What follows is a 45 minute talk I gave to a women’s business networking group some months ago. It was written for me to memorize the broad strokes and not for publication to wider audiences, but I chose to share it here to help get our average word count on the blog back up. (Jokes.) Please enjoy it, all of it, even the campy parts.
Good afternoon. I want to thank you all for having me come chat with you today about health and fitness. It really is great for the both of us because I get to do something that I enjoy doing and like to practice – that is speaking to you all – and you will hopefully learn a thing or two from me about how to think differently about eating and movement.
My name is Grant Scalf and I own CrossFit Ktown. Ktown opened its doors back in May of 2009. We have steadily grown from 10 members to just under 200 6 years later. How many of you have heard of CrossFit before? How many of you have done CF at some point previously? How many of you still do CF somewhere? Excellent.
And so I stumbled upon CrossFit as a methodology back in 2007 while I was studying exercise physiology at the University of Tennessee and personally training at an area gym. I had one of those existential feelings about it – I felt like I glimpsed the truth. Never before had I seen a community so concerned with proper technique and encouraged open and vigorous debate on the topic. And I am not talking about technique of really specialized movements – which of course was there as well. I am talking about the technique of doing simple things like standing, running, bending over to pick something up off the ground. And that really resonated with me. It was this idea of giving people the right information and then they would make better decisions. So I ran with it, and I am continuing to run with it today.
But I don’t want to talk to you just about CrossFit, instead I want to talk about a much more important phenomenon: and that is being more human. Be. More. Human. How silly does that sound? It sounds like some sort of weird tagline to a movie or product. But it really rings true in a lot of the thoughts and ideas that I deal with on a daily basis. Being more human to me means bringing more consciousness to everything we do. And so I am going to try to convince you that you need to bring more consciousness to your eating, drinking, sleeping, and moving.
So a quick note on the brain, cognition, and locomotion. Scientists say that the only reason we evolved a brain is to locomote or move around our environment. Cognition came later. At first we just needed to know how to move around in search of food and procreation, right? Much later down the line did we come up with this idea of the self. But what’s interesting is this: cognition and locomotion are still so intricately linked! Researchers have shown that children with cognitive disabilities perform better with movement practices – even simple stuff like having the kids jump up and down before taking a test.
My PhD girlfriend is way smarter than me. She has her doctorate in developmental psychology and works with a lot of children on a daily basis with myriad development problems and cognitive disabilities. One of my favorite topics to discuss with her is what movement does for their brain. The therapists get so much mileage out of getting the kids to move around. It blows my mind just how important movement is for human development!
What do a lot of us do when we have to take an important call? We get up and walk around the room while we are on the phone. This is because decision making and response times are sharper and faster if we are on our feet moving. Why do so many people experience flow states or “runner’s highs” while moving quickly through an environment? It is because the brain releases copious amounts of epinephrine and dopamine while we are in these “flow states” of moving quickly and making fast-paced decisions. A lot of people yearn for that so called runner’s high. And I would argue that they want it so bad because that is the time that they feel the most human.
So I hope that I have convinced you all that it is impossible to separate cognition and moving. Our brains perform better if we have a movement practice like yoga, CF, or parkour. They also perform better while we are moving. And this is true for the children with developmental issues just like it is for you and me. We don’t stop developing, neither physically nor mentally. I would daresay that is why a lot of you are in a group like this – to continue to develop both professionally and personally.
So I always like to get a feel for what exactly people do for exercise. How many of you run or jog for your main source of exercise? Yoga? Pilates? CrossFit? Walk? So I hope that I can relate a lot of these ideas and principles today back to you all in some way.
Now what’s neat about all of these movement practices is that, at the most basic level, human movement is really all the same. You can have the extremes of watching a kid play on the playground – or freestyle is what I like to call it – and you have the other end of the spectrum of an Olympic gymnast performing a floor or ring routine. One is HIGHLY specialized while the other is play in the purest sense of the word. But what they both have in common are these basic archetypal shapes – putting arms overhead or behind the body, extending the knee and hip, bending, folding, etc.
And so there is all of this overlap between different movement disciplines. And we are at a point in time where collaboration is so easy. The internet democratizes information for everyone. The yogis are learning what the CFers are doing, the CFers are learning what the powerlifters are doing, and the powerlifters might be learning what the pilates people are doing. And if these people aren’t sharing and collaborating, they are eventually falling behind and insulating themselves from new ideas. Same with you all, right?
You have to be willing to have those conversations, even if they are just with yourself. Looking at your problem or problems through someone else’s eyes. Someone else may have already solved your movement problem. And that is what I am constantly trying to doing. There is no one in the world from which I cannot learn something, right? That should be all of our mottos.
We should be reading widely. That is what happened with this whole Paleo Diet movement. Anthropologists had known for a while that humans didn’t really cultivate grain until 10,000 years ago. They knew that they moved in small tribes as hunter gatherers eating mostly meats, nuts and seeds, tubers and roots, and some fruit or vegetable depending on what latitudes they were at. And now look, we have this entirely new model from which to apply dietary advice. And it has SWEPT through the American consciousness. How many of you know or have heard about a Paleo Diet? Did you know that the FDA has FINALLY dropped dietary cholesterol out of their “worry” list? After nearly a decade of the Paleo community touting the benefits of a diet with plenty of fat in it, the slow-acting government agencies in charge have come around to the fact that dietary cholesterol does not lead to heart disease – this after a nearly 40 year opposite position and warning Americans to stay away from fat.
And so this is a good place to spend a minute or two on diet and consciousness. All of us should be bringing more consciousness to what we eat, how we eat, and with whom we are eating. So what should we be eating? I think that is the easiest part of the equation. Eat foods that make you feel good, foods that truly make you feel well after the meal. I had Chic-fil-a a couple of weeks back, and I can tell you that I felt great while I was eating it. The saltiness of it was very satiating. But immediately and for many hours after the meal, I did not feel well. I felt full, no doubt. But I could tell that it was food that my body did not like, and I was going to pay for it in the hours to come and my performance in the gym the next day.
Food that makes you feel well, what is that? I would argue that for probably all of us it is some sort of meats and vegetables, some nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. It really is that simple. All of that is real food, for one. For two, all of that fits in to this Paleo paradigm – although I really have a hard time using the term Paleo nowadays because it means so many different things to so many different people. But it’s real food.
Meats and vegetables. This is probably something you can have at every meal, right? Some hunk of protein whether it be beef, chicken, fish, organ meat, whatever you want. Vegetables: eat widely from them – just like the idea of reading widely. Eat roots and tubers, eat from all colors, eat them raw, steamed, broiled, and any other way you want to prepare them. There are literally thousands of ways to prepare and eat vegetables, get creative.
Nuts and seeds. It can be easy for people to go overboard here. The minimum effective dose for nuts and seeds is pretty low. That is, you don’t have to eat a lot to get the required calories. They are a dense food group. A handful of nuts can deliver a bunch of calories to you. So don’t go overboard with them. Don’t snack on them all day long. Be smarter than your meal.
Some fruit, little starch. This one is interesting. Fruits and starches are the foods that I will dial up or down depending on the person’s activity level. If they are running 40 miles a week, we may backload with some starchy foods like sweet potatoes or yams. If they are just doing yoga or something that may not burn quite as many calories in the form of glycogen, we may titrate that down a good bit. If the person wants to lean out, then we are really watching the amount of carbohydrates they are putting in their body. I want them to shift their metabolic engine over to burning fat, so I need them to be getting most of their energy from fat. Adding a whole bunch of sugars to the mix can really mess that up.
And finally, sugar. It is not only admirable to keep added sugar out of your diet, it is almost a requirement in today’s eating climate. Everything has sugar in it nowadays. Your toothpaste has artificial sweetener in it for crying out loud!!! How crazy is that? By forcing our kids to make healthy brushing habits, we are at the same time ensuring they are addicted to sugar. So I say take it out of the diet completely. There is no place in there for sugar or sugar products. Americans consume upwards of 140lbs of sugar per year. That is almost my bodyweight in pure, white, granulated sugar crystals. You are eating me in sugar form every year. That is mind blowing. If you do nothing else, cut the sugar out of your diet for 30 days and see what happens. It won’t be easy. One, it’s everywhere. Two, it’s more addictive than heroin – several papers in the nutrition and brain biochemistry fields have proven it. It is a hard drug to stop abusing. But it is so very rewarding if you do.
That is my real quick and dirty on food. Really, I just want you to bring more consciousness to your eating. What are you eating? How does it make you feel? Is this what a human being should eat? (Did you know that Kraft cheese singles don’t melt in the microwave? Don’t eat that stuff.) Think about what you are eating. Be more human.
And now I want to talk about movement. This is my first love. I love human movement. I have this gift and curse that I see movement inefficiencies everywhere I look. I was in the Apple store last week buying a case for my phone, which by the way how crazy expensive are simple phone cases!? And everywhere I looked I saw people with their shoulders rounded forward, heads tilted forward and down, all just texting or typing away. That isn’t human at all. Which isn’t to say we can’t text and type, we just need to be conscious of the positions we are in while we are doing these things.
How many of you experience some sort of pain throughout the day whether it be feet, knees, back, hands or anywhere else? Ok, that’s a lot of you, so let’s change that up. How many of you go throughout your day completely pain free? Ok. So pain is a sign of biomechanical compromise. And it is a lagging indicator meaning you’ve already done something wrong. There is no pre-pain warning letting you know something is about to go wrong, it always comes after the fact.
And what do we do about our pain? I know from experience that a lot of us go to see our family physician. The person we entrust with our health when we are very sick, we are also going to for elbow tendonitis or pain in our knee cap. And we are wasting their time. That isn’t to say that these issues aren’t important – they are, as I will highlight in a moment. But there are far more many people out there with more serious issues that need to be prioritized. And beyond that, we are humans. We should have some knowledge on how to fix ourselves. We should know how to make some basic assumptions about our pain and begin dealing with it. We need to be more human.
The human body is a masterpiece of design. I like comparing it to the iPhone. We are on the iPhone 6 – so the 6th version of this tool. Do you know what version of the human body we are on? Neither do I, but it’s had hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of years of tweaks and testing and design shifts. It is the most amazing product that you use every day. But just like your iPhone, you don’t need to know exactly how it works. For your iPhone, you need to know how to turn it on, turn it off, perform a few necessary functions, and that’s it. Same with your body. Know the basics, and know them well. Know how to turn it on, turn it off, perform some routine maintenance, and then you can forget about all the rest.
Going back to cognition and locomotion. The brain is the very best software we have, and that software is run by the fastest and most powerful super computer on earth. The body is the best hardware in existence. It is self-healing and robust hardware designed to last 100+ years. Put these two things together and you have a beautiful machine. But this beautiful machine needs to learn and constantly refine itself. And this is where a movement practice comes in.
That movement practice can look like CF, yoga, pilates, running and jumping, whatever it is! But it needs to be that: a practice. It needs to be something that challenges you both mentally and physically. One without the other and you are only working on one part of that beautiful machine. The movement practice also needs to be efficient. You are incredibly busy. We are constantly trying to fit more and more in to our daily lives. But prioritize yourself for 1 hour a day by having a movement practice, and then be as efficient as possible with that 1 hour of your day.
Enlist the services of a teach/coach. Somewhere along the line we thought we didn’t need a coach anymore. A movement coach. We all had a coach back in middle or high school, but what we don’t realize is we still need a coach. We still need to be perfecting everyday movements. It may no longer be gamified through points and competition, but we still need someone to teach us the right way to pick something up, to run, to jump and land.
Now, this movement practice needs to be challenging, as I’ve said. But what does that mean? Almost anything can be challenging if you do enough repetitions, right? If I had to move a box of cereal from the floor to a shelf overhead once, it will be easy, but if I have to move it 10,000 times in one day, it will be challenging. So you need to seek out a movement practice that challenges you safely and effectively.
You need to be put under some load. You probably need to gain some strength. The most important thing we can do for our bodies as we age is take as much strength as we can in to our later years. Sarcopenia – or the loss of strength beginning around age 60 – affects us all. We can stave off that loss by strength training, and we can also start with a higher strength bank account by having more strength capital lying around going in to those later years of forced withdrawals.
You need to be positionally challenged. That means you need to learn to get in to the basic shapes that a human is supposed to be in. A perfect example is typing at our keyboards. The Eastern approach to setting up at the desk is Lotus Pose in yoga. Shoulders are down and back, neck is tall with head balanced, and then arms are externally rotated to organize the shoulder. The Western approach is the barbell bench press. Shoulders are down and back, head is neutral, abs are on, I break the bar in half by externally rotating and then I bring that barbell down to my chest. And voila! I am now in a good, organized typing position. A much more human position.
Your intensity at some point needs to be challenged. I like to use a CF example here. I am so lucky to be able to break down the barriers of ignorance on a daily basis with CF. To some, this analogy is extreme, but I find the fear of CF a lot like the fear of people from other cultures or ethnocentrism. It all comes down to ignorance. The racist person very typically has no clue whatsoever about the person from another culture. And the person spouting misinformation about CF is very much the same in that they have no idea what goes on daily in a CF gym – or at least my CF gym. That is another distinction, CF gyms are not franchises. They are all independently owned and operated as the owners see fit.
So anyway, your body needs to be put under some intensity. A baseline leg strength workout we do at CrossFit Ktown resembles what an old Soviet thrower used to do back in the 80s. This guy, Litvinov was his name, would front squat 200 kilos – or about 440lbs – for 7 repetitions. He would then immediately go outside and sprint 400m around a track. And then he would rest for a few minutes and do it again until he had performed 3 or 5 or sometimes 7 sets of that workout. He was the best in the world, but we have grandmothers doing that same workout at Ktown. They might have a chair set up, sit down to it, stand back up, do that 7 times, and then walk 100m around the gym, and repeat that 5 times. That is their Litvinov workout. Their intensity is being challenged.
The needs of the Olympic medalist and my grandmother are very similar. They need to be able to move through full ranges of motion, and they need to have their intensities challenged. Their individual needs differ by degree, not kind. And that is where people often go wrong. They don’t see the value in learning how to do the technical things well. And they often don’t understand that, no matter how insignificant they think it is, what they are doing is technical. They need to be coached or taught how to do it.
Running is a perfect example. There are 70 million runners in America today, and 80% of them will present with an overuse injury of some sort this year. Why is that? It is because running is a skill and a very technical movement. The best in the world didn’t get that way just by logging miles. They were coached on how to run, how to breathe while running, how to contact the ground with their foot, and how to swing their arms appropriately. Somewhere along the way people forgot that they need to be taught these things. And so I want to teach you something right now.
I want to teach you how to sit properly. Sitting is the slow death. Sitting is the new smoking. Both of those quotes are uttered all the time at my gym. But face it, we are a culture built on sitting. There is no way of getting around that anytime soon. The culture is changing, albeit slowly. Standing desks are beginning to make their way in to the mainstream consciousness, although you can still stand poorly, but sitting, it is something we all do, so let’s bring some consciousness to it.
I want you all to sit up straight like your moms taught you way back in the day. This is how most of us were taught to sit. Now, the problem with this is most of you are just hanging out on your lumbar or your lower back. You are in an overextended position, and your lower back is not going to like that for very long. So move forward in your chairs slightly, don’t rely on that back rest. Ground your sit bones down in to the chair. Now take your hands and place them on the bottom of your rib cage and press your rib cage down until it is stacked over your lower back in a straight line. Good. Now let’s move upstream to the shoulders, neck, and head. Roll your shoulders forward and up and then back and down to open your chest up. Think about putting your shoulder blades in your back pockets – if you’re wearing pockets, I suppose. Now create an L with your thumb and pointer finger, place the thumb part of the L on top of your sternum in the gap right between your collar bones. Have your pointer finger pointing straight up to the sky. Your chin should be back behind that pointer finger which will balance your head over top your torso.
And now you’re sitting more properly. Check your abdominal tension. You should always be on about 20%, ready for anyone throughout your day to gut punch you. It doesn’t mean you have to be at 100% peak tension, just enough to be braced and organized. Good. My work here is finished. You all are sitting much more human-like.
Now just know that this costs a lot. Sitting correctly is not easy. You are going to fatigue very quickly in these new positions if you don’t typically sit like this. But over time, with practice, it will become easier and more natural. And in the long run, your body will thank you. Your tissues will thank you. Your back will thank you.
And so I want to close it here with all of you sitting so well. I came and spoke with you all today about being more human. I asked you to eat more like a human and not like a middle schooler confined to a lunch cafeteria. Be conscious of what you put in your body. Make better decisions on how you fuel yourself.
Also, take that most sophisticated piece of software inside your heads and use it in concert with the most sophisticated piece of hardware, your body. Learn new sports. Challenge yourselves not only mentally, but try to tie that in with physically as well. Learn how to sit, stand, bend over and pick stuff up off the ground. Because in the end, we are all human, and these are things we have to do daily and want to continue doing for many years in to the future.
Don’t be satisfied with where you are. And don’t limit yourselves with some made up constraints that don’t really exist. Keep growing. Keep learning. Keep endeavoring to be more human!