Monday, February 11, 2013

The Primal Lifestyle

Last fall I started a journey that has changed my life. I decided to lose a bunch of extra weight and get into shape. And I did it. 35 pounds in 4 months with about 6.5" off my waist.

I wrote a bit about it as it was going on, but never really described the lifestyle changes upon which those results were based. I use the word Lifestyle instead of Diet, because that's what it is. Yes, there are changes in eating habits, but they go hand-in-hand with healthier choices in the rest of my life, too.

I haven't written about it because I am keenly aware of cult dynamics and fad diets. And, try as I may, I can be swayed by them as much as anyone. I wanted to be sure that the incredible claims stood up to the test of "real life" before I touted their effectiveness. My new lifestyle got me through the coldest, darkest winter that I've endured since childhood with fewer depression symptoms that I've experienced in recent years, so now I'm ready to recommend this lifestyle to others. I even survived the onslaught of the holiday season and its many special meals. And, in the ultimate test, I even survived over two months with no tracking of weight, calories, or exercise schedule without gaining any of the weight back. I just live my new life and my body seems to take care of itself.

And of course, just because this worked for me doesn't mean that it will work for you. Only you and your doctor know how you can make big lifestyle shifts safely and effectively. Why do I feel the need to give a medical disclaimer? Well, because we live in strange and litigious times. I feel like I'm legally required to let you know something that used to be common sense: I cannot be held responsible for your choices. Moving on...

The changes that I made were based on two books: The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson and Primal Body, Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas. Each of the books has its strengths and its shortcomings, but they give a wealth of information. Mark's book breaks it into simple "laws" that make it easy to follow, but he rarely misses a chance to alert you to his other products. Nora's book has every detail you could ever want, often presented in a shrill, condescending tone, but the information is good. Between the two is a middle ground of solid science and easy-to-understand lifestyle choices.

Here's my own version of the ideas, and what I did to achieve incredible results and feel great in just a few months...

1. The diet. The theory is pretty simple. Humans evolved over many centuries in hunter/gatherer societies. This meant eating lots of meat, nuts, eggs, (insects), seeds, vegetables, and seasonal fruit. When we developed agriculture capable of switching us over to a wheat-based diet, we stopped being nomads and banded together into larger groups, reducing the genetic "selection pressure" that our ancestors had while our species evolved. Darwinian natural selection all but ceased at that point, which means that we haven't really changed genetically since our hunter/gatherer ancestors were alive. Our bodies evolved to eat the way that they did. To emulate this reality, I now eat lots of meat, eggs, nuts, vegetables, a little fruit, and tons of fat. Ohmygosh, the fat. Everything is slathered or drizzled in coconut oil, bacon grease, goose fat, goat tallow, chicken fat, olive oil, sesame oil, and more. Oh, and butter, which isn't strictly primal since dairy animals came later, but it sure is good. Fat is a delicious, slow-burning fuel. When our bodies learn to burn it instead of sugar, weight loss and maintenance becomes simple and the mood swings and sugar crashes cease.

2. Exercise. Our ancient ancestors led unpredictable lives. They didn't follow a rigid plan of exercise. They did get exercise and lots of it. But it was natural, incorporated into life rather than concentrated into one-timeslot-every-day routines. That said, there were also bouts of intense exercise in their lives. Chasing game, running from predators, etc. Short, intense exercise is awesome, and more effective at improving health than drawn-out routines. I walk in the woods every day that it's feasible. Several times a week I run up and down hills.

3. Do real work. By real, I mean work as defined in the physics textbooks: mass x acceleration x distance. Move mass over distance. To do the same amount of work, move more mass a smaller distance or less mass a larger distance. Hunter/gatherer people routinely had to lift things like animal carcasses, children, water and fuel for fires. They also used their strength to lift themselves, like climbing into trees to pick food or escape a predator. And this is when they weren't carrying themselves, their food, and their homes from one place to another. We can emulate this by lifting weights (heavy, short distance), hiking with hand weights (light weight, more distance) or doing bodyweight exercises and yoga. And it doesn't have to be done consistently. It works even better if it's done intermittently. I sometimes do simple, intense weight lifting routines, but more often I carry decent-sized handweights on my forest hikes and wave them around in spontaneously invented ways. Yes, it looks silly, but the squirrels don't seem to mind.

4. Play. This is sort of covered by the previous two, but not exactly. Yes, we need exercise, but it doesn't need to be drudgery. I've got a secret in my exercise arsenal, my friend Sam. He's the wolf dog that "came with the house". His "owner", the landlord, says he's never been indoors, but let me tell you, he LOVES to go running through the woods. It's wild and fun! And research says that nothing is more effective at removing cortisol, "the stress hormone", from the system than light-hearted exercise in a natural setting. Fun, exercise, exposure to outdoors. These are key ingredients in human well-being according to scientists, and MY well-being, according to me.

5. Get enough sunlight. I have to say that I don't understand the research, but I trust the people who do and they tell me that some sun is actually vital to health. I am a lifelong sufferer of SAD, seasonal affective disorder. On the rare occasions that I can see the sun, maybe once every week or two during the winter, I RUN out to the meadow and strip off my clothes. Sun exposure on large skin surfaces is the quickest and most natural way to get vitamin D, which staves off depression and gives me energy. I don't know all the details, but I know that it works.

6. Get enough sleep. This is linked with the others pretty tightly. If I'm getting enough exercise and spending enough time playing in nature, my stress levels are lower and I sleep like a baby. When I find myself waking in the night frequently, I try to get more exercise, more time outside, or to deal with the source of stress. Like taxes, show applications, and business licenses. Better to get them out of the way than to have them keeping me up at night.

And then there are some extras that I incorporate as the moods strike...

- Caffeine Limitation. I stopped with caffeine for months and felt great. It is also related to cortisol, adrenaline, and other stuff. I'm back on it to get through some incredibly intense life changes, but I'll drop it again as soon as things settle down a little. (Sounds like an addict, doesn't it?)

- Natural Footwear. Our ancestors were barefoot for the most part. Our bodies are designed for speed, agility, and safety. Wearing shoes prevents one of the most finely-tuned support systems in our bodies from working the way it was meant to and can lead to all kinds of longterm wear-and-tear on the knees, hips, and up to the back. I've been a barefooter all my life, but not in the rain and certainly not in the snow. Water softens my callouses and leaves me susceptible to skin injury. And I don't fancy losing my toes to self-inflicted frostbite in the snow, either. I finally bit the bullet and got a pair of Vibram Five Finger shoes. I HATE the way they look, like some kind of gorilla cyborg. But what they do is every bit as incredible as their advertising says it is. They allow the systems of the feet, ankles, and legs to work in the way they were intended. After an initial period of discomfort as I strengthened those muscles, they feel almost as natural as walking barefoot. And they've corrected subtle knee, hip, and back pain that I've had for years. Oh, yeah, and I now have killer calves from using those muscles to handle the impact of running instead of landing on my heels and letting my knees do it.

- Amber Glasses. I knew this already from taking a class on light and health, but our eyes have special cells designed to detect the sky and reset our internal clocks every day. These cells are sensitive to blue light only. By wearing amber glasses after dark, I can stay up for a few hours after the sun goes down and the light I receive is interpreted as "campfire at night" instead of "sky during the day". It really does make a difference to how fast I can fall asleep and how soundly I sleep when I get there. When I live alone I'll just go to bed with the sun, but until then I'll use the amber glasses.

And that's about it for this topic. I set out to change my body and my relationship to it. I've done it and shared the story of how I did it. From now on it's just a matter of maintaining these good habits. I don't think I have too much more to say on the topic. So, for those of you who follow my blog to read about production weaving as a means of supporting community, it looks like we'll be getting back on topic soon...


Anita Nervosa said...

Hi! I've just started following your blog, and was just blown away at your 'healthy living' philosophy. It is very closely linked to mine... although I must admit that I'm still a bit reticent over the Five Finger shoes! :)

Blossom Merz said...

Yeah, I know that they're pretty strange for most people. You'll definitely want to take your time getting acclimated if you're not used to walking barefoot. Once I got used to them, I think that they're amazing!