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John Berardi, Ph.D. Headshot

I Sing The Body Hypoxic

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John Berardi, Ph.D. Headshot

I Sing The Body Hypoxic

Posted: Updated:

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Within there runs blood, The same old blood! The same red-running blood! There swells and jets a heart - there all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations; Do you think they're not there because they're not expressed in parlors and lecture-rooms? - Walt Whitman


Nate Green - writer, self-experimenter, and high-level martial artist - had a strange and interesting goal.

Wanting to test the extreme weight-manipulation strategies of the world's best grapplers and martial artists - and, in the process, explore his own physical and psychological limits - he set out to gain 20 pounds of lean body weight in 28 days, lose it all in 5 days, and gain it all back in 24 hours.

The skeptics thought it impossible; the concerned thought it ill-advised. But 34 days after kicking off his Bigger Smaller Bigger project, Nate had gained, lost, and gained again a total of 60 pounds.

I know all about this project because I helped Nate do it; I was his coach.

As a biochemist and physiologist, I study the human body and am infinitely fascinated by how it works. In its complexity, it can make the most advanced man-made technologies seem like grade-school science fair projects, the most complicated engineering systems seem like high school calculus problems.

One intriguing hallmark of our human physiology is just how dynamic and responsive we are to a wide range of external conditions.

Exposed to cold, we shiver to maintain warmth. Exposed to heat, we sweat to cool down. Overfed, we produce more heat to burn off the extra calories. Underfed, we produce less heat to conserve calories.

Indeed, under most acute conditions, our bodies are remarkably responsive - all to maintain the narrow range of internal conditions necessary for life.

Even more intriguing than responsiveness is our plasticity, the ability to literally reinvent ourselves in response to environmental pressures.

Lift weights and we grow bigger, stronger muscles that can lift more in the future. Run distances and we grow smaller, efficient muscles that can run further in the future. Eat high carb and low fat diets and our cells become carb-burning engines. Eat high fat and low carb diets and our cells morph into fat-burning engines.

It's this very plasticity - and the physical training that produces it - that allows climbers to summit the world's highest peaks, divers to plunge deep below the ocean's surface, ultramarathoners to run a hundred miles, weightlifters to bench press a thousand pounds.

In his 2009 TEDTalk, David Blaine - an illusionist and endurance artist - describes the physical training he went through leading up to his record-breaking 17-minute breath-holding performance.

By sleeping in an altitude tent (increases red blood cell count), by losing 40 pounds (reduces whole body oxygen demand), by practicing breath holding each day (improves relaxation under stressful breath-holding conditions), Blaine's feat becomes more than a magical, unexplainable mystery.

Rather, his world record becomes the result of the physical plasticity each of us has within. Through training, we can reinvent our heart, lungs, brain, and muscles. With these adaptations, we can accomplish things that, to others, would seem impossible.

Of course, with all this talk of the body, it's important to not forget the brain. All extreme physical manipulations - like Green's or Blaine's - are also psychological triumphs. They represent the power of the human will to endure discomfort, even suffering.

Interestingly, brain-derived characteristics like willpower, discipline, and psychological endurance - much like muscle size or cellular fuel efficiency - can also be measured and manipulated. In essence, our brain structures and psychological traits are also plastic.

Of course, you may never want to make your body bigger, smaller, and then bigger again. You may never want to hold your breath for 17 minutes. And you may never want to run through a forest fire. -- John Berardi, Ph.D.

British adventurer Bear Grylls has made a hobby (and career) of putting himself in extremely uncomfortable positions. On the show Man vs. Wild, he was routinely dropped into inhospitable places, showing viewers how to survive. From running through forest fires to drinking urine saved in a rattlesnake skin, he inoculated himself from fear by facing it on a regular basis.

Stoic philosophers have long preached a similar approach. Much like athletes whose physical discomfort (training) triggers physical improvement, the stoics believe that we develop strength of character, emotional endurance, and resiliency through suffering; and that only great struggles produce greatness of character.

Of course, you may never want to make your body bigger, smaller, and then bigger again. You may never want to hold your breath for 17 minutes. And you may never want to run through a forest fire.

However, these extreme examples provide a blueprint for achieving other, more modest goals. Whether it's losing weight, gaining strength, cultivating resiliency, or growing creativity, they show us that it's possible to literally recreate ourselves.

Whether we call it magic - or science - it can feel nothing short of miraculous. To wake each day a little better than the last. To achieve the remarkable. To prove to others - and ourselves - that the impossible is within our reach. Because, in many cases, it is.

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