Wednesday, April 27, 2016

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Weighing in on Counting Calories and Macros: The Definitive Guide to Tracking Your Nutrition

Should I track the foods I eat? Count my calories? My macronutrients? Vitamins and minerals? 

If you were to ask these questions 50 years ago, you'd probably get a strange look and be told something along the lines of "only if you're an obsessive at-home scientist, or under close observation of doctors and nutritionists for the treatment of a serious medical ailment." You see, all of the nutrition information that we see on every packaged food item today is a relatively recent "discovery." While some ancient philosophers and scientists such as Aristotle and Hippocrates had an idea that food was connected to health, the history of nutritional analysis is much more recent. It wasn't until the late 1800s that chemists started to uncover and really understand the compositions of foods, as the time distinguishing five macronutrients that collectively make up our food: carbohydrates, fats, proteins, energy (calories), and water (this differs somewhat from how macronutrients are defined today—we no longer consider water and calories as macronutrients, and we include alcohol as a fourth macronutrient, but carbohydrates, fats, and protein are still the primary macros). Shortly thereafter, in the early 1900s, scientists began to discover more about the essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), which many skeptical scientists at the time thought were a load of made up hoo-ha. Flash forward to 1975, and nutritional information about food started to become more readily available in the United States with the USDA's Composition of Foods publication. However, it still wasn't until 1990 that labeling packaged foods with nutrition facts become mandatory in the United States, and not until the early 2000s that you could look up the nutritional information of just about any food online. 

Despite the relative newness of our understanding of nutritional composition of foods, today the simplicity, ease, and accuracy of at-home food tracking is unparalleled. With nothing more than a smartphone (or computer), a little intuition, and a food scale, you can track your calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients with accuracy and ease that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. So while "should I track my calories/macros/micros?" may have been a ridiculous question 50 years ago, it's a perfectly valid and reasonable question to ask now. 

Why the hell would anyone want to do that?
Some of you may have never considered the prospect of tracking what you eat, and that's fine. As I've written about in previous posts, I think there's more to diet than numbers and statistics and the science behind it—food is not just carbohydrates and fats and kilojoules and antioxidants. It's also an emotional experience, a centerpiece of communal gathering, and a part of personal identity. Focusing in too closely on the numerical nutrient breakdown of everything that touches your lips can rob food of some of its more personal and communal elements. That being said, there are times when tracking your nutrition (at least temporarily) can be a tremendous asset, and can help you reach your goals more efficiently and effectively; and even those who are not working towards a specific goal can benefit from tracking what they eat for a few weeks or months to learn a bit about themselves.

Beyond being a means to reach a health or fitness goal, there are a few significant things happen when you begin tracking your nutrition. First, you start to become more aware of the composition of your food and cognizant of misconceptions that you held about food. Unless you are already an avid food label reader or are keenly interested in diet and fitness, there are probably some nutrition facts that you're relatively clueless about. For example, I was recently discussing some of the ins and outs of a ketogenic diet with a friend, and he mentioned that whole milk would be an easy source of calories while going keto. (If you are unfamiliar, the ketogenic diet, traditionally used to treat epilepsy, is a diet based on eating very low levels of carbohydrates, thereby forcing your body into a state in which it uses fats as the primary energy source and produces ketone bodies as a source of energy for the brain). Given that ketogenic diets are based on consuming very low levels of carbohydrates, I was a bit surprised that he was suggesting milk, which has fairly high levels of sugars, as a good "keto-friendly" food. Turns out, he didn't realize milk had carbs! These kinds of misconceptions and misinformation aren't surprising at all—nutritional education in the general public is rudimentary at best, and most people don't take much of an interest in the nutritional composition of their foods. I myself have had similar misconceptions and misinformation, and have encountered many other people who do as well. However, when you start tracking your nutrition, you will both consciously and subconsciously begin to pick up on information about the composition of common foods: you'll better be able to eyeball about how many calories, how much protein, how much fiber, etc. is in the food you're eating. You'll realize which foods are higher in particular nutrients. You'll know, off the top of your head, about how many calories and carbohydrates are in the banana you're eating, or about how big of a chicken breast has 40g of protein, and so on. Basically, tracking your nutrition gives you a crash-course in nutrition facts of the foods you commonly eat. While I don't believe that you should be walking around with "Terminator-vision" of your food, this baseline understanding of what's in your food, coupled with some degree of understanding about health and human nutrition, can help you make better, more informed decisions.

In addition, you will become aware of how you actually eat (as opposed to how you think you eat). Most people who have never tracked their own nutrition have some considerable misconceptions about their own consumption habits; when you start tracking your nutrition, these misconceptions will quickly make themselves apparent. The skinny guys/gals who claim to "eat a lot" and "just can't seem to put on any muscle" will find out that they aren't actually eating nearly as many calories as they thought. The overweight guys and gals who say they "just can't seem to lose any weight, no matter how good my diet is" will realize that they're eating a pretty hefty caloric surplus and tons of sugars. We humans tend to be pretty good at deluding ourselves into thinking we're acting differently than we actually are. Add general misinformation to the equation, and you're left with some hefty discrepancies between what you think you do and what you really do. Tracking your nutrition, even for a short period of time, serves as a good "check-up" on how close your perception is to reality, and what mistakes you might unthinkingly be making. 

Lastly, you'll begin to notice patterns. Give yourself a few weeks of consistent nutrition tracking and you'll begin to take note of trends in what foods you frequently overeat, the timing of your food intake, and how certain foods affect you. You may notice that you seem to eat more sweet foods in the morning, or that when you eat vegetables with every meal you magically eat fewer total calories that day without thinking about it, or that every time you eat meals with lots of cheese or cream you spend the next morning visiting the toilet rather frequently. There's a reason that "I can't even remember what I ate for breakfast" is a pretty common adage. People tend to be rather inattentive and forgetful about what they eat, and this makes it difficult to connect the dots between your daily nutrition and the condition of your body and mind. Tracking your nutrition makes you more attentive to what you eat, and helps to pull back the veil on patterns that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Counting calories and macros isn't just for crazy bodybuilders or those under close medical supervision. It's something that anyone can do, and that can help you become a more conscious and informed eater. 

So should I track my nutrition?
It depends. I believe there is a lot to be learned from spending a month or two tracking your nutrition, even if you never do it again. However, I also believe that the meticulous, almost obsessive behavior necessary to track all of your food can have a negative effect on one's relationship with food (particularly if you already have a tumultuous relationship with your diet), and this practice should not be done 100% of the time (extreme medical circumstances withstanding), and is not suitable for everyone.

There are four primary situations in which I absolutely recommend that you consider tracking your nutrition:
  1. If you are changing dietary habits to lose weight.
  2. If you are changing dietary habits to gain weight.
  3. If you are addressing a health issue with diet.
  4. If you are conducting a self-experiment.
If you are trying to lose weight, tracking your nutrition can be a tremendous asset, particularly if you have attempted weight loss in the past and not had much success. Tracking your calories will ensure that you are remaining in a caloric deficit (which is the primary means for weight loss), and tracking your macro- and micronutrients will ensure an adequate balance and sufficient nutrients for optimal health and function. As I mentioned above, people tend to be pretty oblivious to how much they actually eat, particularly if they've never spent any time tracking their nutrition before. Add to this the fact that when you are eating a caloric deficit, you're more likely to be hungry and unthinkingly grab an extra serving of food or mindlessly chow down on snack foods, and you have a recipe for unsuccessful weight loss. Tracking what you eat will give concrete data, encourage you to be a conscious eater, and allow you to adjust your diet based on whether it's working or not. I will add that weight loss absolutely can be achieved without tracking, and that many people will be better off without worrying about tracking if that works for them. However, tracking your calories and nutrients, even for a short time, can help set you on the path to successful and long-term weight loss. 

On the flip side of the coin, those who are trying to gain weight (presumably muscle) can also benefit tremendously from tracking their nutrition. When eating to gain weight, one must be in a caloric surplus, and many people will set particular daily macronutrient goals (ex: eat 180g of protein per day) as part of their weight gain protocol. Again, we often have a faulty idea of how much we actually eat, and, particularly for the people who have had trouble gaining weight all their life, have always tended to been skinny, and who think they eat lots of food, tracking nutrition can shed some light on what's actually going on and help reach goals quickly and effectively. In addition, manipulating total caloric surplus, macronutrient ratios, and meal timing can help to ensure that weight gain is primarily muscle (not fat). 

In addition to affecting body composition, diet can be tremendously powerful in addressing health issues, be it diabetes, arthritis, or irritable bowel syndrome, and adding objective values and paying close attention to what you consume can be an important part of successfully improving health with diet. When you track your nutrition, you are better able to avoid particular foods, adjust macronutrient ratios, ensure adequate micronutrients, and adjust your diet for optimal outcomes. If you are attempting to address a health issue with diet and not having much success, tracking your nutrition may be a game-changer.

Lastly, if you are conducting any sort of self-experiment (something which I strongly advocate) that involves your nutrition in any way, tracking is a must. I'll give an example. Recently, I undertook a small self-experiment to get down to the root of some intermittent, err, "gastric distress problems" I was having (translation: sometimes I farted a lot). I closely tracked the particular foods I ate, my calories, and my macro- and micronutrients, and I systematically eliminated and reintroduced particular foods (dairy, fructose-rich foods, coconut products, eggs, etc.) and adjusted macronutrient ratios (higher protein, lower protein, etc.). After a few months of tracking, eliminating, and reintroducing, I noticed a pattern: whenever I consumed white potatoes, of all things, my horn tooted a bit more frequently the next day. I eliminated white potatoes for a while and voila, problem solved. I was very happy to have solved this puzzle (as was my wife), and I doubt I would have been able to make the connection without tracking what I ate. 

How to track your nutrition (without going insane).
"Let's see, 2.45" times the coefficient of Italian sandwich..."
So perhaps you've decided that you would like to track what you eat, maybe just for fun, or maybe to help you reach a body composition goal. Do you need any special tools? What should you track? And, perhaps most importantly, how do you do it without wasting all of your free time and driving yourself insane? 
Fortunately, tracking what you eat requires only a few basic things, all of which can be obtained for free or relatively cheap.
  1. Discipline - Free, but not necessarily easy to come by. If you're going to do this, really do it with discipline. It really isn't difficult, but it requires consistency and commitment. No room for half-assery—it will just be a waste of your time and effort. 
  2. Food scale - $10-15 - If you don't already have one, a food scale is a great kitchen tool, regardless of whether you plan to weigh and track your foods or not. They can be found for very cheap—I have this one, and it has been going strong for 4+ years and only uses a 9v battery; this one gets great reviews on Amazon and is only about $11. There are plenty of very expensive scales out there too, but from what I can find they're no better (for these purposes) than the $10-15 ones, so save your money. You can track your food without a food scale, but using a food scale allows you to be far more accurate and actually simplifies things. Instead of guessing whether the chicken breast you're eating is 150 or 250 calories, or trying to guess how big a "medium" avocado actually is (literally no one knows), you can just weigh it. Simple and accurate. Plus, you can use your food scale for other things like cooking, making bets with friends about the weight of random household items, making coffee the right way, and putting the right amount of postage on your letters. Note, however, that your friends and family will absolutely assume that you're selling drugs, so don't be caught off guard when your weird uncle asks if you can "hook him up with the good stuff."  
  3. A nutrition tracking app or website - free (though some have paid features) - there are a billion out there, and all do pretty much the same thing with slight variations in ease-of-use and what exactly it tracks. I use and am a fan of MyFitnessPal—it includes a barcode scanner, plenty of food options, is easy to use, allows you to set calorie and macro goals, and also tracks fiber as well as some primary vitamins and minerals. Experiment with a few and find one that works well for you.
  4. Preparation - free, but also hard to "find" (see #1). Tracking your food can suck if you go about it the wrong way. So don't do that. Plan ahead and do it right. Buy some tupperware, learn some cooking basics (if you don't already know how to cook), and practice batch cooking. Tracking your food doesn't need to take any longer than 5-10mins a day if you do it right, but can take a lot longer and be very frustrating if you're not prepared. Cook up a bunch of food on the weekend (this can be as simple as throwing 10lbs of chicken breasts on the grill and steaming a huge batch of broccoli and rice) and measure and partition out your lunches and snacks for the whole week into tupperware containers with a label (I usually just stick a piece of tape on the lid with the contents of that meal: "6 oz chicken, 8 oz sweet potato, 6 oz broccoli"). Set aside what you're going to make for breakfast and pack up your lunch and your snack for work the night before. Planning ahead is the difference between food tracking being a stress-inducing disaster and it being easy and streamlined. 
5.2 oz of delicious
The most important piece of advice I can give for making your food tracking productive and not headache-inducing is to simplify: plan ahead, track only what you need to for your goals, and don't go bonkers over it. Tracking your nutrition can be fascinating, productive, and even a little bit fun if you do it right; or it can make you miserable and lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. Make sure that your tracking endeavors are helping, not harming.

Beyond this, tracking your nutrition is just a matter of execution. However, depending on why you're tracking, there are a few differences in priorities and how you should approach the whole process. For example, in some cases you'll want to focus more on tracking what you eat, whereas in other cases you'll be more concerned with how much you eat without giving as much attention to what. I'll break it down by goals.
  1. For general enlightenment and self-improvement...
    Overview: eat as you normally would, track what you eat, pay attention to patterns, look for associations between how you eat and how you feel, energy levels throughout the day, cravings, etc.
    Duration: a few weeks to a few months is generally all that is needed to learn a fair bit about yourself, your habits, and the foods you eat; occasional "re-visits" (every year or so) can also be helpful
    Precision: track most things you eat/drink, including all caloric and vitamin/mineral-rich foods; feel free to not track innocuous foods that contribute very little macro- and micronutrients (hot sauce, romaine lettuce, mustard, etc.); don't need to be too precise with weighing/measuring
    Frequency: feel free to track every day if you want, but generally 4-6 days/week is plenty
    Pay particular attention to: macronutrient balance, micronutrients, specific foods (particularly common "problem foods" such as dairy, legumes, nuts, soy), cravings, meal timing
  2. For weight loss...
    : determine your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE - an estimate of the total calories your body uses in a day) using one of the many online calculators, subtract 5-20% (depending on your goals and timeline) from your TDEE and use that as your daily calorie goal, determine macro balance goals, track to ensure you are staying under your calorie limit and staying close to macro goals; adjust as needed if progress stalls (re-assess every 2-3 weeks)
    Duration: for as long as you need to in order to meet your goals, or as long as you need to in order to get into a rhythm and have a good understanding of how much to eat; try tracking for a month or two and then stop tracking: if you start gaining weight or progress stalls soon after you stop tracking, then perhaps you need the hard data of macro/calorie tracking to keep you accountable for the duration of your dieting; if your progress continues, then no need to continue tracking
    Precision: track all foods with substantial calories; in general, all low-calorie foods (lettuce, cucumber, celery, condiments, etc.) can be omitted unless you are focusing on micronutrients as well; aim to be relatively precise with weighing/measuring
    Frequency: 5-7 days/week depending on how you structure your diet (i.e., no need to track if you give yourself a weekly "cheat day" or have a fasted day)
    Pay particular attention to: overall calories consumed, macronutrient balance, higher calorie foods and "sneaky" calories (things like salad dressing, ketchup, etc. that can easily add hundreds of calories, high sugars), foods that you tend to eat a lot of in one sitting
  3. For weight gain...
    : determine your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE - an estimate of the total calories your body uses in a day) using one of the many online calculators, add 5-20% (depending on your goals and timeline) to your TDEE and use that as your daily calorie goal, determine macro balance goals, track to ensure you are meeting/exceeding your calorie limit and staying close to macro goals; adjust as needed if progress stalls (re-assess every 2-3 weeks)
    Duration: for as long as you need to in order to meet your goals, or as long as you need to in order to get into a rhythm and have a good understanding of how much to eat; try tracking for a month or two and then stop tracking: if you start losing weight or progress stalls soon after you stop tracking, then perhaps you need the hard data of macro/calorie tracking to keep you accountable for the duration of your dieting; if your progress continues, then no need to continue tracking
    Precision: track all foods with substantial calories; in general, all low-calorie foods (lettuce, cucumber, celery, condiments, etc.) can be omitted unless you are focusing on micronutrients as well; aim to be relatively precise with weighing/measuring
    Frequency: 5-7 days/week depending on how you structure your diet (i.e., no need to track if you give yourself a weekly "cheat day")
    Pay particular attention to
    overall calories consumed, macronutrient balance, easy-to-consume and higher calorie foods (these are good to have around if you're trying to gain weight), foods that fill you up much faster
  4. For health issues...
    : if doctor- or dietician-ordered, follow their instructions; if self-directed, determine macronutrient, micronutrient, and food-specific goals (ex: eat under 25g sugar daily, avoid all dairy or gluten, eat minimum 50g fiber daily, etc.), track, observe any changes (positive or negative), adjust as needed (note: if you have any sort of serious health issue, always consult with a doctor)
    Duration: for as long as necessary to resolve/address health issue, or as long as necessary to get into enough of a rhythm that you can adhere to your goals without tracking; try tracking for a month or two and then stop tracking: if your health issues resurface or do not improve soon after you stop tracking, then perhaps you need the hard data of tracking to keep you accountable; if your health remains optimal, then no need to continue tracking
    Precision: will depend on what your focus is (macronutrients, micronutrients, specific foods, etc.), but in general, track most things you eat/drink
    , including all caloric and vitamin/mineral-rich foods, as well as potential "problem foods"; should be relatively precise in weighing and measuring if you are focusing on macros/micros, can rely more on estimating if focus is on particular foods
    Frequency: will depend on what health matter you are addressing, but for most health issues, 7 days/week may be more necessary
    Pay particular attention tomacronutrient balance, micronutrients, specific foods (particularly common "problem foods" such as dairy, legumes, nuts, soy) and food groups that are intentionally being avoided
  5. For self-experimentation...
    Overview: determine what element of your diet you would like to experiment with—eliminating particular foods, macronutrient balance, meal timing (ex: eliminate all dairy, eliminate caffeine, eat <50g carbs daily with higher fat, eat >300g carbs daily with lower fat, fast for first 8 hours of day, etc.)—eliminate foods or adjust diet (only do one thing at a time, though!) and track for at least a week, observe/record any changes, reintroduce food or readjust diet, observe/record any changes; wash, rinse, repeat with other food eliminations or dietary adjustments (for more details, see general rules for self-experimentation here)
    Duration: as long as you want, but at least a few weeks is recommended to get ample data and allow your body time to adjust or respond to changes; recommend taking a "break" from tracking at least every couple months
    Precision: will depend on what your focus is (macronutrients, micronutrients, specific foods, etc.); if you are only focused on macros, only track macronutrient-rich foods, if you are only focused on eliminating particular foods, only track what you eat, etc.; should be relatively precise in weighing and measuring if you are focusing on macros/micros, can rely more on estimating if focus is on particular foods
    Frequency: will depend on your focus and structure of your experiment, but 7 days/week will provide most accurate data/results
    Pay particular attention to: will depend on focus of your experiment; generally 
    macronutrient balance, micronutrients, specific foods (particularly foods being eliminated/avoided), food groups that are intentionally being avoided, ingredients that "sneak" into foods (ex: if soy is being avoided, be careful of soy products and byproducts that are in many foods that you would not suspect—chocolate, breads, baked goods, sauces, etc.)
A few final reminders...
Before you embark on any sort of food-tracking endeavor, figure out why you're doing it. This will help you determine, a) whether you should actually be tracking your nutrition, and b) what sort of precision, frequency, and focus you should employ. 

Remember also that you'll never be 100% accurate with your tracking, even if you do weigh and measure everything you eat, and so worrying about every intimate detail will be a waste of time and energy. Nutritional content of food can vary considerably depending on a host of factors that are out of your control (season, moisture content, freshness, diet of the animal, growing conditions, etc.), and food labels can be rather deceivingwith up to 20% inaccuracy allowable on food labels without any punitive repercussions from the FDA. Yes, you should aim to be accurate with your tracking, but not be overly-concerned or obsessive, especially considering how much is out of your control. 

In a similar vein, food should not be stressful. This, I believe, is a universal principle for being human. The only time you should be stressed about food is if you are starving and unable to get any. If you find yourself stressing over being 5% off your macro goals, it's time to change your mindset. The ultimate goal of tracking your nutrition should be to mitigate stress and improve your health, and it absolutely should not cause stress nor negatively affect your health. If you find yourself getting stressed about food when you start tracking, then nutrition tracking might not be the best tool for you. It's important to find a balance and not lose sight of the ultimate goal (self-improvement). 

As I mentioned above, though anyone can benefit from tracking their nutrition, it is not something that everyone should do. If you have struggled with an eating disorder before, and you are just now establishing a healthy and enjoyable relationship with food, tracking your calories may be the last thing you want to do. On the other hand, if you are struggling with an eating disorder, tracking your calories may be the exact thing that will help hold you accountable for your choices and help you establish a lasting healthy relationship with food. You have to know yourself and consider what methods typically work or do not work for you. 

Anyone else salivating?
Do you have any experiences with tracking your nutrition? Share in the comments!


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Strong of heart, strong of mind, strong of swole.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

How to Make Your Training Fun Again: 8 Simple Tips to Blow Through Training Ruts and Enjoy Your Time in the Gym

In a previous post, I wrote about the problem of losing sight of having fun with your training. Many of us in the fitness world fall into the trap of letting our training take control of our lives, taking it far too seriously, and forgetting the importance of enjoying the process. We forget what got us into fitness in the first place and what has kept us coming back for more, and before we know it we're left disillusioned, burnt out, and miserable. 
This guy is stoked to train.

In order to keep this at bay, it's important to frequently ask yourself why you train and what keeps you continuing on your fitness journey. But sometimes asking questions isn't quite enough. Sometimes training just becomes mundane or stale—it loses the luster it once had, and just telling yourself to have fun with it doesn't change anything. We need something that will help us remember why we commit so much time and resources to lifting things up and putting them down, or running to nowhere in particular, or exercising competitively. Following are a few practical steps to inject fun and excitement back into our training and give you the kick in the pants that you need to put a smile back on your face and motivate you to keep moving forward. 
  1. Blast from the past. Think about one of you first "true loves" in fitness. No, I'm not talking about a physique-of-a-god/goddess athlete whose Instagram you stalked religiously. I'm talking about that program or athletic pursuit or skill that first really drew you into the fitness world. Perhaps it was an amateur barbell strength program like Starting Strength that first got you into lifting. Perhaps it was long mountain hikes that drew you into the realm of endurance running. Maybe you started as an avid Crossfitter but have since transitioned into weightlifting. Or perhaps it was good old school bodybuilding that eventually led to competing in strongman. Regardless of what it was, revisit that first fitness love! Take a few weeks or months to go back and do whatever it is that first gave you that constant itch to move, to lift, to improve, to compete. Most of us, over the years, tend to transition our focus and our methods. Nobody follows the same program for 10 years straight, and most of us gradually transition between athletic pursuits. So if your training no longer gets you fired up and excited to get in the gym, go back and do whatever first got you going! Chances are, with a number of years under your belt, you'll have an entirely different experience now than you did before. You'll see how far you've come, you'll notice new things about the sport or the program that you've long since forgotten, and heck, you may even become a better athlete or gain some new perspective on your current training. Sure, going back and following a beginner program or practicing a sport you no longer compete in may not be the most traditionally effective way to improve your performance, but give it a few weeks and remember that you're doing this all because it's fun. You'll likely come away feeling refreshed, enlightened, and excited to move forward in your training. 
  2. Take a walk down memory lane. I never really plan it, but inevitably about once every year, I end up stumbling upon and looking through my old training logs. If you've lost motivation and can't seem to get excited for your training anymore, take some time to look at how far you've come. Dig up some old pictures of you as a skinny-fat freshman in college who had never touched a weight before and compare it to the relatively Herculean physique you now boast (and feel free to laugh at your terrible sense of fashion back then, too). Find your old training logs and chuckle at how you now warm up with your bench press 1-rep max from three years ago. Search for an old email exchange with a coach: "COACH! HELP. Whenever I try to squat 105lbs my knees cave in and my back rounds and my nose bleeds and I think I'm going to pass out WHAT DO I DO," and smile, thinking about the fact that you'll be squatting 315lbs for reps later today. There's nothing quite like looking back at how far you've come to put a smile on your face and give you a renewed vigor and appreciation for your time spent in the gym. So go back, laugh at yourself, feel good about how much you've accomplished, and let that fire you up to enjoy the journey!
  3. And now, for something completely different. One of my first reactions when someone tells me that their training is stressing them out or that they're losing motivation to get into the gym is to tell them to stop doing whatever it is they're doing and do something completely different for a while. "B-b-b-but, my gaiiiiinnnnz! What about my gainz?!" Yeah, not squatting for 3 weeks will probably cause your squat to go down a little. But hating your life, getting bored with your training, and dreading going to the gym every day sure as hell won't help your squat numbers in the long run either! Many contend that the best way to get better at something is to do that exact thing over and over and over again. This makes sense, and to an extent, it is true. However, this doesn't take into account confounding variables like mindset, motivation, and happiness, and humans are rather confounding creatures. Sometimes, the best thing you can do to get better at your sport is to take some time and do another sport—not because playing golf necessarily makes you better at playing football, but because having a refreshed mindset, renewed energy, and new perspective is hugely valuable for driving you forward. In addition, learning a new skill is fun, especially when you have an athletic foundation that can carry over into this new endeavor. I played volleyball in high school and enjoyed the sport quite a bit, but I was never very good (and was also not very strong or athletic). Flash forward 11 or 12 years, 8 of those years spent as a dedicated student of various aspects of strength and conditioning, and I find myself joining in a local co-ed volleyball league. To my surprise, even after a decade of virtually no volleyball, I am twice the player I ever was in high school (though still not very good). Being an athlete makes you a better athlete, and there's nothing more exciting than learning a new sport or skill (or revisiting a sport you haven't done in forever) and making tons of progress in a short amount of time. And even if you never come back to this new sport or skill, you'll likely return to your original sport with a newfound appreciation and perspective. So, are you a gymnast? Do some powerlifting for a while! Are you a runner? Try yoga! How about a Crossfitter? Pick up rock climbing! A powerlifter? Do only bodyweight exercises for some time! An endurance runner? Try parkour! When your training becomes a burden and you start dreading your time in the gym, find something completely different that you've always wanted to try and go do it. You'll come back to your sport with excitement and vigor, and perhaps you'll even discover something new that you love.
    Curry is also the spice of life.
  4. Variety, spice of life, etc. As I mentioned above, many contend that doing the same thing over and over again is the most effective way to get good at that thing. Others contend, to varying degrees, that training is most effective when it is highly variable. The conjugate method, a powerlifting program developed by Louie Simmons, uses a rotation of a huge number of exercise variations, such that lifters may perform a new squat variation every week for a few months. Crossfit is based on training for the "unknown and unknowable," and many Crossfit coaches and athletes base their training first and foremost on variety (of exercises, time domains, weights, etc.). On the other hand, many coaches and athletes insist that if you want to perform well in the clean & jerk and snatch, or in the squat, bench, and deadlift, you should perform those exercises all the time and not worry so much about variations and fancy accessory stuff. If you want to deadlift well, you should deadlift all the time. If you want to get good at running, you should spend most of their time running, and not in other athletic pursuits. You get the idea. I think both perspectives have value and elements of truth, but regardless of who is "right," the fact remains that variety tends to make things interesting. And if your training no longer interests you, then perhaps it's time for some variety. This may mean something as simple as adding an exercise that you rarely do to your regular training schedule. It may mean taking a more periodized approach, breaking your training up into phases in which you focus on hypertrophy, then strength, then power, etc. This may mean following a program that follows a consistent overall structure but leaves considerable room for variety, depending on how you feel that day. It may be as simple as using one of your training days to go workout with a buddy and do whatever he or she is doing, or taking one day per week off of your regular weightlifting training to join in a Crossfit class at your gym. But the primary goal should be varying your training in a way that excites you—it should be something fun that gets you stoked to get into the gym. Perhaps this introduction of variety will give you a massive performance boost and will end up being a permanent fixture in your training, or perhaps it will just act as a change of pace for a few months with no massive effect on performance. But regardless, it is a great way to inject some fun and hit the refresh button on stale training. 
  5. I think we need some time apart. Sometimes, you just need a break. In the same way that taking a vacation from work improves productivity upon return, taking a vacation from your training can help get your body and mind in the right place and allow you to push to the next level when you return. So, when your training starts stressing you out, boring you, or wearing you down, take a week or two off! Spend some time away from the gym. You may be surprised to find that after a week or so, you may start to miss your time in the gym and be excited to get back. In addition, your body may desperately need some time away from the heavy barbell or from high mileage runs. An occasional week or two of diminished intensity can do wonders for both mindset and physiological recovery. Note that during this "vacation" from exercise, I do not recommend that you turn into a couch potato and play video games all day. Take it easy, but stay active by getting outside, walking, swimming, biking, surfing, etc. 
  6. Game on. What's something that's (almost) always done for fun? Playing games! Board games, video games, sports games, and so on. We play games because we enjoy them, because they make us feel good, satisfy something deep within us, and because we have fun with them. If your training has become too serious, a grave and weighty (get it?) affair that is done out of obligation rather than joy, turning your training into a game or approaching it as a form of play might be one of the best ways to bring fun back into it. 
    When we play games, we separate ourselves from daily concerns for a short time to engage in problem solving, friendly competition, and to pursue a goal for the fun of it. Changing your mindset to apply this same way of thinking to exercise can revitalize training that has become tedious and give us renewed energy and motivation to push further. When your time in the gym is time spent playing, spent exploring your physical capacities, pursuing your own goals, setting your own rules and requirements, suddenly it takes on a new light and brings you joy and pleasure. Reframe your training as a game. Put on one of your favorite songs and complete as many reps as you can of an exercise during each chorus. Pick someone else running on a nearby treadmill and (without telling them) "race" them, setting your pace faster than theirs and giving yourself a point for every .01 miles you run more than them. Go to the park and try to quietly stalk and then chase down a bird or a rabbit (probably best to do this when there aren't many onlookers). Go for a jog and take a winding route, sudden turns, and dodge behind obstacles as if you're being pursued by the bad guys. See how quickly you can move 15,000lbs of weight using any combination of exercises, sets, reps, etc. Use your imagination, set up a goal, some parameters, and an incentive for your workout and have at it. (For more awesome ideas on gamifying your fitness, check out Side Quest Fitness, a site by my comrade, Robbie Farlow.)
  7. Phone a friend. This applies mostly to the lone wolves and the solo garage gym-ers out there. If you can't seem to get excited about training any more, get a workout buddy or three! Invite a friend(s) (or make a new friend) to train with you a few times a week, or ask one of your gym-going friends if you can join them at the gym a couple times a week. It's ideal to find someone who's close to your strength and skill level and is pursuing the same goals, but there's also benefit to training with people who have different goals or who are at a different level than you. If your friend is a newer trainee, you'll likely enjoy sharing your knowledge and experience with them, and derive some pleasure from having a chance to show off the fruits of your hard work in the gym (just keep your ego in check). If they're more advanced than you, you can take the opportunity to learn from them and enjoy the motivation to become better. And of course, if they're at about the same level as you, you'll enjoy the friendly competition and can use it to push you to the next level. You also shouldn't be afraid to branch out and train with someone who's following a different program or has slightly different goals. I have encountered some people who are so concerned with sticking doggedly to their own program that they are unwilling to change things up even a little bit to train with others. "Ahhg, today isn't deadlift day for me, I can't do any deadlifts with you or I'll lose all strength and my training will be ruined forever!" "I'm a weightlifter, I can't conditioning today, I'll ruin my gainz!" Again, I'm going to assume that you, my reader, are not 4 weeks out from fighting to get gold at the Olympics; so lighten up and enjoy the change of pace and company of a friend for a day. Of course be smart about it—doing max effort deadlifts 4 days in row probably isn't a wise choice—but be flexible and willing to do something different. Adding some competition, camaraderie, and accountability into your training by working out with a buddy can make a huge difference in your motivation and mindset, and can change the way you approach training. 
  8. Change scene. Environment can play a huge role in how we feel about training. Sometimes, without our even knowing it, we end up in an environment that negatively affects our mindset and our performance. Are you training somewhere that you feel comfortable or welcome, or do you feel in the way or out of place? Do you look forward to spending time with the people in your gym, or does your gym's environment stress you out? Are you tired of training alone in your garage every day? Are there people where you train who add negativity to the environment? Perhaps you've just been going to the same place for so long that you're simply bored of it. Whatever the reason, a change of scenery may be just the thing you need to get your training back on track and make your time in the gym enjoyable again. Find a new gym, even if it's only temporary. If you train at home, join a gym for a class once or twice a week. Spend a few weeks "gym-hopping," dropping in at a bunch of different gyms in your area to see what else is out there. Pack up your weights and drive out to the woods and train in the midst of natural beauty once a week. You may realize that your environment before, whether it was a commercial gym or your own garage, was holding you back and negatively affecting your attitude; or, you may realize how good you had it, and go running back to your home gym with a newfound appreciation for what it had to offer; or perhaps it will just act as a mini training vacation, a change of scenery and pace that renews your energy and drive when you come back to your regular routine. Taking a break from seeing the same walls, the same people, the same equipment week after week can have a huge positive impact on your training and attitude. 

If your training has lost it's luster, you've lost your drive, or you just don't find yourself enjoying training very much, it's time to change something! Training should be fun, and ignoring this fact can be catastrophic to your attitude and your progress. Try some of these 8 simple tips the next time your find your training feeling stale or torturous, and blow through those training ruts and get back to making progress and having fun!


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Thursday, April 7, 2016

What I've Been Reading, and So Should You - April 7, 2016

Do you have 7,000 tabs open on your Chrome browser? Have you actually read any of them in full, or are you like me and open up every interesting link you see to "read it later" and then never actually do? 

Well, in an effort to make myself better, I've been making the effort to actually read things instead of imagining I'll read them later and only succeeding in slowing down my browser until it eventually just gives up and crashes on me. And in the hopes that I can help you make yourself better, I'm going to share the excellent content that I've been reading (or watching, or listening to). Because let's be honest, there's no shortage of intelligent and thoughtful people sharing their thoughts and insights on life, fitness, mindfulness, self-improvement, etc. on the internet. The real challenge is picking out the ones that are worth every minute of your time. 

So here's what I've been reading, and so should you. Don't let this content die in your mass tabs grave!

Be Better at Life: How to Find More Time to Train - Bobby Maximus, of Breaking Muscle 
Discipline, time management, and mindful living are all major focuses of mine, and I have written about making time for training before. Bobby Maximus (The Big Guy) lays it out straight, providing simple fixes to help you be the boss of your own schedule, prioritize what's important, and avoid common time-wasting mistakes. 

Fighting Cancer by Putting Tumor Cells on a Diet - Bret Stetka, of NPR
A very interesting read discussing some ideas that challenge conventional wisdom on the causes and treatment of cancer. Some cancer biologists are suggesting that cancer may be as much a metabolic disease as a genetic one, and suggesting that a ketogenic diet may be an overlooked way to aid in cancer treatment by effectively "starving" the cancer cells of the nutrients and metabolic processes they thrive on. While there is no hard-and-fast evidence proving one cause or the other, the prospect of using diet as part of a treatment plan is an idea worthy of further investigation. 

How Hip Anatomy Affects Squat Mechanics - Dr. Aaron Horschig, of Squat University
You are a special, unique snowflake, just like your mother tells you, and this applies to squatting as well. This article talks briefly about the effect bony hip anatomy can have on what squat styles work and don't work best for you, focusing particularly on the anteverted hip. There is no one-size-fits-all squat style!

Defining Success on Your Own Terms - Dean Somerset
In the early-bird-gets-the-worm world of fitness businesses, with everyone sharing screenshots of their 4:30am alarm clock and talking about "the grind" and "hustling hard" (a recently, and strangely, re-appropriated word) on social media, it's easy to get caught up in the mindset of "more hustle = more better" and lose sight of the goal. Dean provides some insight into his own ventures and reminds us step back for a second, consider how we define success, and arrange our priorities and goals accordingly. 

That's it for this time around. 
If you have something you think I should read, watch, or listen to, comment or tweet at me! I'm always open to suggestions. 


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Monday, April 4, 2016

From the Hip #8 - Have Fun, Yo!

This one goes out to all the garage gym athletes, the weekend warriors, the casual competitors, the guys and gals who are training for the fun and love of it...

Why do you train? I think it's important to regularly ask yourself this question. It's far too easy to lose sight of why we spend hours in the gym, spend our paychecks on gym memberships or new equipment for the garage gym or hiring a personal coach, pore over fitness articles and athletes' social media accounts every spare moment, and constantly think about hitting that new squat PR or improving our 500m split. For 99.8% of you, the answer to this question does not include "I'm preparing to represent my country at compete against the most elite athletes in the world at the Olympics" or "this sport is my livelihood and my career." Most of us, after a moment of introspection, will answer something along the lines of "because it makes me feel good," "because training is fun," "because it helps me look better naked and I enjoy the friendly competition with my gym buddies," "because it's satisfying to work towards improving myself physically," or maybe even "because I am preparing for a local competition that I want to do for the fun and thrill of it." Most of us do this stuff because we want to, because we like to, because it's fun for us, not because we are trying to break a world record and become a legend, not because our lives depend on it. 

Now, if you are one of the .02% that is preparing for the Olympics or who makes a living off of your elite-level performance in your sport, feel free to stop reading and keep taking your training very seriously (though I'd argue that there's still merit to prioritizing enjoyment). But for the rest of us: your training should be fun. I bring this up because I've let myself fall into the trap of taking my training far too seriously, and I've seen it happen to countless other athletes as well. Missing important family and friend events to spend a few extra hours in the gym, kicking chalk buckets when you miss a PR, spiraling into a state of depression after you tweak a muscle in your back and you can't squat for a week, becoming a social recluse because you're too busy sleeping to recover for your next training session, letting a bad gym performance ruin your day, cursing, yelling, and crying at the weights—without even realizing it, this becomes par for the course for some of us, and the activity that we took up because it makes us feel good and puts a smile on our face is suddenly ruining our day, affecting our relationships, and stressing us out. You know that ass-hat who flips the table and storms out of the room in a fit of rage when he loses a game of Uno? That's what you're doing when you take your training too seriously (unless you're an elite, world-class Uno competitor). You're taking something that's supposed to be fun, satisfying, and enriching, and turning it into something that you can no longer enjoy, that others can't enjoy as much when you're around, and that loses it's original value and purpose. More important, I believe, than hitting that 5lb squat PR, is having fun with your training. Most of us got into this fitness stuff and stuck with it because we love athletic pursuits, we have fun with it, we enjoy the challenge and the reward—not to be #1 in the world. 

Now, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't be competitive, that you shouldn't strive to improve, that you can't get angry when you miss a lift, or that your training should all be a joke. Quite the opposite—being competitive, putting effort and discipline into improving yourself, and yelling a few choice words when you miss a lift can all be part of the fun. Competition can be fun. Improving yourself is absolutely enjoyable. Getting excited or even a little bit pissed, assuming you let it go and laugh it off after, is fun! But when your training starts to get in the way of relationships, starts to ruin your day, starts to turn you into a person that no one wants to be around, you're missing the point. 

The greatest piece of irony is that prioritizing fun in your training tends to yield better results (do I have your attention now, super intense garage athlete?). We tend to perform better when our head is in the right place, when we are not stressed, when we are confident, when we are excited about what we are doing and have a clear mind, not when training becomes drudgery and has lost all of its luster. So remember why you do what you do. Remember what's really on the line. Are you on the verge of setting a world record? Are you about to qualify for the Olympics? Are you going to win the CrossFit Games? Is there a multi-million dollar contract on the line? Is the safety of your family and friends dependent on how well you exercise today? Probably not. 

So lighten up, take the good with the bad, work hard, enjoy the journey, and keep getting better. Have fun.


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Monday, March 28, 2016

8 Reasons You Should Play More

We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. 
- George Bernard Shaw
When's the last time you played? I mean, really played, like a kid at recess squeezing every last precious second out of your freedom from boring arithmetic lessons? Play is one of the most forgotten elements of being a human. Today, even kids are losing their grasp on play (though generally not through any fault of their own). Issues over children and play frequently pop up in the news, with American schools cutting down on recess time, and parents and advocates speaking out in protest of such playtime cuts, touting the virtues of free play for the mental and physical health and development of children. As a society, we seem to have lost touch with play and how integral it is to the human experience. 

But I'm assuming that if you're reading this, you're not a child, and in this post I'm primarily interested in addressing play for adults. When it comes to abandoning play, adults are the greatest offenders. Play has become an afterthought, prioritized about as much as cleaning the dust behind the refrigerator and going to the dentist. Many adults even scoff at play as something that's "for kids," suggesting that adults ought to hold themselves "above" such impractical pursuits that are done for the mere joy and pleasure of it. But I think we've got it all wrong. I think that play is not only valuable for adults and children alike—I believe it is an absolutely essential part of living a fulfilled life

So what is play? Well, it's difficult to pin down because play is, at its essence, spontaneous and uninhibited (the quintessential idea of play that comes to my mind is Calvinball, in which the only permanent rule is that it can't be played the same way twice). Play, as I see it, is something which is done for the fun of it, not for practical reasons—it is "purposeless," done for no reason other than enjoyment (though many practical benefits do derive from play by accident). In this sense, play is also very much a state of mind. The same thing can be both play or not play, depending on one's mindset. For example, a pickup game of basketball in which the focus is fun with friends would be play, whereas an NBA championship game in which the players are concerned primarily with the outcome (winning vs losing), and less so with how much they enjoy the experience, would not be play. Play can be both mental and physical, and can be done solo or with others. It is generally competitive in some capacity, even if the competition is only with oneself. Play is also a reprieve from duty and work—an opportunity to move and act and think freely, without extrinsic restraints and without obligation. Play can take countless, unique forms: anything from seeing how long you can hold a handstand, to participating in an organized co-ed basketball league, to playing "don't touch the lava" on the playground, to running through fresh snow. Regardless of what it looks like, play should be done because you want to, free from responsibility, practicality, and demand. 

It may seem a bit ironic to have a list of reasons (which in and of themselves are practical) to do something that is supposed to be done only for pleasure, not pragmatism. But we humans are funny animals, and sometimes it takes practical reasons to get us to do something that, at its core, is not supposed to be practical; so here are 8 reasons that you should start playing more, today.
  1. Play relieves stress. There are no shortage of perceived stressors in the world today. The media bombards us with daily horror stories and gloom-and-doom outlooks for the economy, world relations, and national health. In addition, work and personal finances are a constant stressor, and with our advances in technology and connectivity, the pressures of work can now follow us home easier than ever before. So how do we get a break from this stress? Play! Play gives our minds a break from thinking about the stressors of daily life, and many forms of play involve physical activity, which is known to relieve stress. Play has also been shown to reduce stress hormones and lower blood pressure. The more we are stressed, the harder it may be to find time and motive to play, but the more we truly need it. I am reminded of a great quote about meditation: "You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you're too busy; then you should sit for an hour." I believe the same applies to play. Think you're too busy to play? That probably means you need to play more. 
  2. Play improves our health. This one piggybacks easily on play's ability to relieve stress. Numerous studies have shown that chronic stress has catastrophic effects on our bodies, and therefore the stress-relieving effects of play will carry over into improving general health and well-being. In addition, play encourages physical activity, releases endorphins, and fosters social interaction, all of which positively contribute to our health. Studies have shown direct positive relationships between physically active leisure and physical and mental health and well-being. Other studies on play deprivation have demonstrated the tremendous influence of play on mental health, with deprivation being associated with a myriad of mental and emotional health problems such as depression, lack of adaptability, lack of self-control, predisposition to violent or addictive behaviors, and relationship problems.
  3. Play helps our productivity. This one may seem a bit outlandish at first glance, but taking time off of work to play can actually boost your productivity. A study at Cornell University found that workers were more productive when they were received reminders to take regular breaks. In addition, a study out of New Zealand demonstrated that after a vacation, workers had large increases in productivity and performance, better outlooks, and lowered heart rate. Additionally, Netflix and Brazilian company Semco have instituted "unlimited vacation" policies with great success, finding greater worker satisfaction, loyalty, and overall productivity. Whether it's a quick game of frisbee in the park, a round of "trash bin basketball" in the office, or a two week vacation to the Bahamas, more play seems to mean higher quality work.
  4. Play gets us moving. While not all play involves intense physical activity, most types of play involves some movement, and it often gets us into the great outdoors. There are volumes upon volumes of evidence demonstrating the mental and physical health benefits of regular physical activity and time spent outdoors. In a time when our rear ends spend about 90% of their time smashed into an office chair, car seat, and plush couch, we need every excuse we can find to get ourselves moving. In addition, play gives us a chance to find joy in movement. The ability to move is such a fundamental and yet oft-forgotten element of the human experience—it is a type of knowing and a way of experiencing. Yet for so many of us, the blessing of movement is squandered and ignored. Ask anyone who has lost a limb, who has lost movement or control in part of their body, who has had their ability to move permanently altered in some way, and they will tell you how much we take for granted our ability and freedom to move. Play gives us a chance to enjoy and relish in our movement. Dancing, running, dribbling, throwing, running, rolling, jumping, spinning, wrestling, balancing—our bodies are built to move, and when we play we can find joy and insight in that movement. 
  5. Play connects us to others. While some play is done solo, most involves playing with others, either in competition or cooperation. Research shows that play is of central importance in the development of social and emotional intelligence in children, and that it helps to improve cooperation, communication, and empathy. However, similar benefits extend to adults. Research on "rough and tumble" play has shown that when we play, we are able to test our relationships, to simultaneously cooperate and compete, to develop trust, and to explore boundaries. Play is very much a social activity, and it often acts as a safe space in which we can explore and develop the social skills that we rely heavily on in "real life" situations with graver consequences. Cooperative play (whether strictly cooperative or competitive against another team) teaches us how to communicate in numerous ways, helps us develop trust, and challenges us to support and encourage others. 
  6. Play fosters creativity and exercises our mind. Play is as much (if not more) a mental exercise as a physical one. Play requires problem solving and assessment of challenges and situations, it gives us opportunities to creatively find solutions, and it is a chance to simply create without the externally-imposed restrictions. The freedom of play makes it very much a creative endeavor. I often think of how children free play, making up new rules as they go and cooperating (and often competing) to develop an objective and negotiate challenges or obstacles. Play also exercises the imagination: imagining a historical event you are reenacting, imagining a new gymnastics or dance routine, or imagining a new design for a snow fort. Stuart Brown, a psychologist who has devoted his studies to the role of play throughout the lifetime of humans as well as other animals, provides considerable evidence for play's integral role in developing and shaping our brains both in childhood and adulthood. Somewhere along the way we got it into our heads that our mental abilities only grow in the classroom or with our noses in a textbook, but this couldn't be further from the truth. 
  7. Play is in our blood. Humans naturally want to play. Look at how kids behave when left to their own devices (and when not captivated by electronic devices): they sprint and jump and hang, their imaginations run at full steam, they cooperate, they engage in friendly competition, they test their physical and mental abilities, and they are unconcerned with the passage of time or stresses of life (it of course helps that kids don't have taxes to worry about). Some scientists believe that play has a role in sexual selection, and therefore tied to our evolution and development as a species. Psychologist Dr. Peter Gray postulates that play has been integral to humans developing into what we are today, with our social, cooperative, and problem-solving abilities unparalleled by anything else in the animal kingdom. Play was a large part of hunter-gatherers' lifestyle. After making a kill or gathering food, they would have unrestrained leisure time—they would play. Today, however, we are more likely to commit our "leisure" time to work-related activities, flopping in front of the television, or doing housework.
  8. Play helps us explore ourselves and the world. A large part of play is exploring the world and what we are capable of doing in this world—not because someone has asked us to, and not because we are focused on winning a competition—but because it is satisfying and we want to. "I wonder if I can swing from this branch to that one." "Let's see if I can make this basket from half-court." "I bet I could throw this stone half way across the lake." "I wonder if I could make a catapult with this scrap material I have lying around the garage." Play is a time to explore and enjoy our human abilities, physical and mental, without obligations and pressures. It is a time to get lost in just being human. And in this sense, personal growth is very much a part of play. When we play, we are not focused on becoming better, on reaching some concrete goal, or on scores or numbers or statistics. We are just focused on doing what we are doing and enjoying it. But unthinkingly, as a happy accident, we contribute to understanding the world, getting to know ourselves, and leading fulfilling lives.

Now that you've got more than enough reasons to play, it's time to forget the reasons and go play. Play should be done because it satisfies you and because you want to, not because someone on the internet told you it lowers your blood pressure or makes you more productive. Enjoy some time being detached from stress and preoccupation and thoughts about outcomes, and go be human and play!


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