“You can’t force training and force another marathon.”
Whenever I cross a runner who’s decked out in brand names, their sunday trip to REI or Sports Authority billboarded on their bodies, I worry for their knees.
Brands have become a way of differentiating ourselves socially—of carving our identity as separate from the person next to us, and yet displaying that we share (at least) one common belief: consumerism. Continue reading The lay athlete, brands, and the dilemma of ornamentation.
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.
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.
“The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.”
– Peter Senge
The human body is an economic system. If only we treated it that way. The ways in which the magazines and the latest trends compel us to go about exercise and physical development just don’t observe this reality.
Because the body functions like an economy, the surest way to achieve any goal is creating the conditions for growth in that direction. This is why I speak in terms of liquid assets: assets which can be sold very quickly and without losing market value in the process. Increasing the liquidity of our body’s relevant nutrients—fats and carbohydrates, to name two—is the very first step towards entering a cycle of investment to drive the body’s economy in the direction we want—even when “growth” corresponds to growing in the direction of a lower body mass.
Even when we’re talking about running for the sole purpose of being skinny, constraining calories just won’t cut it. By forcing the body to implement austerity measures (through dieting), we destroy its ability to grow in any direction. Even though we’ll achieve skinniness in the short-term, doing so will compromise the body’s ability to maintain it. In systems-speak, this is a classic example of Shifting the Burden.
“Any long-term solution must strengthen the ability of the system to shoulder its own burdens”
– Donella Meadows
In Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Donella Meadows outlines 12 “leverage points”—12 places where we can intervene into a system to change its behavior. They are outlined in increasing levels of effectiveness:
12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
3. The goals of the system.
2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
1. The power to transcend paradigms.
Transcending the paradigms under which the majority of us train, race, (and generally develop our athleticism) is the most effective way to generate results that wildly outmatch any of our previous expectations of our athletic potential.
Paradigms are our constructed realities: they are the rules by which we are governed. Our paradigms outline which questions are acceptable, and which ones are not. They tell us which sources of information are valid, and which are not, and how we should go about interpreting the information we collect.
Systems thinking scholars suggest that transcending a paradigm—creating a “paradigm shift”—is the most effective way to change the behavior of a system (such as the human body) because it challenges the most basic questions and assumptions on which it is predicated. Necessarily, a new way of viewing the world will lead to the use of new types of information, new strategies, and new outcomes of the behavior of the system, which could have not possibly been foreseen or predicted under the previous paradigm.