The Tao of Paleo: Finding Your Path to Health and Harmony


“Everybody, bust a move.” ~ MC Hammer

JG: (doing the cabbage patch while rapping) Just bust a move!

JS: Stop that. Please. Right now. For the love of God.

JG: OK, OK! Enough with the drama, it’s not like I just force fed you a Big Mac.

JS: I busted out the Hammer quote because this chapter is all about an important part of the paleo lifestyle - exercise and movement.

JG: You know, I saw what you did there. I’m not sure I like it, but I saw it.

JS: It’s called subtlety Jason. You should try it sometime.

JG: You’re subtle like a brick. You’re absolutely right though, Joe. Although the most important part of getting healthy is getting your diet nice and paleoized, it’s also vital for optimum health that you move and exercise in the proper way as well.

JS: Yup.

JG: Exercise is the cummerbund on the paleo tuxedo.

JS: Oh boy. That may be the worst metaphor ever. Like really ever.

JG: Would you prefer I said the bow tie? You know, GQ says the bow tie and cummerbund are supposed to match.

JS: I’d prefer you stop screwing around, Mr. Versace, and start talking about exercise.

JG: OK. By the way, I’ve got someone at the door who’d like to sit in on this chapter and ask us some questions along the way.

JS: What door? This is a book. We are just two-dimensional words on the page, didn’t you mention that before?

JG: It’s a metaphorical door. If you don’t have an imagination, try to rent one. I think they have them at Home Depot in the back with the power tools, available by the hour or by the day.

JS: -_- What-ev.

JG: Anyway, I’d like introduce everyone to Mr. Claudio

Cardiovasquez. Welcome, Claudio!

CC: Hello, Buenos Dias, Obrigado, Ohayo Gozaimasu, Ni Hao, and Bonjour, everyone.

JS: You’re pretty linguistically ambiguous, you know that, Claudio?

CC: Well, you know, I run all over the world, so I must learn many languages. Also, since I am a construct of your imaginations, my ambiguous nature prevents you both from catching any flak for stereotyping.

JS: That’s very helpful.

CC: Gracias, Merci, Takk Fyrir, Shukran, Danke, and Beva Kasha.

JS: It would also be very helpful if you would stop that and stick to English.

CC: No problemo.

JG: So let’s start by touching on cardiovascular exercise. First, let’s define our terms. When we talk about cardio we mean a relatively steady-state exercise session designed to raise your heart rate into a specific beats-per-minute zone, based on age and fitness, and then keep it there for a period of time, generally exceeding fifteen minutes.

In our culture it seems that there’s a mystical attachment to steady-state cardiovascular activity, be it running, spinning, hitting the stair climber, zumba, or cardio kickboxing classes, et cetera.

JS: I call it “The Cult of Cardio.”

JG: I wish you hadn’t, but ok. Anyway…we, as a society, seem to believe that cardio is the cure to all physical ills. Conventional wisdom says that not only does it help you control weight, but it lowers blood pressure, reduces the risk of heart disease, and helps to cope with stress. “Reputable” medical organizations and associations even go so far as to officially recommend at least three days per week of an hour of cardiovascular exercise.

CC: Oh yes. I agree with all that.

JG: Somehow I figured you would. Along with our beliefs about cardio, we seem to have pigeonholed other types of exercise as unproductive or even harmful. Lifting heavy weights, for example, is for bodybuilders and steroid-slurping jocks.

JS: You were doing so well, and then you had to slip one in there. Steriod-slurping?

JG: I like alliteration. Sue me. Anyway, according to belief, lifting heavy weights makes you bulky, reduces your flexibility, and makes you speak with an unintelligible Austrian accent.

JS: I’ll be back.

JG: I have to admit. That was pretty good.

JS: I live in California, we had to listen to him talk for years.

JG: Good point. So, another set of stigmas has been attached to walking. Apparently, walking is inferior as a means of effective exercise - you only walk if you are too old, overweight, out of shape, or injured to run.

CC: Yes, this is true. The walking, she is useless.

JS: There are no masculine and feminine nouns in English, Claudio.

JG: Stop it, you two. I want to talk about one more important method of exercise and how we view it. It has a number of names but amongst the most common is High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT for short. These exercise sequences are also known as metcons, or metabolic conditioning. Typically, HIIT involves a circuit of different movements, usually anaerobic, performed in quick succession with little or no rest in between, over a fixed period of time.

JS: Think something like twenty minutes spent performing alternating sets of pushups, pull-ups, jumping jacks, burpees, lunges, and crunches, separated by quick two-minute runs or jump rope sessions, for example.

JG: Exactly. These days, the exercise community has enthusiastically embraced HIIT training, sometimes to the extent that you’re supposed to do it until you collapse and throw up. Seven days a week.

Look at the massive proliferation of Crossfit boxes and boot camps dedicated to the proposition that the best way to get fit is to grind yourself into the ground with hours and hours of metcons.

JS: Preferably with someone dressed like Louis Gossett, Jr. from An Officer and a Gentleman, screaming obscenities at you all the while.

JG: So there you have it - the present-day exercise paradigm: hours of steady-state cardio good, heavy weightlifting bad, walking useless, and HIIT training healthy, especially if you do it till you puke. Sound about right, Claudio?

CC: Si. I mean, ja. Sorry. I mean, yes.

JG: The problem is that this paradigm isn’t especially healthy. In fact, it can be unhealthy.

JS: Yep.

JG: To start, steady-state cardio, particularly in the form of distance running, can be quite harmful to humans.

CC: How can this be?!? Impossible!

JG: Claudio, let’s start at the beginning. First, when you do long distance running, you are putting continuous repetitive stresses on your joints, dramatically increasing the chance of injury.

Second, we’ve examined numerous scientific studies, beginning with a very thorough 1980 experiment performed in Scandinavian countries. The best science indicates that long-distance running also increases levels of cortisol, a stress- reactive hormone, far more than sprinting, walking or lifting heavy weights. Our bodies react to long distance running in part by secreting cortisol. High cortisol levels can cause the body to retain fat around the midsection while burning lean muscle tissue - a process known as muscular catabolism.

JS: If you look at habitual long distance runners who aren’t super-careful with their nutrition, and who forego sufficient weight training, they often retain a ring of unattractive fat around their bellies and are otherwise emaciated in appearance.

JG: Yep. Joe and I were both there, and it’s not pretty. Of course, losing lean muscle makes burning fat harder, because lean muscle mass increases your metabolism, so it’s doubly destructive. We’ll address that later when we talk about the importance of lifting heavy weights, but let’s stick with running and cardio for now.

JS: In men long distance running can lower testosterone as well. A recent University of British Columbia study indicated that men who run more than 40 miles per week had substantially lower testosterone levels than men who ran shorter distances or sprinted.

JG: Low testosterone is an ugly deal. It can cause nasty symptoms, including loss of sex drive, depression, and a suppressed immune system.

JS: Low testosterone is just the opposite of paleo.

JG: True.

CC: (flabbergasted) So all this running I’ve done - all the miles I’ve covered - all this is BAD for me?

JS: Let’s just say you can make better choices.

CC: Like what?

JG: Like sprinting. It’s just about the best way to burn fat there is. An important 1994 study entitled showed that participants who sprinted over a 15-week sample period burned NINE TIMES as much fat as those who did aerobic exercise for 20 weeks. Moreover, the sprinters burned less than half the calories of those that did cardio.

CC: How does THAT happen?

JS: It appears that sprinting produces a robust hormonal response that increases fat burning long after the workout is completed. This kind of post-workout metabolic boost doesn’t happen after cardio. You don’t necessarily have to all-out sprint, either. The key is short intervals of high effort, followed by longer periods of lesser effort or rest. Even 80% effort sprints appear to work perfectly well.

CC: How can running be bad for me? After all, I feel so good when I go on a long run. What about the runner’s high?

JG: That runner’s high is caused by your body producing endorphins, an amino chain manufactured in the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus. Endorphins act much like opiates - they mask pain and exhaustion and give you a feeling of well being and euphoria. Many scientists believe that the evolutionary purpose of endorphin production is to allow us to survive by encouraging us to keep moving, either after food or while fleeing from a threat, despite the damage we are doing to our bodies.

JS: Also, endorphin production tends to coincide with the point where our bodies run out of glycogen - the starchy sugar we store in our bodies to fuel movement and exercise - and start burning muscle tissue for fuel. Catabolism again.

JG: In the modern world, there’s no real reason to exercise to the point where you’re damaging your body. Why would you need to, unless you’re Joe running from his ex mother-in-law?

JS: Yikes. By the way, Claudio, opiates are drugs, and it’s definitely a mixed bag to seek out the production of chemicals to which you may easily become addicted.

CC: Well, you might talk me into sprinting instead of running, but there’s no way I’m going to lift heavy weights. I don’t want to look like some kind of gorilla in spandex.

JG: The very concept of you in spandex sickens me in a way I cannot accurately describe.

JS: Ditto. The fact is, Claudio, that you probably won’t get bulky from lifting heavy weights, but what you WILL do is burn fat and get lean.

CC: How can that possibly be true? The only way to lose fat is cardio! Lots of cardio!

JG: Well, while it’s true that cardio can burn calories, it doesn’t do a very good job of burning fat. Do you remember the chapter on food where we talked about insulin?

CC: Of course not. I just got here. I was going for a run when you guys were in that chapter.

JG: Okay, we will review. I apologize in advance for getting a bit sciencey. I’ll make it as simple as I can.

CC: I love science. That’s why I do cardio.

JG: Whatever. One of the most important elements of the body’s endocrine system is a hormone called insulin. One of the primary jobs of insulin is to regulate the amount of glucose in the bloodstream, because there’s a pretty narrow range of blood glucose level that doesn’t result in you keeling over dead. When you eat, the food you consume is digested and then converted to glucose and in turn, the pancreas produces insulin to regulate that glucose. The insulin delivers the glucose to receptors on the cells in your body and feeds it to them as necessary. It takes the excess glucose to the liver, where it is converted to triglycerides and stored as fat. We talked before about insulin resistance and how it leads to fat retention.

CC: My head is spinning.

JS: Must be too much cardio. Anyway, let’s get to heavy weightlifting and why it is such a tremendous fat burner.

JG: Sure. Basically, the muscle fibers in our bodies are divided into four types. Some of them, the slow-twitch fibers, are designed to provide relatively small amounts of force over a long period of time. Cardio is one of the types of exercise that uses, or recruits, these slow-twitch fibers.

CC: I often twitch very slowly while running.

JG: Yeah, that’s probably the result of brain damage, though.

CC: Huh?

JG: Exactly.

JS: When you lift heavy weights, though, you are using the fast- twitch fibers, which are designed for high levels of force over a short duration. The great part is, though, that you’re actually using both the slow-twitch AND the fast-twitch fibers to accomplish the task through a process that scientists call orderly recruitment. Remember that cardio only recruits the slow-twitch fibers.

JG: Exactly, Joe. Now, the neat thing is that when you exercise BOTH types of muscle fibers, you make them ALL more insulin- sensitive. That means that when the insulin comes ‘round the old bloodstream, carrying the glucose feed bag and ringing the dinner bell, your muscle cells come running and wolf down the glucose like Snooki pounding appletinis at an open bar.

JS: Great Snooki reference. I forgot you’re from Jersey.

JG: I represent. As a result, your muscles grow and there’s less excess glucose for the insulin to take to the liver for conversion to fat.

JS: Technically, the existing muscles become more insulin- sensitive as they contract during heavy weightlifting and ALSO heavy weightlifting increases the density of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are themselves very dense in insulin receptors, so you’re benefiting in two ways, fat burning-wise. Even better, your insulin sensitivity persists for up to twenty-four hours after a heavy weight lifting session, just like sprinting, due to your body’s hormonal response.

JG: Precisely. The upshot of all this is, if you want to burn fat, lift heavy weights - 80% and above of your maximum effort, in sets of low repetitions, with a bias toward the big lifts: squats, cleans, lunges, presses, and deadlifts. The low repetition point is especially important, because you don’t want to break good form due to fatigue. It goes without saying that using strict form protects you from injuring yourself with these heavy weights. It will take time to develop the form to do this type of lifting safely. You may need to hire a professional to help you. Even if you do, it’s a worthwhile investment.

JS: As a side benefit, lifting heavy weights helps build bone density, which fights osteoporosis, making this kind of training a great option for older people of both sexes. Keep in mind that “heavy weights” is a relative term. If you are a senior citizen you can still benefit from this type of exercise.

JG: Of course, there are aesthetic benefits. For many years, I was afflicted with a terrible disease.

JS: Do tell.

JG: Yes. A massive deficiency of the most critical nature.

JS: You mean…

JG: Yep. Underdeveloped gluteus maximus. Chronic noassatol disease.

JS: The horror! The horror!

JG: All it took was clean paleo eating and some squats and lunges, and… (turning around and booty-shaking) Take a look! Complete remission!

JS: OMG please point that thing somewhere else. This is book is a no-twerk zone.

JG: Pearls before swine.

JS: Whatev.

JG: I’d also like to mention flexibility at this point.

CC: I’m incredibly flexible. I can touch the tip of my nose with my tongue. See?

JS: Wow. That tongue is just nasty.

JG: As ummm…impressive as that may be, Claudio, that’s not the kind of flexibility I’m referring to. I mean the type of flexibility that allows you to exercise effectively without subjecting yourself to possible injury.

CC: Darn. Well, before I go running, I always do a long stretch session. I reach down and touch my toes, I do the hurdler’s stretch, I do trunk twists. I do deep knee bends.

JS: Interestingly enough, Claudio, there’s quite a bit of research out there that is changing the thinking about stretching. Static stretching prior to exercise, especially before lifting heavy weights, may not be a good idea. Although the muscles lengthen as a result of static stretching, this type of pre-exercise routine can reduce the muscles’ ability to move heavy weights. We recommend dynamic stretching prior to weightlifting sessions - a good start is to perform the movement you will do weighted without the weights at first as a warm-up.

After the workout is when static stretching appears to be most beneficial, to avoid excessive soreness.

All that being said, I suspect that’s still not what Jason means when he talks about flexibility and moving serious weights around.

JG: If you’re going to lift heavy weights, or do any kind of exercise, really, it’s important that you build and retain proper flexibility, especially in your ankles, hips, and back. The amount of sitting we do in the modern world - in our cars, at our desks, in front of the TV, whatever - directly compromises the flexibility of these important joints.

JS: Unfortunately things like long-distance running have the same effect.

JG: If you don’t have the proper ankle and hip flexibility, it’s impossible for you to perform a proper squat, lunge, or other whole-body, paleo-style exercise with good form. You will end up using secondary muscles and joints and eventually, you will injure yourself.

CC: I’m flexible! My hips and my ankles are like rubber bands. Just test me!

JG: OK, Claudio. Set your feet apart about two fist widths and point them straight ahead in line with your hips.

CC: Here you go.

JG: Now, without letting your heels come off the ground, drop into a squat without rounding your back. Make sure your butt drops below the level of your knees.

CC: !&%*@!

JG: Yikes. I see you fell over, and that had to hurt.

CC: Ouuuchey!! Ouuuchey!

JS: Time to call the whaaaaambulance.

CC: Can you give me a hand here?

JS: Sure! (applauding) Bravo! Bravissimo!!

JG: The point is, Claudio, is that many people are unable to perform this simple test of range of motion for the ankle joint, which means they can’t do a squat correctly in the gym. Maybe they can push weights around by pointing their feet outward excessively, as a cheat. Maybe their knees collapse inward. Most flaws in form are adaptations for lack of flexibility and will eventually cause injury.

CC: OK, so in the flexibility department, I am, how do you say…not so good?

JG: Not so good.

JS: Claudio, we recommend that you and our readers get some kind of joint flexibility program built into your routine. This is important for everyone but it’s especially critical for those who find that they have significantly reduced range of motion. Mobility/Flexibility training only takes a few minutes a day, but it will build a safe foundation for proper exercise.

JG: There are a number of great sources out there to help you learn how to address these issues, but Joe and I are particularly impressed with Dr. Kelly Starrett. His recent book, ,is a paleo home run. He can help you regain critical flexibility and train yourself to maintain good, healthy spine positions at all times, even during rigorous exercise.

JS: Dr. Starrett is the bomb-diggity.

JG: Bomb-Diggity? You’re like a teenage boy, you know that? You have tickets for the Justin Bieber concert next week?

JS: Such an Awesome Display of Pure Manliness. They should put him on the cover of GQ. Love the Beebmeister.

JG: I’ll bet you do.

JS: Let’s pivot back to lifting heavy things, and why it’s so important that we do it.

JG: Roger dodger.

CC: But what about the bulk? I want to preserve my slim figure, and surely the ladies don’t want big manly muscles.

JS: Claudio, very few people are genetically capable of building big bulky muscles, and an even smaller subset of that group is women, who lack the testosterone to add serious bulk. Male bodybuilders go to incredible dietary efforts to add mass and lift weights in a very different way than we suggest.

JG: A paleo program of weightlifting won’t make you bulky. It will equip you with lean, aesthetically pleasing muscle, and that muscle is going to act like a fat-burning suit of armor.

JS: Word.

CC: OK, you guys, you may have convinced me to sprint. You may have talked me into lifting weights. But there’s no way you’re going to talk me into walking. It’s slow. It’s boring! Blech! Walking! I don’t even walk if I want to get somewhere. Why would I ever want to walk?

JG: Let’s start with the reduction in risk of heart attack and coronary disease. Within the last few months, there was an excellent paper published in .The paper cited data from the landmark Runners and Walkers study. Runners who ran over the sample period reduced the risk of heart and circulatory related illness by 4.5%.

CC: Ha! I told you running was healthy! In your faces, you anti- cardio cretins!

JS: …but walkers who expended the same amount of energy reduced the risk of the same conditions by 9%.

JG: Booyah. Looks like you got served Claudio.

JS: The benefits for people struggling with high blood sugar levels or who are overweight, or both, are huge. The 2001 Diabetes Prevention Program study showed that overweight people who walked 30 minutes five times per week lost an average of 16 pounds in a year despite making only minor dietary changes. And a 2003 University of Pittsburgh study demonstrated that participants with high blood sugar who undertook the same walking regimen cut their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by half.

JG: Let’s also consider the mental side of the equation. We’ve already discussed how running long distances increases cortisol levels due to stress. A long, slow walk does just the opposite - it’s relaxing and promotes serenity and peace. A nice amble through the neighborhood perhaps, listening to classical music on your headphones, is a great restorative.

JS: Of course, when Jason says classical music, he means Britney Spears.

JG: (singing) OOO! Hit me baby one more time…

JS: That’s not a bad idea.

CC: I’m totally stunned here. Running is bad. Sprinting, lifting heavy weights, and walking are good. And Jason is the worst singer I’ve ever heard.

JS: You’re much smarter than I originally gave you credit for, Claudio.

JG: I’ll just ignore you two haters and move on to the last topic: High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT. In moderation, HIIT is an excellent piece of the paleo exercise puzzle, but be careful. Too much HIIT can cause catastrophic problems.

CC: You mean like a meteor hitting the earth, resulting in an instantaneous drop in global temperature and the extinction of the human race?

JS: Oh, boy.

JG: Ah, not so much with the meteor, Claudio, but excessive HIIT training can cause similar problems to long distance running. Although in moderation, HIIT can be a great conditioning tool and fat burner, too many sessions without proper recovery, or sessions that last too long, result in the same stress sequence we discussed earlier: Excessive cortisol, conservation of abdominal fat, and catabolism of the muscle tissue. It can also create hormonal imbalances that result in fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and anxiety.

Some scientists have even proposed the existence of a condition known as adrenal fatigue, a series of systemic hormonal problems brought on by excessive stress (physical, mental, or both) that can have devastating health consequences. Too much of a good thing in the form of excessive HIIT training is said to increase the risk of adrenal fatigue.

JS: This is why we are leery of some Crossfit gyms, boot camps, or other similar programs. Although many of these places prescribe sensible, moderate, HIIT workouts, others push their clients to do five or more HIIT sessions per week, or extend the sessions too long.

JG: Some of the most respected paleo trainers we know, for example, Jason Seib and Sara Fragoso of and EPLifefit, recommend HIIT sessions of less than twenty minutes of duration, if you are going to do them at all. Speaking for the two of us, Joe and I find that one HIIT session a week is optimal.

Used properly, HIIT will definitely burn fat and it will condition you for cardiovascular effort without actually having to do excessive steady state cardio. Periodically, I will do a distance race or a mud race for fun and as a bonding exercise with some friends, and reasonable HIIT training allows me to run significant distances with relative ease.

We recommend that you listen to your own body, but please, err on the side of caution with HIIT training. Also, if you’re doing HIIT, you’re going to need to bias your diet a little more toward starchy carbs like sweet potatoes, taro root, parsnips, butternut squash, or turnips. If you try to eat an excessively low-carb diet while performing HIIT training, it’s likely you’ll bonk – you will run out of energy during the session. You also stand an excellent chance of a hormonal imbalance that will challenge your ability to burn fat and build and maintain muscle.

JS: You have your own little HIIT horror story, don’t you, Jason?

JG: I certainly do. I was an early devotee of the Crossfit program when it was just a web-based, solo workout of the day. This was long before the advent of Crossfit boxes and group classes. Some friends of mine told me about this workout method used by elite athletes, members of special forces teams, and law enforcement personnel. The unofficial mascot of this program was a vomiting clown nicknamed Mr. Pukey. Of course, I was hooked.

JS: Sounds fabulous.

JG: For about two years, along with my running, I was cranking out four or five Crossfit workouts of the day - “WODs” in Crossfit-ese - per week. Once a week I would do the infamous Murph WOD, which included hundreds of reps of pushups, pull-ups, and squats, sandwiched between one-mile runs.

JS: How long would that take you?

JG: An hour, or more. I’d get home and I’d lie on my living room rug, sick to my stomach and exhausted.

JS: Just delightful.

JG: Like many people addicted to the gym, I just figured that was the hallmark of a successful workout and the best way to look good and be healthy.

CC: Sounds absolutely reasonable to me.

JG: The problem is, it didn’t work. I was exhausted all the time and I slept really badly. I was constantly sore. I had to literally force myself to work out. I didn’t look particularly healthy either. My face was pinched and drawn. I had a layer of fat around my waist and although I had definition elsewhere I was starting to look emaciated. I didn’t understand what was going on. I just figured I needed to train harder. On top of all that, I was fueling these insane workouts with a diet heavy in grains and low in fat with modest amounts of protein. It was all a recipe for failure.

JS: What does your exercise program look like now?

JG: What do you mean “program”? Should I use one? Like Wii Fit or something?

JS: No, Jason. What does your exercise schedule look like now?

JG: Oh. Why didn’t you just ask me that?

JS: I just…ok, never mind. Remind me to edit that out later. Both of us typically do one to two sprint sessions a week, of four to fifteen minutes duration. We lift heavy weights for about half an hour to an hour and a half once a week. It takes that long only because we are careful to rest properly between sets. Jason adds a HIIT session a week, but it’s no longer than twenty minutes. We both take long, leisurely walks whenever we have time. We do short periods of flexibility work a few times a week, too.

JG: And that’s it. If I’m tired and don’t get enough sleep, or if I don’t feel well, I don’t try to suck it up, and work out anyway. I take a walk and just do my workout when I feel better. The results have been profound, for both of us.

JS: Exactly. Jason and I both feel great. We’re flexible and strong. We don’t carry around much body fat and we’re layered with lean, healthy muscle. Most importantly although our workouts are rigorous, they leave us feeling energetic and happy, not weak and exhausted.

CC: I have to agree, you guys look like a million bucks. I figured you both run a hundred miles a week at least.

JG: I’d rather slow-dance with a warthog Claudio.

JS: So there it is in a nutshell - instead of the old paradigms that didn’t work for us (and may not be working for you either) we offer you the kind of paleo program that helped make us average Joes…well, what would you call it Jason?

JG: Ummm…above average?

JS: And you say I have no imagination.

JG: Average-plus? Average with a twist of lime?

JS: Yeah, I’m done with you. Folks, just give it a try.

CC: And go for a long run every day. Cardio forever! Yeah baby!!

JG: Can you go to jail for murdering an imaginary character you created?

JS: I don’t know, but let’s find out. Claudio, now would be a good time to start running. I’m thinking about starting my workout with a few rounds of Cardiovasquez cleans.

CC:Run away!! Run away!!!

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