Antifragility, information and noise

The last post was intended as an aside, but I think that it actually deserves a lot more. If you’ve ever started to delve into something more as your interest increases, you will understand the meaning of the old Venetian saying that the further you sail from the shore, the deeper the sea becomes; the more data you take in, the less you know what is going on. It is very easy to drown in the data which is available on the internet, in the newspapers, in the library. Newspapers and other news media are among the worst offenders: the need to provide information can skew the information actually received, creating mainly noise, rather than the sound you want to be receiving. The need to provide anecdotes and, often, sensationalism, makes for more sales, but also so much information, which when you lose yourself in it, you lose a sense of perspective. (If you’re reading this in the UK, take your average fuming Daily Mail reader; if in South Africa, The Daily Sun will provide you with all the evidence you need of this!)

If you get deeper into primal living, or vegan diets, or HIIT workouts, or barefoot running, or whatever it happens to be, you will soon be overwhelmed by the information which hits you. One school says one thing, backed up by books and papers of evidence, the other says the exact opposite, backed up by an equal amount of literature. It’s exhausting.

But I want to show you that there are different ways of approaching this very daunting place: it lies in antifragility, and this way of thinking can provide you with the framework you need.

The basic tenet is that detecting (anti)fragility is much easier than prediction and understanding the dynamics of events and complex systems. If your goal is to improve your physical well-being, you can research and find every kind of diet ever devised. You can find fitness regimes to keep you busy all day, every day for the rest of your life. It’s all there, a lot of it supported by very convincing arguments. Read a vegan book and you might come out the other side thinking of the evils of meat farming. Read a paleo book and you might come out thinking that the vegans are building themselves up for a big crash. If, however, you consider your body in the light of its antifragile nature, it is not long before you see that if the framework and the structure is right, then things become much easier. It is the quickest way to perceive the sound, and filter out the noise. You can almost consider it like a high-tech receiver device to pick up messages coming from long distances, which other receivers cannot pick up because of the background noise.

To recap, antifragility is a new term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe things which are the opposite of fragile, i.e. things which actually benefit from a certain degree of harm. Generally speaking, all complex systems can come under this category, unlike simple systems, like a washing machine or a drier which can be switched on and off. Your cat relaxing on top of the washing machine is however a complex, biological thing, and when it is subjected to certain types of stressors, it can actually benefit.

And your body is exactly the same. The complex biological nature is not something that any self-respecting scientist would claim to fully understand: the interactions of every cell, and the repercussions from one cell, to a group of cells, to an organ and to the rest of the body are often too varied and complex to say that there is anybody who fully understands how things work. The more detailed you get, the less you seem to know. But, if you understand and listen intuitively to the antifragile nature of your body, you can act appropriately.

If, for example, you choose to follow part of “primal” living and fast at random periods, depriving your body from food for about 24 to 36 hours, your body is initially relieved of the need to produce hormone spikes to deal with the influx of foods, but then undergoes periods of stress which start your body’s system firing on overdrive. Ignoring the biological reason for this (because this will provide too much information), try not eating from midday one day to midday the next. It’s difficult, but persevere, and make sure that you make up for the time not eating by feasting to balance the fasting (balance being the operative word!) I find that around about hour 14 I begin to feel a tingling sensation in my head, but from that point onwards, no shot of coffee has given me the same buzz and energy. The paleo crowd will tell you that this is part of our biological hard-wiring, and I’m inclined to agree. If you’ve ever been exposed to wild animals hunting, or have watched a wildlife documentary, you will likely recall David Attenborough’s soothing tones telling you about how, in its hunger-fed desperation, a cheetah/leopard/lion/other predator is at its fiercest, because its body tells it that it either eats or dies. Obviously you’re not going to die if you fast for 24 hours, but the body will react in the same way. Added to this, and also by-passing the biological reasons for now, you might find that you feel a lot fresher, lighter and almost detoxed after a fast. And your first meal after will taste like it’s been salted with angels’ tears and fried in the butter of holy cows.

On a side note, it’s interesting to think that in the West it has only been in the last two generations that the vast majority people have not gone hungry for periods on some kind of basis, and that this overabundance actually leads to a situation where people are mentally forcing themselves to fast!

Perhaps it is worth considering the similarities between fasting with food, and fasting with information. See what happens; you may well find that you have a much better grasp on things than when you’re swimming in the nitty gritty!

The same way of thinking applies to exercise as well. There is increasing evidence (all you need to know to begin your own experiments, really) that short but intense periods of exercise are far more effective in increasing your fitness, building muscle and burning fat than previously thought. Conventional thinking has always explained the narrative that hours of medium- or slow-paced cardio on a bike, treadmill or whatever is the way to burn fat, but that is being revolutionized – and antifragility is at the heart of it. Previous posts already explained the effects of short bursts of non-fatal stress on the body as opposed to chronic, drawn-out, daily stress (recap: the adrenaline from surviving a leopard ambush will actually benefit your body if you have ample recovery, as opposed to the small stress you experience on a daily basis, which never really abates, such as traffic jams, weekly reports etc.) and the same applies to exercise. Moderate exercise builds up stress hormones without proper release, whereas very intensive exercise over a short period makes your body into a lean, muscle-building, fat-burning furnace. And you don’t even need to take in the information to know why this is the case, but rather trust the principles of antifragility which dictate that the complex system which is your body will react well to this intense stress, but not so well to the slow build-up. And I must stress again: give it a go and see if you notice a difference!

So how do you go about approaching things to make them antifragile? The essence is that you have to have more upside to downside, by removing the fragility. We can use what is rather neatly called a barbell strategy, a barbell being what weightlifters use, made up of a central bar and weights on either side. If, for example, you are seeking to invest your hard-earned cash, use the barbell strategy to put 90% of your savings into conservative funds which have a very close to 0 chance of ruining you. But use the remaining 10% to invest aggressively. If you win, you can win big, but your loss is maximized at 10%. If you put your weight in the middle of the barbell, however, with moderate risk and moderate gains, you are far more fragile, that is to say that you are exposed to bigger losses, but smaller gains. As Oscar Wilde intuitively and wittily understood, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”

When you understand how this works, you can apply it to so many things, particularly for our purposes: your physical fitness. It is being shown time and time again that short, intensive exercise – with regular weight training – supplemented with plenty of effortless long walks provides you with the barbell. On the other hand, spending hours in moderate exercise is making you physically fragile, vulnerable to injuries and illness. You can apply it to other things as well: it is good to expose children to a little bit of risk, but not a lot, so that they can learn from mistakes and avoid more serious injury. Constant protection, in the middle of the barbell, sets them up for serious harm, whether from germs or something more tangible. If you expose your body to huge amounts of adrenaline and stress from, say, bungee jumping or bridge swinging, followed up by plenty relaxation, you do your body a great service, making it more alert generally. Put yourself in a bubble, however, and you will find yourself stagnate. Moderation will kill you.

So to round things off, when you begin to drown in data, approach whatever the system is with the understanding of antifragility and then, both metaphorically and literally, step up to the barbell.

For an added element to this post, please try describing to me complex situations you find yourself in, and try to apply antifragility to it. Let me know what happens, and if your approach changed in any way!

Post VII: The Evolution Issue

This post follows on from the last, but is something of an aside delving more into the ideas of living based on evolutionary biology, and as The Dude puts it so succinctly, “new sh*t has come to light”. I want to make you privy to this new sh*t. The key point that I want to put across is the way to look at human evolution and how it affects our health and fitness today. The last post tried to balance out two different schools of thought which claim that humans evolved to either run long distances, or to walk, sprint and lift. Or all of that. The importance of this post is to show that evolution works in such a way that it favours traits which help a species to reproduce. And that there is the bottom line. Every living thing lives to reproduce and the traits which they develop are what at that particular period was the most efficient way of acquiring the energy to reproduce.

With that in mind, about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, humans began to switch from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle based in small, sparse populations, to farming and the enormous changes this brought to culture and civilization as we know it. It is the contention of this blog that human diets since the birth of farming and agriculture are worse than they were when humans lived as hunter-gatherers, but that with the knowledge we now have about evolution, the biological and health effects of the food we eat and the physical effects of particular exercises, we can adapt to essentially have the best of both worlds. We can eat as healthily and be as active as hunter-gatherers, but still enjoy the benefits which farming and subsequently civilization and modernity has brought us. Sounds great right?

Most people are familiar with the story of Genesis in the Bible: the Garden of Eden, inhabited by Adam and Eve. The archetypal humans lived in paradise until committing the original sin by consuming the forbidden fruit, following which man was condemned to “toil the fields” the rest of his days. There is increasing belief that this story is derived from perceptions that standards of living fell dramatically after humans began to farm instead of hunt and gather their food, that humans shifted from a place where they could simply pluck at fruits whenever they pleased to having to toil for every calorie of energy they consume. The hours of work which farmers put in (before mechanization) are certainly more than the hours hunter-gatherers need to get the energy they need on a daily basis. So why did people change?

Geological records show that the receding ice age of the epoch, although ultimately heating the planet, was by no means a smooth transition. Decades of heat were followed by decades of cold, leading to intense fluctuations and rapid changes in ecology. At some point, it must have been beneficial for people in South West Asia (modern day Syria, Lebanon and Turkey) to develop agriculture to provide them with enough energy to reproduce, rather than hunt and gather their food, which was not providing enough energy. The benefits of farming at the time became quickly apparent: a lot of energy could be gathered from the grains planted in the earth, and the surplus energy allowed the Neolithic farmers to reproduce more, which allowed their children to work the fields, and continue to produce more energy to increase the population. The surpluses which the farmers could create freed up labour to work on other things, and civilization began to grow on the basis of farming.

But these advances came at a cost. Although the increase in energy led to increases in population and, initially, increases in height, intense farming led to malnutrition, more incidences of disease and cavities in teeth, with significant reductions in height after a few generations. The very monotonous diet coupled with consumption of the less nutritious grains which the farmers grew was the cause of this malnutrition. Although they consumed more calories than hunter-gatherers, the quality of the food was lower and less diverse. The increased amount of starch led to dental cavities, less diverse vitamins and minerals led to increased disease and less protein consumption led to smaller, weaker people.

In our time we have passed through the agricultural revolution as well as the industrial revolution which have led to huge increases in population and the amount of food required to feed it, as well as the technologies we use to create more, and larger food (compare the size of the strawberries in the supermarket to wild strawberries, or supermarket apples compared to crab apples). The current problem is that the food that is used to feed people on an industrial scale is often made industrially, to the detriment of quality as vitamins and minerals are extracted from the soil over and over again. Grains and starches are easily the cheapest and most efficient way of feeding people, but although they provide energy, they provide little in the way of vitamins and minerals. They fill the belly, but they cannot provide you with the nutrition you need. If most of your energy comes from grains, you are likely malnourished, in spite of what the wholegrain cereal packets say!

So if our eating culture is based on relatively new developments in evolution (10,000 years is a drop in the ocean in evolutionary terms) but a very long time in terms of human memory, we have an issue. The vast majority of people look to grains like grain, rice, oats and the like as the basis of meals, the bulk to fill out a plate, and many will consider replacing the beige with the colourful veg as something too expensive, and perhaps time-consuming. But I do think that people intuitively understand that it is not so satisfying: for example, oats have been a staple food in Scotland for centuries because they can grow in difficult conditions, can take a good lashing from the rain and the wind, and can be stored over the winter. In Dr Samuel Johnson’s first English dictionary released in the 18th century, however, the definition of oats was “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”. Although he seemed to have become bored while writing his first dictionary and in need of humour, his definition seems to belie something intuitive, that the body knows that meals high in starch are lacking in nutrition, and are in fact better fed to support other animals besides humans (although I would dispute the health benefits for horses as well!) I challenge you to try and change the focus of the meals you make, to shift it from being mainly brown-coloured and based on grains to something very colourful with a variety of fruits and vegetables, and some meat which has been produced locally and organically. For example, this morning my breakfast consisted of two chicken drumsticks, tripe (a Zulu dish called usu; I’m staying in South Africa at the moment), spinach, carrots and green beans. My lunch was grilled fish with lemon which took up half of the plate, the other half being cabbage, pepper, cucumber, lettuce, parsley and onion. My dinner will likely consist of beef in a tomato sauce made with garlic and onions, and sweet potato. As snacks I have eaten a couple of handfuls of raw unsalted cashew nuts, two tangerines and half a melon. I am very far from being hungry! I strongly believe that eating in this way provides the body with a great deal more than standard ways of eating, based on starchy carbohydrates. A great deal more information is provided in publications like the Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson, or New Evolution Fitness by Art de Vany, and it is not the purpose of this blog to parrot this information. It is already out there and easily accessible.

This post is to show the mismatch between how we eat and how we are designed to eat through millions of years of evolution. Farming has brought many wonderful things (I would not be sitting drinking coffee and writing on a laptop without it), but it has also brought negative consequences for our bodies. We have reached a stage where we are aware of the medical consequences of the way we eat, and it must be changed. This will come from how we produce our food: if the focus of an average diet shifts away from grains, this will radically change the look of your average farm. The next post will therefore look more into the issue of farming, agriculture, the environment and the resonance of individual choices.

Post VI: Are we built for sprinting and lifting or for running long distances? Primal and running

The answer to that question is actually quite simple: both, really. Look at your local gym or the athletics championships to see that people are built differently, and more suited for different things. Having said that, I fall on the sprinting and lifting side of things, but not until after years of falling on the other side. So what I want to set out here is two ideas which are based on very similar principles, but which diverge on pretty crucial points, albeit using similar ways of thinking (i.e. antifragility). These are the school that humans are “born to run”, and indeed run long distances, as opposed to the primal living school which advocate short, intense workouts building strength and sprinting, supplemented with low-intensity activity like walking hiking, stand-up paddling and the like.

Let me explain why I moved from one to the other, what they mean, and what might be best for you. From about the age of 20, I started to take a keen interest in ultra-distance running, and even more so after my first marathon in 2009. The running was supplemented with hours of swimming and cycling, taking me to a total of between 13 and 20 hours of endurance sports a week, depending on studies and weather. I was very happy with this arrangement, found my lung capacity to be very high, I enjoyed the endorphin high I got after a run which really pushed me, and especially if I could get out into the wild, and run up mountains. Hill running was a particular fetish of mine, and I was lucky to be living Scotland to sustain it. When I saw my endurance abilities go from strength to strength, the only thing that I seemed to lack was sprinting ability, but this didn’t phase me much, since I didn’t much care for playing high-intensity sports or anything which needed me to be able to run fast.

I began to notice a few things change over the years, however, and a big change came when I damaged the ligaments in my knee and I was unable to run for 6 months. Or walk properly for 6 weeks. The doctor prescribed an oil to put on my knee, the effects of which were purely part of the placebo effect, but after 6 months I started to dip my toe back into running waters. I was more or less successful, getting up a good average 10 km time and so on, but the knee issue soon returned. This time around I was out of running for 3 months, until I stumbled upon a book at Colorado Airport called Born to Run by Christopher McDougal. It describes how people have evolved in a very particular way to run long distances, and how anatomically well-designed we are for this. He suggests, following studies, that hunter-gatherers in human history would have stalked prey down over very long distances at a gentle running pace, slowly exhausting the animal over several hours, since humans are better adapted for this kind of hunting than direct conflict involving strength (humans are pretty hopeless in this department compared with most other animals we seek to eat – just look at our soft skin, or compare your strength to that of an elk!) Without weapons and tools for hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary history, the slow, animal-exhausting hunt was the preferred method of getting meat. Although this seemed outlandish, a South African researcher living with a tribe of hunter-gatherers in the Botswana Kalahari observed this same behaviour.

Convinced by this evolutionary theory, I read on in McDougal’s book to discover the evolution of the foot and how our ancestors would have been barefoot or nearly barefoot for hundreds of thousands of years before Nike brought along the cushioned sole in the 1970s, which, it is argued, is the cause of bad running form and the subsequent injuries which so many runners complain about. With this determined in my mind, I removed my shoes and in the cold Scottish autumn I set out into a nearby grassy field. Besides the stone-strewn path down to the field, this was a big revelation, a real eureka moment for me. One week I was plodding agonizingly along a tarmac road, the next I was whipping through a lush grassy (wet and cold) field without even a trace of pain. More so walking back from the field with feet safely numbed for the stones. I hastily leapt into telling everybody what I had discovered, and started making my own “barefoot” sandals, since I couldn’t afford Vibram’s infamous Five Fingers. I initially started with the inner tube of a tire, cut it to the shape of my foot, punched some holes in it, and used some unnecessarily complicated lacing to tie them to my foot. They were really dreadful. In comes a make of sandal which a guy in Colorado had developed, made to measure, simple lacing and guaranteed for thousands of miles. These were excellent and I strongly recommend them: Xero shoes is the company if you want to check them out.

My love for running was truly rekindled, especially when everyone was asking about and looking askance at my unusual footwear. I was now living in Cape Town, South Africa and would run with these shoes up local peaks (although I never dared Table Mountain in them!) This continued for many months until I began to realise something else which I now associate with long-distance sports: I was low on energy generally and I would get sick often (common colds took me down regularly, especially when living in Scotland). Besides the sore knee, this is what brought me to the primal school.

Primal or evolutionary fitness uses very similar trains of thought to the “born to run” school, but takes different conclusions. For those in the “born to run” camp, hunter-gatherers would have been running often, exhausting their prey thanks to the evolutionary advantages which humans developed over other animals. Despite one modern hunter-gatherer tribe being observed to hunt like this, this is one tribe and not definitive proof. The anatomical proof is also suggestive of good abilities to run long distances, but again it is not definitive, and doesn’t exclude other ways of living. On the other hand, nor do the theories put forward by the primal school, such as authors like Mark Sisson and Art de Vany provide definitive information on exactly how our ancestors would have lived. Primal living suggests that humans are born to move in a certain way, and evolved to do so over hundreds of thousands of years, namely walking, sprinting, lifting heavy things, throwing, climbing and swimming. Low-intensity jogs may well have been part of it, but the argument goes that this kind of exercise would drain a hunter of energy, and if he was to encounter a threat, like a giant cat with big pointy teeth and paws the size of his face, he would not have quite as much energy to sprint away than if he had been walking. Think of how exhausted you feel after a long run. Do you think you would be able to get up and sprint afterwards? Such activities would leave your ancestors very vulnerable and exposed. For me, this makes more logical sense, and corresponds more with modern hunter-gatherer lifestyles which have been studied (such as in the rainforests of the Amazon and Papua New Guinea, although of course there is not a lot of room to run there anyway!). The fossil evidence also suggests that humans were stronger before the advent of agriculture (by way of the marks left on bones formed by strong muscles and the tendons with which they were attached). How many long-distance runners do you know with big bulging muscles? Not very many, I dare say.

It is for these reasons that it seems to make more sense that, from an evolutionary standpoint, humans are born to walk, sprint, lift and climb. Low-intensity running may well have formed a part of life, but not the bulk of it, as those in the “born to run” camp suggest. Added to this, from my own personal experience, since I have taken up the primal living philosophy I feel a great deal more energetic, I am and look more athletic, my skin is healthier and the tartar build up on my teeth seems to vanish every day. For me, this is enough convincing, but I encourage everybody to experiment. If your running consists of a few kilometres around the blog every week, you’re unlikely to suffer any ill effects, besides boredom. But if you are convinced that you can do better from 10 minutes of sprinting every week, give it a try, and let me know. You will be pleasantly surprised. If you are running much longer and harder, I suggest taking a look into changing things. The runner’s high is an addictive thing, and not something you want to forego easily, but you can bet a 30 minute sprint session will get your blood pumping, will try your body more and bring much bigger elation at the end. I don’t want to bring an end to endurance sports, but I do want people to experiment, note progress and get back to me!