Brian Gwaltney: Don’t Get Used to Extreme

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine asked his wife not to shop at the mall during Christmas time because he was worried about a terrorist attack.

Think about that: In 2016, a man in a Sacramento suburb was concerned about a terrorist attack at the local mall.

Some will laugh at my friend’s unreasonable behavior while they eat zero vegetables for the next three months.

And that’s the issue.

In the news and in fitness, extreme sells. Hearing you’re ten times more likely to die swimming than in a terrorist attack doesn’t increase TV ratings and a book telling you to eat a few vegetables at every meal doesn’t sell very many copies. A book telling you to eat ALL the vegetables and ONLY vegetables FOREVER does much better in bookstores. Most of us know this, but unreasonableness frequently sneaks up on us so slowly that we don’t notice it’s happening.

It’s easy to lose our sense of reality and start accepting diets that require monthly blood work to make sure we’re not killing ourselves and to believe workouts that make us puke are normal when, in fact, they are anything but.

This article is a little reminder to keep things reasonable.

Below, I’ll offer some reasonable diet and exercise recommendations, but first, I want to show you a few places we’ve gone off track.

Berkeley recently instituted Vegan Mondays. Every government-sponsored function meeting on Mondays must now serve vegan food exclusively. Some might cheer for this rule, but it demonstrates how mainstream extreme diets have become. For the record, veganism is not a reasonable diet no matter how popular it becomes.

Of course, the flip side is also true. I’ve seen a lot more written about carnivore diets recently. They are equally unreasonable.

Humans are omnivorous animals. We naturally eat plants and animals. Remove either, and you are doing something extreme. It’s that simple.

Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller fame wrote a book a couple of years ago describing his weight loss journey. He ate nothing but potatoes and lost over 100 pounds in around one year. The diet worked and he’s kept the weight off. He eats a few more things now, but his weight loss plan was about as extreme as it gets.

That last anecdote highlights something important: There is a time and place for unreasonableness.

When you need to lose 100 pounds and nothing else is working for you, perhaps eating nothing but potatoes is the correct approach. That doesn’t mean it’s normal or something we should get comfortable with. There’s nothing wrong with doing something crazy as long as we know it is crazy and we have a specific reason for doing it.

A workout posted in August of this year on a popular website called for 10 back squats at 135 pounds paired with a 100m sprint followed by 30 seconds of rest and repeated 10 times. 100 reps in the back squats, 1,000m of sprinting . . . and almost no rest.

That is an extreme workout, and there are countless others posted every month all over the internet.

A friend of mine tore her labrum doing too many unreasonable workouts similar to the one above but is so mentally conditioned to them, she still thinks it’s the best way to train.

Here’s a secret: If your workouts lead to injuries, they are extreme.

Some goals may demand intense workouts. Eddie Hall trained 40+ hours per week and gave himself a concussion breaking the deadlift world record. For weeks after, he had trouble remembering his wife’s name. Greatness requires doing extreme things, and Eddie will be the first to say so, but it’s not normal and we shouldn’t get used to it.

Unless you’re trying to become truly elite in a sport, a more reasonable approach will likely serve you best long-term.

Even sleep has entered the realm of extremes. The entrepreneur culture is all about the 7PM-2AM grind so you can have your day job and work on your side hustle in those wasted hours dedicated for that unnecessary thing called sleep.

Look at the automobile accident statistics the Monday after Daylight Savings Time, and you will see how important every hour of sleep is. Want to see what sleep deprivation does long-term? Look at a medical resident after a year on rotation. It’s telling that researchers use alcohol consumption as a relatable metric for sleep deprivation.

Pro tip: Don’t let someone who hasn’t slept in 24 hours cut into you or someone you love.

Extreme Limitations
Here’s the thing with anything extreme: it will come with an expiration date.

The longer someone is in ketosis, the more they have to track to keep their blood markers where they need to be. Spend enough time in vegan circles, and you’ll start hearing about all the dental problems that come from not getting the proper proteins and eating too many carbs. Extreme workouts of the day seem to work great for about two years. Then you’ll likely get hurt in a way that will affect the rest of your life. Researchers have yet to discover a bodily function that isn’t negatively affected by sleep deprivation.

Most of us need longevity more than anything else and I’m not talking about the raw number of years alive. The science is pretty clear that living in a constant state of hunger seems to be the best way to maximize the absolute length of your life, but that’s getting back into the unreasonable.

When I say longevity, I’m referring to the number of quality years. Harry Nilsson’s “I’d Rather Be Dead” expresses this idea well:

“I’d rather be dead
than wet my bed,
I’ll tie my tie
Until the day I die,
But if I have to be fed
I’d rather be dead.”

Maximizing the number of quality years requires reasonableness. I know that’s not very sexy. Telling your significant other you love them every day and discussing their day isn’t either, but it will do more for your relationship than trying to have sex upside down on a zip line.

So what is the sweet spot of moderation? Here are a few guidelines that will hopefully give you some perspective.

First off, the garbage needs to go. Yes, it’s tasty, and someone put a label on it and called it “food.” That doesn’t make it worth eating. Dogs think antifreeze is delicious. It’s still poison and so is soda, candy and everything else you feel guilty eating. Eliminating the garbage from your diet is not crazy. It’s a very smart and reasonable thing to do.

Second, pay attention to what you eat. Most people have no idea what they consume on a given day. Food logs in any form are the best means of paying attention. As soon as anyone starts tracking calories, carbs, fat or simply what they eat, they make better choices.

When I ask my clients to write down everything they eat, only half of me cares what’s on the list. The other half knows they will start eating better because they have to record what they put in their mouth. I frequently don’t have to make any recommendations after my clients start their food log. Everyone knows what to eat. We just need to be aware enough to make conscious choices instead operating purely on habit.

This next recommendation is married to the last: Pay attention to how food makes you feel. For years, broccoli gave me the worst stomach cramps, but broccoli was “healthy,” so I ate it. After too many years, I wizened up and removed it from my diet. Magically, I felt 100 times better. Broccoli might be healthy for most, but it’s not beneficial to me.

There are likely foods that others swear by that you shouldn’t eat. Grains, dairy, eggs, certain vegetables and some sources of meat might cause you trouble. When you pay attention to how you feel after meals, you’ll discover which foods you should avoid. Do yourself a favor and don’t eat things you know cause you problems.

The key to reasonable exercise is sustainability.

Can you do your workout program when you’re tired?
Can you do it for months on end without getting hurt or being completely exhausted?
Do you need pre-workout and a Claritin to get through your tough sets?

Your answers to these questions give you a good indication as to where you’re at right now.

The following are some guidelines that make for a good baseline. This program is what I always come back to whenever I need to reset.

  • Strength Train 2-3 times per week. These workouts should cover all the major movements (push, pull, squat, hinge, core) and primarily focus on building lean muscle. Three sets of 10 is always a safe bet in terms of volume, but you can adjust that slightly if you desire.
  • Complete at least 20 minutes of walking or some other low-intensity movement daily. Humans are built to trek and going for a simple walk is excellent for the body, mind and soul. I’d recommend leaving any electronics at home, but I know that might be an extreme suggestion.
  • Do some high-intensity work 1-2 times per week. You can do sprints, kettlebell swings, or whatever activity you prefer. The point is to get your heart rate up to something near max for a brief period of time. For general fitness, around two minutes total work each workout is plenty.
  • Stretch your tonic muscles every day. Everyone needs to give their pecs, biceps, hip flexors, hamstrings and calves more attention. Stretch each area for at least 20-30 seconds.
  • I like Mark Twight’s quote for this one: “Don’t do the work if you won’t do the rest.” If your sleep, mood and sex drive start to deteriorate, train less and recover more.

Almost everyone will look better, feel better and live better following the rules above. For experienced lifters, these workouts won’t take more than 60 minutes per day and usually fewer.

For those with specific athletic goals that require more than what I’ve written above, remember, you will likely outlive your athletic career. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to reach your pinnacle, but keep in mind that you’ll have to pay for unreasonable decisions in the future.

I come from the world of martial arts, and in fighting, machismo is inversely correlated to career length. The guys that don’t tap to prove how tough they are always end up sidelined with injuries. Staying humble and training smartly always maximizes long-term athletic potential, especially if your sport is inherently a little extreme.

Have fun and do your best, but be smart about it.

The 8-hour rule we all heard as children still works. Some can get away with a little less, but eight hours of sleep seems to be the most reasonable recommendation for the vast majority of us.

If you’re outside the 7-9 hour window, reevaluate your schedule and bedtime routine to see where the problem is.

Anymore, it seems the biggest problem with sleep is phone use. It’s easy to stay up staring at that magic box in your hands and forget to go to bed. If you’re not getting enough sleep, try implementing a “no electronics after 10PM” rule and see what happens. You’ll likely get bored and tired and go to bed. That’s a good thing.

Everything in Moderation . . .
Most of the time, our first reaction when faced with a problem is to add complexity. We need to lose weight, so we start an extreme diet. The diet impacts our blood work negatively, so we add a supplement. That supplement gives us gas, so we add another, and on and on it goes. Frequently, the first problem could have been solved with simplicity rather than complexity. Eating in a reasonable way and going to the gym in a month other than January will likely fix any weight loss goal you have. It might take a little longer in the short-term, but it won’t take quality years off your life on the back end.

Oscar Wilde famously said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” That’s great advice as long as you know what moderation is. It’s easy to lose sight of that when what we see every day is the most extreme version of anything. It is wise to check in regularly and make sure you remember where center is. Resetting from time to time will ensure you have a full life, and it makes Christmas shopping a lot easier too.

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