Intensity and the Flawed Paradigm Around Exercise: The Case for Zone 2 and Why Your Workouts are Keeping You Fat, Prematurely Aging You and Breaking You DownRead Now
“Modern humans are physiologically better adapted to exercise intensities similar to ones their hominid ancestors evolved with rather than those supported by modern societies.These would have included daily bouts of prolonged, low-intensity, aerobic-based activities, which are primarily fueled by the body’s long-term energy source: fat.” - Phil Maffetone
We may have miscalculated folks. It is ever more apparent that HIIT, work in excess of 75% VO2 Max, high volume training protocols and general glycolytic work (think many thousands of reps and group functional fitness) comes with a host of unintended, unwanted consequences for many of it’s adherents.
Much of the metabolic magic, for what I call us “normies”, appears to reside in the “easy” stuff. Specifically what I’m calling Zone 2 work with my clients.
Let’s work backwards for a second. What’s the problem with HIIT, high intensity cardio and group functional fitness?
Here are a few of the issues...
1. Substrate Utilization
Generally speaking the more intense the effort becomes the more your body needs to burn sugar to fuel the metabolic engine and the LESS it is able to utilize fat as fuel. Below is a chart from Phil Maffetone’s site showing a progression of fuel utilization from less intense to more intense effort.
Now, mind you, these figures are for a seasoned athlete capable of running a 5:25 mile. For the rest of us mere mortals you can bet the numbers are less optimistic. Which is to say you should slide everything backward in your mind and realize that it will take an even lower heart rate for you to burn the same amount of fat that the above individual burns at any given output.
The more volume of high intensity sessions you accrue and the less low end aerobic work you do, the more you will be more predisposed to burning sugar at lower intensities/BPM. Whether you know it or not, this is precisely the effect you DON’T want your exercise to have on your metabolism.
2. The Viscous Cycle
Most folks are obligate sugar burners by virtue of their diet and lifestyle choices. They likely may never realize 70% fat utilization in their current condition. This is to say they are not metabolically healthy or flexible.
Although we don’t typically refer to training protocols as “lifestyle”, in a way of course it's a lifestyle choice. The same individuals that are not lean and/or are not metabolically healthy, also choose to fill their training time with high intensity aerobic or glycolytic sessions. In this case the majority of their “workouts” demand sugar/carbs while the brain turns a blind eye to fat (that pesky ring around the belly). And because of that intensity, guess what food substances they are left craving to fuel those efforts once they get home? More sugar and carbs of course.
Ever look around a functional fitness gym and see a room of faithful devotees, flogging themselves with intense exercise on a daily basis, that carry that same pesky ring around the belly? They can’t seem to lean out...I’ve seen it for years. Although we tend to focus on the beautiful people (chiseled like Spartans), they are largely outnumbered by the former, by the general population.
This begs a question around alignment. Do your goals, food choices, lifestyle and training align well?
3. The Price of Admission
Those high intensity sessions come with a host of consequences that are wildly unpopular to mention in online pop fitness ramblings, mags, tv etc. Free radicals and accelerated aging, hormone dysregulation, accelerated degradation of joints and connective tissue (think many thousands of reps done with no basis in the first place across functional fitness group classes the world over), and the previously mentioned viscous cycle issue with all of the accompanying metabolic damage that comes with it.
Consider the average devotees activity profile, it lacks a transition, a buffering effect. It looks like a richter scale for the most part. Which is to say 0-100 in not time flat. People are almost totally sedentary 90% of the time, then they walk into a gym and redline themselves for their exercise session. Then back to sitting. Almost nothing in between. Try operating your car like that... It's a problem.
I’m not going to try and make some airtight scientific case here, you can go on PubMed, NCBI and other sites and try and make some sense of all this yourself. Suffice it to say I’ve watched it play out many times over the last 12 years of my career. You don’t need a double blind, randomized, controlled study to verify that which you have witnessed first hand, many times, over time.
Many are there for the “hit”. This is exercise as a drug. Others are there presumably because they think metabolically intense efforts are the best way to get what they want, namely to look good naked. Others for communion or perhaps for the suffering. Which is understandable. Whatever the case, the collective is logging a lot of volume of the wrong sort, a lot of intensity and paying a price they don’t fully understand while doing it. Unknowingly sabotaging their goals/results along the way is just a slap in the face as a bonus.
Once that price has been sufficiently exacted, whether it is fully conscious or not, people realize that the path they're on is not sustainable. There is no ALIGNMENT between who they are, how they live, what they want and their training protocol. Then they jump ship. Often times they are at a loss for what to do next (insert latest "intense" exercise fad here or maybe a total bail out on any decent strength work moving forward). Often they are broken in 1 or more ways from too much intensity, too often, prescribed way too soon. They may be feeling bummed about their "failures" or their inability to continue with an exercise regimen they thought was on point.
So, is there a better way for the masses? Obviously I’m arguing the answer is a resounding “yes”! And I’m calling it “Zone 2” work. Doesn’t matter what you call it, just so long as you know what it is, why you should be devoting your time and energy to it and how to effectively execute it.
Remember we are only talking about metabolic work now, not strength work. Strength work is the most essential piece of a training program IMO and should run concurrently with any metabolic efforts. As should a robust mobility/stretching program.
I digress. Back to Zone 2...
What is it?
Let’s call it cyclical work somewhere between 60-70% (max HRM), an imperfect parameter, but more or less. This of course varies from individual to individual. Often drastically. It’s important to be honest in every regard when assessing where your own Zone 2 likely is. Basically, the more deconditioned, in poor health or older you are the lower your BPM will need to be (at least initially) to approximate this zone. Metabolically healthy individuals and people that are more aerobically conditioned will be able to hit this sweet spot of training at higher BPMs.
Why should this constitute a majority or appropriately large percentage of my training time?
Here are a few reasons:
1. When we activate the Type 1 muscle fibers using Zone 2 work we stimulate mitochondrial growth and function. Many of the sharpest minds in medicine, physiology and health are well aware that the mitochondria and their function appear to be the foundation of our health, longevity and athletic performance. Conversely their lack of function and vigor appear to be deeply tied to the most serious pathologies of our time. Zone 2 training currently seems to be THE method for fostering our mitochondria. Certainly in Type 1 fibers anyway.
2. Through Zone 2 training you MAXIMIZE your body’s ability to use fat as fuel. Not only during the session but also while at rest. This is a/the cornerstone of metabolic health.
If you fancy improving your performance in any kind of endurance sport, you also train your body to spare all that glucose until such time as you really need it. In this way, you hedge against the “bonk”. You are making yourself less prone to bonking relative to the you that did not dedicate sufficient time to Z2 training.
3. You improve your body’s ability to clear lactate. Also a kind of holy grail when we talk about athletic performance. Both in endurance work but also over the domain of shorter, more intense glycolytic efforts.
4. Doing Z2 work can be regarded as the definition of building a strong “aerobic base”.
5. It is the most APPROPRIATE work for the greatest number of people who exercise. Here’s the cold, hard truth: most of the population is BROKEN. For example, the CDC reports that 84 million Americans have Pre-Diabetes, that’s more than 33%! If they continue on the path they’re on, and I would argue that is far and away the most likely outcome at present, they will have Type 2 Diabetes sooner or later. And it’s all downhill from there for most.
BTW, Type 2 Diabetes is a disease of food and lifestyle. It’s the pinnacle of a carbohydrate/sugar based metabolism. Can you see the link when considering the viscous cycle I wrote about earlier? Is a protocol of intense exercise for these people really the most intelligent design? Even if they can do it, sort of?
If we lump the whole of Americans who demonstrate the hallmarks of metabolic syndrome in there the numbers get even worse.
And then there’s the mundane. People are way under slept and under rested, over worked, over stressed, have poor mental health and are generally in a bad place physically. They're bound up and broken down. They’re on pills, Rx’d or over the counter, using alcohol in copious amounts and have all kinds of structural problems and injuries. They have no basis for and no resiliency to the HIIT and Metcons they are subjecting themselves to day in and day out.
The beauty of Zone 2 is that it takes very little from you other than time. It doesn’t beat you up! And it does not require or make you crave large amounts of sugar and carbs in the way that high intensity sessions do.
It does optimize your metabolism to burn to fat, provide the foundation of your aerobic base and improve your lactate clearance. Additionally it can be a better choice for the majority of sessions for folks who need to get more parasympathetic (read damn near everyone).
How do I effectively train this energy system?
Currently I use Maffetone’s 180 Formula in my own training and for my clients as well. We do testing at the precise number arrived at by the formula and prescribe cyclical work up to that number but often lower. If you know of a more precise way of discerning your heart rate for this work, outside the lab, I’d love to know it. Anyhow, you can calculate it yourself by subtracting your age from 180 and then making the fine adjustments contained in the links to maffetone's articles at the bottom of this post. Once you have what I would call your top end Rx BPM you need a decent heart rate monitor. A chest strap or the next gen arm bands are probably the best choice. Find yourself a cyclical machine (stationary bike, rower, treadmill etc.) and log some time between 10-15 BPM lower than the 180 Formula and up to that number.
*It’s important to understand there are numerous “formulas” for isolating “Zone 2”. They are all imperfect. I like Maffetone’s the best so far for the general population. If you compare it to the standard 220-Age x .6-.7 method, you’ll see it may shake out closer to 70-75%. Hence my recommendation for doing work down to 15BPM lower and topping out/testing at the 180 Rx.
Over time you will get a good subjective feel for just where your Zone 2 is and the level of exertion that it entails (surprisingly low for many fitness enthusiasts). Then, when you don’t have a heart rate monitor, you should be able to reproduce a very similar effort in less perfect conditions IE a casual bike ride, walk, hike etc. Subjective measures of this effort are commonly associated with being able to pass the “talk test”. When doing Z2 work you should be able to hold a conversation. The pace is continuous, stable and indefinite? with good blood flow and breathing.
As far as the minimum effective dose and frequency, I think the jury is still out. Currently I am going with 2x week for at least 30 minutes. A better recommendation is probably 2-5 hrs/week. I’m sure it varies by individual. But you gotta start somewhere. Much of the impetus behind that particular minimum simply has to do with the scarcity of time. Busy people in 2020 have none. So again, it’s just a starting point to build familiarity and consistency. You can devote more time from there.
It’s worth mentioning Zone 1. If we view this as a pyramid, Zone 1 is the foundation. Easy movement. Walking for instance. Some folks, very sedentary types, will have no business doing Z2 work initially. They hardly move at all. They may represent a small percentage of this articles readership but they represent a significant portion of Americans. So they need to begin with Z1.
If Z2 allows you to have some level of intensity while still being glycogen sparing, Z1 may be the ultimate in terms of requiring virtually no sugar. A healthy individual on a ketogenic/very low carb diet should be able to do Z1 all day with no real cravings or necessity for dense carb and sugar sources.
And what of intensity?
You wanna do it anyway? Go for it. But first...
If you’re an athlete that regularly competes for points and medals, that’s a different story. It’s not to say that there’s nothing of value in this post for you but of course athlete’s do what they need to do to win. And the smart ones KNOWINGLY accept the cost of that choice.
In closing I’ll say that of course there are going to be positive adaptations that result from intense metabolic training. And for competitive athletes (individuals who regularly compete at the amateur/pro level) it’s essential for peak performance. However, it is hardly the panacea it has been made out to be when it comes to the gen pop. In fact it’s often wholly inappropriate when you consider who they are, how they live and what they really want. When you combine that fact with the physical and metabolic costs of running an “intense” training protocol ad nauseum for years on end, you get sub optimal results, to say the least.
Perhaps it’s time to rethink the template for the great majority. To create something that is more in ALIGNMENT with the needs of the many.
With that I’ll leave you with a salient sentiment from one of the masters of strength...
“ A training session should give you more than it takes out of you.”
- Pavel Tatsouline
*Here are links to the references above:
https://philmaffetone.com/the-180-review/ (an update to the method above)
Also, for a deep conversational dive on some of this check out Dr. Inigo San Milan‘s conversation with Peter Attia on “The Drive” podcast:
The answer is you don’t.
But MANY people are trying.
I would say that the majority of people are willing to “endure” or “suffer through” some form of exercise often times long before they are willing to take a hard look at their food and the other things in their life that are standing in the way of leaning out/losing weight.
This is a DEEP rabbit hole. We have sooooooo many issues around food and reward and deprivation and comfort and habitual response etc. Trying to get someone to make significant changes to their food profile and lifestyle is one of the most difficult tasks I can think of. It’s WAY harder than getting them to work out.
As a coach I have heard many times, “I do this stuff so I can eat and drink whatever I want”. And to be honest, these people deserve credit for knowing exactly what they are doing in the gym each day. There was no ambiguity when they told me this. They are adults and at the end of the day we can all do whatever the hell we want.
However, a lot of these same folks have probably wondered at some point why they can’t seem to get rid of that sugar belly/ring around the middle despite hitting the gym on a regular basis. Or why they still have energy crashes during the afternoon. Or why their performance in the gym or elsewhere is not improving or even seemingly on the decline despite their regular attendance.
Here’s the deal: your food and lifestyle constitute the VAST MAJORITY of the way you look, feel and manifest health and wellness in general. That’s it. “Working out” is not nearly as important! I train people in the gym for a living and I’m telling you that is the absolute truth of the matter.
If that stuff is not in order and on it’s way to a better place you are largely pissing into the wind with all the exercise you are doing and perhaps doing actual damage. Especially for “chronic exercisers” or those subject to compulsions around exercise.
Think about that for a while…
Have YOU tried a 21 day no complaint challenge? What do you think it might have to do with physical and mental health? With “fitness” even?
Well I tried it. And I found it to contribute to all of the above.
For me it was a really great thing to do and very timely. I am coming off a LONG run of repetitive negative thinking and just a generally piss poor attitude. Ever have those ;)?
When I first challenged myself to do this I figured it meant that no complaint shall pass my lips for 21 days. And that’s what I ended up deciding on. You’re actually “supposed to” wear a rubber bracelet that you snap every time you utter something that may be construed as a complaint. And while I didn’t feel it was that big of a challenge to refrain from complaining out loud (I caught myself once that I’m aware of) what IS hard is not doing it mentally. Which ended up being the real value of the exercise. Noticing how often and repetitively my thoughts turned to what essentially amounts to complaining.
Noticing is the first step. Then, hopefully, you are appalled at the persistent frequency of your negativity. I was. I have an image of Homer Simpson reaching for a doughnut under the threat of electric shock I believe it was? Many attempts were made…
And so I spent a lot of the 21 days first noticing then gently and sometimes forcefully re-directing or simply aborting those negative thoughts. This made up the bulk of the challenge for me.
It also brought to light how it’s really just a few issues that go round and round in my head in this fashion. It’s amazing to me how deep I dug the trenches of what amounts to be a literal prison of undesirable thought patterns. And this is where we live day to day isn’t it? Granted not always negative but in the same thought patterns and dialogue with ourselves every day, every month, year after year.
And while we are having the same conversation with ourselves all day long the whole world is out there. Dare I say passing us by?
This gave me perspective and that perspective was the real benefit.
When you can notice what’s going on inside your own head you are much better able to affect purposeful change. When you have mindfulness in each day the quality of your days improve dramatically. And since there is no real distinction between body and mind, when the mind is made to be more healthy so becomes the body.
I found myself feeling better and consequently “performing” better.
If you think it might be something worth trying I highly recommend it! Then hopefully we can continue the work together, long after the challenge is over…
I actually stole that title or concept from the man in the picture, or at least the way it’s worded. However we have observed this response or lack thereof many times over the years working with a wide range of clients.
So what do I mean when I say “piling fitness on top of your dysfunction”?
I’m talking about the inability to assume basic, innate positions like squatting to depth with your toes straight ahead, knees out and a vertical torso. Or being able to bend over to address an implement on the floor while maintaining your mid-line. Or being able to put both hands overhead, perpendicular to the floor without having to release your rib cage or drive your hips forward.
And then, in spite of these issues, these fundamental inabilities to meet the demands and requirements of proper movement, continuing to exercise harder, better, more, faster, stronger. Continuing to push the pace and often the intensity of the load.
Certainly within the context of “functional training” this is happening a lot. It’s a slow, insidious process of neglect that eventually is setting up a lot of people for disappointment, frustration and often times injury down the line as they continue to train and ask more and more of their performance without addressing their movement and positional issues.
Of course this is a deep rabbit hole once you start investigating the various, often compounded causes of an inability to move through range and/or create stability and structure in a position.
It has been my observation that the limitations for a given individual are usually one, some combination of or all of the following:
Actually learning how to move correctly is one of the most important skills you can acquire. In any endeavor right? Sure you can get it done and in a hurried fashion with a few quick cues but at what cost? Get yourself a good coach who understands the requirements of proper movement for your chosen sport, exercise or whatever. Whether it’s improving your running mechanics or learning how to create a strong squatting position with progressively heavier loads, the ability to make the basic shapes and refine your movement over time is critical.
Everyone wants a quick fix but it takes time and work to build these patterns and shapes. And if you’ve been doing them incorrectly or poorly it takes a lot of time and work to undo those bad habits. So make sure and start off with attention to detail and repetitive patterning of correct movement. When you do this it’s important that you are not under significant duress. If you are simultaneously trying to learn good mechanics and movement while exercising or training hard you are going to have a really shitty foundation! Sound movement first, then intensity.
Lack of strength can also be a limiting factor in creating good position. That’s why it’s good to have some sort of assessment done on the front end, to expose your shortcomings if you will. Then those weak spots and positions can be progressively made stronger over time. Both supplementary training of the constituent pieces (IE doing some glute and abductor work to make a stronger squat) and repetitive threshold work in the position you are working can help build the strength to create correct structure.
With issues around tight and bound up tissues and squeaky/sticky joints, again, assessment is useful. Get someone who has knowledge around screening (PT, FMS practioner etc.) for things like external and internal rotation around the femur and hip, ankle mobility etc. to run some diagnostics so that you can pointedly address YOUR issues. Work has to be done, often times a good amount of it on the front end, to restore smooth/normal operation to the problem areas. Then you can make progress and overcome the sticking points that perhaps unknown to you were a big piece of the puzzle that left you wondering why you can’t seem to bend your knees and your hips at the same time without your heels sucking together and arches collapsing no matter how many air squats you hammer out in a training session.
No matter how “hard” or often you are training or working out just remember it can be almost entirely unrelated to the actual quality of your movement. You’ve got to lay a strong foundation by learning and implementing correct movement patterns, refraining from repetitive heinous approximations of that movement, expose and address basic dysfunction and service that dysfunction regularly and thoughtfully. Then you can add intensity or progressively more demanding efforts. In doing so you will increase your potential (for all you performance nuts) while buffering against injuries that often arise from repetitive poor movement and weak positions (for the fearful and those with experience).
Which body positions do you struggle in? Do you keep hammering away in that position or have you keyed in on it and begun to do some the work that’s necessary to simply MOVE BETTER?
I recently completed a 30 day challenge to myself involving abstaining from the consumption of alcohol. I have to say it was a very worthwhile endeavor. Hopefully you will find something here of value, something that may change the way you perceive things. Or maybe not, and that’s fine too.
I’m composing this particular post in list form with a total disregard for writing by the way (In retrospect I can see that’s not true, but I DID make a list. Sort of.). Call it laziness or simply an experiment in getting to the point without the mess of composition, grammar rules etc. I think you’ll get the important concepts and I hope you give it a go yourself if you’re so inclined. It’s really about the inquiry and what that inquiry reveals.
It’s important to note that none of this is meant to be holier than thou. I drink. And I definitely have the gene that always reminds me if one is good, two must be better, three has to be great etc. Drinking is forever a managed activity for me and frankly a mental struggle at times. I’m very aware that it’s either that or choosing abstinence permanently which I’d rather not do as of this moment as I’d still like to be able sit down and have a couple cold ones with friends when the opportunity presents itself.
OK, here is the brain dump/my thoughts and realizations:
Committing initially/speaking the intention out loud was probably the hardest part.
Once you get some distance IE get off the sauce it’s really no bigE.
The whole world is addicted to drugs, this one just happens to be legal and of the socially accepted variety.
People don’t separate the experience from the booze. IE they can’t possibly NOT drink at an infinite variety of things ranging from sporting events, to family vacations to social get-togethers.
Alcohol deadens. So each time you drink you effectively blunt/numb the experience. I don’t want to go through my life numbing everything down.
If you don’t drink you are one step away from being a TOTAL FREAK. It’s not “normal”. Literally it determines who people hang out with and dare I say whole perspectives on life or at least what you should spend your time in life doing.
I thought it would be a sort of super power in terms of my work productivity. In truth I think I handled things at about the same pace as usual. I do feel it was a bit like a superpower because you always have the potential to feel at your very best. Many of us will likely replace drinking with an activity like more exercise or positive output which could be good.
When you no longer have a designated day or days and times of the week set aside for catching a buzz you are left wondering “now what on earth will I do”?
I definitely feel like I had some clarity over the month. It’s confounded by other major changes I perceived going on with myself over the same period of time. But I do feel like there was a clarity.
Responding to the end of a day, to a specific event, to stress etc. by drinking is another form of auto-pilot, another example of how we are all sleep walking. I would like to WAKE UP.
I had lots of thoughts on doing this at the exact same time every year regardless of circumstance (discipline), doing it every other month, doing it twice/year etc. I think I’ve settled on 2x year unless I decide to do something more “severe”.
It is helpful if your significant other is on the same page :).
It helps if you can talk with others who might have the faintest clue why you might do something like this.
There was some anxiety about the end of the challenge.
I’m still thinking about how I’m going to proceed.
It did change me.
PS If you enjoyed this post or think someone you know might benefit from reading it or giving it a try please pass it along!
Right to the point… Here are some REALLY powerful secrets hiding right in the open that you can use increase your health, fitness and overall happiness. Think about them!
1. Create a base first: Lots of folks leap right from an inactive, over stressed and poorly fueled lifestyle into their latest attempt at an exercise regimen. That’s fine if it works for you (I understand it does for some people) but for many it ultimately does not. They are putting ANOTHER stress on top of a crumbling foundation. Demanding an additive behavior of themselves before they are ready. First work on the pillars of support:
2. Build Strength: Strength first! Not “cardio”. Let’s face it, the single-minded focus on mid-high intensity cardio like cycling, running and machines at the gym is leaving people short. Think skinny-fat, broken down bodies and a never ending dependence on carbs and sugar (not unrelated). You want to balance/repair your metabolism to be better at fat burning which will give you better indicators of health AND a lean tone body. Combine this with strength training/load bearing/weight lifting and you have a really awesome combo. Most people would be shocked and awed to find out that if they fix the 3 points listed above and start doing some good load bearing training 3x week, they very likely could reach their body composition/aesthetic goals with virtually no “exercise”. Unfortunately this is one of the best kept secrets around….
Find yourself a good instructor and start learning the basic primary movement patterns: squatting, bending and pulling being the most important and giving you the biggest ROI.
Smaller accessory movements with Dumbbells and Kettlebells represent a nice departure, provide each side of your body with independent demands which can help you balance and strengthen your structure and are great for targeting specific weak areas.
3. Low Intensity in the Sunshine: Go outside and walk, hike, bike, snowshoe, x-country ski etc. but ditch the intensity focus. If you are a hobbyist or an athlete training for an event then obviously you should see your pre-planned training regimen through (nevertheless the sustained low intensity can still play a prominent role in your template). But for the rest of us, or when you are “off” or early season, practice recreating/training in a different state. Here we are combining it with the prescription of going outside to do the work.
*Note that if you are a “Type A”, at least in how you approach your training and exercise, this will be challenging. You will have to try really hard to dampen that pace and chill out! Just enjoy the opportunity it creates for you to see everything you have been missing…
This practice serves numerous functions:
Last month myself and 6 other guys headed out for a 4 day tour by mountain bike of the White Rim in Canyonlands National Park. I highly recommend the trip in some form if you ever get the chance or have the inclination. It’s nothing short of amazing. You can do it by car (some sketchy roads to drive a car over though ;), motorcycle, hike or bike.
As I said the trip was amazing. While we were out and after I thought a lot about the experience. There were a few things that really struck me, things that were both the best part of the trip also served to expose what I feel are some real problems we all struggle with on a day to day basis. Things that have become pretty dysfunctional for many of us on some level. The modern world is amazing and wonderful in so many ways but there are some really important ways in which I think it’s failing people – or we are failing to notice and correct our course.
I used the word “Primal” in the title of the post to insinuate that there are some things in our “hard” wiring as human beings that have fallen away, some needs and deep seeded constructs that are not being met or ceasing to exist with the creep of technology and the modern age. I think we would be wise to acknowledge them, re-visit them and re-institute them to the extent that we are able in order to reconnect and restore. To aid in reclaiming something that is ours, to become a little more whole.
The power of retreating to a natural setting, being in nature etc. is profound. It’s the experience that provides the backdrop, the inspiration and all of the noticings I’m rambling about here. I have no doubt that if we were hooked up to a dozen different monitors and scientific devices while taking a 2 hour hike through the woods we would find some interesting divergences both mentally and physiologically from our day to day existence. Again, anyone who regularly contrasts the two can attest. The natural environment has this amazing power to absorb. Shit falls away. As a regular (ideally) source of therapy and connection I think it’s invaluable. At home I normally try and get out for a ride or hike wherever I can, 1-2x week for this exact reason.
Of course this was very much my experience out in Canyonlands but on a scale that was just massive. The country out there is so massive and in a sense void, it simply swallows everything. I was pretty surprised about how virtually as soon as we got on the fire road and started descending into the canyon everything in my mind, all my BS and life dramas, were instantly gobbled up by landscape like the above around every corner…
One night when I got up to pee, stepping outside my tent, the sky overhead was a massive dome of stars and you could see the streaks of the milky way. Standing out there in a stillness and silence that is completely impossible to describe finalized the power of that place to absorb anything and everything. I was acutely aware of how utterly insignificant I am and although that feeling can be unsettling the actual experience in the moment was totally awesome and inspiring.
Something else that I really keyed in on over the course of the trip was the simplicity of each day. For me it was a pleasure to be out there. Nevertheless, you had some basic tasks you were responsible for:
Also, even though we had some technology out there (no signal for most of the trip), the nature of the whole situation was conducive to quality interaction with the rest of your “tribe”. Because you are not always face down in whatever digital stream of trivial brain suck, you have to look “up”. Low and behold there was this great group of people to connect with and a mind blowing landscape you were a part of. Now that’s connection. It was a great balance of an amazing shared experience, a bunch of goofing off and nonsense and still plenty of alone and contemplative time if you wanted it.
It’s funny that in a world that is effectively more “connected” than ever before, I think we are also more disconnected than ever…
And that world becomes more complex every passing day. This is obviously true when considering technology but it’s hardly limited to our devices and gadgets. The flow and intake of information alone is massive by way of comparison to what it was just 20 years ago. We are being bombarded by so much input! It seems to be accelerating at a rate that most people admit they cannot keep up with or comprehend on many levels. Perhaps faster than we are, again, presently wired to keep up with?
So…taking a trip like this and returning to simplicity and some “primal” tasks can be a true blessing. Taking care of your own shit and doing what you can when you can for the group is ENOUGH. And herein lies another fundamental issue/source of angst for so many of us…
Wouldn’t you like someone to tell you that whatever it is you did or accomplished today is ENOUGH? That whoever you are, perhaps simply as a function of your relationship to your family and whatever extended community you’re a part of is ENOUGH? That you don’t need to re-define yourself each passing day and somehow accomplish an ever increasing number of myriad “amazing” things in order live up to something or someone’s crazy expectation (especially if it’s your own ;)? That you don’t have to look and be like all the doctored images and misleading representations of people and lifestyles you are flooded with EVERYWHERE you look? That YOU are good enough? Better than needing someone else to tell you, wouldn’t you like to just know it.
I mean really, hasn’t it all become absurd on so many levels?
Thus the beauty of returning to simplicity. I think it helps us remember that which we have forgotten. I know I have found a lot of relief lately in my own life realizing this concept and reminding myself of it each day. What I did, who I am, is enough.
I’ll tell you what else was totally absent while on this trip:
I suppose the absence of these things helped to provide clarity on the previous concepts, helped to quiet all that noise. And when you quiet the noise you can actually get some presence. And when you are present you can start to take your life back.