Thursday, May 19, 2011

You are NOT a Pap Smear: The Fallacy of "Normal"

It's not normal to eat just once a day.

It is normal to eat a diet based on grains, with bread or cereal at every meal.

It's not normal to exercise five or six times a week, getting your heart rate over 180 each time and soaking through your shirt with sweat.

It is normal to have a few beers with your buddies every weekend.

It's not normal to spend your "free" time poring over nutrition and strength and conditioning books, videos, and blogs.

It is normal to gradually gain body fat as you age.

It's not normal to eat only grass fed beef, wild caught fish, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

It is normal to get most of your exercise by chasing your kids or playing some sports on the weekend.

It's not normal to turn down birthday cake at parties, beer at sporting events, and bread at nice restaurants.

It is normal to gradually lose muscle mass as you age.

It's not normal to have a cabinet full of powder, pills, and bottles of fish oil you chow through every day.

It is normal to build up a repertoire of drugs to control your blood cholesterol levels, pressure, and sugar levels as you age.

It's not normal to be 40 and able to knock out one arm pushups, one leg squats, handstand pushups, and dead hang chinups at any time.

The word "normal," like many words, is polysemous (has multiple meanings).  Normal can mean typical or average - when we say people "normally" lose muscle as they age, nobody is claiming that it is preferable or ideal to lose muscle, they just mean that it happens to most people.  But in other contexts "normal" can

mean adhering to some norm - some standard of correctness.  Like the result of a Pap smear.  An abnormal Pap smear isn't a good thing.  An abnormality on a CT scan of your brain doesn't make anybody happy - it's not a sign that you're super smart, it means you might have a tumor or a brain injury.  In those cases "normal" confers judgment on its object - to be normal is good; to be abnormal is bad.

A significant problem is that because we think with words, when those words are ambiguous or have multiple meanings our thoughts can become confused.  If we don't keep in mind that the different senses of the word "normal' are unrelated we can get caught up in various fallacies.  We can start to think that since eating bread is normal (in the sense that it is typical, or that most people do it) that it is good (in the sense that a normal Pap smear is good) or acceptable. 

I'm not just talking about uneducated people - the medical profession commits this fallacy all the time.  Ask most physicians about what you should do if you are over 40 and your hormone levels are significantly lower than they were when you were a teenager.  Most will say that your condition is normal - meaning that it is typical of an aging American - therefore they will not treat it.  The same way they wouldn't treat a "normal" Pap smear result - there's nothing to treat.  The problem is that while dropping hormone levels IS typical, it IS NOT good or healthy.  There IS something to treat there - an illness that happens to be shared by the majority of the population is still an illness.

Imagine a 19 year old college athlete went to the doctor and complained that they weren't as athletic, lean, explosive, or able to recover as quickly as they "used" to.  Contrast that with a 45 year old with the exact same litany of complaints.  How do you think their treatment would differ?  I bet the 19 year old would be offered a battery of tests and treatments.  The 45 year old would be told to rest more and take up some less strenuous sports.

It's NOT normal to eschew sugar and grains; to train hard while aging; to seek mastery of a physical discipline while still working a job and supporting a family; to train for extreme performance; to expect the health of a teenager as you pass 30 or 40 or 50.  It's not normal in the sense of being typical or average.  But it's not abnormal either, not in the sense of an abnormal Pap smear. 

Be un-normal.  Embrace it.  Strive to achieve physical goals that leave others shaking their heads; live a lifestyle that makes people think you're a freak. 

And if you doubt yourself - if the thoughts that being abnormal is bad start to creep into your head - go down to the nearest mall, sit near the food court, and take half an hour to watch "normal people" waddle around the tables.  Listen to them wheeze and huff and snort.  Then ask yourself if you really want to be normal after all.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Post 100! The First Principle, Hero of the Month

If you're a devoted reader you may have noticed that I haven't posted anything new in about 6 weeks.  The reasons are entirely personal - new job, marital separation, moving - and something in my schedule had to give way.  I don't know when or if I'll return to a 2-3 posts/week schedule, but I'll try to post as often as I can for now.

Another thing that stopped me from posting was the fact that this is the 100th entry for this blog.  I've been thinking about that milestone for a while now, and wanted to do something significant to mark it.

The problem is that I didn't have anything special to say or do.  I mean, there are topics I've been wanting to address, but nothing really special - nothing to warrant an anniversary, if you know what I mean.  I can't just post something about a recent study about salt and heart disease for my 100th post!  Or my current workout (circuits of chinups, one arm pushups, and one legged squats - surprisingly effective).  Since I couldn't think of anything momentous to cover, I wound up not writing anything at all.

Driving in this morning I realized that I could write a post about procrastination, as long as I didn't keep putting it off.  You see, the exact same psychological factors that have been keeping me from writing this post are the ones that keep many people from exercising or changing their diet.  It's all too easy for someone to want to start going to the gym or changing their eating pattern, yet get caught up in the search for the "perfect" workout or meal plan.  People read blogs, research articles, and watch videos, all from the comfort of their couch, bag of Doritos on the side table, planning their lifestyle change.

Which brings me to my friend Kathy (because apparently I have to mention Kathy at least once every 5 or so posts).  Kathy has never really been out of shape - she's never been fat or anything close to it - but a few years ago she hit a point where her youngest daughter was out of the constant-care stage (I just mean that while infants need almost constant attention, at a certain age kids are in school a lot and you don't need to spend every minute taking care of them) and she hadn't been in a structured exercise program in a while.  I'm not sure why, but she decided to take up running.

Now if Kathy were more like me she would have gone to the library and checked out half a dozen books on running, started reading a couple dozen running blogs, and logged 10-20 hours a week on YouTube watching running videos.  Instead, because she's not insane like I am, Kathy put on a pair of running shoes and a skirt and started running.

And loving it.

Within a fairly short period of time I was reading Facebook posts about the joys of the endorphin rush that accompany a 10 mile run (I get tired driving that far).  A little while later Kathy was running short races locally, and she's been turning her attention to marathons - she finished the Boston Marathon a little while ago. 

The point isn't that she's ignored training theory - she's reading a lot about running now, and putting a lot of thought into her training program, for example.  The point is that at the beginning she didn't spend six months reading and picking the perfect shoes; she put the shoes on and tried it.  Instead of possibly killing half a year prepping for something that she might not have enjoyed she just... ran. 

You know I'm no fan of running, and I have qualms about the long term health implications of marathons, but it's hard to be around Kathy and think that it's done anything but good for her health (not that she seemed unhealthy before or anything). 

I write about ways to tailor your training to very specific goals, maximizing efficiency, and stuff like that.  But designing the ultimate training program will get you far less benefit than actually doing something, even if that something isn't perfect.

The first principle of training isn't specificity of adaption, or recovery, or movement prep - it's getting off the couch.  If you're significantly overweight you might want to do something a little less taxing on your joints than jogging, but lots of chubby people have run themselves into shape anyway.  If you're out of shape - go sign up for a martial arts class.  Will the conditioning you get there be perfect?  Probably not.  Will it be significantly better than channel surfing with an occasional brushing movement to get the crumbs off your belly?  You betcha.

So in honor of Kathy, who embodies the spirit of Nike commercials everywhere, get off your ass and just do something today.  And let it be known that Kathy is my Hero of the Month.  For May.