Superhuman. I’ve heard the phrase around a lot lately.
Before a few weeks ago, I’d heard it mostly in relation to the Tim Ferriss book The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat Loss, Incredible Sex and Becoming Superhuman. It’s a massive book with random chapters on fat loss, exercise, sleep, sex, life efficiency, and…er… how to be a better swimmer. The dude seems a little nuts. And I dig that. The big message (I think): to really feel and perform your best in whatever areas matter to you, you’ve got to experiment and focus. This feeds into my big-picture goal for the year…to experiment my way toward big, fat, deep, joyous health (I wrote about that here and here).
But what does being superhuman feel like? How do I know when I’m there? That’s not entirely clear.
So when I heard about Ben Greenfield’s March 8-9th conference “Becoming Superhuman“, I was intrigued. May be I could get some tips and tricks. The line up of speakers was impressive – naturopathic doctors, surgeons, wellness experts, bio-hackers, an ex-Olympian performance coach, nutritionists, fat loss gurus, a neurofeedback specialist, world-renowned endurance coaches. And Mr. Greenfield himself is a top endurance triathlete, coach, and fitness expert. That’s good company. So a friend and I packed our bags and notebooks and scooted off to Spokane.
I was thinking the conference might be filled with hardcore Ironman Triathletes and endurance runners looking for the holy grail. Or fitness and health professionals looking for the latest scientific nuggets. And it some respect it was. But it was more than that. This was a conference for anyone who cares about their health and feeling optimal. The fact that a couple of moms from Canada – and up-and-coming podcasters – who are into nutrition and fitness showed up was cool. This information is for everyone. My mind was officially blown.
I won’t recap the whole event. Ben Greenfield has as great summary here (Ben Greenfield Fitness Becoming Superhuman Live Event re-cap). And Feed the Human has an excellent re-cap here. But there were things that struck me deeply and have me thinking.
- Sometimes Being Uncomfortable is OK. Ray Cronise is an ex-NASA Engineer who now lives in the world of weight-loss experimentation through thermogenesis (think cold exposure). He spoke about the idea is that one’s “thermal load” is key to the body composition equation, along with nutrition and exercise (see this article in a recent Wired Magazine). Ray lost 50 lbs by experimenting with being cold and is helping others achieve results. When you’re cold your body has to expend extra energy to maintain it core temperature; this helps burn fat. He prescribes contrast showers (10 seconds warm followed by 10 seconds cold, repeat 10 times), taking shiver walks (cover your extremities, but leave the parka at home), sleeping with a sheet not a comforter, and dunks in a cold tub. There was also some discussion about colder body temperatures at bed time promoting sleep (think cold shower, not hot bath, before bed). I was struck by the message that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable a little bit. In our western world with heated homes and endless food supply, we have forgotten how to tolerate being even slightly uncomfortable. “We live in a world where winter never comes“. This endless and unnatural comfort is showing up on our collective Western body.
- Ultimate fitness is not about how much stress you can tolerate. Dr. Todd Schlapfer is a naturopathic doctor who works personally with Ben. He spoke gently and passionately about the mounting evidence that endurance or extreme sports are not resulting in optimum health (a brave message to a room full of endurance athletes!). Intensity of exercise is more important than duration (he thinks anything more than 30-60 minutes a day gets into the extreme). I’ve heard that many times before, but I loved his deeper message. “Fitness is not about how much stress you can tolerate; it is about how easily and effortless you move through life.” “We must embrace ‘whole-life fitness’ and move a way from competetive, heroic forms of exercise.” “We must make sense of the ‘why’ behind our fitness”. I loved that. He left me quietly pondering the “why” behind my exercise practices. Why do I want to shave two minutes off my triathlon time? Why do I run, bike, lift heavy stuff at all? I know I have reasons, but I can’t articulate them clearly or quickly. I think “why?’ is a fundamental question for us all.
- Our brains and bodies need dietary fat. Nora Gedgaudas is a holistic nutritionist, neurofeedback specialist, and author of “Primal Body, Primal Mind: Beyond the Paleo Diet for Total Health and a Longer Life”. She spoke about how our carbohydrate-laden western diets have made many people highly reliant on glucose for fuel. But we can be using fat as a primary source of fuel. Carbohydrates are like kindling. They provide a quick burst of fuel, but are very inefficient; we have to stoke the fire often. But fats are like a slow-burning log. Throw fat on the fire, walk away, and live your life without energy imbalances. “Carbohydrates are kindling; fats are the logs.” Glucose is great in an emergency (think anaerobic exercise), but fat is the brain’s super-fuel and helps stabilize neurological function (brain fog anyone?). The bigger issue may be how our stress-filled lives put our brains in a constant state of emergency or “fight or flight”, which can accentuate sugar and carb cravings. Have I every really allowed myself to get “fat-adapted” and see how I feel? How many carbohydrates do I really need to fuel my fitness/sports activities, my brain function, and my optimal self? How am I proactively managing my stress? Suddenly, I’m not so sure. Some experimentation may be in order.
There was so much more…hormones, mental fitness, digestion, recovery, sleep. I’m still trying to process all I heard and figure out what it means to me.
But a few things are clear. Firstly, to become Superhuman – or to find optimal health and performance – is a personal journey. It will be different for all of us. Secondly, being Superhuman is not about the shape of our bodies, or how fast they move. It’s about how we feel in them. As Ben Greenfield says “it is about finding the ultimate balance of health, energy and life”. Thirdly, living optimally is complex and requires integation. Big change requires lots of little steps in many different areas and a lot of balloon-squeezing. We likely cannot achieve it all at once. Becoming Superhuman takes patience, inquiry, and time.
In the end, I believe each of us needs to develop a suite of personal wellness indicators that measure our whole-life fitness. Then we need to observe them and stay present to them over time. Sure, we can work with doctors, trainers, and health professionals for ideas and guidance. We can look to other athletes for motivation and inspiration. But ultimately we’ve got to own our own journeys. And we’ve got to be accountable for our own outcomes.
For me, I’m learning that my personal wellness indicators need to go beyond the surface ones that I have – until now – focused on (things like the scale, body fat percentage, amount of weight I can lift, and race times). I need to learn more about my heart rate variability, my hormone levels, my cholesterol levels…and other physical things going on in my body. I also need to find ways of monitoring my stress, mental clarity, food sensitivities, spiritual self…and so on. My sense of wellness must become vast and wide.
So deep thinking has begun. What does being Superhuman mean – what does it feel like – to me? What will my personal wellness indicators be? What are yours?
And so this journey continues.