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A Top Athlete’s Detour to Optimum Health: Meet Mark Sisson 

I met Mark Sisson for the first time a couple of years ago, after becoming a fan of his from reading The Primal Blueprint and following his site, Mark’s Daily Apple. What fascinated me about Mark was his proven track record as a serious endurance athlete, his relentless pursuit of truth in nutrition, his unique ability to make common sense out of the often complicated topics of nutrition and metabolism, and his unwavering dedication to living the life he recommends for others. We’ve had a couple meals together and had the fortune of visiting Mark at his beautiful home in Malibu. From his eggs and bacon breakfast to his shorts and Vibram five-fingers, Mark really walks his talk.

We’ve gone back and forth about how we could get him in front of more of our Life Time Weight Loss followers, and we know a lot of our Health and Fitness Professionals love his stuff. Hopefully this will be one of many ways we can introduce Mark to all of you. If you’re uncertain whether you should order his book, check out my book review of The Primal Blueprint.

I asked Mark to briefly tell his story about how he went from being a high-performing endurance athlete to becoming one of the leaders in the Paleo movement and to creating his own category of nutrition, exercise and lifestyle, which he calls The Primal Blueprint. Below, he shares his story of the negative effects of overdoing endurance training and eating a conventional endurance athletes' diet, to getting smarter about training, nutrition and lifestyle. As you can see from his picture, at 59 years old, what he recommends is certainly serving him well. Be sure to share thoughts and post some questions below. Hopefully we can get Mark to jump in and respond to some of your questions. Enjoy!

-- Tom Nikkola – Sr. Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

For the first half of my life, I assumed athletic performance and personal health enjoyed positive correlations into perpetuity. I was heavily influenced by Ken Cooper’s Aerobics, which said that time spent at an elevated heart rate would accrue “points” later redeemable for health and longevity. In other words, the more I ran, cycled, swam, and trained, the longer I’d live and the healthier I’d be.

So, that’s what I did. Cross-country in grade school, high school, and college. Competitive marathoning after, even going so far as to qualify for the Olympic trials (until an injury sidelined me). After that, it was triathlons, a new sport that I took to right away. All throughout, I was logging fifteen, twenty miles a day, more if I was on the bike, fewer if I was in the pool. I must have been the very picture of health, right?

Nope. By age 28, I had crippling osteoarthritis. Recurrent irritable bowel syndrome. Constant upper respiratory tract infections. Chronic hip tendonitis. Sure, I could run pretty fast and shame most people with my V02max, but if you caught me on a bad day your grandfather could probably beat me up the stairs. On top of that, nearly every waking moment was consumed with training and competing. And if I wasn’t actively training, I was thinking about/dreading it.

As much as I relished the top-level competitive experience itself (and still understand why people are drawn to it), it had taken a major and progressive physical toll on me. Not everyone in that arena experiences the same issues I had, but they’re more common than the average person would imagine. Eventually, my body was so broken down that I couldn’t maintain the training schedule to stay competitive, and I had to retire.

When I left, I was presented with a conundrum: if endurance training wasn’t the ticket to health, what else were the experts wrong about? Everything I thought I’d known about health and fitness had to be reexamined.

I’d stayed in the fitness world, training non-athletes and “regular” folks to make ends meet. As a result, I spent a lot of time taking walks with severely overweight people and going for short, easy jogs with other clients - activities that barely registered as exercise to me. Because my days were filled with client work and I had very little time to work out, I came up with some simple, to-the-point routines that wouldn’t take longer than half an hour: hill sprint intervals and short bouts of strength training using as many body parts at once to get a bigger bang for my buck. Instead of shortchanging myself and falling out of shape (which I expected), I was actually getting stronger. I gained weight, but it was lean mass. My joints stopped hurting so much. By all accounts, this new, truncated way of training made me healthier, happier, and arguably fitter, while my top competition level “chronic cardio” all those years had made me unhealthier.

Since I’d long been a student of human evolution, I noticed something: my training had unconsciously begun to emulate the habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Instead of stressful endurance training, I was engaging in lots of slow moving aerobic activity (walking, hiking) that did not stress the adrenals. I was moving really fast every once in a while (sprints) and lifting heavy things a few times a week.

I also realized I was beginning to eat like them. Since carb-loading was no longer necessary (although I did kinda miss the half gallon of ice cream a night habit) to get through my day, I started eating more fat and protein. The relative paucity of carbohydrates also made it possible to cannibalize my own stored body fat for energy. My hunger stabilized - no more constant urges to eat a carb-filled snack every two hours - and so did my mood. Finally, because I’d cut out most grains and refined sugar (neither of which were around in Paleolithic times), my body wasn’t in a state of perpetual inflammation and oxidative stress.

In my 2009 book, The Primal Blueprint, I explored the ways in which evolution shaped our dietary and exercise needs, refining what I’d just discovered through trial and error. It turns out that our genes weren’t just shaped by our evolutionary environments: they actually expect certain environmental inputs in order to function best. When we provide the right environmental cues to our bodies and our genes, we are rewarded with good health.

We are not just eating and exercising machines, however. Other factors determine our health as well. With that realization, I began looking at other areas of human health and wellness through an evolutionary lens. I began researching the varied conditions under which our metabolisms and physiologies evolved because those would undoubtedly provide clues about best health practices today.

Earlier this year, I released The Primal Connection, which goes beyond diet and exercise to explain how human happiness, contentment, fulfillment, and health are also shaped by evolutionary conditioning. Things like the touch of a loved one, the sun on your skin, face-to-face social interaction, the feel of grass under your bare feet, simply being outside in nature, and aligning your sleeping patterns with the light-dark cycle have very real, very specific effects on how the genes responsible for your health and happiness function. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in closely knit tribes, got plenty of sunlight, were often barefoot, lived outside in nature, slept when it got dark and got up when it was light - and those were the conditions under which we became human.

We can’t return to those days - nor would we want to - but we can heed the realities of our evolutionary biology and strategically apply some of the lessons learned.

We can eat animals (and their fat), plants, roots, tubers, nuts, and seeds, and maintain a healthy weight and great body composition effortlessly.

We can exercise sensibly, rather than excessively, and achieve better results.

We can spend more undistracted time with our loved ones.

We can get some sun.

We can sleep in a dark room more aligned to nature’s clock.

We can play with our kids.

We can hug our friends and pet our dogs.

We can spend more time barefoot connected to the earth.

It took me many years to understand this: at the end of the day, we can be happy and healthy. The best part is, it's not as tough as we often make it.


This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader. 



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