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Antifragile I: Being Harder to Kill

“What doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger.” – Nietzsche.

I wonder if Nietzsche would have the same perspective today? Maybe he would have said something like “what doesn’t kill the already strong, can make the strong stronger, but what doesn’t kill the weak will make the weak weaker.”

Author Nassim Taleb draws on this and more in his book ‘Antifragile’ – my latest read and a book that can seriously change the way you look at the world. Taleb digs deep on all things fragile. In markets, nations, and in nature, the antifragile will thrive and flourish, while the fragile will be weened out. 

What is it exactly? Well, while the fragile are easily broken, the antifragile will thrive in disorder, and welcome any disruption or chaos thrown their way. And not only will the antifragile survive, they’ll go a step further and “gain from disorder.”

 

Sounds like this right:

“It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It’s the one most adaptable to change.”

– Charles Darwin

 

Well yes, but Taleb takes it a step further, and draws on his experience as a trader, statistician and analyst to encourage us to seek out discomfort and become more robust humans. He explores many scenarios of antifragility in his book; criticising medical “fragilista’s” for over prescribing medicines and denying the bodies ability to heal, and policy “fragilista’s” who insist on ‘fixing’ the economy and end up breaking it. 

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“One of the twelve most influential books since WWII.” – The Sunday Times

 

The reason this concept fascinates me is that I believe that we live in such a safe world. In a quest to make everything smooth surfaced, we’ve eliminated any risk and jeopardised the potential to become more adaptive, robust species. Thermostats, escalators and orthotics all have their place, but an overexposure to these can lead to us becoming weaker creatures.

And since fitness is my jam, I think we can apply the same concept of antifragility to our workouts. Not training for looks or glory, but training to build mental and physical resilience. 

Let’s look at two examples:

Jay-Cutler

How would this guy fare in a varied environment?

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I’d rather go to war with Rich

 

The result of a fitness routine that embraces antifragility is pretty powerful:

Not only are you capable for most physical encounters, you’re mentally ready for anything that might dare to step in your path. Better yet, you’re kind of hoping that you’re met with a physical challenge.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that we’re wired for antifragility:

  • In the gym we lift heavy things, our bones, muscles and joints grow stronger, we create mitochondrial density, and become more adaptive creatures. Avoid this and our muscles atrophy, leaving our fragile bodies more susceptible to injury.
  • During childhood we expose ourselves to toxins and pathogens, leading to improved immunity and the ability to fight bigger, badder disease in the future – this is the foundation for vaccinations.
  • Engage in Intermittent Fasting (IF) and improve insulin sensitivity, increase growth factor, promote cellular autophagy.
  • Exposure to extreme temperatures (sauna/ice bath) helps promote heat and cold shock proteins, leading to greater immunity and production of beneficial hormones.
  • In business, we encounter small failures and setbacks, creating a better awareness to make better decisions in the future.
 

We’ve been hearing these mantras forever:

“Don’t wrap yourself in cotton wool.”

“Move it or lose it.”

“The weak die out and the strong will survive, and live on forever”

And my personal favourite:

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” – Seneca

 

And since Game of Thrones is awesome, let’s look at the concept of fragility with some of the characters (no spoilers):

Fragile: King Tommen

A look at Tommen and you know that he bleeds fragility. He leads a huge dynasty that’s hanging on by a thread, is surrounded by people trying to manipulate him, and you can tell that he doesn’t really want to be there. Taleb would label Tommen a ‘fragilister’ and put him alongside banking executives as the most ignorantly vulnerable in society.

tommen

Resilient: The Hound

He’s tough and uncompromising. Being ‘hard to kill’ is his mantra as he strolls around the seven kingdoms creating chaos. We’ve seen him trek his way through the highlands, fighting off multiple men, all with the very minimum of resources. While he’s shown incredible endurance through his journey, he hasn’t quite ‘grown from disorder’ and wouldn’t satisfy Taleb’s definition of ‘antifragile.’

hound

Antifragile: Danerise

Danerise is perfectly antifragile. She’s walked through fire, trekked through the desert, and endured personal and physical hardship that would make others roll over. Despite the chaos, she maintains her poise and continuously finds a way to become better, stronger and build a kick arse army. I’m not sure if Taleb is a GOT fan, but I think he’d respect Danerise’s antifragility, however may warn her against the “too big to fail” mindset.

khaleesi

 

Back to the point….

How do we inject some antifragility into our lives:

  1. Embrace Variation:

“Specialisation is for insects” said writer Robert Heinlein. In life this means that we should be able to run, jump, throw, squat, lunge, bend, twist, and our training should reflect this. If the extent of your movement involves a jog on the weekend and the occasional pump class, then try sprinting and lifting heavy things. Crossfit does a great job at embracing variation and includes it in their ‘Constantly Varied Functional Movement performed at High Intensity’ mantra, and there are many other styles that embrace randomness: The non – linear movements with dance, the whole body demands of gymnastics and calisthenics promote a more robust body that’s fit for a wide variety of challenges.

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Lucas Parker: Very Hard to Kill

 2. Train Outdoors, Barefoot

Most shoes are an instrument of fragility. They mute many of the muscles in our foot, leaving them atrophied, weak, and more susceptible to injury. More importantly, going barefoot will improve our proprioception, which pretty much means our awareness of where we are in space – there’s a reason that surfing, yoga and gymnastics are done barefoot. Not only this, you’re in an unpredictable environment and need to deal with different variables, will this upset you or will you thrive?

 3. Sprint, lift heavy things

Exposure to short bursts of acute stress works like hormesis in the body. We promote inflammation, produce beneficial hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, testosterone), and allow our body the time to adapt and grow stronger. While all exercise will create this hormetic stress, nothing does it quite like sprints and lifting heavy things. The fitness community have woken up to this as we’ve seen the rise of high intensity interval training (HIIT), and ditching the ‘burning calories’ on the treadmill. Just ensure we’re getting the right amount of recovery (sleep, nutrition, stress management) then we’re going to get a lot of bang for our buck by training like a caveman.

4. Deprive and Indulge:

A component of antifragility is to both deprive and indulge. No, this doesn’t mean sitting on the couch, eating doritos and magically growing stronger. This means going without the gym for a while, give yourself intentional rest where you get out into nature and inject some randomness into your system – don’t be a “I can’t live without the gym” person – there is more going on around you.

5. Don’t get too attached to outcomes

“I want to lose 10kg in 10 weeks.” “And then what?” I say to a blank and confused face. These sorts of goals are highly fragile. Not only are they nearly impossible to achieve, they’re focussed on just one outcome so if/when we don’t lose that 10kg, we’re left disenchanted and searching for the next lemon detox diet. A more robust approach is to enjoy the process of fitness and enjoy the multitude of benefits that come our way. Intrinsic factors like self worth and pride are the things that keep us coming back and will help us grow stronger in other areas of life.

 

Before you run! Avoid Weekend Warrior Syndrome!

The weekend warrior is someone (usually a male) who wakes up on a Saturday feeling like Rocky, minus the physical capabilities. His motivation sends him on a 5km run and he’s loving life. Monday rolls around and his doctor tells him he has plantar fasciitis and that running is ‘bad for your joints.’ While we can blame the running, it’s the fragile body that’s the most dangerous as it’s not equipped for physicality. So start slow, inject the appropriate amount of stress, and become antifragile.

Anyway, I had a lot of fun writing this and hope to explore more of these topics that aren’t “5 ways to blast belly fat” in the future.

If you have any comments or thoughts then I’d love to hear from you.

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Steve is a personal trainer, health coach, and owner of Barefoot Health. He’s currently studying Functional Diagnostic Nutrition and Chiropractic at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia.