Books News: So, You Say You Want to Do the Splits?

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If you’ve ever harbored the desire to do the splits, this desire probably left you around age 13, eclipsed by equally brutal preoccupations like romance or acne. But the breakout success in Japan of “Even the Stiffest People Can Do the Splits: A Four-Week Stretching Plan to Achieve Amazing Health,” a book published last spring by cluttering guru Marie Kondo’s publisher, Rodale Books, and recently out in the United States, suggests that some people never give up the dream.

Written by Eiko, a yoga teacher based in Osaka, the book has you do several minutes of yoga and gentle bouncing every day for a month, at which point you’ll be able to do the splits while seated on the floor. If hygge made you drowsy, and Marie Kondo saddled you with empty cupboards and regret, “shake yoga” is a way to masochistically jiggle these bad memories away with your thighs.

The book has sold more than a million copies; Eiko’s instructional videos on YouTube have been viewed 6.7 million times. On the streets of Osaka now, schoolboys point their fingers at the so-called Queen of Splits and scream “Hey, it’s the Queen!” Meanwhile, The Times of London has heaped upon the new monarch a notably un-British encomium: Eiko is “watchably bendy.”

Two factors would seem to be fueling the book’s success. First, Gumby-like bendiness is not the book’s sole mandate — Eiko contends that the ancillary benefits of being able to do the splits include weight loss, improved balance, injury prevention and peace of mind. “If your body is stiff, it becomes harder and harder to do things like walk, step over things, pick things up, sleep or even sit,” Eiko said in an email, adding that, outside of women in their 30s and 40s, the book has also been very popular with senior citizens. To back up its claims, the book cites studies from an array of sources ranging from the Journal of Applied Physiology and the Neuropsychoeconomics Conference Proceedings to The Sunday Tasmanian and Joe Weider’s Muscle & Fitness magazine.

The second component of the book’s power is less wholesome. It only takes several pages for Eiko to lay out her regimen — you do two minute-long exercises a day, one wherein you lie on your back and pull your outstretched leg backward with a towel and then bounce, and another where you do a legs-spread sumo stretch and then bounce. A third minute-long yoga position or exercise changes each week. Eiko recommends that, with any move, you push yourself to 70 percent of your capacity.

CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times

But the bulk of the book consists of a slightly strange short story — “How Are You Going to Achieve Anything If You Can’t Even Do the Splits?” — about two shame-ridden employees of a corporation in Japan who discover the joys and benisons of shake yoga. The gentle Oba is being outworked and outplayed by his younger colleagues, and harried Umemoto fears her work has deteriorated because of poor time management skills and a lack of self-restraint. But Oba and Umemoto’s lives change dramatically when their new boss Hori encourages them to start meeting in the conference room at 7:30 a.m., where they cover the floor with some “picnic sheets for cherry-blossom parties” and then stretch and bounce their way to a new life — the kind of life that’s led by people who can do the splits. “That sparkle you feel, that sense of respect,” as Hori puts it, “ … is something you reserve for the kind of people who keep on trying to accomplish something that most people can’t.”

Asked why she chose to highlight professional shame and embarrassment in the short story, Eiko responded, “Whether or not you can do the splits is a battle with your own insecurities. Many of the people who buy the book have an inferiority complex because they’ve been inflexible ever since they were children. Many Japanese people have inferiority complexes about not being able to speak English or about being overweight, and lots of people feel the same way about being inflexible. For people like that, being able to do the splits means changing their ‘no-good self’ into something good.”

Whether such psychological abjection will speak to an American audience remains to be seen. However, a recent study out of Northwestern University showed that the estimated age of a group of middle-aged women who were willing to do 20 weeks of “face yoga” dropped from 50.8 years to 48, so who knows anymore what people are willing to do to avoid the adjective “saggy”?

Indeed, Eiko’s promise of being able to perform a parlor trick after a relatively small time commitment may speak to the magical thinkers in the crowd. Imagine the respect to be garnered when, after quietly stretching and vibrating for a month on your own, you slip into the bathroom during a dinner party one night, change into your yoga pants, and then are found sitting on the living room floor, folded at the waist. A hush descends.

CreditJeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

Which is not to say that pliability is a cakewalk. Asked what percentage of people quit the program before the month is over, Eiko hazarded 30 percent. “Many of those who give up say that their muscles ached the day after they began and they didn’t feel like stretching, so they quit.” She added, “the pain eventually goes away as you continue with the stretches and your flexibility improves.”

For people with bad backs the prospect of doing a lot of bouncing can, at first blush, be quite daunting. However, other therapeutic forms of movement besides shake yoga, such as gyrokinesis, Feldenkrais and Sensory Bounce Therapy include a modicum of bouncing or repeated swaying. Better yet, dance aficionados can point to two bounce-friendly dance idioms that arose as a result of bad backs. The swirly, shaky kind of dance known as Gaga was developed by former Batsheva Dance Company artistic director Ohad Naharin to recuperate from a back injury. The Luigi jazz technique — a series of exercises devised by a jazz dancer who was in a horrific car accident in 1946, but rehabilitated himself and went on to teach Liza Minnelli, Susan Stroman and Ben Vereen — has you fold at the waist and then put your arms between your legs while gently rocking your body.

CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times

Eiko said, “Bouncing means you are always easing up before you reach the limit of how far you can stretch, so it reduces the likelihood of getting hurt.” She also included in her email pictures of sumo wrestlers doing the seated “pancake split” that is the book’s goal. “In the national sport of sumo all the wrestlers practice straddle splits (called matawari in sumo) as an essential part of their training and as a way to prevent injury. Wrestlers are not considered full-fledged wrestlers, and are not permitted to take part in regular tournaments, until they can pancake completely.”

So, if you don’t learn to pancake for the sake of your self-esteem, or your bad back, do it for sumo.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C28 of the New York edition with the headline: A Yoga Teacher Aids and Abets Healthy Benders. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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Well: The Best Exercise for Aging Muscles

After 12 weeks, the lab tests were repeated. In general, everyone experienced improvements in fitness and an ability to regulate blood sugar.

There were some unsurprising differences: The gains in muscle mass and strength were greater for those who exercised only with weights, while interval training had the strongest influence on endurance.

But more unexpected results were found in the biopsied muscle cells. Among the younger subjects who went through interval training, the activity levels had changed in 274 genes, compared with 170 genes for those who exercised more moderately and 74 for the weight lifters. Among the older cohort, almost 400 genes were working differently now, compared with 33 for the weight lifters and only 19 for the moderate exercisers.

Many of these affected genes, especially in the cells of the interval trainers, are believed to influence the ability of mitochondria to produce energy for muscle cells; the subjects who did the interval workouts showed increases in the number and health of their mitochondria — an impact that was particularly pronounced among the older cyclists.

It seems as if the decline in the cellular health of muscles associated with aging was “corrected” with exercise, especially if it was intense, says Dr. Sreekumaran Nair, a professor of medicine and an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic and the study’s senior author. In fact, older people’s cells responded in some ways more robustly to intense exercise than the cells of the young did — suggesting, he says, that it is never too late to benefit from exercise.

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Ask Well: Is Rebounding Good Exercise?

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Q

I’ve been reading a lot about rebounding as an excellent exercise for all ages. The benefits seem almost miraculous, but I don’t find any articles in Well about this form of exercise. Have you looked into it?

A

Many websites do tout almost miraculous benefits from jumping on a rebounder or, as it is also known, a minitrampoline, claiming that such workouts improve fitness, build bone, spur lymphatic drainage, fight depression, and goose the health of every cell in your body, since they supposedly experience beneficial G-force pressure during a workout.

These claims are unproven. Enthusiasts often cite a 1980 study by NASA scientists showing that rebounding required more effort than running while it was gentler on joints. More recent science disagrees. By most estimates, rebound exercise is, at best, aerobically mild, requiring less effort than bowling and about the same as playing croquet. Even competitive trampoline athletes get less of a workout per minute than most runners.

There also is little or no scientific evidence that rebounding benefits the lymph system, bones, mood or cellular health.

But rebounding does improve balance in older people. A study published in November in the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics found that older women were less wobbly after 12 weeks of gentle, supervised rebounding exercise, although women who completed standard balance training showed similar improvement.

Exercising on a trampoline, even a mini one, also has risks. Trampoline-related injuries send many people to emergency rooms or orthopedists every year,epidemiological studies show. Interestingly, in adults, trampoline injuries typically involve joint sprains, while small children tend to tumble off and require stitches.

The upshot: If you decide to use a rebounder, exercise caution, and if your primary goal is fitness, consider bowling, a safer activity that requires more physiological effort.

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Well: 4 Days, 11 Pounds

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This article appeared in the May 25, 2014 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

Losing weight is simple: Ingest fewer calories than your body burns. But how best to do that is unclear. Most experts advise small reductions in calories or increases in exercise to remove weight slowly and sensibly, but many people quit that type of program in the face of glacial progress. A new study, published in March in The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, suggests that minimal calories and maximal exercise can significantly reduce body fat in just four days — and the loss lasts for months. The catch, of course, is that those four days are pretty grueling.

Researchers in Spain and Sweden had 15 healthy but overweight Swedish men restrict their calories to about 360 a day, a reduction of approximately 1,800 calories. What calories they did ingest came in liquid form: Some men drank mostly sugary carbohydrates, others a high-protein drink. The men also exercised — a lot. Their days began with 45 minutes of cranking an arm-pedaling machine for an upper-body workout. Then, as a group, the men strolled for eight hours across the Swedish countryside, with only a 10-minute break every hour. They were allowed as much of a low-calorie, sports-type beverage as they wanted during their walks.

Most of the men “were surprised that it was easier than they thought it would be,” says José Calbet, a professor at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain; he and his colleague Hans-Christer Holmberg, a professor at Mid Sweden University in Ostersund, led the study. Some of the subjects experienced “minor problems with pain in the joints” and blisters on their feet, according to Calbet, but none dropped out or complained of hunger.

After four days, the men had each lost almost 11 pounds, with nearly half of that coming from body fat; the rest of the loss came primarily from muscle mass. The researchers had anticipated that the high-protein drink would protect people against muscle-mass loss. In fact, the losses were the same, whether the men had been given sugar or protein.

More surprising, the men did not immediately put the weight back on after the study ended. “We thought they would overeat and regain the weight lost,” Dr. Calbet says. Instead, when the volunteers returned a month later, most had lost another two pounds of fat. And a year after the experiment, they were still down five pounds, mostly in lost body fat.

Dr. Calbet and his colleagues hope to study whether women respond similarly to men and whether repeated bouts of such a program might affect muscular health and appetite hormones.

But given the doleful statistics on weight loss — most people regain everything they lose dieting and more — these results are startling. They also, at the moment, are inexplicable. “The only explanation we can offer” for the sustained loss, Dr. Calbet says, is that the men were inspired by their hypercompressed success to change their lifestyles. The men moved more and ate less than before.

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Well: Why High-Impact Exercise Is Good for Your Bones

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This article appeared in the March 9, 2014 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

Bones should be jarred, for their own good. Past experiments have definitively established that subjecting bones to abrupt stress prompts them to add mass or at least reduces their loss of mass as people age. What has been in dispute, however, is how much force is needed to stimulate bone — and how to apply that force in daily life.

Recently researchers at the University of Bristol gathered male and female adolescents — the body accumulates bone mass rapidly at this time of life — and had them go about their daily routines while they wore activity monitors. The bone density of the volunteers’ hips was also measured.

A week later, the scientists reclaimed the monitors to check each teenager’s exposure to G forces­, a measure of impact. Those who experienced impacts of 4.2 G’s or greater — though these were infrequent — had notably sturdier hipbones. Additional work done by the same researchers showed that running a 10-minute mile or jumping up onto and down from a box at least 15 inches high was needed to produce forces that great. The significance of these findings is that people should probably run pretty fast or jump high to generate forces great enough to help build bone.

Unfortunately, few older adults are likely to be doing so. In follow-up experiments, the same researchers equipped 20 women older than 60 with activity monitors and ran them through an aerobics class, several brief and increasingly brisk walks and a session of stepping onto and off a foot-high box. None of the women reached the 4-G threshold ­— none, in fact, generated more than 2.1 G’s of force at any point during the various exercises.

The implications are somewhat concerning. Dr. Jon Tobias, a professor of rheumatology at the University of Bristol who led the experiments, says that while impacts that produce fewer than 4 G’s of force may help adults maintain bone mass — a possibility that he and his colleagues are exploring in ongoing experiments — it’s unclear what level of force below 4 G’s is needed.

So, Dr. Tobias says, young people and healthy adults should probably pound the ground, at least sometimes. Sprint. Jump off a box 15 inches or higher at your gym and jump back up. Hop in place. A study by other researchers published in January found that women between 25 and 50 who hopped at least 10 times twice a day, with 30 seconds between each hop, significantly increased their hipbone density after four months. Another group of subjects, who hopped 20 times daily, showed even greater gains.

Alas, a kind of Catch-22 confronts older individuals who have not been engaging in high-impact exercise: Their bodies and bones may not be capable of handling the types of activity most likely to improve bone health. Dr. Tobias and his colleagues hope to better understand what level of impact will benefit these people. In the meantime, anyone uncertain about the state of his or her bones should consult a physician before undertaking high-impact exercise (a caveat that also applies to those with a history of joint problems, including arthritis). For his part, Dr. Tobias says, “I plan to keep running until my joints wear out.”

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Well: For a 7-Minute Workout, Try Our App

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Got seven minutes? We’ve got the app.

Today The New York Times is offering a free mobile app for the popular Scientific 7-Minute Workout and the new Advanced 7-Minute Workout.

The workouts, reported by Gretchen Reynolds, our Phys Ed columnist, can now be installed on your smartphone or tablet, or used on your desktop computer.

The app offers a step-by-step guide to both 7-minute workouts, offering animated illustrations of the exercises, as well as a timer and audio cues to help you get the most out of your seven minutes.

In the coming months, we’ll offer additional Well fitness apps to give you a full library of workout options using your smartphone, tablet or computer as a personal fitness guide. If you have suggestions or feedback about the new apps, feel free to post a comment below. iPhone and iPad app users can leave comments here.

How To Install

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On an iOS device, open this link. Tap the “Bookmark” button, then “Add to Home Screen.” The app is then usable even if you don’t have an Internet connection.

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On an Android device, use the Chrome browser to open this link. Then tap the “Menu” button, then “Add to Home Screen.” The app is then usable even if you don’t have an Internet connection.

To use on a desktop or other device, click here.

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The Future Issue: You, Only Better

Asprey says he finally lost faith in Western medicine at 23, when a doctor told him that vitamin C could kill him. It turns out this isn’t true, but for Asprey it was the last straw. As a boy, he suffered from inexplicable rashes and alarming, recurring nosebleeds. He says he also felt a mental sluggishness that never seemed to recede. This frightened him, especially as he entered college. By the time he was 22, he weighed 300 pounds. He bought disability insurance when he was about 25 because he was worried that there would come a day when he wouldn’t have enough energy to work.

His poor health didn’t hold back his career. Asprey rose through a series of high-profile positions at several successful technology companies in the ’90s and ’00s. Still, he felt restless and unhappy. In 1995, determined to get his weight under control, he spent 18 months on a strict diet and exercised six days a week. He got stronger, but lost little fat. And the food restrictions made him even more miserable.

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Asprey built on a personal obsession with tracking his own food intake and health data to create a multimillion-dollar company selling the Bulletproof Diet, which includes coffee spiked with butter and oil. Credit Jeff Minton for The New York Times

In the ’90s, Asprey studied a form of information management called a decision support system at California State University, Stanislaus. Such systems use artificial intelligence to analyze data and present it so users can more easily make difficult business decisions. Asprey decided to apply similar tactics to his health. He began closely tracking his food intake alongside his energy levels, mood, sleep and physical activity to create a data set so he could see what patterns emerged — which inputs correlated with positive outcomes and which didn’t.

After his failed low-calorie diet, he tried others: the Zone, Atkins, raw veganism, high-protein and intermittent fasting. At the same time, he went to extreme lengths to collect additional data on his body’s performance. He had adrenal testing done to better understand how his hormones worked; extensive blood work let him monitor his glucose and albumin levels. He got DNA tests to look for genes that might cause immuno­deficiency and sent out samples of his feces to learn about the microbes in his digestive tract. He bought an electroencepha­logram, or EEG machine, to monitor his brain waves. Once, in 2006, hoping to treat gut problems, he placed an order online for a shipment of parasites called porcine whipworm. The eggs arrived from Thailand a few days later in a saline solution. He drank the whole thing hoping they would trigger an anti-inflammatory reaction in his gut. They didn’t.

In all, Asprey says, he has spent more than $300,000 over 20 years on this self-funded research. He talks about himself almost as a lab rat, or as a monkey that was shot into space and returned intact, bearing data to share. But, with his background in computer science, he also fancies himself a hacker — someone who endlessly manipulates a complex system, troubleshooting and looking for vulnerabilities to exploit.

He eventually developed his dietary guidelines, which emphasize that half the day’s calories should come from healthy fats like coconut oil and avocados. Asprey believes these provide more energy and satiation than carbohydrates. The rest is a mix of organic proteins and vegetables. It is both strict and decadent. Sugar (including fruit), grains, legumes and pasteurized dairy are to be avoided, as are many trendy health food items like raw kale and nut milks, which Asprey says contain toxins. The diet is ketogenic; it forces the body to burn fat, instead of carbohydrates and glucose, for energy.

The centerpiece of the Bulletproof Diet — and the business — is Bulletproof Coffee: a blend of freshly brewed coffee, the Brain Octane oil and grass-fed butter, consumed at the beginning of each day to boost energy and curb hunger. It comes with a remarkable patter. In 2004, as part of his campaign of self-improvement, Asprey went to Tibet to study meditation. On a trek in the Himalayas, he began to feel the effects of altitude sickness. At a local guesthouse, he was served a cup of tea mixed with yak butter, which he found to be revitalizing and energizing. After returning home, he tried to make his own version, and eventually landed on the recipe he sells today — almost.

Asprey and Bulletproof employees are fond of asking whether you’ve had ‘‘real’’ Bulletproof Coffee — meaning not made with store-bought butter and coconut oil in your kitchen, but with their branded products. Asprey insists that most American coffee is riddled with a fungus that causes a post-consumption crash. He is especially hung up on mold toxins, or mycotoxins, which he believes were responsible for the health conditions that afflicted him while growing up. The mold in American coffee, he says, leads to illnesses, inflammation and weight gain. Asprey sells his own specially treated mold-free coffee for as much as $18.95 a pound online and at the shop. Next month, he is releasing a Bulletproof cookbook.

Despite some superficial signs of age, Asprey’s face is unlined, and after a while his self-assuredness and unflinching confidence in his methodology becomes contagious. Listening to his story, I stopped questioning his logic. I found myself growing impatient as he described the benefits of his medicine cabinet of ‘‘brain nutrients,’’ and asked for some — ‘‘I feel like I need them,’’ I said. An assistant brought in freshly blended cups of Bulletproof Coffee in Bulletproof-branded stainless-steel travel mugs. The fattiness of the butter and oil lent the coffee a mouth feel similar to Guinness. After a few sips, I started to feel giddy, and almost high — as if I could run a marathon and deliver a keynote lecture and do my taxes, all at once.

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Credit Photo illustration by Andrew B. Myers. Prop styling by Sonia Rentsch.

The next morning, I arrived at the Pasadena Convention Center for the first day of the Bulletproof Biohacking conference. Inside, the crowd was almost comically Southern Californian. The bodies were firm, the jawlines sharp. The women were no strangers to cosmetic enhancement, and most of the men wore aggressively sculpted updos or low-slung man buns. Five-toe Vibram shoes and neoprene yoga pants were the popular pan-gender wardrobe choices. This was the vanguard of the quantified-consumer class — health-conscious Angelenos, the same types who were early adopters of the Master Cleanse and green juices.

The event was billed as a cutting-edge biohacking event, but it was tame compared with what goes on at the fringes of this community. Seven months earlier and about two hours away, in Tehachapi, a much more extreme clique of biohackers gathered to share the recent discoveries from their world at a gathering called GrindFest. These are the real transhumanists, the kind of people who implant magnets under their skin and embed microchips in their bodies to replace key cards. Asprey’s ethos is not so dissimilar — he wants to push humanity past its biological limits — but his sell is a little more palatable: We need only think of our bodies as hardware in order to improve upon them.

Little of the technology on display at the Bulletproof convention was new. No one was being implanted or fused with anything. They preferred to upgrade the old-fashioned way, with a miracle drug or pill or elixir that would transform them from the inside out, and there was no shortage of products that promised to do so. The Bulletproof Coffee was abundant, as were the Bulletproof-branded collagen bars, grass-fed meat jerky and small paper cups of steaming, earthy bone broth. There were samples of Fat Water, a new Bulletproof sports drink infused with a certain fatty acid that Asprey believes the body processes into energy more efficiently than it does glucose. There were Bulletproof-branded supplements, like glutathione, an antioxidant that Asprey says helps detoxify the body. I narrowly missed the cricket brownies smeared with colostrum icing — the crowd descended on them as soon as they were set out. I watched a woman drip a tincture made from deer antlers on the eager tongue of a slim and handsome attendee. I rolled my eyes at a hypnotist putting a woman into a trance, and then, hours later, the same hypnotist talked me into taking an injection of vitamins labeled simply a ‘‘shine shot.’’ (He had taken one, too.)

There are more than a few nutritionists who are dubious of Asprey’s bold claims. It’s hard not to be — there’s little research outside his own that backs them up. Asprey’s diet advises against calorie counting. It is also high in fat. Marion Nestle, an author and professor of nutrition and public health at New York University, is among those skeptical of what Asprey is selling. ‘‘I don’t know any diet, exercise or healthful-living shortcuts,’’ she wrote in an emailed exchange. ‘‘We all want to live forever, and if changing one thing in our diets can do that, we can all hope. The success of the dietary-supplement industry is best explained by wish-fulfillment fantasies.’’

On the day before the conference began, I asked Asprey about his childhood. He quickly rattled off a few sentences about his parents. They worked at Sandia National Laboratories, which taught him the value of scientific inquiry. That wasn’t what I had meant. Were his parents particularly health-oriented? Or did he grow up eating takeout and frozen meals? He gave a dismissive shrug. ‘‘My parents gave me squeeze margarine and bran muffins because that’s what the magazines said,’’ he said. He paused for a moment, reconsidering. ‘‘They did their best.’’

During the ’80s, when Asprey was a kid, eating bran muffins was the fad diet of the day — that, and a little Jazzercise, and you’d be set. Eventually, people came to recognize that the benefits of the fiber were canceled out by the heavy ca­loric load and sugars. Margarine was also peaking in popularity around that time, seen then as a sensible alternative to butter. But since then, nutritionists have questioned the wisdom of the low-fat, high-carb diet that Americans have been steered toward for years. Asprey’s diet is, for all its technological fervor, a refutation of the last generation’s hollow wisdom. In its avoidance of complex carbohydrates and its pseudoscientific rhetoric, it’s not so dissimilar from the Paleo diet — along with a bunch of supplements that would befuddle a cave man, or even a New Yorker.

My own parents were trim and active; they were also Southern, which meant that butter-and-sugar sandwiches and cheese grits were staples of our diet. I was a heavy teenager, with more acne and eczema than I’d like to remember, and it wasn’t until my 20s that I understood the role dietary habits played in that. Since then, I’ve endlessly experimented with raw diets, green juices, Paleo-inspired meal plans and various cultish boutique fitness classes, trying to figure out what works best to maintain a healthy weight. I still don’t have a definitive answer. Fad diets persist because they are seductive, and offer the promise of unlocking a better you by following a few simple rules. And Asprey’s pitch couldn’t be more epistemologically fashionable: A/B testing, hacking and data analysis have already provided us with many novel insights and conveniences.

Asprey believes that nutrition should be as effortless as everything else in our technology-enhanced existence — why shouldn’t it be? His background is in information management, and that is what he is skilled at: distilling oceanic volumes of information for easy consumption and decision-making. The allure of the Bulletproof lifestyle is that you can outsource that work. ‘‘That fundamental laziness, where I want everything to be easier, is part of what drives me,’’ he told me that first day. ‘‘I don’t want to do more work than is necessary to do great things. I don’t see why anyone should do more work than is necessary to do great things.’’

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Well: Exercising a Fat Dog (and Yourself)

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Credit Illustration by Ben Wiseman

From the Well archives.

The chubby, inert pet dog has become a familiar household sight in richer countries. And yet there lies a possible boon to the out-of-shape among us. A recent study suggests that being told one’s pet is dangerously overweight might provide the impetus that gets an owner moving.

It might seem that having a pet dog would result in considerable physical activity, and that’s true, broadly speaking. A 2013 review of studies related to dog ownership concluded that as a group, dog owners spend almost an hour more per week walking than people without dogs. Even so, a survey from 2008 conducted in Australia found that nearly a quarter of all dog owners reported never walking their pets. This population of dog owners, studies show, actually engage in less physical activity each week than people without a dog.

A majority of dog owners, of course, are deeply attached to their pets, whether they walk them or not. That bond prompted a group of scientists, veterinarians and physicians at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, in Bethesda, Md., and other institutions to consider whether people might be willing to undertake a health-and-fitness regimen targeted at their dog, even if they had little enthusiasm for such a program for themselves.

The researchers recruited 32 dog owners who visited a veterinary clinic in Maryland. Their dogs varied widely in age, breed and size, but all were overweight or obese and, by and large, sedentary. So, too, were most of their owners (although the only criterion for their participation was that their dogs be rotund). Half the volunteers were told by a veterinarian to watch their dog’s nutrition and monitor its health. The rest were told that their dog was overweight and needed more exercise. These owners were given specific exercise prescriptions, which generally advised walking the dog for at least 30 minutes every day.

Three months later, the volunteers and their dogs were re-evaluated. Both owners and pets in the dog-walking group had lost weight. But more interesting, those who had been told only that their pets were worryingly heavy also began exercising their pets and themselves. They reported walking far more often than they did before they got health warnings for their dogs, and both they and their pets were thinner.

The upshot, says Capt. Mark B. Stephens M.D., a professor of family medicine at Uniformed Services University and a co-author of the study — it was published in September in the journal Anthrozoös — is that “love and concern for a dog can be a powerful motivation for exercise.” Which is not to say, he adds, that people should adopt a dog as a kind of fitness device. Unlike a treadmill, Marley cannot be abandoned in the basement when you tire of working out. On the other hand, no device will ever be so happy to see you lace up your walking shoes.

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