved enough to be able to “think” about their situations rather than just primitively react like other mammals.
When your cortisol is constantly elevated, it can raise our blood sugar levels and trigger fat gain. It can also have the nasty effect of shutting off appetite and causing muscle degeneration by converting amino acids into glucose and decreasing our insulin sensitivity.
How can you manage it? It’s certainly easier said than done but breathing longer and slower, walking away from stressful situations, improving your relationships, dialing it back on your training frequency, eating healthier, stretching, vibing out and getting horizontal on your couch, going for a long walk with some good tunes, and more sleep are all ways we can restore better.
By doing so we’ll see our health, gym performance, energy levels, sex life, body fat management, appetite, digestion and moods greatly improve.
Dave Thomas is co-owner of Performance, author of 360Nutrition and contributor to the The Dirty Fork online magazine.