Written by: Mike Ritter
Every so often I take time to reflect on the last few years and update my “rules to live by” for lack of a better term. Eight years deep in my career I am not quite an expert in anything but not a novice either. I’ve logged roughly 10,400 hours in the gym teaching movement, food intelligence to friends & clients, and myself how to deliver digestible information to a multitude of personalities. I’m still searching for more.
Not a day goes by that I’m not searching for another nugget of wisdom from the world’s best, who admittedly are still students. There has been no book I’ve regretted reading, movie or webinar I’ve regretted watching, no seminar or workshop I’ve regretted attending, and no talk I’ve regretted giving. In every single experience there has been at least ONE bit of information which has either enlightened me or reinforced a belief via a unique and inspired delivery.
Although I will continue to learn through the rest of my life, and I may be on to other things 8 years from now, but after some thought, this is a list of principles I feel have cemented themselves repeatedly as unavoidable truths.
There is nothing wrong with a period of ‘detoxing.’ The greasy term detox is really just a sexy way to say ‘fasting’ to some degree or another. Fasting can be described as any period which you drastically reduce or eliminate specific foods or all foods for a set time period. Most people fast either for religious or digestive cleansing reasons but fasting has also shown to improve athletic performance, cognitive function, normalize blood sugar levels and improve ketone levels.
However, it matters why and when you do it. If you find yourself constantly using a 21 day detox or fasting as a way to ‘drop a few’ for a wedding, or repair damage you’ve done from a crappy diet then you might be doing more harm than good. This behavior is synonymous with yo-yo dieting and either one can wreck your metabolism, possibly beyond repair, and create a psyche that believes that treating your body harshly for a majority of the year can always be fixed with a quick binge. This will fail in the long run and create unforeseeable problems.
Man-made systems and biological systems have many differences-
People try to apply mechanistic principles to movement and nutrition programming; as if you are a car. Replacing the tires on a car will certainly prevent you from sliding in the rain, but taking bio-identical testosterone doesn’t always fix your levels of usable testosterone. Also in another sense, you can’t just treat shoulder pain by simply performing isolation work on the shoulder; you must evaluate the cause first (which could be in the shoulder blade, the wrist, breathing patterns, etc.) and address those in addition to the shoulder.
Bodies don’t work in the simple nature of machines made of nuts and bolts, they work a lot like the rest of nature. They are complex and filled with very large and microscopic organic matter that functions interdependently of one another. Two examples of this interdependency are the two fairly recent discoveries of the communication system of gut microbiome and brain, and the lymphatic system and the brain. These two discoveries shocked the biology world because they uncovered a previously unknown map-able link between your mental state and external inputs. In an age where many experts feel they have the human body wrapped up, we are still making discoveries which are enlightening and changing the way we think about health!
Those who still sell the predictable linearity of their plans and systems are not serving the public well. They are resting their reputation on the predictability of their systems which are applied to things that are, by nature, unpredictable and non-linear. Good programs are flexible and reactive, and educated coaches should consistently be humble enough to learn better ways to capitalize on stress management and movement health.
Studying the past helps understand the present
As cartoonish as some dividing lines between paleo/primal, veganism, weight watchers, Atkins, keto or whatever your diet of the month is, there is a ton of truth hiding in our past. Whether you need to read up on Paleolithic, ancient Rome, or dust bowl culture, every bit of history provides clues about what works and what doesn’t. Agriculture and nutrition can be very different conversations and while today’s highly produced foods do not provide the best nutrition in history, our ancestors records help understand where balance may be struck.
The books ‘The Paleo Manifesto’ and ‘Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization’ articulate human civilizations who were and weren’t able to sustain their populations and why. Every civilization prior to modern processing lived off the food their land provided. They had to deal with problems we no longer have to deal with and some similar ones. For instance, ancient Rome’s economy began to slowly become more reliant on imported grains from Egypt and Albania. Once those lands could no longer sustain the demand, the Roman Empire began to deteriorate. Modern America has the amazing ability to numb or nullify ancient consequences from severe weather, disease, infection, famine, and predators, which has helped sustain our new civilization and lower early mortality rates. But the false dichotomy lies in the perception that we either have to completely indulge in industrialization or detach and become our ancestors. There is a middle ground.
Much of the research from Loren Cordain, the Max Planck Institute, and the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA are providing clues that we are experiencing an evolutionary mismatch with our hyper-stimulating modern environment. What we used to have in abundance we now have in scarcity like movement, sunlight, and rich soil. What we used to have in scarcity we now have in abundance like sugar, millions of meaningful and meaningless decisions, bright night lights, and ready food supplies available 24/7. Some of this fascinating research can provide answers to the questions: Did we always need tooth brushes? What dietary balance is optimal? and Why am I so stressed out?
Chronic stress is the STORY –
Stress is ambiguous for a lot of people. Given that chronic stress is a precursor for so much pain, disorder, and disease it is crucial people learn to acknowledge, measure, and modify behaviors which cause these problems. Unnatural levels of chronic stress on the body whether structural (movement), chemical (digestion), or psychological are the instigator for relatively new disorders which are deteriorating the health span of our population. Repeated exposure to processed food has been found to create inflammation in the gut, kill gut microbiota, and thus have an effect on your brain, muscles, and joints. Chronic positions we stay in during a majority of work and school days (like static sitting and standing) create muscle imbalances, force joints into misalignment, and can be responsible for non-inherited varicose veins and circulation issues.
Psychological stress is the elephant in everyone’s room because there is no universally accepted measurement for it. But the way we perceive our stressors have a tremendous effect on our health. I could witness a car accident and have a completely different reaction from it than you. People react differently to public speaking, paying bills, moving, and receiving a promotion. People are capable of adapting to high stress environments and once adapted we can fall into depression once it’s gone. We are indeed the weirdest animals on the planet. But life ebbs and flows and during the wavy times, there are ways to monitor how stress is affecting you given your current life state. The key is to stay on top of it, monitor your health, and take steps to maintain balance. For more information on how to monitor, measure, and modify your stress levels, please read The Fitness Revival. I would love to discuss it with you any time at firstname.lastname@example.org
Don’t burn books–
Agreed there is a lot of conflicting information out there, but only for the uninformed. Possibly much of our frustration lies in the fact we are in an age where we have unprecedented access to information. Further, in many ancient civilizations, only the greatest thinkers and those with the highest formal education were writers and scribes. Whether they were correct or not, they were the ones providing the information. There was little popular confliction. Now we have unprecedented access to self-publishing. Anyone can write their opinions, informed or uninformed, and publish it with catchy headlines (Meat will kill you), and you can’t tell the difference….until we learn how to use information. I personally don’t pass up a chance to read. If a topic fascinates me I will form-tackle every bit of literature I can find regardless of the title. The trick is to wait until you get an adequate collection of information, access to experienced professionals, and some personal practical experience together before you form an opinion. But that takes a lot of time and patience…and ain’t nobody got time for that.
Books still have a ton of value. If you disagree with somebody, maybe you should read their book. I’m almost certain you won’t disagree 100% with a dietitian, movement coach, or body builder once you thoroughly hear out their experiences and thoughts. Perhaps you won’t agree entirely, but there will be a golden nugget in there I’m sure, which will provide a commonality between your opinions AND theirs and help you grow your practice. Don’t read everything you agree with and don’t pass up a book simply because it has a marketing buzzword you hate. The responsibility is on you.
Movement skill is the purest expression of health.
In order to perform one of the most athletic body weight movements of all, the back tuck (standing back flip), I have to complete a lot of steps to get there. I have to learn the hollow position, which requires much connectivity and active tension in the entire posterior and anterior chain. I have to learn explosiveness, which requires optimum neural connectivity and balance. I have to be strong in relation to my body weight, meaning the less excess body fat I have, the easier it will be. I have to sustain training long enough to learn it, practice it, and master it, which will require adequate nutrition and sleep in order to recover and rejuvenate connective tissue. These principles have to be mastered over a long period of time, however I won’t achieve a back tuck if the latter steps aren’t taken care of first. And we’re still talking in relation to just one movement.
The more complex a movement is the more neural synapses need to be developed in order to groove the pattern, and a complex movement pattern must be repeated frequently in order to learn it well enough to perform it more habitually. Good nutrition, rest, recovery, and psychology need to be in-line before complex movements can be learned. Great movement capacity is also a strong indicator of good insulin sensitivity and glucose intake in muscles. And frequent, moderately intense, movement practice allows the body to flush free radicals, lowering the risk of oxidative stress on the body.
In other words, the greater the movement capacity the smarter you are and the healthier you are.
Make one change at a time.
I for one have made the common mistake of multi-tasking myself into a hole. When you have a TYPE A personality it’s easy to get hyper focused on too many projects all at once. Before you know it, you’ve put in the hours which would warrant a completed project, but everything remains half done. The same thing happens to people when diving into their fitness goals.
Instead of starting your new routine with a pull-up goal, deadlift goal, squat goal, a diet goal consisting of a partially ketogenic carb cycling diet, business goal, and a fat loss goal, why not circle the wagons and choose one really important goal which will have a dramatic impact on the rest of your wants? Too much focus spread out thinly will end up in partial success in all of them.
Take time to evaluate where your biggest weakness lies and improve upon that immediately. Your goal should be concise and measurable with a capacity to make you feel empowered. By the law of diffusion that empowerment will trickle into other parts of your life and likely improve former pit falls.
Exploring makes you strong.
This is a personal one. I’m from Sebring, FL. There isn’t much going on there, yet I have better memories playing one-on-one baseball and football (yes….one on one) with my brother than any trip to Disney.
Since moving to bigger cities where I could make a better living, I’ve noticed that so many people rely on stimulation in their lives to keep them interested and it’s becoming more apparent that it is a source of unhappiness. Lending other people the responsibility to mentally engage you is a quick way to the mental graveyard. Large cities are full of entertainment options which don’t require much creativity at all; you can just sit back and be enamored with other talented people or technology. Living in a small town forces you to connect with interesting and complex people, contribute to a conversation, or invent a new game because you aren’t catered with entertainment. As I said before, my brother and I had to play one-on-one football & baseball (and a slew of other games) to entertain ourselves. We weren’t sad about it one bit. As a matter of fact, it was awesome because we created it. We invented the rules and made a great time out of thin air.
There is never a dull moment when you aren’t relying on other people to find the fun for you. If there isn’t something good on TV or your phone is dead, take a breath and decide you’re going to connect with someone. I think you’ll be surprised at the outcome. Perhaps this train could make life in general more fun.
Everyone experiences different lessons and these may change as I go. Eight more years will either broaden my understanding of these eight principles or eradicate them altogether. But I will certainly be on the offensive to make sure that happens.
What are your biggest lessons learned in health and fitness?