Answering a common question: I want to run, but I keep getting injured. Where do I begin?

Nothing can show you the way to go better than an expert in the body’s biomechanics: a kinesiologist. But a lot of people think just like me: we’re too proud or too determined to let someone else micromanage our athletic development. We want to do it ourselves.

To do that, we had better start by understanding the principles that pertain to any dynamic system—including the human body. These are simpler than you may think. Consider the advice given to people that are trying to improve their social and personal relationships: the first step is to develop the channels of communication between parties. All future progress depends on that.

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Wearable tech stops us from listening to our bodies. That’s a problem.

We seem to have an ingrained cultural notion that technology solves everything. Got a problem? Throw some tech at it. Is that problem still there—or did it get worse? That’s okay. Some more tech should do the trick. This is what the wearable tech corporations like FitBit have been telling us. Wear a wristband that tracks the amount of steps you’ve taken, or the calories you’ve consumed, and that’ll make you fitter. Which launches us into a serious dilemma: we begin to think that we have control of our fitness like we have control of our thermostat.

Just change the little number and the temperature will change. The little number says how fit we are. But the body is a complex system, and as such, it is hostile to our attempts at simplification. If we try to “describe” fitness in such a simplistic way, we will find again and again that we are becoming overtrained and injured. As Albert Einstein said:

“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”

That is exactly the claim that wearable tech purports to let us make: that we “know” how fit we are because the little digital monitor says so. We can say “this is our fitness”—a claim about knowledge (or even worse “this is fitness”—a claim about truth). And our bodies, and our fitness, will be shipwrecked accordingly. The gods will be laughing at our disdain of the fact that the body is a dynamic system.

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The Tales of Forgotten Subsystems, Part II: The “Central Governor.”

Exercise is one of the biggest challenges to the continuous functioning of our body—also known as homeostasis. When we exercise, we wear down tissues, spend calories, consume nutrients, and basically threaten the integrity of our bodies. That’s not a problem: the human body has been designed and built by the creative errors of evolution to be a high-performance athletic machine. And this machine comes with a regulatory mechanism whose purpose it is to ensure that our homeostasis does not become compromised by athletic activity: the “central governor.”

Although this may be obvious to some, it is news to the majority of exercise physiologists, and it is still being debated by cutting-edge researchers. What can you say? Old ideas die hard.

Continue reading The Tales of Forgotten Subsystems, Part II: The “Central Governor.”

The importance of a “Vision.”

These days, we find ourselves in a multitude of wars, literal and metaphoric. We are always fighting against something. Whether it is obesity, aging, injury or death, it seems that most of what we do is to try and stave off the avalanche of the inevitable. This battle cannot be won—and yet we fight it. But the reality is: we don’t have to.

When the majority of us lay athletes begin to exercise, we often do it to hold something at bay. Maybe it’s heart disease. Maybe it’s something else. In systems thinking, is often referred to as “Negative Vision.” We bring into our minds the image of what we don’t want to happen, and we exercise accordingly.

There are several big problems with this approach: first and foremost, we don’t have a mission in mind—something that we are driven to accomplish. For that very reason, we find whatever it is that we’re trying to outrun constantly nipping at our heels. That is a losing battle.

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Reflections on the Systems Thinking/Leadership workshop at MIT Sloan.

As part of my recent trip to Boston, I attended a Leadership/systems thinking workshop at MIT taught by Peter Senge. The goal of that workshop was to pair teams of Leadership Lab (or “L-lab”) students with various organizations of different sizes and scopes. Among the organizations represented were Caterpillar, West Elm, and OCP. This arrangement had a dual purpose: to assist these organizations in developing their sustainability initiatives through systems thinking, and to provide real-life learning opportunities and challenges for the students of L-lab.

I went as a part of NOS (Noroeste Sustentable), a small NGO based in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. My role as an attendee was primarily to provide support to Alejandro Robles, the organization’s director. This was, of course, an amazing opportunity to learn about systems thinking from Peter Senge. But I also went with “half an eye”—as I told one of the instructors—towards learning about the Leadership MBA they offer at MIT Sloan (and PhD opportunities, as well).

Systems thinking is a framework for thought and leadership developed from the multidisciplinary approach to engineering provided by systems dynamics. Systems dynamics quantitatively and qualitatively studies the components of physical systems, their interactions, and tries to model and predict otherwise unpredictable behaviors that occur from the complexity of the interactions involved. Systems thinking takes this discipline and and focuses on teaching people how to view the world in terms of a complex set of interactions, which are predominantly hidden and inaccessible to our firsthand experience.

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A systems view on dieting and losing weight.

Most of us suspect that diets just don’t work. Despite the fact that every six months or so, a new diet comes along touting a new and amazing way to lose weight, there’s a good chance that for a large chunk of the population, it won’t be effective. As usual, it comes down to the individual’s “strength of will” or “mental ability” to constrain themselves and only eat particular foods, or particular quantities of foods.

I prefer a different approach.

Why not, instead of sitting there dreaming about what we could eat that we’re holding ourselves back from eating, we learn how to stack the deck in our favor? Why not set up the dominoes of our life so that we find ourselves eating what we should be eating, without having to drive ourselves with an iron fist? By the way, that’s totally possible.

The principles of systems thinking (and the specifics of the body), allow us to explore systemic changes that we can make, so that it doesn’t come down to “strength of will”—whatever that means.

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