October 04, 2010

Intuitive Eating & Exercise, Cranky Style

Photo: Plan59

Do you keep up with the latest research to create your own health and fitness routines? Follow a best-selling diet book or a popular fitness guru? Or do you take an intuitive approach?

If you're one of those Tweeple who Twitter, or if you've stopped by the blog over the last few months and peeked at the right-hand column, you may have noticed that even though I've been too lazy busy to write blog posts, I'm still tweeting some of the latest health studies. (However, I still don't get Twitter and stubbornly do it all wrong. You're probably better off following a real fitness tweeter with an updated blog like @joycecherrier). But the reason I Tweet is because I'm addicted to these stupid health studies and want to share them. And no matter how ridiculous or inconclusive they are, they often end up influencing my own approach to fitness and nutrition.

Is interval training better for you than conventional cardio? Will drinking milk help you lose weight? Is your morning coffee poisoning you or will it help you live to be 100? What are the absolute best superfoods and the most efficient exercises? When, where and for how long should one exercise/eat/abstain/imbibe/sleep/ruminate/eliminate/meditate/cogitate/medicate/procrastinate/masturbate/exfoliate?

So many questions, and the scientists and experts say they have the answers! Hell, if there are sure-fire secrets to becoming stronger, healthier, happier, slimmer, more energetic and smarter, I want in on 'em.

But there are also a lot of people out there who are moving away from one-size-fits-all expert advice, and who are ditching structured approaches to fitness and nutrition. They are refusing to count calories or label foods as "good" or "bad" or "forbidden." They are participating in only the physical activities they enjoy, and are not worrying overmuch about whether the scientists say there are a bunch of other, better activities they should be doing instead. They check in with their own bodies rather than the latest Science Daily RSS feeds, and trust their own intuition about how to become fit and healthy.

What does Crabby think about all this? Does she have any opinions about how to balance personal intuition and expert advice?

Of course she does--Crabby has opinions about everything! However, before we get into that, here's a totally unrelated question for those with short attentions spans who came here googling "one rule for flat stomach" and are about to surf over to cats morphing into croissants or something equally compelling. Hang on a sec before you leave:

Does anyone have any advice re: Maintaining Fitness post-Menopause and/or Recovering from a Hysterectomy? Please email me at CrabbyMcSlacker at gmail dot com or leave a comment!

I'm planning to do a post on this topic eventually and would love reader advice, warnings, personal experiences, weird-shit-your-mom-told-you, helpful links, etc. I'll run the post sometime after my hysterectomy, scheduled for October 19th. OK, so if they give me any good drugs, I may not understand the advice, but I'll appreciate any I can get. (And no worries, no cancer or anything scary; just loads o' big honkin' citrus-fruit sized fibroids. However, on the cancer front, Cranky co-blogger Jo has been dealing with some tough stuff; be sure to check in over at Head Nurse if you haven't already.)

Now back to the topic at hand...

So Who Knows Best What Your Body Needs: You? Or the Scientists?

Scientists Are Full of It!

How's this for a comforting statistic: apparently almost 70% of findings published in medical journals are refuted within a few years of publication. (Hey, thanks for that info, CalorieLab! ... Um, I think?)

However, I'm not sure what to make of that 70% figure. If over half of the medical research findings are bogus, that means that some of the studies that refute the bogus studies are bogus, which means... wait, my head hurts. And if that's true, wouldn't we be better off letting monkeys flip coins to determine answers to our health and medical questions? They'd be 20% righter!

But wait, if we asked the monkeys, they'd probably tell us to eat a lot of bananas and brachiate more often--which is fine, we'd get lots of potassium and have awesome upper body strength. But then if we only believed the monkeys and ignored modern health and medical discoveries, we wouldn't have doctors or medications or hospitals or iPods or deodorant or elliptical trainers, and we'd have to throw away our meditation tapes and start flinging our own feces around for stress relief. That can't be good. So all in all, I'm not quite ready to ditch the scientists for the coin-flipping monkeys just yet.

However, even if you prefer science to monkeys, it's awfully frustrating that many of the health headlines we read end up being contradicted by other health headlines practically the next day. Following every twist and turn and making lifestyle changes accordingly can drive a person bonkers! (Seriously, I am that bonkers person. Ask the Lobster--it's not pretty).

And that's just the actual scientific research. For every peer-reviewed fitness or nutrition article out there, there are dozens of self-styled pseudo health experts telling you to clean your colon with coffee grounds or do 5000 push ups before breakfast or eat nothing but bee pollen, grapefruit and shiitake mushrooms to rebalance your broken metabolism. No wonder people are saying "the hell with it" and trying to figure out what works best on their own.

But Most People, If Left to Their Own Devices, Are Even More Clueless

If you take a look around at what the average Joe or Jane is eating and doing for physical activity, it makes both the scientists and the monkeys look pretty darn smart. I don't think even a monkey could sit still for four or five consecutive hours of "reality" TV, or contemplate eating a pizza the size of a beach umbrella followed by a quart of Ben and Jerry's. Yet that's what most folks, listening to their own intuition about what they're hungry for and what activities they're up for, end up doing.

As to the successful, healthy intuitive eaters? I suspect they didn't just wake up one day craving brussel sprouts instead of brownies. My guess is that the path to healthy eating involved at least some exposure to scientifically derived "good for you" and "bad for you" information. And also some effort, whether conscious or unconscious, to start hankering after the healthy stuff rather than the junk.

At Cranky Fitness, we tend to take the boring middle ground in most debates, because well, it's firmer and more comfy than the steep teetery controversial edges. So here are some special guidelines incorporating both schools of thought for you to read and ignore when constructing your own health and fitness plan.

The Cranky Fitness Informed-Intuitive Approach to Fitness and Nutrition.

A. How to Use Expert Advice

1. Be at Least Somewhat Aware of Scientific Consensus

Weirdly enough, there is actually a lot of agreement these days among health and nutrition experts about a lot of things. Do you really want to rely solely on intuition to determine if a food you're eating is going to give you cancer or diabetes in 20 years? Take advantage of all that research, you paid for it!

For example, experts seem to agree that getting lots of exercise and not sitting all day is Good for You. They also think refined grains, sugar, HFCS, transfats, processed meats, and excessive sodium are Bad for You. Foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, lean protein and even goodies like dark chocolate, green tea, red wine, avocados and coffee? These are good for you, hooray! (As to high-fat dairy, red meat and artificial sweeteners: sorry, slightly more controversy and contention there).

So if your intuition keeps telling you you need to eat a lot of Cheetos and Krispy-Kremes and Cherry Cokes and footlong chili-cheese dogs? You might want to tell your intuition to go f*ck off for a while until it has something sensible to say.

Sadly, there is a long way to go from the average American junk food diet to the point where one is debating whether raw whole milk from grassfed cows beats pasteurized nonfat, or whether you need to eat fish for Omega-3's or if you can get it from flax seed. So most people can skip worrying about the controversial stuff. Unless you're prepared to make a half-time job out of your health, you'll be doing better than 98% of the population if you just listen to the mainstream experts and heed their advice, however unhip these experts may seem.

2. Consider the Source

Sometimes you read some interesting health tidbit somewhere like "eat papaya every day it burns fat and fights cancer," or, "stop eating tropical fruit, it's got too much fructose and it's gonna give you metabolic syndrome." Well, it's human nature to store that information, no matter how questionable the source. Then you tend to forget where you heard it, and have a totally different reaction when you pass the big pyramid of papayas at the grocery store depending on which article you read.

Tip: don't even open junky non-reputable magazines offering health tips, because the crap you read in there will burn itself into your brain. And when your next door neighbor with the mail-order degree in natural healing starts telling you about the amazing supplement you can buy for only $99 a week that's going to give you more energy than Superman on steroids? Run away!

Where to get boring mainstream advice? Places like WebMd, or Mayo Clinic, or various disease groups like the Heart Association or government agencies like the ones that put out exercise guidelines or the food pyram.... oh wait. Never mind. The food pyramid people seem to have their heads up their asses.

3. Temper Advice With Moderation

Even expert, research-tested advice can be really stupid if you take it to an extreme and don't use common sense. For example, HCFS or transfats may not be good for you, but to freak out over an occasional processed cookie will cause more damage in stress than anything else. Very few substances, even the junky ones, are so toxic that you can't have them every once in a while. There's very little chance that ingesting a single package of Twinkies will cause you to dissolve instantly into a pile of chemically scorched molten mush. That hardly ever happens.

4. Be Prepared to Come Full Circle

I'm old enough to have worn bell-bottoms in the early seventies, and to watch them go from hip and happenin' to ugly and unfashionable and hideous. So then when they came back around again in the 90's and filled the store shelves so I had to buy them all over again? It just killed me!

Same thing happens in health research: old, out-of-fashion ideas come back around. For example, I am now pouring whole milk in my coffee (albeit the organic, grassfed, CLA-rich kind), after I totally trained myself to like nonfat. It tastes good but it seems so wrong! I'm prepared to switch back off it again if this whole CLA thing turns out to be a bunch of hooey. But I doubt my own intuition would have led me to embrace, reject, and then re-embrace dairy fat over and over.

B. How to Use Your Own Intuition

1. Slow the Heck Down and Pay Attention

"Intuition" doesn't mean habit, impulse, reflex, or half-assed, distracted, illogical thinking. It requires careful observation of your own body, how it reacts in different situations, and some monitoring of your own thought processes.

Sometimes it's hard to figure out whether you're really hungry or just bored; whether you're too tired from over-training to work out or just feeling lazy; or whether it's time to stop ignoring that funny lump and make a doctor's appointment. These decisions are even more difficult if you're on auto-pilot and not really paying attention.

So if you want to move away from diets and programs and rules and guidelines and doctor's orders? Then you have to step up and be present and accountable for your own well-being. There are some basic intuitive eating principles you can read about, and folks like Marsha over at A Weight Lifted or MizFit are big believers in intuitive health and fitness; check out their blogs for a sane, self-affirming approach to ditching diets and learning to personalize your own routine.

2. If You're Like Me: You May Have to Start With the Counter-Intuitive Approach

I follow a lot of the principles of intuitive eating, and intuitive exercise too. But totally by accident! I didn't arrive at the point where I actually enjoy and crave healthy foods and vigorous exercise by following my intuition. My intuition is pretty darned happy with cheeseburgers and cokes and brownies. Instead, I ignored my deep-felt preferences and inclinations and forced myself, over years and years, to try a lot of healthy, unappealing foods until I got used to most of them and even started to like them. And I made myself cut way back on yummy, delectable treats that I love, until I got out of the habit of expecting them very frequently. Exercise? Same thing. I sweated out a lot of classes and workouts that were sometimes no fun at all to get to the place where I've discovered enough fitness options I don't hate to keep me in reasonable shape.

However, if you naturally crave steamed vegetables and brown rice and getting up at 4 a.m. to work out, and you happen to despise warm cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven, crunchy nachos smothered in melted cheese, and lazing around reading the Sunday paper when you could be exercising, you may not need a Counterintuitive training period at all.

3. Don't Confuse Intuition with Wishful Thinking

This seems obvious in theory but is harder in practice. How many times have you heard someone express a self-serving, short-sighted, self-destructive impulse as a "gut feeling" that they just had to go with? "Sure, it may sound crazy to walk out on my job and my 20 year marriage and my darling kids to follow the hot Pilates instructor to Portugal to start an avant-garde theater troupe featuring trained parrots doing Shakespeare in exotic costumes, but I looked deep within and I just know, intuitively, that I'm doing exactly the right thing!"

4. Find Your Own Answers

Here's where the intuitive style and the scientific style can most complement one another. Learn to become your own lab rat! Because mainstream scientific advice often is about averages. And people are not statistics. Do you build more muscle mass using heavy weights and low repetitions, or light weights and high repetitions? Well, it doesn't matter what the scientists say if you've performed your own experiments and found out what works best for you. Can you skip breakfast with no ill effects? Does coffee keep you up at night? Do artificial sweeteners help you lose weight or cause you to put on pounds? Does chocolate give you migraines? Some questions don't require you to wait for the results of 20-year longitudinal studies of 200,000 randomly assigned research subjects. Pick something you're curious about, change it, and meanwhile don't mess with anything else for a few weeks, and then observe the results.

For example, in the course of dealing with my stupid plantar fasciitis, I found out that while interval training and long walks and strength training and stretching are all fine and dandy, my blood pressure only drops into a happy range when I'm doing 30-60 minutes of pretty heavy-duty cardio 5 or more days a week. Of course it took not being able to walk for more than ten minutes at a time to motivate me to stay on the elliptical that much, but whatever. Useful information! (And yes, I am finally seeing a PT for the PF and I'm hoping to God to see some improvement soon or I'm going to shoot somebody.)

5. Know When Your Intuition Tends to be Horseshit

Some mistakes that are so psychologically compelling, we just keep making them over and over because they feel so right at the time.

For some, it's the fantasy that "I'll just have one...[potato chip, tequila shot, week off from the gym]." If you are a person who can just have one, or a few, but get back on track? No worries! If you can't, your intuition may be screwing with you. If it does so over and over, it may be time to replace intuition with actual, you know, rules.

Another common "intuitive" error? Thinking that a short-term feeling of virtue is so important it's worth risking long-term health. This can lead to fad diets, weird cleansing rituals, or exercising too much while injured--which I suspect is the reason for the never-ending plantar fasciitis I was talking about. (Of course the most hilarious expert in over-training issues is Charlotte at The Great Fitness Experiment. Since all of you are fans already, and probably haven't been offline nearly as much as I have over the summer, I probably don't need to tell you she's back blogging again and has a new fitness book coming out soon! And another blogger inspiring me to pay attention to my foot issues and stop overdoing it is the always amusing Cranky co-blogger Merry, who is over at Sheesh dealing with frustrating foot issues of her own.)

So how about you guys? Do you take an intuitive approach, follow an expert, read the studies, or have other methods for deciding how to get fit and healthy and stay that way?