A few fitness thoughts amidst our stay-at-home orders.

[Note: Since formatting on facebook is minimal, this post — for my fellow gym members — is reposted here. ]

Hi all!

In light of the situation, I wanted to share a few fitness thoughts.

This post is ~1,400 words, or 6-min @ 250words/min, in five sections. 

Here’s the outline:

1) Sun salutations

2) CrossFit philosophy

3) Indoor vs. Outdoor (or windows open) exercise

4) Over-training is risky for the immune system, too

5) A share of a personal essay/post, titled: “Social Distancing, not Social Isolation!



1. Sun salutations:

We had our first (remote) “flexibility” class last Sunday, which was great. Over the past decade, I’ve done a yoga class far too rarely, but every time I do so, I think, “damn! I should do yoga monthly, if not once a week!” …before I procrastinate doing so for another 6-18 months. However, something that’s helped me in the last few years is the “sun salutation.” This is a ~12-posture sequence that’s pretty easy to learn, and after a few times is solidly memorized. And it’s also easy to do at home, in the gym, in parks, and everywhere else (it’s excellent for long layovers at airports, and I try to do it when arriving and before leaving our gym).

Here’ a decent search result for sun salutations that came up in a web search: https://www.verywellfit.com/illustrated-stepbystep-sun-salutation-3567187 The Wikipedia page is decent, too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surya_Namask%C4%81r , and an image search works well to memorize it.

2. CrossFit philosophy:

This is a great time to remember the original CrossFit “What is Fitness?” article from October 2002 ( https://journal.crossfit.com/article/what-is-fitness , message me if you want the .pdf) . A graphic from the article worth understanding and reviewing regularly is the three metabolic pathways: https://d1s2fu91rxnpt4.cloudfront.net/mainsite/m20161101113806/raw/1-UGf1pzWiSg8SfrkaiwZJkQ.png .

The metabolic pathways
“Figure 1: The metabolic pathways’ contribution of total energy versus time.”

That article included ten physical areas of performance which are somewhat more opinion and philosophy than fact (you can break down physical aspects of performance into these 10, or other, fewer, categories) than the biologically-backed “three metabolic pathways” model:

  1. Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance
  2. Stamina
  3. Strength
  4. Flexibility
  5. Power 
  6. Speed
  7. Coordination
  8. Agility
  9. Balance
  10. Accuracy

I mention this because we tend to over-train entries 3, 5, and 6, casually train (sometimes) entries 1 and 2, and often totally ignore the rest. Our gymnastics class supplements almost all the rest nicely, as would a (potentially upcoming) flexibility/yoga class. In addition to the “excuse” this pandemic provides for working on flexibility at home, we can also train speed (outdoor sprints, not limited to running but also to include all bodyweight movements, limited to <30s), endurance (>10m distance runs, biking, swims, etc.), stamina (plank holds, wall chair sit, handstands, pull up hold at top), and certain gymnastics movements (handstands), if not others.

Whatever strength and power some of us may temporarily lose in our ability to lift heavy barbells repeated times, we’ll gain in our understanding of our bodies and our own performance.

A few other areas of fitness and health we might consider working on:

11: Temperature training: cold exposure., heat exposure, etc. I’m always one of the first to take my shirt off, and despite what others may think, I’m actually pretty shy about it,! But it comes naturally because I agree with the philosophy of exposing the body to the elements and embracing ‘ancestral’ aspects of life. Plus, I sweat almost immediately, and working out trains your skin, too, goddammit! Skin can’t breathe very well with clothes on. It’s OK to be a little hot and cold once in a while.

12: Sunlight and fresh outdoor air. Being barefoot, “grounding” with grass and dirt, etc. This isn’t hocus-pocus stuff, it’s legitimate. Try 5, slow, repeated sun salutations in your living room versus barefoot at a grassy park! The former cannot compare.

13: Meditation, breathing work. If you don’t already meditate, a global pandemic and potential recession/depression is a damn good opportunity to start doing so. As is often repeated: “If you can’t meditate for 30 minutes a day, you need to meditate for 3 hours a day!”

Not to mention sleep, screen time, social connections, etc…

3. Indoor vs. Outdoor (or windows open) exercise

Metabolically, are we training for low-O2-high-CO2 environments, or not? (outside vs. inside; windows open or not)

Some review:

  • CO2 is an ‘asphyxiant’ gas. This means the gas itself is not toxic (obviously), but it *displaces* oxygen in our bloodstream. So not only does O2 decrease as CO2 rises, but the CO2 displaces even more O2, making blood/physiological O2 levels lower still.
  • Rising CO2 makes us stupider. As O2 decreases — both directly because it’s being converted to CO2, and indirectly because available O2 is displaced by rising air/blood CO2 levels — any metabolism which depends on oxygen decreases. This includes the metabolism, and therefore performance, of that fatty hunk of processing power inside our skulls. Here’s a decent introductory article on the subject, titled “I’m living in a carbon bubble. Literally.” I’ts not perfect, but it gets the job done: https://medium.com/@joeljean/im-living-in-a-carbon-bubble-literally-b7c391e8ab6
  • (On a related — and mind-blowing, if tangent — note: global warming is going to make us both dumber and angrier. Rising CO2 (and pollutant) levels also increase irritability as they decrease patience. What happens at regional levels in highly polluted cities, as heat/pollution/CO2 rises? That irritability — hardly felt at the individual level — increases violence and conflict. This could be a very difficult century, indeed.)

We indoor exercisers are not only training our muscles, nervous system, cardiovascular system, and other physical aspects we already think about. We’re also training our ability to perform physical work under low oxygen conditions. An additional argument is that it’s nearly impossible to compare two physical exercise efforts, between two people in the same conditions, or even among the same athlete in almost-identical conditions. In effect, the higher the indoor CO2 levels, the closer we’re getting to high-altitude training, in a rough sense. (This isn’t technically an apples-to-apples comparison, because high altitude outdoor air has proportionally identical CO2 levels, but it’s a good way to think about what we’re doing.)

For various subsets of our gym population, this may or may not completely surprise, be of interest, or be desirable. Personally a) it’s never surprised me, b) it’s of extreme interest, and c) it is NOT desirable: I only care about low-oxygen training immediately before a trip to high-altitude South America when we visit my wife’s side of the family. Theoretically, with iron supplementation, the low-O2 training should help us adapt more quickly when we arrive.

I’d argue that an occasional indoor/high-CO2 workout — monthly or weekly, at most — is a good goal for the various metabolic adaptation it might bring. And this is especially true because most of us work indoors, so it’s good to have some adaptation to higher indoor CO2 levels anyway. But in general, a) we can never compare results unless air quality is normalized (how many professional athletics tournaments monitor air quality?), and 2) we should probably just stick to outdoor exercise (where it is reasonable and not terribly polluted).

If you check out the air quality the past few days (after last polluted weekend), it’s pretty amazing: on a scale of 0-~500 (lower is better), our city’s often <10 lately, where it usually ranges from 30-80+. If you don’t have an outdoor space for working out, it’s worth trading a little electricity (heating) for more fresh air entering the home. That’s doubly true if you’re paying your electric company’s “green energy” premium, usually optional. Get outside and annoy those neighbors (maintaining a safe distance)! AQI link: https://www.airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=airnow.local_city&cityid=160

Anyway, my firm conviction is that CO2 concentration is the single most neglected fitness factor in the modern world.

4. Over-training is risky for the immune system, too

As he wrote in one of the earlier emails, this situation presents an interesting opportunity to change up what we practice physically and get some well-deserved rest.  The pandemic will devastate lives, and it may do the same to the global or regional economies. We see exercise, in general, as good, and most of us will continue (as we should). But over-training ourselves to the point of exhaustion, too frequently, without adequate rest, is just as risky for the body. Right now, that might compromise our immune system, which none of us want. Plus, how much exercise constitutes “overtraining” varies massively from person to person and context to context (travel, having kids, sleep, age, emotional state, etc.). Stay healthy!

  1. Finally, I wrote a brief essay on the topic of “social distancing, not social isolation!” here: https://www.johnfial.com/blog/2020/03/social-distancing-not-social-isolation/

Most of this year’s hard times, I think, are ahead of us, so it’s best to keep our bodies and minds healthy. Hope to see you all soon!