This morning, as I sipped coffee and eyed the frost on the grass outside, bolstering myself mentally for my morning run, I read this article about What Apes Can Teach Us About Our Heart Health, in the NYTimes. It’s a bit of a fluffy article, comparing “dozens” of chimpanzees hearts and blood pressures with the heart scans and blood repssures of an unknown quantity of “young, male distance runners and football players at Harvard, subsistence farmers in Mexico, and 40 sedentary but healthy young men in Boston.” So not a large, representative sample size.
However, the article found that the hearts of the sedentary workers and the distance runners were the most adapted to endurance aerobic exercise, with thin flexible walls and the lowest blood pressure, while the football players and sedentary gentlemen had thicker walls and higher blood pressure that more resembled the hearts of the chimps and gorillas used in the study.
Does this mean that runners and farmers are more evolved? No. Instead, it reveals the incredible plasticity of our human bodies, our body to shape and change our muscles and even our organs depending on how we use, or don’t use, our bodies. This message can be truly inspiring for those in pain or out of shape. It’s never too late to start on a healthier path. The study points out that the young, sedentary men, by not giving in to our evolutionary instinct to walk and run, are showing the early signs of heart disease now. But evidence in many other studies shows that this damage can be slowed and even reversed. The most inspiring story I know that illustrates this truth is the story of Ernestine Shepherd, who at 77 is now a body builder with rippling abs and a fully toned body. She got there even though she started working out for the first time at age 56.
Another thing to note about the NYT study is that the group contained two different groups of athletes, who’s hearts looked different, one favoring aerobic endurance and one built for power and strength. Yet both were healthy individuals. I take this as a sign that as humans, we have the ability to shape our hearts either way, to be strong and powerful and fast and enduring. So don’t spend time worrying about what activity is best – do everything you can, and focus on what you enjoy. If you enjoy it, you will do it more, you shape your body to be healthy, and you will set yourself up for a longer, healthier, more fulfilling life.
So now I’ve got to take my own advice: wiggle out of the fuzzy bathrobe, put the coffee mug in the dishwasher, and strap on the running shoes and my gloves. Breathe in the cold air, and appreciate the sun piercing through the 20 degree chill. Wishing you a happy, heart-healthy day on your trail of choice!
If you’d asked me two years ago, I would have told you I knew a lot about fitness. I’ve been a competitive runner since I first joined track in middle school. I’m also a massage therapist who specializes in treating chronic pain and helping athletes reach their full potential, and had just become an ACE-certified Personal Trainer.
My new ACE certification revealed a gap in my own fitness. Even though I ran upwards of 40 miles most weeks, ate a healthy vegetarian diet, and received regular bodywork, I did zero strength training. Sure, I occasionally did some sit-ups or push-ups while watching reruns of The Office, but weight-lifting didn’t seem that relevant or important to my running performance.
Also, I hated it. I hated the crowded, earbud-wearing environment of gyms. Each winter, I would half-heartedly restart my college cross-country weight-lifting regime (high reps, low weight), promising myself that this year I would stick with it, cross-train and get stronger for the next racing season. I’d go three times a week, start easy and light, go slow and safe, and a few weeks in, I’d notice a familiar pain begin to throb in my neck and shoulder.
“Ah hello again, my Monster.” This age-old complaint showed up in high school and plagued me with constant pain until my mid-twenties. Massage helped when I could afford it, which eventually informed my career choice.
In massage school, I received regular bodywork, and for the first time the ache in my neck and shoulders turned off completely. The freedom, the space I found in my life without that pain completely changed my personality – I suddenly had the mental space for patience and kindness that before had been absorbed in dealing with my pain.
For the next seven years, as long as I received bodywork, the pain stayed away, and I felt deep joy in helping others discover freedom from their pain through massage. The problem was, for me and my clients, that if I didn’t get regular bodywork, or if I tried to lift weights, the pain came back.
Then, as part of my personal training course, I learned that after a certain point, age 30 for most people, the body switches from being able to build muscle mass to losing muscle mass. After that point, you’ve built the muscle tissue that you will have for the rest of your life. Your only hope after that point is to use strength training to prevent or slow down the process of losing that muscle forever. I read this sobering fact just a month before my 30th birthday. I decided I needed to find a way to incorporate strength training into my life without pain. I knew my individual attempts to do so had failed, so I looked beyond myself for a resource from my community.
My research led me to Daniel Carney. Not to CrossFit – I didn’t realize Daniel’s gym was actually a CrossFit box until I’d been there for a while. What drew me to Daniel was his bio – we had a lot in common (both lived in Telluride, both massage therapists/personal trainers, we had even used the same online journaling platform).
Yet he had gone on to accomplish some of my career goals – he’d massaged at the Olympics as a member of the Athens Health Services Sports Massage Team. So based on what I knew of Daniel, and without any real knowledge or expectation regarding his program, I reached out and asked if I could come and give his workouts a try.
What I found, in my first week of Daniel’s classes, were ordinary, well-rounded people doing incredible, impossible things. Women doing seemingly endless rounds of pull-ups, deadlifting over 100kg, walking on their hands and doing crazy things with jump ropes.
All of a sudden, I was forced to confront a lot of preconceived limits I set for myself. “I can’t do pull-ups,” I thought, as I struggled to stick my foot in the resistance band Daniel wrapped around the bar to assist me. “I can’t do handstands,” I thought, as I clumsily walked myself up a wall. “Um, what’s a snatch?” I asked as I found myself somehow learning about the previously unheard of sport of Olympic lifting.
I didn’t even know how to stack weights on a barbell. For someone who considered herself to be a top-level athlete, the inexperience and ineptness I felt in those early months was both humbling and, surprisingly, liberating. I had zero background in any of this, my expectations couldn’t have been lower. The only direction to go was up!
Despite my cluelessness, I loved the format – the workouts, that looked impossible on the board, were often done in under twenty minutes, many of them under ten. “I run over an hour a day; I can do anything for twenty minutes,” I would remind myself, take a deep breath, and give it my best shot. At the end, although I was covered in sweat and boggled by what I had just accomplished, it was always shorter and easier than I had expected.
Over the first early months, it’s difficult to say exactly what kept me coming back. I certainly felt like a goofy, hopeless beginner the whole time. Maybe it was my pride, a sense that if I truly want to be a fitness professional, I should at least know what these movements are, let alone perform them with proficiency.
Likely it was the community, a small group of similarly health-conscious individuals who inspired and encouraged me along the way. Maybe because it was the first space I entered where what was asked of me forced me to face, and often overcome, harmful and limiting self-beliefs.
It took about six months to get comfortable and about a year to start kicking ass. But the things I can do now, they take my breath away. Not only can I do pull-ups – I can do 100 pull-ups with a twenty-pound weight vest on as just a part of the annual “Murph” challenge. I write that, and still think, “Damn! What!?”
My body composition has changed dramatically, “leaned out,” as Daniel says. Even more amazingly, I don’t care. Crossfit has helped me fall in love with what my body can do, and I’ve overcome a lifelong pattern of obsessing and worrying that I was fat.
Like when I first lived without chronic pain, I have now found a whole room of love, for myself and others, that before had been stuffed with compulsive worrying about how my body looked.
And hey, what about that chronic pain? Didn’t it get in the way of all those awesome pull ups? No, it didn’t. Here’s my theory: Something in my neck and shoulder was weak, and the pain came from everything around it working so hard to compensate.
Massage released the tightness and pain temporarily. The progressive loading and constantly varied movements in CrossFit slowly but surely targeted every single muscle in my neck and shoulder, even the weak ones. On the heaviest days, even the weakest muscles had to wake up and join the party. Through this process, I actually retrained the neuromuscular relationships so that the underlying weakness that caused my pain is gone.
So here I am, two years later, still faithfully going to CrossFit almost every weekday, and intending to for life. Am I still a runner? Well, you betcha. Running is my first love, my moving meditation in nature. It is how I remember who I truly am.
The thing is, with regular CrossFit, I’m just a lot faster. I’m back to running my college mile splits in races. And I don’t need to run as often.
I have found that the nature of CrossFit throughout the week pretty much eliminates junk runs; I run one hill workout, one speed day in the form of soccer, and one long run a week. CrossFit keeps me fast, powerful, and recovered between runs.
Overuse injuries in my ankles and knees that I had accepted as the badges of a lifetime runner – gone. By forcing me to address all the areas where I was weak, self-doubting or fearful, CrossFit has transformed me into a pretty formidable athletic beast.