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New year, new program

by Frank Forencich on December 26, 2014

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything.

Malcolm X


Have you heard about the hot new fitness program that’s poised to sweep the nation in 2015? This one will just blow you away. It’s better than Zumba, Pilates, TRX, Taebo, Viper, ultra-marathons, the Navy Seals workout and the Race Across America. This one will strip the fat off your body faster than you can say “gluten-free.” Your results will be spectacular and instantaneous.

The program is so simple, even a beginner can do it. In fact, there are only three exercises: The first is called “taking a stand.” This one will build strength in your core, hips and legs. It’s great for your quads, your hamstrings and most particularly, your butt. You’ll look great in a swimsuit and you’ll be awesome on your bike.

The second exercise is called “sticking your neck out.” This one is perfect for toning and sculpting the muscles of your upper body, especially your upper back and chest. It’s superb for your traps and your deltoids. Before long, you’ll be wearing the skimpiest outfits and turning heads everywhere you go.

The third exercise is called “blowing the whistle.” This one will build your lung capacity, your cardiovascular health and your VO2max. It’ll sculpt your cheeks and bring an attractive glow to your face; you’ll be instantly popular.

By following this program, you’ll lose hundreds of pounds in just a few days, look like a porn star and qualify for the 2016 Olympic games in Rio. Dr. Oz and Jillian Michaels will be jealous as hell. You’ll be on a magazine cover in less than a week.

But surely I jest. Or perhaps not.

Actually, the time has come to come to grips with the totality of our predicament and the inconvenient truths that we face. The time has come to make health and fitness relevant to a world that’s on the verge of systemic breakdown. As everyone must surely know by now, we’re beset by a complex of wicked problems: habitat destruction, climate change, social inequality, injustice and lifestyle disease. These problems loom like elephants in our lives and in this context, relevance must be the standard by which everything must be measured. Every profession, every lifestyle, every behavior, every aesthetic choice: the question in our face is “Is it relevant?”

In fact, corporate fitness and health programs with their myopic focus on individual bodies, are looking less and less relevant with each passing day. The disconnect is breathtaking: Here we are, worried about sculpting our bodies, when the very fate of the biosphere hangs in the balance; we fiddle with exercise machines while the planet burns. In our refusal to acknowledge the challenges of wider world, our industry is fast becoming a embarrassing sideshow.

Sadly, there’s a powerful tendency in our highly specialized world to ignore, even reject, anything that lies outside our primary job descriptions. We do our narrow work and let it go at that. And when it comes to activism–exposing ourselves to the challenges of making actual changes to the status quo–many of us are inclined to say “It’s not my job.” But this response is no longer acceptable. For those of us in the health and fitness community, it is our job. We are the ones who can see what’s happening to the human body and spirit. We are the ones responsible for protecting the totality of human health, a totality that includes the earth and society. If we can’t speak up, who will?

Sadly, things don’t look good: In its current form, the health and fitness industry is dominated by corporate values (don’t rock the boat, keep your eye on the bottom line, build dependent customers) and narcissism (keep the advertising attention on individual skin, hair, weight-loss and muscle). Any attempts to focus on what Native Americans call “the long body” are immediately rejected. Corporate marketers prefer the isolated “short body;” this is where the money is.

But health and fitness really could be ground zero for cultural change and social transformation. Physical training is immensely valuable because it gives us the power and resilience for sustained activism. People who are physically strong have the endurance for challenging the status quo and fighting the necessary battles for environmental sanity and social health. In this way, we can draw a straight line between the personal and the planetary, if we choose to do so.

With this in mind, we begin our 2015 program with a new orientation. Start by taking a stand for what you believe in. Take a stand for habitat, for climate action, and social justice. Take a stand for public health and social equality. Stick your neck out for a better life and a healthier future. Expose yourself to conflict and inconvenient truths of our modern world. Then, blow the whistle on perpetrators of habitat destruction, a poisoned food supply, lifestyle disease, mindless consumerism and head-in-the-sand apathy.

Perhaps you’re wondering how much this program is going to cost. Unlike conventional health and fitness programs, this one isn’t going to cost you pennies a week or a few dollars a month. There isn’t going to be a special introductory rate or a first-year membership package. Instead, this one is going to be expensive and risky. By blowing the whistle, taking a stand and sticking your neck out, you’re going to expose yourself to all manner of push-back and insecurity. People will attack you and your positions. You’ll encounter conflict and you might even lose your job. Your results are not guaranteed.

Nevertheless, it’s almost certainly the case that blowing the whistle, taking a stand and sticking your neck out will, in actual fact, improve your health. Living an authentic life with a genuine sense of meaning is a powerful force that integrates the entire mind body system. And even better, you get to sleep at night, knowing that you’re fighting a good fight.



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Spam I am

by Frank Forencich on December 13, 2014

If you’ve ever spent any time in the modern world, you’ll know that life today is one long battle with complexity, noise and hyper-stimulation. Acoustic noise is bad enough; most of us are well aware that it causes us excess stress and harms our health in myriad ways. But acoustic noise is just one kind of unwelcome stimuli. We’re routinely assaulted by visual noise, cognitive noise, and conceptual noise at every turn. All of these forms have a similar effect on our attention and well-being: Not only do they distract us, they also force us to bring more and more of our metabolic and psychological resources to bear just to maintain our focus. This effort is exhausting and will-power depleting. Fighting your way through a daily thicket of acoustic, visual and cognitive noise eventually takes its toll.

To tap a modern metaphor, we might well say that our modern problem with complexity and noise resembles our battles with spam. Spam, of course, is unwanted email, but in a larger sense, spam is any distracting stimuli that interferes with our primary objective. In essence, spam is noise.

We can even create our own taxonomy of spam. Just as we are buried with spam in our inboxes, we’re assaulted with sensory spam, cognitive spam, linguistic spam, commercial spam and cultural spam. Naturally, corporate advertisers and marketers are responsible for much of the deluge. Modern media, TV, radio and the Internet have opened the floodgates to invasive messaging, noise and unwanted stimuli of all varieties, piped into our lives in every second of every day. The noise never stops; we can scarcely hear or feel the natural world or our bodies above the din.

Externally-created spam is bad enough, but we make things far worse by generating our own spam. Perversely, we spam ourselves with cognitive noise, repetitive narratives, chronic strategizing, rumination, worry and recriminations. In fact, this kind of spam may actually dwarf the stuff that comes into our in-boxes. And of course, it all feeds into a nasty vicious spiral of amplification. External spam feeds our stress response which jacks up our internal noise and in turn, creates more stress. It’s all one hyper-linked noise machine.

So what are we supposed to do with all this spam and noise that flows through our lives, our minds and our bodies?

The most obvious first step is to limit the onslaught with rigorous triage. Decide what’s really important in your life.  Learn how to say no to hyper-normal stimulation. Build firewalls around your most vital, health-giving practices. Keep your electronic devices at bay.

Likewise, we’d do well to simplify our homes, our workspaces, our gyms and studios. Make these places beautiful. Follow the Japanese model of the dojo, or the French art of Mise en place. Pronounced MEEZ ahn plahs, this practice puts things in their place. It’s attention to order, with care and forethought. It’s often employed in cooking, but applies equally to any discipline and any environment. Clean and simplify as you go.

Meditation is also an ideal practice for eradicating spam, particularly the self-generated variety. Unfortunately, this process often begins badly. Beginners are likely to sit down, focus on their breathing and quickly become distressed. Suddenly it becomes obvious just how chaotic and noisy our minds really are. Sitting quietly in one place, we can feel our personal spam generators at work, spewing out an astonishing stream of random thoughts, images, judgments, opinions and non sequiturs. The typical human mind generates enough spam to put an eastern European basement hacker to shame. Indeed, a paper published last summer in Science, found that people would prefer electric shocks to being left alone with their own thoughts.  The report concluded:  “the untutored mind does not like to be left alone with itself.” And to make matters worse, resistance only makes the spam generator more active; the more we try to fight the stream of thought, the stronger it becomes.

The solution lies in non-resistance and persistence. Observe the flow of spam as it arises, then return your attention to your breath. The spam will come, but don’t judge the content or the fact that you’ve generated it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of here; spam is an entirely normal feature of the human mind.
Next, relinquish any attachments that form; if your mind sticks to any bit of spam or goes on some kind of journey, just let it go. Relax and return to your breath, again and again. Keep doing this for a good long while, then do it frequently; daily is best. Over the course of weeks and months, the flood of spam will subside and in the process, you’ll gain a sense of calm and equanimity.

And then, if you can figure out what to do about all that junk that shows up in your inbox, you’ll be a master of your art.



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