E42 | Michael Easter on the History & Future of Fitness
Michael Easter is a Contributing Editor at Men’s Health magazine and columnist for Outside magazine. His work also appears in Scientific American, Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, Vice, New York, and others. He writes about the most important people, places, and things impacting the human experience. He’s written features about his badass mom, women fighting their way into elite branches of the military, and the underground anti-aging drug trade. His writing—especially his first person, experiential pieces that highlight scientific research—are some of the most highly-trafficked of all time at Men’s Health and Outside. His book, The Comfort Crisis, will be released by Penguin Random House in the spring of 2021.
Michael is also a professor in the journalism department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Before that, he was a senior-level editor at Men’s Health. Michael lives in Las Vegas on the edge of the desert.
- What influenced Michael to write about health and fitness
- Interesting people and places Michael has covered in the health and fitness space
- Fitness trends and practices Michael has observed over the years
- Overarching principles/themes that unite various fitness methodologies
- The future of health and fitness
- The physical and psychological challenges associated with Michael’s recent trip to the Alaskan backcountry
- Michael’s upcoming book
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Doug: [00:00:00] Michael, thanks so much for coming on. So in the past you've been the one asking me all the questions, and now we get to turn the tides a little bit, but I wanted to get you on because I consider you almost like a historian of the health and the fitness space. You've covered a lot of the different trends throughout the years, and it kind of gives you a bird's eye view on the field that even practitioners like me often don't have because we're so in the weeds. So do you mind just starting by talking about how you became inspired to write and more specifically to write about health and fitness?
Michael: [00:00:34] Yeah, for sure. So, just for a little background, I'm a contributing editor at Men's Health. Before that I was on staff for maybe about a decade and I got into journalism. When I was 13 I read Into Thin Air, so this is like nonfiction book about adventure and it like blends. It's got like a lot of health information, a lot of science information, and I loved it. I didn't realize I could do that for a living until I was in college. So I ended up going to grad school, studied journalism, health journalism specifically and while I was in grad school, I ended up interning at Esquire Magazine. So definitely a dude's magazine more or less and then I also ended up interning at Scientific American. So on one hand I had experience with sorta like men's magazines. I also had this experience with science magazines and a job opened up at Men's Health and so I applied and it kinda made sense because Men's Health is like it's got health and men's stuff more or less, so it was a good fit.
In terms of a health and fitness stuff, I was definitely interested in it, but not obsessive about it. Probably in high school, I started working out, I'd played a few sports, wasn't that great at them? I would get injured. I was decent at basketball, but my ankles just would not let me play with any consistency. I just started training in the gym. I always liked it. I was like terrible at training. I remember in college, the people who were into sports would come up and be like, dude, you really shouldn't round your back like that when you're lifting, you know? But I had the interest level, so, when I had the interview at Men's Health, he was like, well, you definitely know how to write. We've got your writing samples. We think your chops are good, but, how do you feel about writing about fitness? I was like, well, I like to work out, I definitely work out and, the guy who hired me was like, okay, good enough. Because in his mind he would rather, he said, it's easier to take a natural writer and reporter and teach them about the basics of fitness rather than take someone who's super in the weeds and fitness and try to teach them how to write. They've tried it both ways he said, and it just works better this way.
I ended up getting a job there and their office was actually in Pennsylvania. So I moved from New York, lived in Pennsylvania for a while and I just got sort of thrown into the world of talking to people like you, talking to people like Bill Hartman, like all the sort of big name, quote unquote, big names you hear in fitness, which the average person doesn't know. But if you're in the fitness world, these are like big, big people sort of famous people in the fitness world. I'd have to take what they told me and translate it into something actionable for, I think we had like 3 million subscribers at the time and stuff would oftentimes get pushed over to our international edition. So the reach was like, I think something like 30 million people. It's been an interesting ride, especially with getting to meet and talk to people, who are sort of on the ground in fitness every single day, working with real people but who are also like inherently really into the nuances and trying to take that and translate it to Joe who just wants to do a quick workout on his way home from work. Doesn't really care about fitness, just doesn't want to be fat and also wants to look halfway decent with a shirt off and also just feel better and be able to do stuff with his kids. So it's definitely been an interesting gig so far, I'll say.
Doug: [00:04:28] Yeah. And one thing that I appreciated about you is that you actually, you wanted that nuance and you weren't looking just to generate clicks and headlines, which is kind of in the internet and social media era, what's sort of a incentivize, you were legitimately curious and wanted to have that nuance message, which can be hard with the limitations that you work under in terms of characters are a lot and stuff like that. But I'm sure that you have some cool stories and so without getting into your most recent trip and the book project that you're working on, because that's a little bit separate from your fitness endeavors, just as you know, there's a lot of a personalities in the health and fitness field, and you've had the opportunity when these people have been relevant or these trends have been relevant to interview and write about a lot of these subjects. So what are some of the more interesting stories and experiences you've had as they pertain to health and fitness over the last decade or so you've been doing this?
Michael: [00:05:20] Yeah, man. I mean, so. I got into writing like I said, I read Into Thin Air and I was like, oh, you can do really cool stuff and then just write about it and like, that's your job, you know? So I sort of took that realization and tried to translate it into what I did at Men's Health. So I kind of became a person who would, type a report or who would go out in the world and try and find interesting people doing interesting things and changing things for the average person. So, a few stories, one time I trained with the first guy to ever bench press a thousand pounds, but I was 24 years old. I've never been that strong and he gives me this address to this gym and I roll up and it's literally a shed in the middle of the woods in Pennsylvania. I opened the door. There's like three pit bulls that descend on me and all these dudes are like 300 pounds huge wearing their bench shirts. There's death metal playing and it's like, okay, I'm going to hang out with these dudes for three days a week for the next three months.
Doug: [00:06:26] Really? It was that long?
Michael: [00:06:27] Yeah. And I stuck out like a sore thumb, obviously listeners can't see me, but I'm six foot tall, kind of skinny, just like a basic dude and here are these just absolute monsters who are like squatting and grand and they're like, okay, now we got to strip all the plates off because Mike Lester is going to try and squat 200 pounds. So it's just funny stuff like that. I've been able to train with and just, hang out with a little bit, a lot of the pretty high up CrossFit guys and some of the women and those people are just absolute freaks. Just being able to see them actually go and move the weight they do. It's just like, Holy crap. It's unbelievable.
Doug: [00:07:11] How much time are those people devoting to training every day?
Michael: [00:07:14] That's a good question. I mean, I think they more or less live it, I think they'll do like four days. But it's 24/7. If they're not training they're trying to do recovery stuff. They're prepping their meals or doing whatever and I was covering especially early on when a lot of them, you could own a gym and try and run it and also be pretty highly ranked, go to the games and now I think even more so it's a professional sport.
Doug: [00:08:02] Yeah.
Michael: [00:08:04] Trying to think, I used to cover the Olympics quite a bit. So stuff with a lot of the winter Olympians was really cool. I'd go up to Lake Placid quite a bit and those guys are really interesting because they're just absolute freaks at what they do, but there's also not a lot of money in it. Some of them would be in sports wear. They're probably not going to win. If you just look at like the Nordic sports, for example.
Doug: [00:08:13] Yeah.
Michael: [00:08:14] Those people are absolute freaks, but if you just look at the record, we rarely medal in those and people have just devoted their lives, living at the Olympic training center, trying to like push that. So it's kind of this interesting dichotomy of like, I guess it was just interesting to see people who dedicated themselves so heavily into something that I don't know, you're probably not going to win and you're not going to make any money off it. But they want...
Doug: [00:08:41] Which is admirable in many ways.
Michael: [00:08:42] Exactly. And so for me initially, it was kind of just like, what are you guys doing? But then you see that and they're like, well, we just love this process. It's like, oh, okay. I can get that
Doug: [00:08:54] You were that kid, like you asked them like, hey, you know, even acknowledging that there's a low probability that you're going to medal and you're in a sport that's not very lucrative. You were comfortable asking them that and they gave you a pretty candid answer and it came down to the process of just wanting, enjoying that journey.
Michael: [00:09:10] Yeah, exactly. They just love doing what they do and they live in Lake Placid. They live in what is essentially a college dorm with a lot of like-minded people. So I could see how it would be awesome.
Doug: [00:09:23] Yeah. Like what's the alternative, like having a regular job?
Michael: [00:09:25] Exactly. Now they have to, like when they get out of that world sort of age out, they're going to have to start; they're essentially 35 years old, but their resume says they're 21. That might be kind of task, but you know, I don't know
Doug: [00:09:42] Olympic pedigree on the resumes isn't bad either, it makes you pretty unique in an applicant pool. So for; real quick, going back to when you went to Pennsylvania for three months, was that just for one story? Because that's pretty intense to live and train amongst people like that for three months, just for, was it one article or it was like a book project? What was the project?
Michael: [00:10:04] It was one article. And so this was back in the day too, when there was a little more money in public had a lot more money to devote to stories like that. So the gym was actually maybe a 45 minute drive from the Men's Health office, luckily, I'd just drive down a few times a week hanging out with them. Training sessions would be like three hours and I would maybe do five sets, 10 sets the whole time, just these long rest breaks and then accessory work but really just kind of observing and hanging out. Then at the end of that, I competed in a power lifting meet, which was equally funny because the guys at the gym, they kind of realized what the deal was. They were like, yeah, he's doing it for a story that's why he doesn't fit in. But everyone watching me lift at the meet in my singlet are just like, what is this kid doing?
Doug: [00:10:57] Did you get a lot stronger at least like relative to what you were?
Michael: [00:10:59] I did. Yeah. I still would say I was pretty weak, but I was less weak, I guess I would put it.
Doug: [00:11:08] Well, I mean, I guess they were good sports.
Michael: [00:11:12] Yeah, for sure. I'm trying to think of some other places. Trained at Jim Jones for a while, that was really interesting. That was kind of...
Doug: [00:11:21] Legendary place.
Michael: [00:11:22] Yeah. Legendary place and when I was there I feel like it was kind of at its apex and just, you go to a seminar or something and there would be 30 people and they'd get these crazy group competitive workouts going and just the intensity in there is unlike anything I've ever experienced. Also it was a place that, it's the hardest I've ever trained was in there. They were able to sort of get performance out of people that you would have no idea you could ever do. So just finding some cool little scenes like that, I think was really the perk of the job and just getting to meet interesting people.
Doug: [00:11:57] Did you get to meet Mark Twight when you were out there?
Michael: [00:11:59] I did. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. He's he's definitely a legend in the training world.
Doug: [00:12:05] Because there's a lot of people aren't familiar with climbing, associate him with training. But he is an elite world-class alpinists and that's the stuff that, I mean, technically and physically, he does on a mountain, I mean, books have been written about that kind of thing. I would encourage people to actually read some of his climate related books, because I think he discovered a lot of really insightful things about training before he was quote unquote training other people, because he had to be physically very competent to do the things that he did on the mountain and he was very systematic in his preparation. But it was cool to see him kind of translate that into something that's a little bit more, that regular people could do in a gym setting.
Michael: [00:12:45] Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I mean, yeah, he's definitely only a freak out near it. That's for sure. He definitely, he has some sense that I don't think anyone has done since and yeah and because of who he was, you got a lot of really interesting people in the gym who were trying to push their physical limits there, because it would translate when they're trying to do some climb that is exceedingly dangerous or something like that.
Or like ski mountaineering, they had a lot of ultra runners and this was before, I mean, I guess ultra running still isn't super popular, but when it was kind of like this obscure, what the hell people doing type sport, so interesting place for sure.
Doug: [00:13:30] Having had these experiences, the field can be just sort of trendy and overreaction, under reaction and there's always kind of like, what's the fad and I'm not saying that the experiences you're referencing are faddish at all because if anything, those are the pinnacles of various sub-disciplines within the field. So those are kind of like that's the good right? Having seen how the pendulum can swing from thing to thing. In your experience with the better, more competent providers, what do you see as the trends that or the principles that sort of unite these various places when it comes to training, health, fitness, what are sort of the universal pillars that regardless of who you work with or who you covered, where you're like, these are the things that make them good there, and they're somewhat transferrable to other realms within the fitness space.
Michael: [00:14:26] Yeah, I'm not sure if this is the answer you're looking for, but I do feel like the people who, I consistently go back to our people who realized the limitations of their knowledge and they fuse, what you might find in the textbook with what they found works in practice but they'll also give you a strong opinion. So, probably not a great example, but a lot of people who only work in a lab, you might talk to them about their research and they'll be like, well, I can't tell you anything, whether you should do X or Y or Z. I get that, but that's not really useful then. It's like, okay, well then why are you studying this exercise then? Like what can we take away from that? Then on the other side of that, there's people who are very set in their ways. You just have to be strong, that's all you need, a hundred percent and it's kind of like, are you sure? Are you sure about that? Because the tides always turn in fitness. It's like, one year something's hot and the next it's like, now we're onto this other idea and Oh, that was dumb. So it's like why do people not assume that that could be the case with what they so firmly believe now?
So I think the best people, and this is, I mean, this is why we're friends, because I can call you up and be like, I have this question and you're like, well, here are a couple of different ways to look at it. Here's what's so-and-so might say here's what so-and-so might say and here's what I'd do and I'm going to tell you why, and you'll tell me why and you're like, that's just what I do that doesn't mean I'm absolutely right. But because you take that approach instead of something so absolutest, I'm like, okay, that seems reasonable to me.
Doug: [00:16:16] And what's also interesting is that, I mean, you're writing for a general readership. People, many of whom aren't that passionate about fitness, but they recognize that it's important and they want to do something, whether it's for longevity or to enjoy the sports, they play, the hobbies that they want to pursue. So how do you as a writer, you might interview someone who's like a specialist in the field, but if you write in a way that's very, very specialized, you're going to lose your readership because they don't necessarily care. They're never going to be able to bench press a thousand pounds. So how do you translate with some of these like very, very legitimate high level coaches are doing and these very specific areas of fitness and then translate that into something that's actionable for a regular person.
Michael: [00:17:05] Yeah.
Doug: [00:17:06] Maybe like a dot connector in many ways.
Michael: [00:17:08] Yeah. I mean, I would say who I would consider the better ones will be like, okay, I trained this NFL player here's what we do. But here's how I would translate that to Joe, whoever it is, let's back off on the reps. Let's also do this and they're able to think about, okay, if I'd had an average person doing this, here's what I would do. And oftentimes that comes from me. Because I'll be like, this is great but whatever the workout is, say, it's some, I don't know something where they have like predetermined weights or something. I don't know if our readers can lift this much weight. How would you scale this back or what would you do with this if just some random guy walked into your gym and you had no idea about his training history and what he could do, how would you write this in that case? The best ones will, and the ones who absolutely don't bend, I'll usually run it past someone, who we trust, you get trusted people and ask is this going to kill someone? And if the answer is yes, then we just don't run it. We don't have, I'm not putting out information that other people think is going to hurt someone.
Doug: [00:18:20] Yeah. One thing I noticed just from reading some of your work is that regardless of who you're writing about one of the overarching themes seems to be just consistency. People, they have a system that they trust and they're also transparent about like, this is what it's for. So obviously if the person that's trying to bench press a thousand pounds, they're not saying that what they're doing necessarily translates to the general population, they've got a very specific goal and they're not trying to say that their system is the best thing for a 50 year old male or female, but just wants to like able to lift their arms over their head without shoulder pain necessarily. But it seems like regardless of what the sub-specialty is, these people are very, very diligent, methodical, and like highly consistent. Would you say that that's kind of what you've observed?
Michael: [00:19:06] Yeah, I think so. It's just realizing, it's understanding the audience and being able to adapt that and not say that everyone realizing that people are individual more or less.
Doug: [00:19:19] So, having seen all those things and trying to connect these dots for the average person, who's not going to be an elite athlete but is interested in just longevity feeling good and then being athletic enough to do active hobbies, say that they enjoy skiing on the weekends or playing golf or playing pickup basketball where fitness is more of a means to an end and they're not competing in fitness, a CrossFit games competitor. What general recommendations do you think are kind of the same thing, say like these are the things that without getting into the details more, just the key points, what are the things that people should be doing to just maintain overall health, wellness, longevity, and a baseline level of athleticism. I think you even wrote it like an article about just different tests and measures that you think are indicative of wellness at any age.
Michael: [00:20:11] Yeah. Well, that's where I asked you. You're the expert, man. I'm not the expert, but if....
Doug: [00:20:16] You talk to a lot more people though than me.
Michael: [00:20:18] Yeah. So, I mean, just to be clear, I'm not an expert, but if you had to ask me, I would say that generally not doing one thing at the expense of all others is good. So you should probably do some strength stuff you should probably be doing some endurance stuff. You should probably be focusing on movement and you should probably also be doing other stuff beyond health, beyond stuff you can do in the gym or outside, eating well also just getting outside and doing stuff. It's hilarious to me because people always, crap all over the government guidelines for things like physical activity and things like, nutrition. But if people actually did them, they'd probably be a lot healthier. It's just basic stuff and I think sometimes what happens is when people become interested in fitness at sort of try and go a little deeper, they start to latch onto; they start to become a little too, I guess married to one set of ideals and think that it's the best at the expense of all others when it's like, you should probably be doing a few different things and experimenting and sort of finding what seems to work for you, because it's like, do we have any data that says oh, the person who did this workout lived longer than the other. It's like, no, you don't know any of that stuff. So like you see a lot of kind of wild claims, I guess in the fitness world sometimes I don't know if we can really back them up or ever know them.
Doug: [00:21:53] Yeah. And part of the reason why I'm asking you is because you're not in the field and I think sometimes we can drink a little bit of our own Kool-Aid too much and that's why I like having somebody outside the field can provide a perspective and almost like a sanity check. So that's actually why I'm asking you, but it just seems like, so from a health, longevity and wellness standpoint, you're saying kind of do a little bit of everything and don't overly chase specialization because you can't do one thing without robbing yourself of other things sort of. Then that leaves; which is encouraging because that leaves a lot of room for choice. There's a lot of the ways that that can work. It's not dogmatic.
Michael: [00:22:33] Yeah. Yeah, exactly. This sort of made, this might be slightly off topic, but this made me think of something too. You often see things framed and fitness. If you do this, you're going to lose all your games. If you do this, you're definitely going to get hurt. Something that you always say to me is humans are very resilient and robust. You're not going to die if you do one, if you lose your form a little bit on this exercise or do X or Y or Z. Might even be good for you. I think just like exposing yourself to a lot of different variables is pretty good for the average person.
Doug: [00:23:09] Yeah. I mean, a lot of that is people take research out of context. They'll look at a study that says stretching makes you weaker but if you look at the actual study it's well, they stretch the same muscle for five minutes straight, which nobody actually does. Then they immediately did a power test where there was some statistically significant loss in power, but in real life someone's going to stretch, they're going to do a lot less than five minutes. Then they're going to do a dynamic warm up and they're going to warm up if it's basketball to do a shoot around or they'll work on some skills. So whatever transient loss and power occurred they'll get that back. But the flip side is some people take that out of context and be like I should like never stretch at all. Then it's like, all right, so now your body has no bandwidth for movement because you don't put your joints in positions beyond what you would encounter in your daily life. So you have no. kind of buffer and we get into the semantics of walls. Is it static stretching, or is it dynamic stretching? And to me it's like just put your body in positions that you don't encounter during your day to day so that when you play a sport or whatever, you're not operating at a hundred percent of what you're positional capacities. I think we just get so caught up sometimes in the semantics and well, I can't static stretch because I'm going to lose power and it's like, that's not really what the study says look at the full context of it.
Michael: [00:24:33] Yeah. I think the problem is that part of it is my industry, is that like a journalist reads a study and thinks it says one thing and they write about it. Oftentimes they will talk to the researcher and there's incentives for researchers to be covered in the press. So maybe they blow it out too. It's kind of a two way street, but then things get taken to their logical string. It's like one study came out that says, X like a good example would be this isn't fitness related. But when the research started to suggest that maybe saturated fat wasn't as bad as we thought it was and people go, oh, great. Well, I'm going to put a stick of butter in my coffee every morning.
Doug: [00:25:11] Yeah, a hundred percent.
Michael: [00:25:14] And there are tons of examples from fitness with that too, where it's like, one I remember was this argument and I don't know if that was based off specific research probably came out of the early HIT research, but people were like saying that jogging would make you fat.
Doug: [00:25:34] That's the obesity epidemic could be attributed to jogging too much.
Michael: [00:25:38] Yes, where it's like what are you talking about? And this was something that you saw said by a lot of people just sort of caught on as this argument.
One blogger picks up the idea and rolls with it and it just sort of spreads and it's like, what the hell are we talking about? Humans have been running for millions of years. It's not the place of a bro behind a keyboard to try and change that, like come on.
Doug: [00:26:04] And the biggest thing if you enjoy running, then you should do it.
Body composition is one variable, ultimately people should do what they enjoy and as long as they're safe and healthy and not infringing on other people then who are we to say you shouldn't run? But yeah, it's interesting because things get; I remember even with the Tabata study which was referenced a lot and it was like proof that interval training is superior to everything else. I was talking to somebody about this actually right before we got on this call, in that study they do that Tabata protocol where it's 20 seconds on 10 seconds off eight times, a couple of days a week. What people often don't want to mention is, I think two days a week, the experimental group in that study did a half hour to 45 minutes of just slow, steady aerobic work.
Michael: [00:26:53] Yeah.
Doug: [00:26:55] And so it was basically Tabata plus aerobic work was one group and the other group was pure aerobic work and Tabata won, and people say, well, therefore you shouldn't do any like low intensity aerobic work, but that was actually part of the protocol that was deemed to be successful but people because they want to make a polarizing either or then it's like, well, all you've got to do is the tabata protocol, but even in that study, the country, the experimental group did more than the Tabata protocol.
Michael: [00:27:22] Right, right. And can people do what was actually in any given study? I think one thing with that, so I could be mixing up studies, but one thing is they hit just, to dumb this down, they went super, super hard and it's like, is the average person going to get to that level where they're like tasting blood in the gym? It's like, nah, probably not. How do you do that at like a Gold's gym without getting kicked out? They don't even have the right equipment for it.
Doug: [00:27:48] Yeah. I mean, if you do some of those really short interval protocols and get the benefit. It takes a certain psychological makeup where you're really maximizing every second of output. If you're not doing that, then you're doing aerobic work on the clock on a interval timeframe.
Michael: [00:28:05] Yeah, totally.
Doug: [00:28:07] But yeah, I mean, you mentioned the researchers, I've actually found that the researchers are often the most intellectually honest about the limitations and they'll only going to write in their papers, these were the results in a very confined set of circumstances. It's not generalizable until we can do X, Y, and Z. It's other people who are looking for the answer who take the research out of context. So that's when; it's a world of incomplete information and we need research. We also need honest people to interpret the research and generalize it and not; because it's become very political. I think a lot of the research and people are in their tribes and they're going to cherry pick up. If they love intervals they're going to find a study that proves that you don't need to do anything else. But then if you look at like even elite endurance athletes, they're always doing a mix of higher and lower intensity work. The proportion of it might vary depending on someone's style, but no one's doing one versus the other in isolation.
Michael: [00:29:09] I agree. It's mainly driven by loud voices on the internet, more or less these debates where if you really back up it's like the debate is just amplified by people who have a platform more or less. I do think sometimes though, from my experience talking to the researchers, I agree with you that that's the case, but you'll also find that they may talk to you for 20 minutes about how great this is and then the last two minutes, it might be like, oh, by the way, this isn't generalizable and so it's like...
Doug: [00:29:39] Yeah, a commercial for a medication where it's like, this is going to change your life and then the last 30 seconds is, and this can cause blindness and premature death and yeah.
Michael: [00:29:48] You may die. So I do think, I mean, especially for, I mean, the economics of journalism has changed a lot and you're having a lot of younger reporters having to crank out a lot of stories in the day. So it's definitely hard to get that nuance in when you have to write the story in like two hours and really pick up on some of those nuances. So I don't think that helps either and I think that, I dunno, it's definitely complicated. How to get the right information out. I mean, there's definitely some people who are doing it, but those stories tend to take a little more time.
Doug: [00:30:21] Yeah. I mean, the incentives aren't always there. Do you feel whether it's in your own space or in different aspects of journalism it's not as interesting necessarily. Well, it's interesting, but it's not as catchy to say to read a nuanced article that just of which as well, it depends, which is usually the answer to most questions. If you're limited to a certain number of characters on Twitter, the clickbait headline is going to get more views than something that's more nuanced. So is there a pressure to kind of dilute the message or are you seeing that at all?
Michael: [00:30:58] Yeah, I think so. And it starts really with the headline because the way that online publications make money is your clicks, getting eyes on the advertisers attention. It's an attention economy and if you run a headline, that's like, I don't know, HIT is maybe good for whatever, it's like, noone's buying that but if it's you study HIT, blah, blah, blah, people are like click. So even if you have the nuance in there that sometimes gets lost even by the headline. So I think you need to add it, but I also did it from the point of view of...
Doug: [00:31:37] I totally get it. I mean, it's a business. You have to make money and you're vying for attention and right now attention is the currency of our time and nuance is not conducive to generating attention. I see it from both sides. It's really hard.
Michael: [00:31:51] Definitely. Then at the same time most Americans aren't moving enough. So they think the HIT is going to do whatever, go for it, whatever, go for it.
Doug: [00:32:06] And that's the thing and that's where I used to get hung up on people in the field are obsessed with perfection. But when you work with humans, perfection is using that an option and for a lot of people especially if they believe something is the answer and ultimately, it's going to be, they're going to do that one thing that might be a little bit faddish, or they're not going to move at all, then a hundred percent, it's a victory if they're doing the faddish thing. And people often get mad there's certain classes or systems where maybe they're not as substantive from the technical standpoint, but there's a lot of like comradery and a lot of energy and stuff like that and that's almost people look down on that in the field, but it's like, that's getting people to exercise, which is generally a good thing. So as long as they're relatively safe and not endangering themselves. Maybe they're not doing what you learned in the textbook, in a strength and conditioning certification, but we're not dealing with professional athletes, we're dealing with like regular people who otherwise are not passionate about movement and exercise, and there's a health epidemic, an obesity epidemic and so you have to look at the totality of it too and it's about the whole experience and not just what looks best on paper or in a research study.
Michael: [00:33:30] And the classic example is CrossFit, especially when that was first growing, it was like, so much hate about it because of this question about injury rates and whatnot. But the loudest voices were often people in the fitness world who trained football players. If you really cared about human health, you're making missiles that are smashing into each other every Sunday. Do you really care?
Doug: [00:33:55] Right, right.
Michael: [00:33:56] It's that. So it's, I don't know. It's just convoluted and I think at the end of the day, it's like how can we get more people to find something they enjoy doing that's physical that helps their health and that's sort of the answer. Of course there's always optimal, but we know people don't always find optimal.
Doug: [00:34:15] So even optimal is like context dependent, depending on what someone's goals are? Do you anticipate any future trends or new things? Because it seems all things constantly resurface and are repackaged under different names and nothing is that new? Do you, based on what you've seen, is anything really new on the horizon or is it just kind of more of the same, but more just like repackaging the same things?
Michael: [00:34:42] That's a good question. I mean, you definitely see a trend where something becomes the hot new thing, and then all of a sudden, no, it's actually sucks. Where it's like, I mean, you're kind of saying that now with a lot of the movement stuff, I am at least where there's been a lot of great strides made in helping people move better.
But now you have trainers who are sort of loudly proclaiming; I don't have people do any warm-up thrills, I should just waste time or whatever. In terms of new stuff, actually new, I think it will be, I mean, I definitely have some skepticism about like wearable technologies.
Doug: [00:35:24] I was going to ask you about tech and your thoughts on that.
Michael: [00:35:27] Yeah. I do think it's getting a lot better though and specifically I talked to, for example just today, I talked to this guy who was a researcher at UCSD and he's using data from the aura ring. He has a study going to potentially predict COVID and obviously there's a lot of the data still waiting to come in, but there's a little bit of promise there, especially as the tech becomes better, can we use these things to really integrate and change behaviors and learn things about public health that we would have otherwise known. That feels pretty new to me. Anything with AI and machine learning I think there's a huge opportunity right now it's just applying it appropriately and also realizing that there are limitations. The guy I talked to today, he's like humans are insanely complex, don't get the wrong idea that all of a sudden this is going to like save us all because it's not and we have a ton to learn, but we also have these technologies we'd never had before that are really good at learning. So we don't know what's going to happen.
Doug: [00:36:31] Yeah, it's good. It's always perpetual promise with it, but then the details can, time where we reveal it, I guess, but it was cool that if you acknowledged that there still is a lot of ambiguity with it.
Michael: [00:36:43] Yeah absolutely. So I don't know, what's your take on that stuff with your clients? I'd be interested to hear.
Doug: [00:36:46] I think that if for some people the technology holds them accountable, so personally, I'm going to do the same thing, whether I've got a watch or an app telling me to exercise today because it's just it's a part of my life and I've already created my own habits. If the technology helps to create good habits then I'm all for it. Because if someone generally doesn't move that much and like 10,000 steps is probably an arbitrary number. But if people who otherwise aren't going to do that much and it would sit inside all day are going to go out and try to get 10,000 steps and the alternative is really nothing else, I think that's great. So as long as people don't become like slaves to the metrics and the quantification, where now it's not about so much like what they're actually doing, but it's about chasing the number, because that can be problematic. Adam Alter wrote a really good book about kind of like tech addiction and how the metric itself can become the driver for the dopamine response and lead to almost pathological and addictive behavior. And then you're forgetting about, you're trying to do something healthy.
A lot of the tech things, especially the minimally invasive ones are promising to do something that really to be done, with validity and reliability, you need a very expensive large machine for even an invasive test. So they haven't really been validated against a gold standard, but that said, if you're using like a heart rate variability technology, even if it's consistently somewhat unreliable and inaccurate, if it's using the same algorithm, at least you can see some trends. So, and if those trends, I mean, you use the keyword, I think it's behavior. If those trends and that data leads to positive behavioral adaptations on a micro or a macro level, I think it's good. There are obviously some ethical issues with large data sets and who owns that and how to protect it and protect people’s privacy. But assuming those things can be done, I think that we have to look into it, but I think ultimately it comes down to behavioral change and if the tech can be a driver for that in a healthy way, not in an addictive or pathological way, then I think it's good. I think it's true, I give people the choice and if they're really excited about it, I don't want to tell them that hold on I don't think he should use it because again, I'm looking at the totality and if in totality that tech is leading to a positive behavior, then I'm very supportive of it.
Michael: [00:39:18] Yeah. I know a handful of people who it's helped them identify behaviors that weren't great. I don't know, sleep monitor showing that on nights that a person had a drink or two before bed, oh, their sleep was shitty and they kind of felt not great then the morning before. Do you need to $300 wristwatch to tell you that might be happening. I don't know, but some people do.
Doug: [00:39:43] Yeah. Some people might. I mean, again, everyone knows that sleep is really good for you, but maybe the accountability of, oh, like even if they can't quantify, I think quantifying sleep quality to me is a little bit can be suspect with something that's worn around you neck, how are they really measuring that? But even duration, if your watch or your phone recognizes that you're moving relatively stationary even if you're not getting deep sleep for those eight hours, at least like you're in bed. If that data leads people to like, get to bed earlier and at least make the effort to try to sleep eight plus hours a night, then it's good. I mean, because I think with a lot of things, it's not lack of information. It's applying the information we already know and doing the easy things well, and sometimes tech can be a means to make that happen.
Michael: [00:40:41] Yeah, you said it, I agree. Yeah. I think, yeah. I mean, I think there's also a trend too, of people just, I think it's driven by social media, but just trying to be the dude who did the hardest thing ever and it's sort of like this measuring stick keeps getting pushed back. I mean, my sense is you might see some push-back on that soon, because I don't know how sustainable that is. I'm trying to think what else comes to mind. Yeah. I don't know. It'll be...
Doug: [00:41:13] I think tech is probably that to me is the most intriguing area because I don't think fitness and the way that you can manipulate workouts and physical activity can really change that much by how that's delivered technologically is probably, that's where there's a lot of 'em, it's going to be exciting to see where it goes for better or for worse.
Michael: [00:41:33] I mean, I do hope that too, we don't get so techie that everyone's working out behind screens, I mean, I think that there's huge benefits of being outdoors, that a lot of people miss when they're only training in a gym and there's this one scientist, I think he's at USC now but he's done some work, where he looks at, I'd have to remember exactly what it is, but essentially he's a neurologist and he sort of compares what happens in the brain when people train outside versus being on a treadmill, watching a screen and there are some differences there and he's a anthropologist by training and his argument is when we evolve and we're exercising, which was really just life then it's we had to like navigate terrain something like a persistence hunt is as much of a mental exercise that is physical one. Now we really only get the physical part. We're not training our brain at the same time. So it'll be interesting to see what that leads to, hopefully more people get outside. I don't think that's ever a bad idea personally.
Doug: [00:42:43] Yeah and it's now, obviously because of the COVID thing, there's a reluctance to be around other people, but I think there's a benefit to the social aspect of exercising in a group or being outside in a group. There are obviously things that we have to respect about this virus, but the downside to isolation even though a lot of stuff is hard to quantify, can be as catastrophic on a macro level as what can be done from the virus. And it's like, how do we balance those two things, the respect for the way that things can spread very quickly from a disease standpoint to all right, but if we're just going to be like, hey, we don't have enough information. We're just going to remain kind of paralyzed forever. That also has second order effects too. So none of this stuff is easy, but like you said, going back to training, there are no free rides anywhere. If you do too much of one thing it's going to take away. But since you brought up being outside and kind of the benefits of tracking and thinking, I think that's a good segue into the book that you just finished. So can you get into 'that book project and what you did, because that's a really cool story that combines fitness with adventure and really coming out of your comfort zone.
Michael: [00:43:56] Yeah, for sure. So I got the backup, the idea of this book is I wanted to look at how the world has become so comfortable. So if you think about it in the last hundred years the things that most affects a human's day to day experience, they're all a hundred years or less right there. They're not old. Our cell phones, that's new. We spend four hours on them a day. Temperature control, we don't really have to put in physical effort for anything anymore. Our food system, we don't have to work for food. We're just surrounded in comfort food. So playing off this idea of what have been the effects of all this comfort we live in, it kind of looks at the health effects of that and then also what are ways we can insert this idea of just comfort into our lives but interpreted through a handful of different ways. So things like hunger, things like how should we think about training? Things even like we don't experience death anymore. It's like when people die now with the funeral, modern funeral systems, they basically like die in a hospital, go to a mortician. We make them look as youthful as possible then we send them into the ground. Whereas death used to be this thing that people experienced, not only with their loved ones, but also things like the food system. You killed your own food more or less, so I did this long trip. I was in Alaska for 30 some odd days, and we were in the Arctic for most of the time on this back country con. So that was sort of a way to try to kind of a contrived way to experience a lot of these discomforts that humans used to face all the time. We're out having to put in physical effort every single day to get from point A to point B. There obviously wasn't temperature control. Everything we did out there took effort. Even the act of, I ended up, killing a caribou and I'd never killed anything beyond a bow...
Doug: [00:45:47] With a bow and arrow?
Michael: [00:45:47] With a rifle.
Doug: [00:45:51] Okay. So Donnie was the bow and arrow, right?
Michael: [00:45:53] Yeah. And he even used a rifle on the caribou hunt. He usually does bow and arrow stuff, but he used a rifle that trip and just like that act alone is like, it's really interesting because afterwards I was kind of an emotional, a little bit of a mess. I just felt kind of really and then you have this realization as you're breaking the thing down, it looks like meat. Why don't I feel this way when I eat meat normally? So sort of trying to get back to some of these things we had to deal with in the past in a lot of different ways and looking at how we've changed and how like our comfortable world has changed us. This is more or less what the book's about. I did a lot of other traveling, on each of the topics. So I went to Butan for about a week or two and I went to Iceland for a little and a bunch of different pockets around the country. Sort of meet with different people who are sort of thinking about discomfort in different ways and what it can do for us more or less.
Doug: [00:46:53] When you were on that Alaska trip, how long did you go without sleeping in a bed?
Michael: [00:46:56] Oh, weeks. So we did, let me plug it in here. So we were two and a half weeks in the Arctic and then we did two weeks in the Chugach mountains on a doll sheep hunt. So the Chugach are outside of Anchorage, so they're pretty, they just kind of shoot out of the shoot out of the sea, more or less, a lot of ups and downs. We packed everything in, The Arctic is not the landscape isn't extreme, but it's huge and it's haunting and it can get, the weather can get pretty gnarly up there. We were just living out of tents and a teepee the whole time. So it was definitely definitely an adventure, physically, it was just fascinating to me that, you Doug wrote me a program for it and I went into that trip fitter than I've ever been in my life. When I got out there, I was definitely prepared, but I don't think you can ever prepare for certain types of landscapes. That's just this variable that you can never control. So for example, the Arctic Tundra I would describe it as a mattress that is covered in half inflated basketballs. So there are these really soft areas, but then there's these things called Tundra Tufts that's all over it, like pimples all over it. There are these like round, sort of soft pieces of grass. So you can never, it just sucks to walk on. Just sucks. You sometimes breakthrough ice with little currents running below and just the cold really wears at you, you don't get that in the gym. You're having to navigate every step because if you miss a step you could snap an ankle and it's a really long hobble to where a plane could ever pick you up. So just having to think about putting yourself in a position where you got to figure this out it was very different and enlightening, I would say.
Doug: [00:49:04] Yeah. Were there any moments where you felt really vulnerable either because of an environmental challenge with the weather or being in the vicinity of some dangerous animals where even if you have some weapons, I mean, if there was a bunch of them, you're messing with nature. Any moments of vulnerability?
Michael: [00:49:22] Yeah. We definitely had a few, I mean, every day something would happen where you're like now we're pretty alone out here because we were a hundred some odd miles from the nearest town and the town was like a thousand people. So a couple come to mind. So after, I killed the carabou, we had to pack it out. So my pack was probably about a hundred pounds and we had five, six miles all uphill of Tundra to get back to camp and this isn't a choice where you can go; if you're at the gym, you can be well, this sucks. I think I'm going to quit. You can't tap out out there because nothing's going to come get you. So just that, where you're like, it was the most physically difficult thing I've ever done, because it was like the intensity of our really quick nasty CrossFit workout combined with the length of a 50 mile run or something.
Doug: [00:50:18] It's just like hours of suck
Michael: [00:50:20] Hours of suck, hours of suck. We had nights where wolverines would come into camp and I would ask Donnie I'm like so are they pretty dangerous? He goes, well, if it comes to your tent it's going to rearrange your face. It's like, oh my gosh.
Doug: [00:50:37] Would you guys have to keep somebody up for security or just go to sleep and hope that nothing malls you in the middle of the night?
Michael: [00:50:42] Go to sleep and like, I mean, I slept like a rock out there, but the guys I was with were pretty in tune. They would hear stuff. Trying to think what else. We had one day where it was like negative 20 and we had a river crossing and so we get out of this river and my boots instantly freeze up and then we have this like track across this frozen swamp. So every now and then your boot would fall down in the swamp and you bring up more water and it would freeze and it was just unbelievably cold. We ended up hiking 12 miles out from camp and then you have to come back and hopefully by before nightfall and it's just so unbelievably cold the whole time that just adds this crazy layer of stress that you could just never anticipate before getting there. You kind of have to, as someone put it to me you've got to figure out your shit, more or less if you're going to get through it. So it was definitely great. I mean, I think it did a lot for me psychologically and just sort of understanding like what you're capable of more or less, if you get put in a position like that, humans are pretty good at actually doing something. It sounds scary as hell before you do it. But once you do it, you're like, oh, if I can do that what else could I do?
Doug: [00:52:02] Did you guys procure food along the way? Did you bring enough rations for the entire trip initially and just kind of store it somewhere?
Michael: [00:52:09] Yeah. So we brought enough for the entire trip because we had sort of two trips, so we would bring enough for both and pack them around and we kept it pretty light and we definitely weren't patching in the amount of calories that we were burning, maybe I would say like 2000 a day, but we're definitely going through more than that.
Doug: [00:52:28] Did you lose a lot of weight?
Michael: [00:52:29] 10 pounds. So I went in like a buck 70 and left like 160 I'm like six weeks. So I was pretty lean coming out. But when we did end up killing a caribou. It was then you feast. You start to get that weird hunger obsession once your body is really losing weight. All these mechanisms that we've developed over time kick in and you just start to like obsess over food and so then it's like cramming it in after we killed the caribou.
Doug: [00:53:03] I would imagine that you didn't like quite a bit of hunting while you were hungry and food deprived. Everything in the sports world, it's like, well, you have to feel for the game, but in reality. Most of human history, people were hungry when they were procuring food and have to perform. So. It seems like you adapted to it.
Michael: [00:53:19] Yeah, definitely adapted. I mean, it's funny because we have complicated training programs and nutrition plans and whatever and it's like early humans would run 25 miles doing a persistent run and they didn't have any of that stuff. But what they did have was hunger, it's like we can figure stuff out.
Doug: [00:53:42] By the end of the trip did you feel competent to the point that like you could hunt on your own, procure your own food without the help of the guys that you had?
Michael: [00:53:52] I think so. Yeah. So we, I mean, the guy I went with, for listeners who don't know him, his name's Donnie Vincent, and he's a back country country. He also does some documentaries. Check them out is just Google his name, it's Donnie Vinson. I went with him and he's had a ton of experience in the wild. So he was able to help me a lot. But I think with caribou, I could hunt them at this point. I picked up a lot from Donnie for sure. We also did a doll sheep hunt. That's a little tricky because they tend to live up in cliffs and that's essentially their defense mechanism. They just go where no other animal can. In fact, the animal that tends to do decently well hunting them are big birds. Because they'll just dive on down and push a doll sheep off a cliff. And then go pick it it's remain. So I mean, pretty crazy animals. So that one was tricky. We didn't end up getting a doll sheep on that hunt just because they're really freaking hard to hunt and Donnie was hunting them with a bow.
Doug: [00:54:55] Was the team pretty patient with you? Did they look at you as like kind of someone who is going to jeopardize the expedition or did they kind of mentor you and treat you as one of their own?
Michael: [00:55:06] Yeah, I think that, I mean, I definitely felt treated like I was one of my own, they did tell me at a certain point, they were like, you're doing better out here than we expected.
Doug: [00:55:15] That's good to hear. But on the other way.
Michael: [00:55:17] I just kinda like, I tried to control what variables I could going in. It was like, okay, I'm going to make sure I'm as fit as I can be. I'm going to get the right gear and I'm not going to complain and I'm just going to do what I need to do and if I can just do that, I should be fine. I feel like that's what happens.
Doug: [00:55:37] I mean, I'm sure after a trip like that, a warm bed and better access to food is a nice change. But was there almost like a let down when you came back, now you've got to go back to regular life after hunting caribou in the mountains of Alaska.
Michael: [00:55:54] Yeah because everything changes. It's like there was one time when I was out there and I went out on the Tundra early one morning and it's so unbelievably silent out there. So you stand there for a minute and you start to hear something and you realize it's your heart beating, and you can hear your lungs, the inner workings of your lungs, you can hear your joints creak, and it's just so quiet and once we left we stayed at a airport in Anchorage before flying home and I walked into my hotel room and it was a hotel by the airport and there's a plane taking off right as I walk in and it was so unbelievably loud just because my hearing had kind of adapted to these really and it was just like, whoa, welcome back. Then everyday life it's like up there, you kind of have one goal, right? You're going to hunt today. That's what we're going to do everyday and we're just going to do that. Whereas when you get home, it's like, oh, I got to do XYZ and things kind of change and get a little more frenetic. It's that scene at the end of, what's that movie, the hurt locker
Doug: [00:57:00] Chairman in the supermarket? Yeah.
Michael: [00:57:03] He was in the supermarket and he's just kind of like absentmindedly staring into the shelves and just kind of turns and he's like back you kind of have a little bit of that. I mean, I don't know if you experienced that with your own stuff that you do, but I definitely had those moments.
Doug: [00:57:18] Yeah. I mean there's times where like, I'm never going to be as cool as I was. But how nice was it to not look at your phone? Because the phone thing and email it's afforded us a lot of conveniences and accessibility, but I almost feel I'm too accessible now and the barrier to communicate with somebody is so low that anybody that wants a piece of you can get a piece of you. Whereas before you had to pick up a phone and call somebody and that would deter people from, it took some effort. Now it's like, I just remember, even before Ways and Google maps, I always found my way. I always could get to places maybe with a little more effort. I always met up with my friends, even without being able to text them. It's nice to have those things, but I can only imagine how refreshing it probably was for these for a couple of weeks to not have your phone buzzing every two seconds.
Michael: [00:58:10] Yeah, for sure. I mean, those things take so much of our attention. I teach at UNLB. and in one of my classes I had them all look at their screen times, my students, and these are college students and some people were at seven something hours and eight hours, just spending more time on those things and I do think we're losing a lot from it. I definitely think there's some trade offs. In fact, there's a whole section in the book about a boredom, how we've lost boredom, and I'm sort of interpreting it through this idea that we don't really allow our minds to wander anymore because anytime we feel this discomfort of boredom, we grab our phones. Whereas we used to have to think, we used to go inward. Now our attention is always outward facing.
Doug: [00:58:57] Yeah. It's this idea like that we have to be hyper efficient all the time and things that used to be opportunities for social interaction and communication, even preparing a meal. Now we look at that as it's a burden to have to cook a meal, but when you cook a meal, you're spending time with somebody, you're kind of detaching yourself from work and stress and stuff like that because it's kind of a very, almost therapeutically monotonous activity. You cut the food, you turn the stove on. You're talking to somebody, listening to some music. It's very enlightened, you're not in a rush and now it's like, we've vilified free time. Now we can get food delivered, I'm in New York. I mean, it's a little bit weirder now with a lot of restaurants being closed. But before this pandemic it's like, you can get food delivered in any time of the day you go on your phone, it's super easy. So instead of preparing food, you're like how can I be busy between now when the food gets delivered? Like you said there is a downside to being, you can be too efficient to the point that I think it's not good for you.
Michael: [00:59:59] Yeah. I mean, I think it's like you hear it, especially at a Silicon Valley, you hear a lot about this mindset of like, we always have to grind and work is going to save you or whatever and it's just like, that is a false hope.
Doug: [01:00:13] It's killing a lot of people.
Michael: [01:00:14] Absolutely and it's just like, I feel like these things tether you to always have the ability to work and I don't think that's a good thing and I see it in myself. I have a really hard time shutting that off. Really hard, but when I'm able to that, I think is the benefit of like doing cool outdoor things. Go somewhere where your cell phone doesn't get reception because it's awesome.
Doug: [01:00:39] Yeah. You don't have a choice there.
Michael: [01:00:41] Yeah, exactly. It's like that thing was never going to work out there. It was basically just like a crappy camera every now and then.
Doug: [01:00:49] What's the name of the book and I know you're just starting the publication process. Any idea, is there a final title or when it's going to be released, just so people can keep it on the radar?
Michael: [01:01:00] Yeah. It's called The Comfort Crisis and it will...
Doug: [01:01:03] Love that title.
Michael: [01:01:04] Yeah, it's good. My editor thought it up but I wasn't sold on it at first, but when I tell it to people, they're like, oh, I get it.
Doug: [01:01:10] Yeah.
Michael: [01:01:11] It'll be out in April of 2021. I don't know exactly.
Doug: [01:01:17] So your part is done. It's out of your hands now?
Michael: [01:01:19] More or less. I mean, I'm still going to have to do some stuff on it or we'll have a little bit of back and forth, but it's 98% there and then I'll have to do some of the marketing stuff.
Doug: [01:01:31] That's got to be a relief.
Michael: [01:01:33] Yeah, exactly. It's weird, after I turned it in, the final, it's just like kind of I walked around the house almost like, what do I do with myself now? I felt kind of just like lost, just because it's a lot of work. It's like nine hours a day for 365 days, more or less.
Doug: [01:01:55] Cool. Where can people follow you to get updates on articles you write and when the book finally comes out, as far as like social media or website, stuff like that?
Michael: [01:02:04] For sure. So you can find my website is eastermichael.com. I have a newsletter. It was put on hiatus as I sort of finished my book, but that should be starting up again soon you can sign up on my website there and then I'm on Instagram. I'm also on Twitter, but I mainly just lurk there and look for information from smart people like Doug and also sort of watch the crazy wars in fitness and nutrition that happens from the sidelines.
Doug: [01:02:32] Watch the world burn.
Michael: [01:02:33] Watch it all burn, man.
Doug: [01:02:36] Cool, thanks for your time and we'll, have to talk to you maybe in April when the book comes out and get some more depth on that. I look forward to reading it.
Michael: [01:02:45] Alright, well, thanks for having me, man.
Doug: [01:02:47] Yeah. Thank you.
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