Beer and pizza or body and brains?

The most common response to those who suggest a fitness or truly intellectual lifestyle – not to say both, to the extent to which people have experienced anything like it – is that both have implications for things like the consumption of beer and pizza. In order to, for example, stay below 10 per cent of body fat, one cannot drink beer and eat pizza on a weekly, much less daily basis. And to read a lot of books is just boring (and time-consuming) – TV shows and smart phone games are more fun – some say.

That is, to put it simple, a correct observation. Fast food, candy, cookies, snacks and alcoholic beverages are all things that one simply cannot eat and drink more than on rare occasions, and in order to develop one’s intellectual faculties one must largely neglect that sort of pastimes in favor of reading, writing, revising and analyzing.

But, when all comes around, who does honestly think that beer, pizza and TV are more important than body and brains? There are a couple of quotes from the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset that might be rather illuminating in this regard:

For me, then, nobility is synonymous with a life of effort, ever set on excelling oneself, in passing beyond what one is to what one sets up as a duty and an obligation. In this way the noble life stands opposed to the common or inert life, which reclines statically upon itself, condemned to perpetual immobility, unless an external force compels it to come out of itself. 


For there is no doubt that the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves.

Here one must, however, be careful not to imply something which would be misguided to assert. First of all, the body and brains lifestyle is just one thinkable option, and even though the main idea and its general practices are universally applicable, it is not meant to be something which all should partake in. Rather the other way around, it is quite narrow and ‘elitist’ and almost bound to shut most people out. Or to look at in another way, one could stress that it is theoretically open to almost everyone, but closed for most people in practice for various reasons. One such reason is related to taste – everyone does not simply like to train and/or to read scientific and classic literature. And this is not say to say that one is a good person or not.

Thus, although one has to choose between on one hand beer and pizza or body and brains on the other, there are a vast number of both good and bad options to pick from with regard to lifestyle.

Eco populism and ‘natural’ vs. ‘unnatural’ nutrition

A not very uncommon line of thinking is that ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ food and drinks are good and synthetic, artificial and refined food and drinks are bad. In real life in the current global/Western society, this dichotomy is rather hard to disentangle in terms of content, even if it is generally true or not in terms of health, and that is simply because of a lot of foodstuff and products are more or less synthetic and/or refined. Many of these things are linked to dyestuff, preservatives and additives of various sorts, and even products which in the first stage are natural/organic are very often, to some extent, affected by these.

Since this is widely known, although far from easy to have a bird’s eye view of, a lot of people discuss these things in the social media. Like many other phenomena that lay people take interest in, however, the debates unfortunately tend to be reduced to simplistic confirmation bias and skewed arguments. In this regard one can call this general inclination to value organic/natural food and drinks, and hence to dislike unnatural, non-organic and artificial food and drinks, eco populism. One finds similar ways of thinking in fitness too.

Eco populists may often be right to question companies which produce and/or sell foodstuffs and promote their products as healthy. Suspicion is a key to critical thinking and hence to knowledge. But nevertheless, I think that these things, both more generally and with regard to particularities, are much more complex than that. Even if the grand nutritional dichotomy between natural and unnatural would mostly hold up after scrutiny – it is a main difference between a regular banana and a counterpart which has been produced in a laboratory – it still does neglect the basic fact that much in our world is about chemistry. Food and drinks, like all other things, consist of elements, and since people with vast expertise in chemistry (and genetics) know a great deal about how these elements and other chemical components work, they might be able to produce ‘unnatural’ nutrition which may be healthy; sometimes even healthier than the natural stuff. Much medicine is ‘unnatural’ in the sense that the products are not to be found in nature, but is at the same natural in the sense that those medicines consist of elements. And elements are part of our world. Naturally. Even if you mix them (which can be good or bad).

For this reason I am not at all upset about the idea of chemically produced food and drinks, straight out of the lab. (To the extent that I truly care about the suffering of animals due to the meat and dairy product markets, I think that this might be the only chance to seriously reduce that kind industrial and logistic torment.) As long as it is properly tested, I am not principally against it.

That is also the case for the ‘super broccoli’ which have been debated in Swedish media quite recently. Two studies show – this one and this one – that it does not have any deleterious effects, which of course the eco populists have not cared to notice since their confirmation biases have already made it a closed case: the lab food is dangerous and has to be stopped!

The debate is sometimes even more skewed in regard to drugs and narcotics. Yes, some drugs are indeed natural/organic in the narrower sense. And yes, diet coke is partly unnatural/unorganic. But some of these drugs can also seriously fuck you up. Hence, I prefer my unnatural close-to-zero calorie drink in this regard.

The main conclusion is that one constantly has to distinguish and disentangle the ‘natural’ which is good and healthy from the ‘natural’ which is bad and unhealthy. The same goes for the ‘unnatural’ stuff.


Detrimental processes – some examples

Both physical and intellectual improvement are related to two general processes: one is of a constructive kind, and the other is of a destructive kind. In some regards it can be a bit difficult to distinguish between those two, since for instance weight-lifting is ‘destructive’ in the sense that you tear some of your muscle fibers apart when you do your – especially heavier and more intense – exercises. But that is still a part of the constructive category, since you need it in order to rebuild your muscles fibres and make them grow (extend), in conjunction with a proper diet and a good overall quality of sleep. For the most part, all you need is some degree of common sense in order to grasp the main differences between what is constructive and what is destructive.

Destructive processes are, needless to say, for instance continous sleeping problems, an unhealthy diet, illness, and (longer) periods without training. Alcohol and partying is a topic that should be treated more separately and in more depth, in order to examine many of its different angles, but it may have some obvious indirect effects of the destructive sort, such as dehydration, lack of training the day after drinking or even for longer periods of time if it is a part of a continous pattern, and perhaps an increase of body fat due to that people tend to be less motivated to eat healthy when they party. It often does also undermine the ability to read and to study, and hence will have negative effects on your intellectual condition too.

Some of the destructive processes can be rather deleterious when you train natural and can only expect tiny improvements in regard to stregth and/or hypertrophy – even if you optimize, or even ‘maximize’ the total sum of constructive components. I can give some real life examples. For instance, in 2006 I visited the west coast of the US for a little bit less than a month, and I did not exercise at all, partied for at least five nights, and ate junk food for most of these days. Since I only ate two meals and walked a lot, I managed to decrease my body fat a little bit, though, but overall this was obviously not good for my physical development, rather the opposite.

During the spring of 2009, I traveled thorugh Japan – and visited South Korea and China as well – for a couple of months and I did not exercise at all. This was indeed a fantastic time of my life, of which I will neither forget nor regret, but from a physical perspective it was far from healthy. I remember when I came back to Stockholm and visited a gym just the day after my return, I could literally only manage to do three or maybe four strict chin-ups. It was not as much an increase of fat-weight as much as it was an obvious decrease of strength and overall level of fitness. At the end of the same year, I spent about three weeks in Australia, where I drank a lot of alcohol and ate a lot of junk food; actually to the extent that I gained a lot of fat-weight within that narrow timeframe.

These things are perhaps not very relevant to mention, since the chain of cause and effect is so obvious, but it is at least a little bit more conspicious that at the the time when I traveled to Australia – about four months after I got back from East Asia – I had regained the overall loss of physical strength of which I had lost earlier the same year. I experienced almost the same thing in 2011 in which I lost about 15 lbs of body weight – a combination of fat, water, and muscles – due to a quite seriously upset stomach, and consequently I lost some strength too. (It was in fact on the famous party island Bali in Indonesia, and as you can guess the three, almost four weeks, that I spent in Southeast Asia – I was in Malaysia and other parts of Indonesia too – were far from wellness-oriented.) In the summer of 2012 I only trained at a very insufficient home gym, in which the opportunity to exercise can only be seen as complemantary, not all-embracing; hence I experienced some increase of body fat and decrease of strength and muscularity after a period of about eight weeks.

The main point is that the constructive and destructive processes can be understood as a sum of both benefits and deficiencies, plus and minus. This individual sum is also time-related, so that although you might – depending on the depth level of your physical setbacks – reach the same level and eventually surpass that in due time, you will obviously lose more or less time to improve yourself, if seen in a larger timeframe. And time is a chief element that you definitely need in order to make physical, as well as intellectual, improvements throughout life.

Therefore one should constantly calculate and try to avoid or at least diminish destructive processes of which are far-reaching and time-consuming. If you are abroad for more extensive periods of time, then go quickly and find yourself a decent gym and good proteins, fruits and vegetables to eat on a everyday basis. Also bring a lot of good books, or buy new ones to read. The basic principles and praxis of body and brains are universal and thus they will work everywhere.

And lastly, when you are in your late twenties it is definitely questionable to party anything more than rarely, on special occasions, and likewise to backpack around the world for extensive periods of time. Instead one should have a suitable juncture in life, most likely a town or city, where not just to dwell but have the opportunity to evolve.

To be extreme and radical in a ‘normal’ context

In political discourse, the terms radical and extreme do often seem to be used in such a way that the only difference between them concerns degree and connotation, i.e. that a person or an ideology which is regarded as radical is just a little bit less extreme than someone or something which is considered extreme! But there might be more distinctive semantic differences than that.

Etymologically, radical comes from the Greek word radix, which means root. Extreme, on the other hand, comes from the French word extreme, which in turn comes from the Latin word extremus, and means, yet at this day, outermost or farthest. Extreme can thus be understood as something which is the opposite of what is considered normal and average. What is regarded normal and average can, however, change quite largely over both time and space. Today it is normal to be more or less obese, at least if one lives in North America, Oceania and Western Europe; and in for instance the US’ states with the largest share of obese people, such as in Mississippi, a fitness lifestyle is indeed extreme in relation to that particular average body constitution and general outlook on dietary normality which are to be found there.

Cause these things are mostly about nutrition. Even though the majority of relatively serious fitness athletes work out pretty hard and do that something like five or six times a week, it is the amount of calories that is the key divide between X (or I) and A (or O) shaped body types, not the number of dumbbell lifts or interval sprints. Hence, obese people need to be nutritionally radical in order to change their lifestyles and, consequently, their physiques.

In Sweden, there is TV show called Du blir vad du äter (You are, or become, what you eat), and the host of the show does often empty people’s fridges and make them start over from scratch next the time they visit the local supermarket. She thus pulls the root out in order to let something more constructive grow at its vacant place. Sometimes people have to do things like that; when slight modifications simply are not enough.

Radical changes do sometimes overlap extreme behavior, both in a good or in a bad way. Generally, though, to be extreme is of course not to be considered as good, since a proper balance between for instance reading, writing, eating, training and sleeping are required to develop as a person, intellectually and physically. Extreme behavior within the fitness domain is perhaps also associated with the use of illegal substances, which is likewise not to be encouraged.

But I think that it might be just as important to deconstruct and reinterpret the meanings of normal and average as the likewise context-dependent meanings of extreme and radical. If normal and average imply bad health, or at least something less constructive, than to be radical and/or extreme – in relation to that particular average and normality – then one should gladly embrace these things in the proper sense.



Body and strength statistics

Body stats, just as strength and endurance related figures, are, needless to say, more or less important within the broader fitness sphere, both on an individual and a comparative level. To deny this would be like saying that we are indifferent about the brains and bodies of our girlfriends and boyfriends. We look at ourselves while alternately compare ourselves – or our partners – to other people.

What, then, may be a suitable approach in this regard? First of all, I think that in many respects one should not care that much at all about neither body stats nor almost any kind of statistics at all – for the simple reason that most of these measurements and quantities are not even close to stable constituents. Height and birth days are examples of static components, but weight, strength, and physical endurance are not.

Nevertheless, some measures are indeed relevant, and one might even take notice of these on a daily basis. For instance, one’s body weight and waistline are two relevant dimensions to consider with regard to physical condition, and during a pre-contest or pre-photo shoot process it may be of chief significance to even climb the scale every morning. It is not obsessive but rational and expedient behavior.

Additionally, one could also measure for instance the size of one’s arms, calves and thighs, and one should preferably do it at the same time as one measures body weight and waistline. The simple reason for that is that it would be misguided and even ‘unfair’ to do it at different times, especially if the gap between one’s ‘on season’ and ‘off season’ is very distinctive. There is a chance that one’s arms will be thinner in parallel with a tighter waist and the other way around.

Feats of strength are generally even more sensitive to body weight differences. I remember a fairly obese guy at the local gym who bragged about being able to lift something like 300 or even 310 lbs in bench press. Then I enlightened him about that strength statistics should be considered relative to one’s bodyweight, and after that he was far less proud of his achievement.

That is also what I like about athletic fitness, a contest-related phenomenon that emerged in Sweden and is now rather wide-spread in European countries, although not as popular and mainstream as Men’s physique. Within the frames of AF, strength stats are almost in every relevant sense related to one’s particular body weight, but to be able to win a contest one must still have a complete package.

Pure running is generally not a part of the AF contests but many serious fitness athletes strive to be able to run 3 kilometers below 12 minutes (on a running track, not in a cross country setting), while at the same time being able to lift 1.5 x one’s own body weight in bench press (and the same goes for chins and dips, even though one does always lift just one’s single body weight during contests with regard to these), 2 x one’s own body weight in squats, and 2.5 x one’s own body weight in dead lifts. Let’s see if you can do that!

Just recently, I ran slightly below the 12 minute mark, which I was satisfied with. But I have not completed the other above-mentioned exercises and what is required, in connection with them, at the same day – not even during the same week – and thus I could not consider myself a complete fitness athlete. At least not at the moment. I will probably try to do all of these within the same hour at some point, though, for what it is worth to reach a certain statistical mark at a particular moment in life.