Many people are asking me “what’s next?” in my life and the answer is that there isn’t a clear, cut and dry answer YET. I just left what’s arguably the world’s best company to work for after an amazing five years where I learned a ton and made proud contributions that improved people’s lives in broad ways. But I’m in a very different place than where I was five years ago. I’ve developed a strong set of skills, not just professionally but also in the physical arts. And although I was very well taken care of while working for a corporation, it meant bringing to life someone else’s dreams. I’m happy for the person I’ve become thanks to those opportunities. And now it’s time to apply this new self to my own passions.
The place I’m at right now is in some ways similar to where I was the year before I started working at Google. 2010 was full of uncertainty but diligent exploration and discovery. I was at some crossroads in life and decided to take my time to be smart about what I was doing next. At the time, my plans for med school had fallen through and although I was doing astounding research in human evolution, I didn’t see a solid future from it. After much introspection, reading, writing, and experimenting, I established that the “mindful application of technology” was core to what I cared for, and I worked my way into the then rocketing software industry.
Today I’m at the crossroads again, and it’s time for another round of concentrated exploration and discovery. It’s a lot different this time around though. Instead of looking to break into something new, I’m doubling down in areas where I’ve found great passion, like the physical arts and especially skating. There’s a handful of recent trends that I find particularly noteworthy:
- Many people are into or getting into fitness and wellness.
- Technology is becoming involved in these fields and in health care too.
- The office job world has changed – more demanding with the rise of fast-paced, competitive startups, and less stable with increasing work becoming automated or replaced by machines.
I’m spending this summer doing three things: The first is to figure out some “pieces” that would help me make the most of potential opportunities between my passions and these trends in fitness, wellness, and tech. Like six years ago, that involves a lot of reading, writing, research, trying out things, and slowing down life so I can actually reflect. The second thing is to follow through and develop myself. While the concrete aspects of that are yet to be determined, there’s one area that stands out: becoming a face of the physical arts world as a world class roller blader. And to get myself there, I’m traveling all over the country, teaching workshops, developing my skills in different skate disciplines, and advocating the art of skating. The third thing is to get a feel for the sort of of lifestyle I’d like to live down the road. I’ve done the 9 to 5, salaried employee thing and pushed it to its limits. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing, but I’m incredibly curious to know whether there’s another manner that’s a better fit for me. Being in charge of my own day-to-day and week-to-week life will give me a good sense of my entrepreneurial desire and range, and opens the possibilities of starting my own business or doing contract work for when it comes time to pay bills.
It might seem ironic, but I expect to work harder in the coming months than I have during the last five years where I had a full time job. I wouldn’t have it any other way though, cause this time it’s for me and not anyone else.
Almost always, “save the world” initiatives are aimed somewhere far from the developed world. Whatever you want to call it: the third world, or some developing nation; we regard it as THE area that needs saving: warring factions in Syria, censorship in China, extortion in Mexico, hunger in Ghana, rape in India, and corruption in Russia. These are real and serious problems in the world and we’re right to seek ways to improve the greater good of people there.
But the developed world is full of many of its own problems, often orthogonal to those of the less developed world:
- Diabetes and cancer are the diseases of developed world, and throw us into an inefficient healthcare system that’s incentivised to be expensive and bankrupt patients.
- Our food system isn’t helping – the most convenient and least expensive food tends to very processed. Moreover, information on healthful eating is muddled by vested interests.
- Many people find themselves in unnatural settings for daily work, where they spend most of their waking hours: long and stressful commutes, uninspiring work, hierarchical and restrictive work structures that cause the same angst and disorders as hierarchical regimes, and a lack of sunlight, fresh air, and movement. This “life” causes many physical and mental ailments including obesity and a widespread reduction in well being.
- A consumerist mindset occupies our minds, ceaselessly telling us we need more to be happy, adding clutter to our lives and waste in our landfills.
- We find ourselves endlessly busy and distant (physically and mentally) from things that bring true happiness: sleep, family, friends, love, community, and general relaxing and reflection.
The crux of this is that people in the developed world might not be very happy in their day to day lives. By some measures we might be less happy than those living in the developing world
These problems are nothing compared to warfare and hunger, but it’s critical that we make strides to address these issues. For one, most of world is becoming more developed. They crave to be more modern. They want to be more technologically advanced and be a part of the greater world economy. They want success and prosperity and growth. And they rightfully should. But as the developing world inherits our advancement, they inherit our problems. And these would be new problems for them – the next five billion – and big problems for the planet as a whole. So if we’re to “save the world”, let’s go after the problems in front of us, and not just the ones half a world away.
Human social and societal behavior
- A strong personal and professional research interest
- I’ve worked with faculty at Stony Brook University in developing a theory of evolution of religion, which reached into in-group / out-group behavior and a theory of culture. While this work is yet to be published, it is referenced in the book “Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe: Human Evolution, Behavior, History, and Your Future”.
- I was a teaching assistant for the undergraduate and graduate (classroom and online) course on Social Coercion Theory
- I’m a former practitioner of Kyokushin karate and served as an instructor for 5 years
- I presently practice capoeira, an afro-brazilian martial art and have done so for the past 7 years
- I’m an avid roller blader, as a daily commuter and as a safety marshall (5 years) for the inline skating community
- I enjoy many outdoor activities including hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, and skiing
- I’ve volunteered at St. Francis and Bellevue Hospitals
- I was trained and certified as a NYS EMT and briefly volunteered with the Glen Oaks Volunteer Ambulance Corps
- I was a pre-med student in a college and applied to medical schools, but decided against the career
- A strong personal interest and I do a lot of reading, research, and personal experimenting
I recently spent time in Miami for the wedding of a best friend, Ryan. I love to hang with Ryan and Thelma (his wife) because they’re full of energy, positivity, and see a deep potential in everyone. Spending time with them often brings out the best in one; and this magic happened yet again on their special day.
The wedding was appropriately held at the FIU Nature Preserve that Ryan manages. We, friends and relatives, spent the morning helping to set up the momentous event. Knowing Ryan, this meant hard work, heavy lifting, and of course a lot of fun! We carried many heavy tables, set up all the chairs and table arrangements, and even moved a few large logs for good measure. Some were surprised by the amount of “activity” involved, but it was standard operating procedure for Ryan, Thelma, Samir (a good friend), and I. The cleanup afterwards was much the same.
Ryan and Thelma incredibly but unsurprisingly decided to call off their honeymoon (it was to be a simple trip, but still). They both felt the time was better spent with folks that came down to see them, especially Ryan’s cousin, Jonny, and I.
After we all settled down a bit at Ryan and Thelma’s house, Ryan asked if anyone wanted to do a bike ride since there was still some light out (there really wasn’t much – Ryan just needed a reason for more activity). A bunch of us agreed, including Jonny, who in the thirty or so years of his life, had never learned to ride a bike; we offered to teach him. Out we went, Samir and Jonny on bikes, Ryan and I on skates since we were short on bikes. Ryan and Samir gave Jonny a crash course (literally) in the parking lot for about an hour. Then another hour on the campus nearby. Jonny was getting the hang of it. (Samir and Ryan, however, collided into each other head-on from not paying attention. They were laughing hard as they picked themselves up from the ground).
Back at the house, around 9:30pm, Ryan asked if we’d be interested in doing a hike in the Everglades. Someone suggested that we instead bike along the paved path that cuts across the marsh, doing as much of the 15 miles that we felt comfortable with. Jonny was game – probably amped by the nonchalant attitude that the rest of us shared about doing activity after activity. We picked up a couple more bikes. Five bikes loaded onto an old Honda Accord might be a spectacle to some people. Not us.
It was 11:30pm by the time we arrived at the trailhead. It was dark and even a bit chilly. We had some headlamps and flashlights but eventually turned them off to instead ride by moonlight. The stars were out; alligators were chilling just a few feet off the path. The ride was surreal – as if we were traveling through space and time, floating in the cosmos that some like to call the Everglades. Jonny was doing great and kept insisting that we go on, despite my subtle attempts to persuade him otherwise. We heard him crash a couple of times (but couldn’t see anything in the dark) but Jonny was a real trooper and got back on the bike every time. The ride back proved more surreal – moonlight was gone. Our brains, at full focus, barely made out the road in front. At the same time, we shared deep conversation with one another. Simply amazing!
We completed the full round – 15 miles. It was 3:30am by the time we got back to the house. We were all completely exhausted but in ecstasy. What an amazing day. Yes, this was the same day that Ryan and Thelma got married!
Jonny left for home the next morning. I’m sure something in him changed. To his credit, he threw himself into a circle of people that lived life a little differently; what some would consider extreme or without bounds. And that’s exactly where the magic happens. We don’t like to impose artificial limitations. People like Ryan, Thelma, and I see great potential in all people and in ourselves. Perhaps we come off a bit conceited, judgemental, or reckless with this attitude, but it’s a person’s loss to not strive for that potential. Jonny played it perfectly and it paid off. He learned to ride a bike in two hours time and then went off to do an incredible ride through the Florida Everglades. Maybe it’s not so much magic but just the right attitude and the right crowd to resonate that energy…
Note: Thelma deserves much credit. She was real cool about letting Ryan hang with his buddies for these adventures (she wanted to join us on but decided to take it easy given the recent stress of putting together a wedding, while being seven months pregnant). Amazingly (or rather fitting in my opinion), she and I went indoor rock climbing two days later. It was her idea and she insisted. Thelma totally rocked it!
It’s that time of year again. No, not just the holidays, but the time where it seems that everyone is becoming sick. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones that’s not [yet] been afflicted. So you’re avoiding making contact with people with symptoms – telling that coughing coworker to stay at home to spare the rest of your team. And you’re not touching those infested subway poles. And you wash your hands all the time, just to be safe. I call this mindset the contagion model, where a person becomes sick if they’re exposed to agents that contain infectious bacteria or viruses – people and objects included. While there’s a lot of truth to this way of thinking, I feel we rely too much on it. The contagion model is rendered moot by the resilience model, where one can avoid illness altogether by strengthening and conditioning their bodies in various means. This seemingly impossible feat results from developing a strong immune system and a stress buffer. Thus, even if a resilient individual is exposed to infectious pathogens, her body is able to resist and ward off the potential illness.
Although I’m not a doctor, I’ve mixed together a slew of information, from microbiology to stress research, with self-experimentation and introspection to develop this model. Here’s the kicker – as of this writing, I haven’t been sick since December 2005. That’s 6 years! At worst, I’d feel like I have something coming down which slightly bothers me for a day, and then it’s gone. Now, because I only have a single data point – myself – it’s not entirely clear what factors are more prominent to building resilience. Still, I have a bunch of ideas that I consider to be significant factors.
The body is more likely to succumb to illness when it is placed under stress. So it’s important to keep oneself in tip-top shape by eating well, being very physically active, and getting plenty of sleep. I should note two important things I had done in 2005, when my illness-free streak began: I stopped drinking soda and I began serious martial arts training. My body has felt amazingly better since. Likewise, pursuing meaningful or enjoyable activities (in both work and play) and being social go a long way keep us unstressed and consequently stave off illness. If this perspective sounds familiar, it’s because this is core and time-tested health advice, not to mention a central point of this blog. I believe the way we live on a day-to-day basis most profoundly prevents sickness.
Shocks to the body are bad – like going from the toasty indoors to the freezing winter outside – so it’s helpful to acclimate oneself to the new season. Every Fall the past few years, I’ve gradually exposed myself to the colder outside temperatures. I tend to keep the indoor temperature on the low side, like in the 60s. And participating in outdoor physical activities, like roller blading, means putting up with moderately unpleasant cold temperatures as the season carries on. By the time the days get nastily cold, my body has a new set point and tolerance – I never have to feel the intense blast of cold in the dead of winter because my body is already used to the moderate cold. Reducing the cold imbalances in the season means reducing the chance of a cold in your system.
We should embrace germs instead of fearing them. I’m vehemently against the common use of antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers. Here’s why: not all bacteria are bad and we humans have evolved to coexist with many bacteria in mutually beneficial ways. There’s a trillion bacteria on our skin surface and most of them are either beneficial or don’t cause harm. The actual benefit is very interesting, because these typical skin bacteria often prevent the pathogenic bacteria from taking hold on the skin surface. Let this sink in – the bacteria that normally reside on our skin surface essentially give us a force field that protects us from infectious pathogens. Now what happens when we use antibacterial soap or hand sanitizers that kill off everything? The skin becomes a clean slate and an open invitation to all bacteria – good and bad. Think about this the next time you go for the antibacterial product.
The immune system is like a muscle. It requires a consistent workout to maintain its strength. Like an atrophied bicep that can barely lift a thing, a coddled immune system offers little protection when it’s called to action. Our bodies are designed to be exposed to the elements. A minor infection here or there gives the immune system practice and information. It helps us develop immunity and preps our bodies for the big game when flu season comes around. Hence, we shouldn’t be afraid to get a little dirty sometimes.
As I mentioned, these are a few ideas that have come from a lot of experimenting and consideration of the way the human body works. I understand that it may be a bit unconventional, or perhaps blasphemous. But at the very least, I know that something is working. It’d be nice to have some more data points. Have a healthy and resilient winter!
Are you looking for the fountain of youth? Do you wish to remain young through the years or perhaps turn back the clock on your body? The fountain of youth does indeed exist and I’ve met quite a few folks that have found it. Their secret is in fact not a secret at all. It’s the same advice that’s been around for ages – be very physically active, enjoy every part of life while having the spirit of a child, and have an open mind along with a sense of curiosity.
Consider a couple of the masters from my karate school, both around age 60. One of them enjoys sparring. But he’ll only have it one way – traditional full-contact stand-up. He’s started up a weekly fighting class recently. It’s outrageous that he’s always on the giving end, nearly knocking out advanced students two decades younger than him. The other master is the head of the school. It’s incredible to watch him demonstrate technique – the speed is boggling. Once, the parent of one of my karate students said “he looks pretty good. How old is he now, 40?” Needless to say, this parent was floored when I revealed a more accurate number. While these examples are of individuals practicing for decades, I once came across a 70 year old karate student in training. He had a very youthful nature about him as he enjoys riding his bike and push scooter around the city. More striking was what he told me: that though he seemed closer to his age during the day, he felt like a 20 year old at night when doing his physical activities.
It’s an interesting phenomenon – one I call the “Yoda effect,” named after Yoda’s fight sequence in Star Wars Ep. II (he walked in slowly with a cane, then in the battle he flipped and flew all over the place with grace and agility, only to walk slowly with the cane afterwards). And it’s one I’ve experienced myself – sometimes my entire body will be sore from some crazy training, and yet I can get it un-sore temporarily – by doing more physical activity. Still, the effect is starting to see in others because it seems to visibly remove years off their lives. I often cannot guess the age, even to the nearest decade, of many folks I meet in capoeira (a Brazilian martial art with much playfulness to it), especially female practitioners. They all seem so much younger than their chronological age. The disparity becomes obvious when I see these friends in another context, like when out socializing, where the additional years are no longer masked.
Just as we’re blessed with this fountain of youth, we’re cursed when we ignore its rules. Many people shun their innate child-like nature, thinking that this will make them more mature or responsible (oh how wrong they are). Likewise, these “adults” are too busy to engage in hours of physical activity. The consequence is scary – I know many people close to my age that seem so much older. They complain about their jobs and how tired they always are, and how they’re getting old. The body follows the mind in either case, and in this case, they’re putting their bodies on fast-forward. It’s a situation that deeply upsets me – young people who seem to have their spirits broken.
Still, I keep finding individuals, typically older than me (sometimes by a lot) that are full of life and energy. One good friend joined me and my superhuman friend, Ryan, on a dream week – hiking 50 miles of the major trails in Yosemite, followed by 100 miles of street skating in NYC. To put some perspective, this friend decided to go to law school in his 50s, and is already certified in two states. For the most part, he enjoys spending time with us young-ins, as he finds more common ground with us than with people closer to his age.
The list goes on: one friend, always with a smile on her face, that was doing an extended post-doc in biology after completing a PhD – she’s rock climbing in Spain. Another friend, hiked up Mount Whitney (tallest peak in the continental US) last year. She exhumes the personality and energy of a 4-year old as she yells “WOO HOO” before dropping into a double black-diamond ski trail. Yet she listens intently when others share their pearls of wisdom from life. And then there’s a regular on the weekly 20 mile skating event that started canoeing in the Hudson River last year. Note that she’s married and has kids that are close to my age. But she’s also full of childlike wonder and joy. And how about another skater friend that’s taking trapeze lessons despite a fear of heights…
Some takeaways to live young throughout life: Enjoy every part of life. Always smile at what you’re doing. Do physical activities – lots of different ones. Be open to trying and learning new things. Live as if you’re young – like a child. Your body will believe it. As for your aging friends, they’ll be the ones in disbelief.
I’d like to tell you about my friend and skating brother, Ryan, an individual with seemingly superhuman powers. I first met Ryan in summer 2007 on Tuesday Night Skate, a group inline skating event where we fly through 20 miles of city streets each week. Needless to say, I was in the back of the pack that night, due to my limited experience with such distances and my low performance skates. But Ryan held the front with ease, despite wearing hockey skates with tiny wheels (these offer great maneuverability at the cost of top speed and momentum). He clearly had an incredible athletic ability; the extent of it is simply unreal.
For example, a few years ago, Ryan spontaneously entered a skating race. He wore his hockey skates as always and his attire consisted of a t-shirt of board shorts. Most everyone around him, speed skaters with racing level skates, was wearing spandex. Come the end of the race, Ryan placed fourth, beating out many folks that spend countless hours to be in tip-top racing form. This goes beyond skating. In the past year or two, Ryan participated in a bunch of running marathons and triathlons, seemingly just for kicks and to stay in better shape. He doesn’t train for these things. Despite this, he regularly beats out most of the competition, and sometimes wins outright.
How is it possible that he’s able to do this? Perhaps cause he’s young (a couple of years younger than I am), but even then, he’s quite unique among his peers. I’ve met many incredible individuals of all ages and while some have truly amazing athletic ability, none seem to be in the class Ryan sits in. Many folks claim that Ryan is simply innately talented – that he was born with superhuman abilities. I find this answer demeaning, to both Ryan and the claimer, and I’ll explain why below. If we step back and look at the big picture of Ryan’s life, we see the source of his talents.
Ryan is driven for self-improvement and to better the world, learning at every opportunity. He sits front row center in his college classes, showing great interest in what his professors have to say (likewise, he connects with his professors to learn beyond the course material). His skating technique has changed over the years – it’s clear he always works to improve that. By the same token, Ryan shows great consideration outside of himself. One, he’s very friendly – it’s difficult for me to imagine a [sane] person that wouldn’t like this guy. There’s a strong aura about him. Two, he truly wants to better our world and does every bit to push for this, no matter how small. For example, he doesn’t waste a morsel of food and picks up litter in state parks. Three, he’s idealistic yet also down to earth. Like when he discusses ways to improve the grim condition of our planet, something he’s very passionate about, he speaks with such positivity while being completely aware of the true picture.
All or Nothing
Ryan is often pretty relaxed and easygoing – except when he’s not. When he does any physical activity, it’s full blast. When riding around campus, whether on skates or a bike, he always goes top speed. Although these trips are short, it does mean that Ryan’s muscles only understand one way react – 100%. Likewise, Ryan cranks it beyond our skating trips – he insists on doing a thorough job on any assignment whether for school or for work.
Connected to Nature
Ryan is quite in tune with nature. He has spent time in the Amazon, the villages of Peru, and the Andes. Likewise he’s worked summers in the Everglades and in Yosemite. He presently manages a nature preserve. Perhaps you’d think that Ryan is just a Tarzan type figure, but then there’s the fact that Ryan grew up in New York City and that this life surrounded by nature has been the case for only the past five years.
Disconnected from Distraction
Ryan stays away from many things that inject into our modern lives, particularly certain technologies. He spends little time using electronics (though does show curiosity in my gadgets, probably for the sake of learning). He does use email, but only as he needs it. He doesn’t use Facebook. And while Ryan does have a cell phone, you’d be lucky to get a hold of him on it. Likewise, Ryan doesn’t fixate on possessions or our modern standard of comfort. It is all about the experience for him – which means he doesn’t mind beat up gear. He makes it work, and it’s clear that he’s mindful about using technology.
I consider this the most important factor. If there was someone that perfectly fit the ideals I put forth to live well, it’s Ryan. His eating habits are fantastic. His diet is mostly vegetarian, but by no means strict. It’s just that he loves fruits and vegetables, and often consumes them in a raw state. He’ll eat an apple, core and all, leaving just the stem. On his way to class, he’ll grab a zucchini or chunk of bread (whole grain, of course) and that’ll be his meal. Ryan doesn’t “exercise” but he’s more physically active than pretty much anyone you’d meet. Moving around is a core part of his life and not merely addendum to it. It helps immensely that he arranges his life around this: from biking around everywhere to digging up holes and such when at work at the nature preserve. Contrast this to most other folks, using cars or public transportation and sitting in offices all day (stuck inside and away from sunlight and fresh air). Moreover, Ryan has little unnecessary stress in his life. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t experience great stress, especially given his driven lifestyle. Still, this stress is self imposed and on his terms, so it likely bears few negative effects.
Perhaps the perspective is relative, but I don’t think Ryan is really superhuman. More precisely, I feel the rest of us are just subhuman. Put simply – Ryan is maxing out human potential in its most natural and evolved way. In light of everything I discussed, there’s no surprise that Ryan is such an incredible human with seemingly unreal athletic ability. Ryan’s entire life is arranged to make this so and it’s not unintentional. I give him much credit for living in this manner – it’s a very difficult thing to do in our modern society. But knowing what makes for a person like Ryan is inspiring, because it means we have a realistic opportunity to be so much more than we are right now. We can use his methods, many the same as those I discuss on this blog, to live up to the human potential. Until then, no matter how hard we train for those athletic events, be ready to be outclassed by Ryan. We don’t stand a chance.
I keep involved in many things. I train in and teach karate. I train in capoeira. I read many, many books (most of which are non-fiction). I go to weekly inline skating events where I skate NYC streets alongside dozens of other skaters. I work with research professors. And of course I write these blog posts. Many of these activities have been mainstays for years. People ask where I get the time to do these things. I don’t get the time from anywhere. I make time by cutting out other things, like TV and video games. The fact is, in our modern society, with little exception, everyone has free time. It’s all about what you choose to do with it.
Consider this example: oftentimes, I’ll see an interesting and perhaps silly project on the internet, like someone making a sniper rifle out of Lego. What kills me is when others see this and immediately claim: oh, someone has too much time on their hands. They’re missing the point. Everyone has free time – the difference with the person that made the Lego sniper rifle is that he knows how to make interesting use of his free time.
By far, the biggest time killer (and an uninteresting one at that) for past generations, including my own, has been TV. It bothers me that the television is at the center of our modern life. Walk into most homes and you’ll find the TV in the living room with all the furniture arranged around it. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, because for decades watching TV was more or less the only feasible way to spend free time. This bleak, but appropriate, claim is one made by Clay Shirky in his stellar book, Cognitive Surplus.
This point sets a stark contrast to a world that’s deeply changed over the last decade. Shirky discusses how the emergence of the internet is fast destroying the one way media model established by the TV. As I mentioned in my previous post on The Beauty of ‘The Cloud’, it costs nothing more than time and effort for anyone with an internet connection to share her thoughts with the world (just as I do so with this blog). Also, the internet allows people of specific interests to find and engage each other. Meetup.com is a fantastic service the makes this super easy.
Aren’t we fortunate to live in such a world? There’s more opportunity than ever before to do interesting things. But each requires our time. So we must make our choices on what to make of our free time, a precious resource. It should be obvious that my suggestion is to cut out TV. Just get rid of it. Or hide it. It’s a magnet that keeps us in its trance and squanders away our greatest asset.
Another medium to consider dropping, which especially applies to my own generation, is video games. It’s something that I’ve cut out nearly completely. Those that have known me for at least a few years are probably shocked to hear this. I used to be so deeply obsessed with video games. It was all I talked about. It pains me a bit when I see other folks that do this. One, cause I used to be like this and two, because there’s so much more to life. I’m not saying video games are all bad or even mostly bad. They’re incredibly interesting and imaginative and throw us into creative worlds. They help with coordination and can even be a great social experience when friends are also involved. Still, it’s just one of many interesting things in life. And some of those other things are so much more enriching – mentally, socially, and professionally – than video games.
So go do something that sparks your mind and gets it to churn in different ways. Read a book on your commute. Do something engaging when hanging out with friends (don’t just watch a movie). Partake in a social physical activity. Build something cool. If you insist on remaining in front of a screen, then read some well written blogs. Watch a TED Talk. Write about what’s on your mind and share it. Enrich your life!
What’s easier to climb up: 100 feet of stairs or 50 feet of a gradual incline? For most people, it’d be the latter, but as I learned firsthand in a recent hiking trip, our bodies can adapt in strange ways through regular training.
A few months ago, a couple of friends and I went on several challenging day hikes in Yosemite National Park. The first day was a hike between Cherry Lake and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which involved moderate elevation gain through gradual slopes. Still, my legs were feeling wiped out on the return hike. And this hike was supposed to be the warm up since the following days would feature significantly greater elevation gains.
The second day was the hike up to Half Dome and it began with gradual inclines. My legs were already feeling it. Shortly after, upon reaching the Vernal Fall, we were faced with a whole lot of stairs carved into the stone (that explained how we’d be covering so much elevation). As I walked up the stairs, I noticed something strange – it was eerily easy. And that I wasn’t walking up the steps – rather, I was running up 2 steps at a time. Was it that my legs were warmed up or was there something more going on? Perhaps it had something to do with the way my legs were shaped from my everyday physical activity (inline skating and two forms of martial arts).
The third day was more grueling as we hiked up to the Upper Yosemite Fall and across to El Capitan, where some portions of the trail have alternating segments of inclines and stairs. At this point, my legs were pretty worn out from the previous days of hiking. Upon coming across inclines, I slowly struggled my way up with my legs in pain. Then as the trail switched to stairs, I was sprinting with all the energy in the world. That is, until I the trail became a slope once again.
My suspicions were confirmed: my legs were clearly faring very well on steeper segments, such as stairs, and badly on less steep slopes. In essence, the steeper portions require a hiker to bend the knee more and use a full motion of the leg. This was a very familiar motion for me, because in my skating technique and my martial arts forms I get into a low stance and use my entire leg for the technique at hand. My legs were not only used to this motion, but were quite efficient at it from years of training. The less steep slopes, however, require the hiker to use just a small portion of their legs, and this motion is typically easier. This was certainly the case for one of the friends I was hiking with. He was fine on the gradual inclines, but the stairs proved to be challenging (and I surmise that this is the case for most people). Yet for me, the situation was drastically reversed. My body had been transformed from years of training to provide efficiency in very different circumstances.
The big takeaway from this experience is that our bodies are very good at adapting to specific circumstances. It was obvious from my experience that my muscles had become very efficient in motions generally considered difficult. And vice versa – that my body was less efficient at smaller movements that most people find comfortable. It’s certainly something to think about when training oneself and in facing physical challenges. What style of activity are you training? What is your body becoming naturally better at? In some ways we may be able to face seemingly difficult challenges with ease and, in my case, be humbled by challenges we’re not accustomed to.
Doing physical activity can be immensely more enjoyable in the company of others. We humans are social creatures and are built to respond strongly to social influence. Why not use it to our benefit? A recent NYT article discussed how many people have leveraged this fact so strongly that the prime motivating factor is the social event, and that the exercise itself is a secondary benefit. Hey, it works! And as I’ve stated before, it makes exercise seem less like a chore and more like a fun activity. You’ll certainly train better and be more committed, not to mention have others call you out on when you’re not.
There’s plenty of ways to go about this. Going to the gym with friends or significant others works well. Being part of a team sport is another. Or how about joining a grouped activity, like running, cycling, or inline skating (pictured above and among my favorites)? Martial arts is an exceptional one. Students push each other and help keep their energy up even as the training gets tougher.
There’s plenty of other activities. What’s your favorite and what tips do you have to get involved in social physical activity?
So you’d like to get into better shape but perhaps you’re finding it a bit daunting or are concerned with whether you’ll stick with it. If it’s been a while since you’ve done serious (as in, enough to get you sweating and feeling sore afterwards) physical activity , then start off easy. Your body will need to readjust to the motions and intensity. By starting off slow, you minimize the shock factor. If you happen to start off intensely, then your whole body will be utterly sore and things will be very painful. This on its own isn’t a bad thing (assuming no injuries occur from such a drastic change) but you might be less inclined to continue with the training. Now of course this doesn’t mean take it so easy that you don’t break a sweat. You should be pushing it enough to be sweating and feel sore later on. A workout, after all, requires work, though hopefully it’s something you enjoy (or come to enjoy over time, which often happens). Over time, you should ramp up the physical activity as your body (and your attitude if need be) will get used to the change.