lucas climb cropped

Forget your “perfect sport” – just practice something

David McRaney is a curator of examples of irrational behavior. I’m always applying tidbits from his books and podcasts to health habits, especially exercise. Because few aspects of American life expose our irrationality quite like exercise.

We need to do it in order to survive. We don’t do it.

A few months ago, McRaney posed this question on Facebook:

“Have you ever devoted many hours of practice to something? Why did you do it?”

He was gathering ideas for a podcast episode on how practice changes the brain, and the first thing that popped into my head was the 10+ hours I was spending a week at tango practice. I posted this response:

“Practice makes addict. I get a high from feeling like I’m doing something a little better than last time, and also from feeling like I’m inching closer to mastery. The more I do rock climbing and tango, and the more obsessed I become.”

(Should you happen to listen to this episode, my response was read aloud at minute 11:11 :-P )

I’m always saying that if you want to exercise regularly, you have to get addicted to an activity. If your goal is just to be healthy, exercise will fall below more pressing or interesting things on your to-do list. The exercise endorphins and physical results aren’t even enough to keep most people at it when work or pub invites crop up.

I thought that the secret to making exercise non-negotiable was to find an activity that suits your personality—if you like solving problems, climb. If you like strategizing against an opponent, box. If you want to zone out and think about life, run.

But my response about why I practice got me thinking: maybe it’s not the perfect activity but the practice that gets us hooked?

Maybe practice feeds our hunger to get good at something. Or it could be about focusing long enough to achieve a state of flow, where we’re fully engaged, pushing our limits, losing track of time, losing track of other people. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says this state of mind is deeply satisfying to humans. And it comes at the intersection of things we enjoy and deliberate practice.

While the “10,000 hour rule” appears to be a myth (the YANSS podcast pokes 10,000 holes in it), there is a clear connection among practice and mastery and fulfillment. So if we get more obsessed as we inch closer to mastery, then having a drive to excel may be just as essential to regular exercise as picking the “right” activity.

That takes the pressure off finding our ideal sport and instead invites us to do anything we’ll practice long enough to get hooked. Which is good, because according to an Australian talent identification quiz, my ideal sport is gymnastics.

So, how DOES practice change the brain?

Ashima Shiraishi
13-year-old Ashima Shiraishi sends this for a second time, then jumps off.

In that podcast, McRaney interviews David Epstein (author of The Sports Gene) about the 80 millisecond lag in human processing. Basically, by the time we consciously register something, it’s already happened. And he says this should make things like ducking a punch or hitting a baseball impossible.

But through practice, we develop the ability to react without processing. Are we using intuition? Are we making predictions based on past experience? Whatever it is, instant reaction allows us to perform with extreme efficiency. Shutting off our thinking also lets us operate at our actual physical limits rather than our perceived ones, which are constrained by fear and physical discomfort.

Great athletes rarely talk about how good it feels to do their sport. Instead, they talk about the exhilaration of extreme achievement. The Iron Cowboy didn’t say completing 30 full Iron Distance races in 11 countries in one year was fun… but he was hooked. And the fitness benefits followed.

If you’re in an exercise rut, find a sport, start logging hours and see what happens. It might be something you love doing. But more importantly, it should be something you have a drive to get good at.

Like they say over at Gold Medal Bodies:

“Don’t die without having explored what your body is capable of.”

xo Chelsea

P.S. Before anyone panics, I’m not talking about actual exercise addiction, just a fitness passion you pursue regularly. Exercising too much can lead to malnutrition, injury, amenorrhea in women and other serious health problems. It’s important to be aware of signs that you’re over-training and signs that you’re exercising compulsively.

That said, sometimes people are quick to cry “exercise addiction.” Especially people who are lazy. Funnily, people seem especially eager to slap the label on tango—there are actually studies on tango addiction. ;)

P.S.S. What’s Your Fitness Identity?

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tango for blog

What’s your fitness identity?

I read an article the other day about how eating healthy is more important than exercising because you can’t “outrun a bad diet.” But I hate reading articles like this, because the truth is we need both, so it’s a stupid comparison in the first place.

You can’t out-exercise a bad diet, but no amount of healthy food will save you if you don’t move your body and maintain your muscle mass. Just ask Pam Peeke, who watched reality TV contestants “die” because they were too skinny-fat to save themselves in a simulated building fire.

And of the two — good exercise habits and good eating habits — Americans seem to struggle more with exercise. Word on the street: roughly 50% of people who start an exercise program will drop it within six months. In 2000, only 11% of the U.S. adult population reported doing at least 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity more than twice a week. The number may have improved since then, but it probably hasn’t.

The question of exercise adherence continues to baffle just about everybody… but it doesn’t baffle my friend Ashley.

Ashley has been a skateboarder for as long as I’ve known her. We first met 10 years ago, when I was an intern at a magazine and she was our printer rep. She’s still a successful marketing professional, no doubt at a busier point in her career than ever. Yet she still skates (and is super-fit).

One night over tacos, I asked her how she makes time for it. Her response was that it’s simply part of her identity.

She is a skater.


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Getting Ready for Little Red

Women ride Tour de France… for a day?

One of the cool things about sports is that they’re a perfect arena for uncovering and challenging culturally imposed gender limitations.

Kathrine Switzer famously snuck into the 1967 Boston Marathon, registering under a man’s name, and became the first woman to run it. She was attacked by the race director, but finished anyway, and the physiological grounds for barring women from participating in the marathon had to be reexamined.

Women have historically been encouraged not to engage in intense physical activity. We were (and still are) told that we’re not capable of the same level of athleticism as men. This notion is abandoned in sport after sport as women increasingly compete in male-dominated arenas. But cycling seems to be behind the times…


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Skepticism is not an excuse to ignore your health

“First of all come great dreams, then a feeling of laziness, and finally a witty or clever excuse for remaining in bed.” – Kierkegaard

A few years ago, I interviewed Pamela Peeke for a U.S. News piece about exercise. I’ll never forget our conversation. She had a husky voice and swore like a trucker, and I liked her instantly.

While the current mood of health advice is tender — we acknowledge that exercising and eating healthy are hard and “every little bit counts” — Peeke’s advice is to pull your head out of your ass and save your life.

Getting healthy “isn’t just to fit in your skinny jeans or run a 5K,” Dr. Peeke said during our call. “Let’s get down to the brass tacks: if the building was burning, could you get out?”

Peeke once hosted a Discovery miniseries called Could You Survive?, where average Americans were faced with “wild ass obstacles” (her wording) like scrambling up a rooftop to escape a simulated fire. All “died.”

Despite regular attendance at yoga and tango classes, I’m pretty sure I’d be among the dead.

“You can’t just kick back and expect to slip-slide through life,” Peeke told me. As we age, “everyone, sedentary or not, will need to get creative” about how we preserve ourselves.

This seems obvious — we know that continual adaptation is the basis of survival. Yet, oddly, most Americans aren’t making much of an effort to survive. In fact, we often spend more time applying our creativity to coming up with reasons to do nothing at all… (more…)

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How to stick with healthy habits when you’d rather dip Doritos in cottage cheese and watch crappy movies every night

When life gets you down, it tends to get your health habits down, too.

Which brings me to a point I’d like to make on this blog: I’m not one of those health writers who flaunts perfection. In fact, I’m probably one of the most hedonistic people you’ll ever meet.

Italian restaurant instead of cooking at home tonight? Good idea! Drinks at the bar instead of yoga? Count me in. That barstool nearest the bowl of chips at a party? It already has my name on it, so you’d be wise to back off.

If I had an Instagram account, you’d be looking at one big slideshow of #whiskey and #cheese.

Although I’ve been a health and fitness writer for almost five years, I still have moments of weakness.

Knowing the keys to health and knowing the keys to our own stupid behavior are, as I think we all know, two different animals. So even though I’ve managed to corral myself into getting pretty fit over the years, I still make *minor detours*.

I’m not exactly sure when the latest detour started. Or perhaps “bacchanalia” is a better word. (more…)

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Why are health magazines dumbing down content for women?

Is popular women’s health content written for today’s modern woman… or Barbie?

Among the web and print pages of chick health media, there’s a conspicuously high volume of pink. There’s also Hollywood gossip, beauty advice and ample sex tips — which often figure more prominently than health advice.

I noticed all this before stumbling upon the Shape website last week, which managed, in one 4-second homepage load, to bring all of these elements together. Right down to the Barbie weights:

health = sex blog


If we weren’t sufficiently engaged by the pink, sprinkles and phallic fruit in women’s health content, don’t worry. The editors will capture our flighty feminine attention with a hyper-emotive headline. (more…)

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We put too much faith in health guidelines

This week, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson gave a lecture at the University of Utah on “Science as a Way of Knowing.” He cautioned against the devaluing of science in our society, and everyone had a laugh at a slide that showed many Americans still rejecting the theory of evolution. In the face of scientific evidence! he gasped.

But for those of us who have embraced science as a way of understanding the world, are we in the clear? Or is science in some ways our new religion, where we accept things like medical research and health advice on blind faith?

For example, how much of the details of medical studies do we actually see? The general public – little or none.

We trust the word of the institutions, news sources and experts that seem the most credible. (And perhaps also the most confident and attractive.) But can our Dr. Oz’s really have all the answers?

After all, research is complicated. By its nature, it is — and on top of that, there are many factors that lead to unconscious and conscious bias. Researchers want to come up with new findings in order to keep their jobs and gain tenure. Journalists need “news.” Medical experts make mistakes. And drug companies can’t afford for their drugs not to work.


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McDonald’s Photoshopped burger video went viral… and we’re still eating this s***

So McDonald’s advertisement burger is Photoshopped.

This is old news online, and to anyone who’s ever eaten an actual McDonald’s burger.

Yet, despite publicly airing the fact that its ad burger is both digitally altered and made from completely different ingredients, McDonald’s is still flipping more burgers than any other fast food chain.

In fact, people seemed to enjoy the behind-the-scenes video that McDonald’s marketing department created to show how its photo shoot burger is made. It went viral, and not in any debunking kind of way. 

Maybe it’s just me, but their “transparency” — or rather, apparent smug glee over getting away with telling the world they make a high-quality ad burger while continuing to sell the limp stand-in — seems a little weird.

The weirder thing is that they’re getting away with it. How? Probably a few advertising tricks and nothing more.


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Starbucks Ritual

Is the “ritual” you enjoy at Starbucks a figment of everyone’s imagination?

When my dad used to pick me up on weekends as a kid, we had a tradition of going to a Mexican food place down the street and ordering a combo meal for the candy.

For years, though he was long gone, I kept going back to the restaurant and collecting the candy. It made me feel good to have a ritual to continue to lean on.

Until one day, in my late teens, I opened the shoebox full of Kit-Kats and Smarties and Dum-Dums and thought, Why the hell do I have this? It didn’t make me feel connected to him anymore. If anything, it was a burden and clinging to this old ritual was making me sad. I threw it all away.

I remembered about this shoebox of candy the other day when I was thinking about food rituals — how they start, and how we don’t notice when they’ve stopped working for us. Until one day, we open the metaphorical box, see the thing clearly, and think: what is this still doing here?? 

Sometimes we create food rituals with family and friends, or as part of a time we carve out to spend in solitude, perhaps with a book.

Other times, marketers create them for us.

Do we notice when the feeling isn’t there? Do we let ourselves notice? Humans are bad at detecting when we’re unhappy, one of my friends, a philosophy professor, remarks.

More often, it seems easier, gentler on our sensitive souls, to pretend we are happy.

And this is the only way I can explain my seven-year loyalty to Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes. (more…)

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3 signs your exercise plateau is mental

The world may have been watching Felix Baumgartner overcome his fears and plunge 120,000 feet through the sound barrier toward earth…

But chances are, almost no one is watching whether you ace your workout.

For my latest U.S. News piece, I talked “exercise hang-ups” with Michael Gervais, a licensed psychologist and expert in sports performance. As coach to top athletes including Baumgartner — the daredevil BASE jumper who jumped from the stratosphere in 2012 — Gervais is just the person to help us recognize and conquer limiting beliefs.

If you’re struggling to take your workout to the next level, the culprit could be performance anxiety, perfectionism, or egoism — the false belief that other people actually care about your gym gaffes. 

Full disclosure: I suffer from all three and this topic was inspired by my own nauseous terror of going to the climbing gym when there are more than two other people on the wall. So I’ll join you in taking Michael’s advice…

For more, please visit the full post over at U.S. News Eat + Run blog


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