A Whole9 guest post by Skyler Tanner, an Efficient Exercise Master Trainer with an MS in Exercise Science.
In October of 2014, I had the opportunity to represent the sister company to Efficient Exercise, ARXfit, at the 2nd annual Biohackers conference in Pasadena, California. I wish I could tell you all about who spoke and what they had to say, but I was hustling as the “Science Guy” for the salesmen at the ARX booth.
While there I was texting with Dallas something smarmy about some outrageous claim I had seen when he suggested that I write about it. “Why not write a blog post about what this conference taught you about hard work,” he suggested. Now that sounds like a great idea!
Backing up… what’s a biohacker?
We, as a society, are awash in data. In 2013, we as a collective whole had produced 90% of all of the data ever produced in the 2 years prior. I wouldn’t be surprised if that number is not at 99% with a bunch of trailing zeros.
Of course the health and fitness industry is aware of this and producing items to take advantage of the trend, allowing you the humble user to track all sorts of things, from steps per day to blood oxygen levels, and then compare them over days, weeks, and months. This is typically lumped under the banner of “quantified self.” Suddenly, it’s all about what we can measure and objectify.
In a similar vein, there is a group of people who are lumped under the banner of “life extensionists” who are counting on technology to deliver us from all that is evil, namely aging and death. Or as I put it, they’re waiting for capital S science to produce capital M magic (often called “Singularity”) to save us from death. In the meantime, other than scarfing lots and lots of pills or freezing their corpse for reanimation at a future date, they’re otherwise not doing anything health promoting.
Finally, there’s the health and fitness crowd, who are well meaning if absolutely, positively, obsessive. They have diet and exercise down pat (and they’ll happily show you on their Twitter or Instagram if you don’t believe them), but are taking the game too far. Their level of effort stopped being health-providing a long time ago and they’re now in it for the subjective feel of the workout. To them, the pump *is* better than drugs.
So if I was to build a Venn diagram of the whole thing, here’s where the biohacker resides:
So a “biohacker” leverages all of this data to make informed decisions about their health and fitness habits so that they may actively be extending their life or improving their function. Great, so it’s an informed, active approach to reducing illness and improving capability.
There are some problems with that, however.
Deep inside the black box
The problem with trying to quantify these things is that our unique physiology means that any input of stimuli may or may not lead to the same outcome. As an example, have you ever had a workout at the same time of day on the same amount of sleep and nutrition and yet had wildly different performances? That’s a macro-level example; now try to control the nuances of your physiological reaction with any level of control. It’s as impossible as it seems. We’re not robots and so the result looks a bit like the graph I posted in my last article:
To put it another way: we don’t have “free will” over the result of the input. We can only influence conclusions, to set the potential outcomes. For example, you’re not likely to get weaker with resistance training, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll be as strong as Dallas just because you really want it. There were so many experiments that we performed in a controlled lab during graduate school that came nowhere near the expected outcome, in spite of rigorous controls and a static environment. What makes you think that in a hectic free-living world that you can do better and achieve better accuracy? You’re fooling yourself if you think you can.
There are good things, however.
At this conference I did learn a few things about hard work that I think are appropriate for health and fitness enthusiasts alike:
1. Trackers can be very useful
So in spite of what I just wrote, there are uses for the multitude of fitness tracking devices that the quantified self and biohacker folks love. Namely, you can track things that can be actioned, like heart rate variability (HRV), which tells you the state of your autonomic nervous system. This means HRV can inform you when you are more adaptive to training and when you are less adaptive, your recovery status, and if you’re on the verge of overtraining. This used to be really difficult to measure, but now you can do it with a heart rate monitor and a smartphone app.
Personally I’ve used Elite HRV and found very interesting conclusions. For example, my training was much more affected by an argument with my father (as measured by my recovery status the next morning) than by a “hard” workout. I could not have guessed this without such a tool, which used to only be available to elite athletes and required a $30,000 machine. Cool stuff.
2. Think of these items less as “hacks” and more as “a carved path”
So while some of these hacks were overpromising and under-delivering, some really just made the path easier to navigate. As an example of over-promising, there was a computer program that was claiming that it could replace 30 years of Zen meditation with only a few minutes per day of their “proprietary” process. There is no hack or device that will replace a lifetime of practice in anything.
For example, if you’re a stressed out person, you may have been recommended meditation (or “mindfulness-based stress reduction” in clinical speak). So you plop down on your pillow, assume the lotus, close your eyes and…wait for something to happen. You count your breath, you imagine a flame, you think about what you’re going to eat for dinner…no! Wait! Bring it back to the breath!
You can see how if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you may give up before you get to the good stuff. But if you don’t get past the novice stage, you won’t gain any of the benefit of any practice. While getting over the beginner hurdle is easier in strength training, where you just find a good coach, it’s much harder when the thing you’re trying to measure is internal and not observable with the naked eye.
However we know that a mindful, relaxed state is associated with an increase in alpha brainwave patterns. As a result, if you could have something that measured your brainwave activity and gave you feedback, and some sort of way to progress over time, it might be easier to get past that beginner state, where you no longer need the device because you’ve developed self-efficacy for the activity.
There was such a device at this conference, a headband called Muse. I’ve spent the last 5 years meditating in an on-again, off-again fashion. That said, I know the subjective experience of getting relaxed and clearing my head. This headband measured the brainwave activity and then using ear buds played a soundscape. As you became more relaxed the sound changed. After some amount of time, your were given a score and suggestions about what to do better the next day and so on. This means that if you’re a beginner, you receive real-time, quantitative feedback on the state of your brainwaves and can then correlate that with your subjective internal experience! Ideally after a while, you know how to “drop-in” to the relaxed state and would no longer require the headband.
My experience was that the Muse changed the sounds I heard in a way that reflected how I felt; as I got more relaxed, the sounds changed in a way that reflected what I perceived as “relaxed.” They haven’t paid me a red cent (I just thought it was cool) but it speaks to where I think the best “biohacks” are really going. If a tracker or device can get a person past the beginner stage where most people drop out, then a person stands to gain real value for a variety of practices.
It’s still about hard work
That being said, cultivating the path still means you have to put in the work. None of these hacks can bend space-time. Your body still responds within normal parameters and nothing is going to change that—well unless that thing is anabolic steroids and your goal is muscle tissue. Even then hard work is required; the dividend just pays more.
Rather, using trackers or “hacks” can be like moving from the 110 meter hurdles to the 100 meter dash: you’ve still got to bust your ass, but now there’s nothing in the way. Get to work!
- Rain Rabbit / cc
- Skyler Tanner
Skyler Tanner is an Efficient Exercise Master Trainer and holds his MS in Exercise Science. He enjoys teaching others about the power of proper exercise and how it positively affects functional mobility and the biomarkers of aging. You can find him at EfficientExercise.com and SkylerTanner.com.
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