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What’s the point?

by Frank Forencich on August 10, 2013

 

Note: a version of this essay was originally published in Paleo magazine, August 2013

 

 

As a people, we have become obsessed with Health. There is something fundamentally, radically unhealthy about all this. We do not seem to be seeking more exuberance in living as much as staving off failure, putting off dying. We have lost all confidence in the human body.

Lewis Thomas
The Medusa and the Snail

 

You just never know where the insights are going to come from.

A few years ago, some friends and I attended a big health and fitness conference with some notable speakers on all the typical subjects. We sat in the back of the auditorium, watching and listening as a line-up of distinguished authorities drilled down into the fine-grained details of nutritional biochemistry, biomechanics and training. Their presentations were detailed in the extreme, all the way down to the molecular level. Some even went quantum.

When the presentations concluded for the day, we were somewhat the worse for wear. Out in the lobby, as we struggled to put the avalanche of information into perspective, one of my friends just shook his head and quipped, “You’re still gonna die.”

We laughed, but his comment stuck with me. His point, of course, was that no matter how sophisticated and powerful our knowledge might be, our bodies are still subject to the ultimate constraints of physics and biology. We may know every last detail of nutrition, biomechanics and training, but we’re still living smack in the center of the human predicament. We can analyze, measure and study until we’re blue in the face, but we are still vulnerable, fragile organisms living in a highly dynamic, fundamentally impermanent world. No matter how hard we train, no matter how perfect our diets, “we’re still gonna die.”

Which brings us to the paradox and delusions of the modern health and fitness industry. That is, we put so much energy into analyzing our workouts, weighing our food and micro-managing every detail of our lives, we have to wonder what exactly it is that we’re trying to do. Are we trying to celebrate life in all its mystery and insecurity, through vigorous physical movement? Or are we trying to escape from our earthly predicament? Are we going towards something or away from something?

When we look at the magazine rack, the popular health and fitness industry now comes across like one vast, fear-based effort to protect and defend ourselves from the impermanence of the world. We hear preposterous claims about “turning back the clock” and “age-proofing” our skin and bodies. We read about “injury proofing,” and “stress proofing” as if we might somehow insulate ourselves from the realities of biology. But this effort is destined to fail: When we try to death-proof our bodies, we simultaneously take ourselves out of the natural flow of life. In other words, death-proofing actually becomes a form of “life-proofing.”

If we read between the lines, today’s health and fitness conversation has a tinge of desperation to it: “If we just eat enough kale, do the right number of squats, run the right number of miles, take the right supplements and put the right substances on our skin, then we won’t have to face the unpleasant realities of aging and death.” Of course, this neurotic flight from aging and death is most prominent in the glossy health and fitness press, where “before and after” spreads hold out preposterous promises of infinite sex appeal and immortality. But we also see it in the Paleo community, with its relentless drilling down on biochemistry and fine-grained analysis of every molecule that goes into our bodies. Some have even taken to calling it “paleorexia,” an obsessive-compulsive preoccupation with food, diets and the promise of perfect, eternal health/immortality.

Don’t get me wrong. A Paleo-style, real-food diet surely makes sense for our health and vitality, and will probably extend our “health span” as well as our life span. But no level of dietary perfection will insulate us from the ravages of time and the cumulative traumas of life. Even the most vigorous wild animals, living in pristine natural conditions, eating perfect food and moving their bodies in perfectly natural ways, eventually loose their vigor and perish. Are we really expecting something more?

No matter how sophisticated our knowledge, there are certain inevitablities that we cannot escape: Our bodies are always being injured in daily activity–cancer cells are proliferating, mutations are being generated, pathogens are constantly attacking our tissue. Cellular repair mechanisms and immune defenses keep most of this damage in check, but the fact remains: we are constantly falling apart, always on the cusp, always poised precariously between life and death.

So what is health? Is it the ability to insulate ourselves from the flux and flow of life? Is our goal to become impervious to the natural biological decay that takes place in every organism on earth? If that’s the case then we are clearly on the wrong path. Maybe we need to re-evaluate our vision. Maybe it’s time to suspend our war on injury, aging and death. Maybe it’s time to look squarely at the impermanence of our incredible, beautiful, fragile and highly temporary lives.

Yes, health is a noble pursuit. With just a little more education, training and behavioral change, we could save millions of people from immense amounts of suffering. We could help reduce the levels of diabetes, heart disease, depression and neurological disorders. But let’s not delude ourselves; aging, illness, injury and death are part of who we are. Life is a package deal, one that includes loss, injury, disease and suffering. Rather of fleeing from it, perhaps we’d do better to embrace it in its entirety. Once we give up our attachment, we can live life more completely, in total health.

e-mandala-with-embodiment-opt

 

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Colin August 10, 2013 at 8:21 am

Frank, this is beautiful.

Frank Forencich August 10, 2013 at 8:47 am

Thank you, Colin. That means a lot to me.
Cheers,

Erwan August 10, 2013 at 9:08 am

Once again a great and deep article… thanks a lot.

Brad G. August 10, 2013 at 1:25 pm

One of your very best Frank. Bravo!

Frank Forencich August 10, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Thanks, Brad!

Daniel Fine August 10, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Just ran across this article on fb and as someone who is going into the physical fitness industry after college, I can’t agree more. I have recently started studying Buddhism and have always thought there was a way of incorporating the ideas into personal training but never could put my finger on it. After reading this, I cannot be more excited to incorporate this sense of reality into my training of clients and hopefully give them a sense of perspective too.

Best,
Dan

Frank Forencich August 10, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Cheers, and let me know how it goes!

Cody M August 10, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Fantastic insights Frank. To be able to strive towards without attachment is truly an artform.

mike z August 11, 2013 at 8:40 am

Frank
Per usual-This is truley brilliant!
I struggle with the point of all the micro management daily l….. there comes a point when a person has to look in the mirror and ask is all this worth it? Life is meant to be lived!

Frank Forencich August 11, 2013 at 8:54 am

Thanks!

Russell Lake August 12, 2013 at 5:07 am

Ain’t it the truth! One can really get buried in all the information/claims coming out of health communities. Some of it is fun and interesting for sure, but it’s seems SO important that we ground ourselves first and lastly in the realities and attributes that make us most human. Very thoughtful article . Thanks!

John Sifferman August 12, 2013 at 5:18 am

Leave it to Frank to provide some good ol’ fashioned PERSPECTIVE. I’m printing this one out.

Frank Forencich August 12, 2013 at 5:21 am

Cheers!

Ján Rendek August 18, 2013 at 11:16 am

Frank, what a great article.
My belief is: we are human animals and we should behave as ones. We can make use of science, but only as a servant in our never-ending quest to understand nature, not as something that drives our principal decisions. And we should not pretend we are starting from point zero: there is a trove of knowledge collected and tested by our predecessors.
Most of the current modernist nonsense treats humans as machines.

Ira Edwards August 18, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Call it nutritionism. I am the author of an orthomolecular nutrition textbook, Honest Nutrition. One of my principles is “Enjoy good food.” Stress is toxic, and stressing over nutrition can be as toxic as bad food. My book is not paleo, but another edition might be.

Connor August 18, 2013 at 1:49 pm

So what are you suggesting? Should we all adopt the “live hard, die fast” moto. Don’t get me wrong. I agree with these points but where do we draw the line? Do we drop our health and performance goals and try to live like rockstars until we die? If people who preached this kind of YOLO mentality actually put action behind their words, they wouldn’t live in the same spot their whole lives, working the same jobs, seeing the same people. I don’t know, I’m as confused as anyone.

Ira Edwards August 18, 2013 at 2:29 pm

That was a bad generalization. Stress is not toxic. Excess or inappropriate stress is toxic. Without stress, we would have no motivation to enjoy good food. Keep up the good work, Frank.

Cledbo August 18, 2013 at 5:51 pm

Got to this insightful article via Mark’s Daily Apple, I really enjoyed it.

It’s funny, because it dovetails quite well with a book I am reading called ‘How to Worry Less About Money’, by John Armstrong. In it he works through ‘stripping back’ money to recognise the way we treat it as something other than it is (a tool) and working forwards towards a healthier relationship with money. At the core of his philosophy is the point that money is a means to an end, and we need to start with the end in mind – what do we really, deeply, want from our lives?

I think, after reading your article Frank, that we can think about physical and mental health in a similar way. Pursuing physical fitness as an end in itself is futile – as your friend eloquently put it, “You’re still gonna die.” So instead, it seems we need to think of our health as being like money, as a tool or a means to help us get what we really want out of life. Want more than anything to have a loving family? Health, as with money, can help this become a reality, because if you have more energy and physical resilience you are more likely to be a supportive and productive family member. Health in and of itself isn’t enough to realise this goal, though – you need to cultivate and exercise other parts of your character too, like patience, imagination, compassion etc.

Health is a important part of life, but it isn’t the only part. Of course people should pursue physical and mental health, because without it life is more likely to be a miserable litany of suffering. With it, we still need to analyse our values and ask “What do I really want? What is my personal definition of flourishing, of living a ‘good life’?” For one person, it could be mountain climbing (which would require a great deal of physical fitness, money and mental resilience!), but for another it could be a spiritual path in which a more modest level of ‘fitness’ is sufficient.

You have provided me delicious food for thought, and I hope I’ve provided a little in return. Thanks Frank!

Frank Forencich August 18, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Thank you so much!

JAM August 18, 2013 at 6:18 pm

Thank you, that was beautiful.

Kyle Knapp August 18, 2013 at 8:04 pm

Wonderful thoughts- this has been my evolution the last year or so as I came down from the high of chasing health nirvana to settle on a more realistic pursuit of living a good solid human life in all its ins, outs, ups, downs and in betweens. Thanks for a very nice article.

Mary August 18, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Lovely piece which really hit home with me. So many of my contemporaries are trying desperately to hide the aging process – facelifts, hair dying, whatever. You’re absolutely right that most people are scared sh*tless of getting old, becoming decrepit and dying. Personally, I’m loving life – I’ve ditched the watch while running, I don’t plan my workouts, I don’t give a damn if my hair goes grey, and I eat real, whole food for the most part without obsessing about the details if I stray. When I get old, decrepit and die at least I won’t have to say that I spent my best years slogging through tedious workouts in a gym and obsessing about omega-3s and gluten.

Viv August 19, 2013 at 4:20 am

Thank you for this article. It has really helped put things in perspective for me. On the one hand, I totally get the concept of impermanence; on the other hand, I am still thinking “if I do this, this and this” then I won’t get sick and old. Duh. Living exuberantly is a great goal in life.

miles August 19, 2013 at 7:05 am

Thanks great article. I guess living with the insignificance of our lives is a tough pill to swallow.

Frank Forencich August 19, 2013 at 8:51 am

Yes! nice turn of phrase. That’s exactly the problem!

jared August 20, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Love this, great post Frank! Gotta have a healthy, holistic whole approach to life, live a ‘rich’ life & enjoy the ride! What’s the point of the best diet in the world if ya stressed out about it all!?

Frank Forencich August 20, 2013 at 1:45 pm

Thanks and cheers!

Megan Walsh August 20, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Frank…you’ve done it yet again…made me smile with the exuberance for life you spread so well and inspire so deeply! Great piece!

Feargus N August 20, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Fantastic article Frank. Brilliantly written. Something I always try to get through to my clients.

Frank Forencich August 20, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Thanks!

Gracy August 20, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Great piece of writing. Really got me thinking about living my life instead of being preoccupied with exercise regimes & diet.

Johnny Gotm August 20, 2013 at 5:37 pm

Frank,

Nice message and you bring up a very important point about fitness. You’re not here to workout, you’re here to enjoy it. With that being said, being healthy and having an active lifestyle can be a launchpad towards enjoying your life. The key here is mapping a diet and workout plan that enhances your lifestyle. It shouldn’t be a “restriction”…it should be a launch pad.

Not to mention the human brain is built primarily around the reward system, so by constantly dieting/restricting/being “healthy” you crave the reward of calories, probably carbohydrates and all the opposite of your weight loss plan. Maybe you’re never really rewarding yourself. Whether it’s taking a break from dieting, eating more on a particular day or just going out and partying with friends it provides a nice reward for your hard work and dedication to dieting.

A great compromise (and calorie partitioner) is just simply getting in a hard workout before going out to channel the extra calories which come naturally during social settings (carbs are consumed more naturally in social situations along with alcohol and higher calories in general). It’s a system that me and my friends have used for a while and it’s a great fitness/lifestyle balance. If you’re going to go out or take a break from dieting, you may as well get in some heavy lifting or sprints with your friends beforehand.

So as expected, we always hit a heavy lift before the weekend starts.

Frank Forencich August 20, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Great ideas!

Marko Suomi August 20, 2013 at 10:45 pm

Thank you for this, excellent post. Dealing with mortality and enjoying life, so very important!

Vivien W September 1, 2013 at 10:53 am

Thanks for this. It’s all about putting things into perspective for ourselves. I think that would have been an insightful talk to attend. I respect nutrition scientists as long as they aren’t preaching. I find that nutrition is becoming more and more like religion, which typically involve sacred texts, faith in the untestable, prophets/ idols, and a large number of true believers. Use the information (show me the data!) to your advantage or disregard it if you choose. There are other important factors to food beyond human health.

Thanks for the grounding post.

Frank Forencich September 1, 2013 at 11:08 am

“Nutrition as religion” Yes, absolutely! I’m seeing this everywhere.
Thanks.

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