I should preface the advice I give in this article by saying that I’m not a doctor or a professional trainer or anything like that. I don’t know your specifics, so I can’t claim that anything I write here will actually work for you. You should probably seek the advice of somebody with a government-sanctioned professional certification before you follow my suggestions.
Having said that, this article is about some simple suggestions regarding ways to improve health and performance by optimizing the body’s energy balance. Since I started off with that broad disclaimer, you may be wondering exactly who am I to be giving health advice. I’ll tell you:
I am somebody who is almost never sick, tired, unhappy, or otherwise “down.” I get up every morning feeling great and continue to feel good all day. I can do things with my body that amaze my friends. In recent months, I have developed the ability to control my weight, body composition, and energy levels to a high degree of accuracy by manipulating the factors I will discuss in this article. I have put this information together by doing a lot of research, some of which I will share with you.
Those credentials may not seem terribly impressive, but I’m not charging you anything for these ideas which, taken together, could do some amazing things for your physical condition and overall health. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here, but I think you can benefit by using this article as a practical guideline.
Though I won’t be addressing it in this article specifically, mental health and positive self-image are at least as important to health and performance as anything you can accomplish by physical means. I am not your counselor, so we will just be looking at the physical side of the equation in what follows. If you don’t see results with these suggestions, it may be a sign that you are not mentally prepared for improved health. Your physical energy balance sits alongside your mental energy balance in the total-health equation.
The human body, though not a machine, can be modeled by a machine when it comes to energy balance. Simply put, energy balance is how our bodies make use of food to move and heal. There are three important factors to consider: fuel, work, and maintenance. I believe that the reason many “diets” and exercise programs fail is because they tend to only address one factor out of the three. Occasionally, one will find a program that makes suggestions for two of these factors, but that usually manifests as a detailed eating plan accompanied by a short note that says “oh yeah – you should also be working out and sleeping well.”
The body needs balance in order to remain healthy, and this can be achieved by learning how to manipulate the three factors to suit your lifestyle and goals.
Since we are all martial artists involved in consistent physical exercise (right?), it makes sense to begin with work. I’m not going to tell you how much you should workout, because I believe that this is determined in part by the lifestyle we each choose to lead. I’m assuming that people reading this practice Taido at least a couple of times a week, which is already much more exercise than the average American gets. That puts us ahead of the curve, but I have some suggestions for getting the most out what time we already devote to physical exercise.
However, it’s important to realize that work is not limited to “working out.” Every physical action or inaction in which the body engages has some gross effect. This includes the way we move and walk, our sleeping position, and everything else we do. We can all benefit by finding ways to do our work with greater efficiency. Efficiency in movement requires mobility, agility, and coordination.
Two Important Attributes
The first thing I want to suggest is more work on balance and dynamic flexibility. These are both hot topics in the fitness industry in America right now, but as opposed to many health trends, they are directly applicable to our performance in Taido.
With regards to balance, I specifically recommend Scott Sonnon’s four corner balance drill as part of your daily routine because it requires no equipment, has incremental levels of difficulty, and improves unilateral balance in positions which resemble kicking techniques. I suggest you add this drill to your warm-up for every practice session. In addition to building balance, studies have shown that challenging our proprioception (the set of senses that make up our collective balance, movement, and position sense) tunes the central nervous system for more efficient performance of difficult physical tasks. In other words, challenging your balance prior to a Taido workout will likely improve your coordination during practice.
Dynamic flexibility is flexibility in motion. Since Taido is an art of moving the body, it makes sense that dynamic stretches would be of more use to us than the static stretching I see in most Japanese and American practices. Examples of dynamic stretches Taidoka would find useful would be swing kicks and arm swings in all directions. Since these stretches require fast motion, they should not be done until the body is fairly warm, but in light of numerous recent studies showing that static stretching prior to workouts increases incidence of muscle pulls and strains, it appears that dynamic stretching is the best bet for warm-ups. Static stretching still has a place after practice, but dynamic swings do much more to prepare the body’s tissues for the types of movement Taido demands.
My last suggestion regarding work is pay attention to basic attributes and competencies. I’ve already written a long article on improving jumping skills. Someday, I hope to post articles relating to core training and building endurance. Until then, I suggest you incorporate some of the practices from my breathing article into your routine. If you weight train, keep any max-strength cycles short and focus on fast, multi-joint movements like snatches (my personal favorite, but there are a variety of options) for the majority of the year.
Next up is fuel. Obviously, this includes food, but let’s also not neglect the air we breathe and the water we drink. Though we don’t have as much control over our supply of water and air as we may like, if we keep our eyes open, we may find opportunities to improve the quality of these kinds of fuel. Since this article is limited to physical factors, I won’t go into thoughts and social programming, but be aware that they do influence you profoundly.
I’ll start off by recommending that you read Dr. John Berardi’s article on the seven habits of highly effective diets. This is one of the bases of my personal approach to making the right food choices for my goals. I agree with Berardi that anyone who can’t meet at least ninety percent compliance with the seven habits is going to have a hard time optimizing their diet to improve their health and performance. Think of these seven habits as a shodan in nutrition and work towards making them part of your life.
I do have one personal tweak to Berardi’s plan that I would suggest to you – eating way more vegetables than fruits. Fruit isn’t necessarily bad for your body, but it is very sweet, and eating lots of fruits during the day can do strange things to your energy systems. Controlling insulin has been shown to be very important to maintaining metabolic balance. Also, many people are highly sensitive to sugar because of the emotional connections they develop to sugary snacks as children. I wouldn’t go so far as to say one should avoid any fruit they like, but be aware of the effect it has on your energy levels. If you notice any weird spikes followed by slight depression later in the day, you may want to look at substituting more vegetables.
The other addition I suggest to Berardi’s suggestions is to include a multi-vitamin. Berardi claims that nutritional supplements are inessential if one chooses the right foods. I agree that it should be this way in a perfect world, but in the age of industrialized farming, many foods have significantly lower amounts of nutrients than they used to. I personally follow the Life Extension Foundation’s basic recommendations regarding vitamin supplements and take well in excess of the daily allowance recommended by the government.
In addition to supplementation with a multi-vitamin, I suggest omega 3 fatty acids. Life Extension sells a high-tech fish oil supplement that I recommend, but any fish oil supplement is better than nothing. These fats are not only good for your heart, they help to reduce inflammation caused by putting the body under stress. For people who workout or participate in sports, intake of high-quality fats is vastly important to the recovery process.
On the subject of recovery nutrition, I’ll refer to another article by Berardi about post-workout nutrition. Essentially, Berardi suggests that all athletes should be consuming a high-carbohydrate beverage during and immediately following training. The optimum composition is actually about a 4:1 ratio of carb to protein. This has been shown to do wonderful things for building muscle, preventing soreness, staving off catabolism, and promoting recovery. There is a ton of information regarding post-workout nutrition on T-Nation.
T-Nation also has tons of articles about nutrient timing. Usually, when the coaches at T-Nation are making a big deal and writing lots of articles about something, it means that they are getting ready to launch a new product. However, you can’t sell the times at which people eat, so there might just be something really important to the concept on this one.
Temporal nutrition is probably the most important diet advice for people wishing to improve their body composition. I am currently slightly over ten percent body-fat, and I really don’t workout that much. Though my coworkers think it’s magic, I can eat tons of food, workout only when I feel like it, and continually improve my body because I understand the concept of nutrient timing. In a nutshell, it goes like this:
- carbs in the morning
- fats at night
- protein all day
Of course, that’s a simplification, and some people require specific ratios of the three macro-nutrients, but as a general guideline, the above is pretty universal. The body can use carbs better in the morning than it can fats. It can use fats better at night than it can carbs. You always need protein to promote healing and recovery from exercise. And sadly for those of us who love pasta with cream sauce, the body reacts to meals that are high in both carbohydrate and fat by lowering metabolism and hoarding fat. This is why Berardi and others advocate sticking to two basic meal templates: P+C and P+F.
Of course, mixing them up a little is not a problem, but a P+C meal should be less than fifteen percent fat, and a P+F meal should be less than fifteen percent carb, for the most part. This may seem difficult to do at first, but that’s because we are socially conditioned to eat three big meals each day. This isn’t biologically sound eating – it’s designed to fit around our jobs. However, if we make a small lifestyle change and begin eating several snacks every day, it’s quite easy to adhere to the nutrient-timing guidelines. I eat about eight times a day, and each meal is small enough that I can eat it in a few minutes and get back to work.
Some examples of good P+C meals are an egg mixed in a bowl of oatmeal or a smoothie with fruit and protein powder. High-protein foods such as tuna, chicken, or eggs can be added to just about anything. For P+F meals, I’ll typically make an omelet or have some cottage cheese. Unfortunately, the Guinness milkshake (about 1000 calories of alcohol, sugar, and fat) doesn’t figure in very well at any time of the day.
I know some people really love eating full meals, and I do too. My best suggestion is to eat this way for most of the week and then have two or three days where you go lighter on the snacks and eat a larger dinner. This allows you to make an occasion out of nights out with your friends, etc. Once a week, I go shopping and cook something creative for myself and a few of my friends. It’s something I enjoy, and it makes it a lot easier to stick to small meals for most of the week.
Finally, we come to recovery, or bodily maintenance. I’ve written a little about supplementation for recovery and post-workout recovery nutrition above, but there’s a lot more to it. Actually, I would argue that recovery is the most overlooked component of the energy balance equation. To get started, check out this T-Nation article with some general tips.
I think the most obvious aspect of recovery is sleep. Most people claim to understand the importance of quality sleep, yet most people don’t seem to get enough of it. Dr. Joe Mercola has some tips for improving your quality of sleep, and Steve Pavlina wrote a series of articles about polyphasic sleep, which some people may find interesting too. Incidentally, I’ve had a good deal of success with biphasic and triphasic sleep patterns in the past.
Unfortunately, I work in a situation that doesn’t allow me arrange my sleep schedule in the manner I feel is optimal for my health. I think most people in the modern world have a similar problem. As a compromise to getting most of my sleep at night so I can keep a large chunk of time open for my job, I’ve started taking afternoon naps. I nap right after work, usually about an hour after having a high-protein snack. I sleep for thirty to forty minutes. Then, I get up and do a brief (ten-minute) workout (“movement session” would be more precise) to increase my circulation and boost my motivation. I find that this allows me to sleep about two hours less each night without fatigue, and that time directly translates to productive work on projects such as Taido/Blog.
One cool thing about taking a short nap is that, by waking before entering deep sleep, one avoids any kind of groggy feeling upon waking. I set a timer for about thirty-five minutes to be sure I awake during REM sleep, which means I can remember my dreams and write them down for later inspiration. I’ve been doing this pretty consistently for a couple of years now, and during summers, I tend to sleep less than five hours each night – about six in the winter. I wake up at sunrise each day, take a nap upon returning form work, and go to bed whenever I happen to get sleepy later, which is almost never before midnight.
Some people have trouble falling asleep, but I believe this is because they try to force themselves to sleep when they don’t need to. Eight hours is really excessive for most people unless they’ve been under a lot of physical or mental stress. Another reason people may have difficulty falling asleep is that their minds are too excited by television, internet, or any of the other high-density information streams most of us access each day. It’s important to limit our dependence on these things for entertainment, lest we find ourselves over-stimulated.
One strategy for reducing mental stress and turning our minds down a couple of notches is meditation. Meditation does not make you go blind or turn you into a vegan. I can’t teach you how to meditate, but if you want to learn meditation on the cheap, my recommendation is the “chaotic meditation.” This technique is excellent because it mobilizes the tension in the body in order to release emotional stress. I feel this is easier and more effective than seated meditation for most people.
If meditation seems a little woo-woo for you, try this: take a bath about thirty minutes before bed every night. It’s the cultural norm here in Japan, and it really helps relax the body. In addition, for some people, it can be the only chance they have all day to be totally alone for fifteen minutes. Making a habit of a nightly bath can be a great help in allowing your mind and body to recover from the day. Especially on days that you exercise, a hot bath can help stimulate muscle repair and reduce delayed-onset soreness.
Massages and other types of bodywork are also great for physical recovery. I get a massage every week, and it helps my body establish a stress-floor for relaxation on the other six days. An experienced massage therapist or bodyworker can also help to alert you to chronic stress adaptations and work on releasing stored tension. Anyone involved in strenuous sport activity should consider massage a necessary compensation for their high-stress physical work.
Compensation isn’t just for sports though. As I wrote above, everything we do with our bodies is work – even just sitting still. As a result, we need to compensate for the habits of motions and immobility we ingrain each day. If you sit in a chair at work for hours at a time, don’t go home and sit on the sofa right away. Take a walk and move around a bit. Since most of us have less-than-ideal posture for most of the day, it’s good to take up activities such as yoga which emphasize proper alignment of the spine. If joining a yoga class is too much of a time commitment, as least take a few minutes each day stand up and stretch your back and limbs. You’ll find yourself more comfortable and productive for it.
My favorite method of active recovery and movement compensation is Warrior Wellness, available from RMAX. I’m writing a separate review for this product because I like it so much. In fact, I do this routine everyday, and the carryover into my Taido practice and overall ease of movement has been really fantastic.
So that covers fuel, work, and maintenance in terms of energy balance. I believe that anyone who follows even just a few of these suggestions will find themselves feeling healthier and more energetic within a week’s time. The more of these habits you can adopt, the better control you’ll be able to exercise over your body’s appearance and performance.
If you try out any of the above advice, you may want to give some serious consideration to a few more suggestions.
- drink only clean water.
- avoid artificial sweeteners.
- avoid using a microwave to cook your foods.
- seek out high-quality whole foods and ethically-produced meats.
doing these things requires time and money in excess of what most people are prepared to spend, but the health benefits of incorporating some of them when possible is worth the effort. I suggest you read Dr. Mercola’s advice on healthy eating and check his health blog regularly. Making a commitment to your health is a difficult thing to do in modern society, but those of us who aren’t satisfied with the notion of a 75-year life-span see it as necessity.
Even it you don’t want to go health-crazy, understanding and applying the idea of energy balance will at least help you to look good naked. These are principles which I’ve been using for a a while now, and I’m super-hot, so I can vouch for their effectiveness. If nothing else, adopt at least five of Berardi’s seven habits and see if you don’t notice enough improvement to give them all a try. If you like what happens to your body at that point, come back to this article for more ideas on optimizing your energy balance for increased health and performance.