Crossfit, an intense (yet invigorating) training program that “punishes the specialist,” by building a body that is versatile, strong, and able to take on anything through incredibly varied yet applicable movements. Paleo, a diet that “gets back to human” through eliminating all industrialized and processed food sources, simultaneously emphasizing the importance of foods our ancestors ate, along with the powerful and healing benefits that they possess. While both are completely out of the norm, seemingly crazy, and definitely not always accepted by conventional medicine or media, there seems to be a common link between the two. Though it is true you can (and many do) workout with Crossfit and still eat a SAD (Standard American Diet), it seems that those excelling in their athleticism and health are ones that pair the two hand in hand. In today’s post, I will explain how both of these practices not only benefit our outward appearance, but also the internal, chemical equations that make us humans who we are.
Crossfit vs. Cardio
No, Crossfit is not just another “cool” named workout program promising to make you look like a body builder, nor is it a Planet Fitness look-a-like providing you with a choice of 100 treadmills to go kill yourself on. Rather, Crossfit is a highly dynamic way of exercising, originally created to condition police academies, tactical operation teams, military special operation units, champion martial artists, and a slue of other elite athletes for the future’s unknown. Instead of focusing on your “body type,” Crossfit realizes that as humans, we all benefit from the same thing; movement. Whatever your shape or size, this “sport of fitness” will inevitably help you excel is the “ten general physical skills: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy.” Unlike “chronic cardio,” each Crossfit workout is designed differently, done for short, yet intense spurts of time, and made to target different strength and weaknesses throughout the body. By allowing individuals enough rest and recovery in between each exercise, this workout strategy (not regime) is one that finally applies to everyday life. Besides the crazy definition of Crossfit, is there really more to it than jumping up on boxes and lifting heavy thing? The answer is yes.
Back in the Day
Hundreds to thousands of years ago, people were not driving cars to work, they did not have the luxury of buying food at the grocery stores, nor did they end their day relaxing in front of the TV. Unlike today’s modern world, everything our ancestors did, had, and obtained, was done through their own works, planned (like hunting) or unplanned (fending off a dangerous predator). However, as civilization grew, this varied way of sporadic, every day activities changed. Somewhere along the lines, running marathons became associated with being the most “fit,” and therefore healthy. Instead of thriving from the benefits of “life or death” experiences, “cardio” became the next best thing. Moderate amounts of low-level aerobic exercise ultimately strengthen cardiovascular system function, however, due to the lack of oxygen available for muscles and organs, performing repeated, high-intensity exercise, makes our bodies use glucose as fuel both during workouts and everyday life. With a maximum heart rate zone of 75-85%, anaerobic exercise is not necessarily bad in and of itself, but rather when it is carried out for extended periods of time, due to stress hormone release (aka the favored endorphin rush) and production of lactic acid in muscles. Though the US Government recommends citizens engage in 60 minutes of this vigorous activity daily in order to improve metabolism, body composition, and overall health, this concept is incredibly flawed. Because intense exercise spikes cortisol and requires glucose for fuel, frequent workouts of this medium-hard difficulty result in chronically elevated stress levels, cravings, fatigue, traumatized joints/tissue, hormone imbalance, depleted bone density, muscle mass, and overall systemic inflammation. In other words, unless you are an elite athlete with a persistent personal trainer, sticking to this type of strenuous exercise for your entire life is physically and mentally impossible.
In contrast to this long, monotonous, and aimless way of working out, our bodies prefer short, high intensity exercises, that are spontaneous and short lived (much like the situations our ancestors encountered). When rest and recovery is included into what the body perceives as a stressful situation, the harmful effects mentioned above are not only avoided, but the internal mechanisms of our bodies “fight or flight” response are optimized. With only a momentary spike in cortisol, beneficial adaptive hormones release from the bloodstream into our body, targeting different organs and muscles to strengthen and help. Mitochondria cells are also able to effectively produce, build, grow, and protect the body from oxidative damage. In general, brief, yet challenging workouts that include full sweeping motions, improve overall energy, organ function, hormonal balance, and aging. Two prime examples include sprinting and strength training, both of which are included in Crossfit workouts, along with equally varied low intensity aerobic (oxygen available) exercises. The key to this combination is quality over quantity, or intensity over duration, which allows the body to adapt and become stronger over the long term, avoiding a compromised immune system, muscle breakdown, and inability to move forward in performance.
Sprint Like You Mean it
Take sprinting for example, an event that incredibly enhances our mitochondria cells, insulin sensitivity, lipid profiles, growth hormones, mood, cognitive function, alertness, energy, bone density and connective tissue (when done in high impact). Though they are short, occasional sprint workouts enhance protein synthesis by 230%, allowing one to maintain lean muscle mass, unlike “chronic” exercise, which promotes the break down of muscle. By burning fat rather than glucose, the body is able to preserve precious glycogen stores, efficiently process and eliminate lactic acid (and other blood waste products) and extend overall endurance time, all of which make it obviously more beneficial than “chronic cardio.” Ultimately, sprinting is only between 8 and 30 seconds, due to the the fact that performing at maximum effort over 30 seconds is literally impossible. Instead of trying to see how long you can “sprint,” it is key to focus on consistency, as there is no such thing as a light-moderate sprint workout. Along with varied strength training and sprinting, Mark Sisson, creator of the Primal Blueprint 21 Day Transformation, also emphasizes what is called low-medium “aerobic” exercise, where oxygen is present and cells are able to develop efficiently. This type of exercise, recommended to be done 2-5 hours each week, ultimately promotes the body to be more resilient for the high intensity workouts. Therefore, with the proper ratio of strength training, sprinting, and comfortable, minimal stress exercise all done briefly and irregular, the body is strengthened from the inside out. Obviously, our bodies were not made to run on a treadmill like a hamster, nor were we intended to be “gym rats” and only lift heavy things for a living. Instead, movement that our body recognizes, adapts, and is truly fortified from is all that it takes to look good, feel good, and truly be good.
Paleo vs. SAD
While moving and exercising in a way that helps body (rather than degrading it) is a big part of being truly healthy, the key factor to health, which is what determines 80% of body composition, is our diet. The Paleo approach focuses on consuming nutrient-dense foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors thrived from many years ago. It may sound silly, as this way of eating usually gets termed the “caveman diet,” however, removing all grains, legumes, processed sugar, dairy, and oils, allows our bodies to function in the way that they were intended. While ditching chronic cardio for Crossfit can be somewhat beneficial on its own, eating a SAD (Standard American Die) is very counterproductive to all that you just worked hard for. In today’s modern world, the majority of food in any given grocery store is foreign and toxic to the body. We have become carb-dependent and tricked into believing we need these products for energy and mere convenience. However, eating in such a way creates a chronically elevated spike in insulin, which in turn suppresses the release of fatty acids and adaptive hormones from a properly executed Crossfit workout. In contrast, Paleo eating, which eliminates all high-insulin producing foods, can (and does) serve as the catalyst for the multiple chemical reposes that occur after any primal-aligned exercise session (such as Crossfit). Instead of hindering our bodies from tapping into fat storage for energy and suppressing beneficial hormones, our organs are literally able to keep using these products for hours, even days after being released. Rather than messing with hormones, appetite, mood, energy, body weight, internal organs, sleep, and brain power, the Paleo diet allows the body to function effortlessly, resulting in anything from weight loss, muscle gain, athletic endurance, hormonal balance, appetite control, improved cognitive and immune function, elevated mood, energy, and the list goes on and on.
As for those who believe they will not be able to preform in Crossfit without their handy dandy “carbs,” it is important to realize that the notion that there is a required amount of dietary carbs for our bodies to preform optimally, is false. Though it is true that glucose is the primary fuel source for anaerobic exercise, primal aligned exercise such as Crossfit, will not create a huge need for dietary carbs because low intensity cardio burns mostly fat, and the brief, intense strength/sprint workouts aren’t long enough to result in heavy glycogen depletion. Compared to the SAD, Paleo is “low carb,” but only in the sense that it brings down blood glucose levels from being highly toxic and harmful, to more normal, healthy ranges that our bodies can handle. In other words, for athletes looking to get the most out of their Crossfit workout, replacing a diet high in carbohydrates (all grains, packaged food, legumes sugar, etc…) with naturally “high carb” sources such as fresh fruit, starchy tubers, dark chocolate, and even wild rice and quinoa, will give one all the fuel that they need, without compromising the effects of their body composition (granted they are eating adequate amounts of fat and protein as well). For those trying to lose weight while doing Crossfit, limiting carbohydrate intake to 100-50 grams is the ideal “sweet spot” that allows the body to tap into stored fat and balance out the bodies intended and optimal weight.
Unlike the popular belief that “pain is gain,” there is no reason (or proof) that spending hours in the gym helps one become a better athlete, lose weight, or simply “be healthy.” In fact, even taking lengthy breaks from working out (of any kind) has been proven to be beneficial, as it allows the body for full rest and recovery. Instead of trying to burn more calories than consumed, optimizing carbohydrate intake, body composition, and athletic performance are all quite obtainable through both the right workouts (via Crossfit) and dietary habits (the Paleo diet). All in all, running more miles on the treadmill or doing more reps at the gym, can not out-do the detrimental effects of our SAD (Standard American Diet), as the skyrocketing rise in childhood obesity, cancer, and heart disease all serve as obvious proof. Instead, mimicking the same “life or death” situations that our ancestors thousands of years ago experienced through workouts like Crossfit, while supporting these movements with the same, ancestral approach to eating, we are able to reach the lost, forgotten, and thus seemingly impossible essence of optimal health.
Psalm 37:24-25 “The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in Him; Though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with His hand”