Health and the Happy Hamster

Two months into my new work-from-home lifestyle, it hit me: having my elliptical machine right in my office is not making it easier to be healthy. It is just locking me more securely into an approach to health that does not work.  Like Robin Williams, I feel exactly like a caged hamster. One particularly lousy-body-day a couple of weeks ago, watching the Discovery channel for inspiration, realization dawned: we are an ape species that evolved into perfection outwitting and killing huge mammoths. And then we got too clever for our own good and turned ourselves into caged hamsters.  Thinking got us into this mess, and only thinking can get us out. Hamsters of the world, follow me to freedom. I don’t have my blockbuster fitness DVD idea yet, but I’ve got a few attitude-fixing principles that I’ve been trying out, and they seem to be working.

Principle #1: Urban jungle, not human zoo

One of my favorite books is also an extremely depressing one: The Human Zoo by primate ethologist Desmond Morris (who also wrote The Naked Ape). Morris had the brilliant idea of viewing us as just another ape species in his books. His investigations led to the conclusion that  we show all the signs of stress and unhappiness displayed by caged animals in zoos. That ‘civilization’ is no more than a vast zoo. Morris is right, and there are really only three ways to react to this reality: by accepting it, by trying to ‘return to nature’ (the hopelessly delusional life-health script of the ‘holistic’ health gang), or by reconstructing our perceptions of ourselves and our environment. This is not easy. It is the mental equivalent of bench-pressing 300 lbs. But hey, the brain is the muscle us information workers have developed the most, so we should be able to do this.

So I have now put on ‘urban jungle’ lenses for good. It is already starting to make a difference. I wander around the Metro DC area as I work, covering as many coffee shops as I can, attempting to work up to the ranging average of 10-30 miles per day of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Come summer, I might actually hit that range.

Principle #2 Unhealthy is objectively definable; healthy must be imagined

In the The Birth of the Clinic Foucault taught us that the idea of “normal” health that drives modern medicine is a pretty arbitrary construct. Foucault was right, but pragmatically, there is something definable as unhealthiness when you hit extreme deviations from medical norms. Whether the sickness is in the body’s biology or in our culture, there is no question that in the extreme cases, something is wrong somewhere. Anorexia gets the most attention, but hyper-obesity (for instance, the real-life super-size me story of Manuel Uribe), or the The Adonis Complex run amok (for instance, Gregg Valentino, the extreme steroid user whose arms “exploded”) are other graphic examples. Unfortunately, while “unhealthy” can be defined pretty objectively through these examples, “not unhealthy” does not work as a definition of “healthy.” This is because “healthy” is an archetype that must be creatively imagined, within the space of possibilities bounded by “unhealthy.”

Now, a great deal of writing on health begins with the observation that there are thousands of health fads out there. This observation is actually dumb. There aren’t thousands of “fads.” There are merely a handful of off-the-shelf archetypes on sale, such as “jock,”  “hot girl,” “earth mother” and “forest ranger.” Pretty much any bit of ‘health for sale’ product or service you see out there actually makes sense within one of the broader scripts written for these archetypes. The ‘fads’ merely represent fresh, seasonal variety within a given script. You buy ’em so you don’t get bored while living the script out.

The problem is that none of these scripts actually make sense for information workers. Which is why, while the trainers in the DVDs stay thin, the rest of us are slowly getting fatter.

Principle #3: Fix the story first

I’ve framed everything I’ve said so far in terms of storytelling. Storytelling requires effective characters and a good plot. We all live out our own stories as lead characters. This is at the heart of the problem for you and me. We are information workers. In our stories, the triumphs, trials and mammoth hunts of the mind dominate the script. That tricky software bug fixed, that customer persuaded, that theorem proved, that stock-pick working out. But to bring our bodies into the story, we look to people who’ve put their bodies first: athletes, dancers, models, soldiers, personal trainers.  When you simply borrow the “jock” or “hot girl” story from the personal trainers at your local gym, the stuff that works in their scripts becomes caged-hamster stupidity in your script.

The port sometimes works by accident. Running, as an anchor activity for your health, seems to port nicely from the life scripts of professional marathoners to the life scripts of CEOs and presidents. Perhaps running is a good metaphor for leadership. Eastern martial arts seem to port nicely from the world of competitive fighting to the world of programming (for some reason, I know of at least a few software engineers who also practice martial arts). The hammered-into-stupidity world of professional boxing seems to port nicely to literary striving (think of the spectrum: Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Norman Mailer).

But in general it does not work. This means you have to put creative effort into figuring out the story of your life, and how health can be aesthetically woven in as a subplot. The good news is that storytelling is information work, which means you are likely better at it than the body-first people you attempt to learn from. The bad news is, you have a tougher creative challenge. Their stories are fundamentally about their bodies. Yours is not.

Principle #4: Fix your stroke, not your schedule

Rhythm and pace are central to good storytelling. You don’t get that by just inserting a metronome into your plot  to drive narrative tension up and down. The rhythm and pace at the level of sentences and paragraphs must emerge from the organic nature of the story itself. Within your life script, every day is like a swim stroke: rhythmic, but not metronomic. There are 36,500 days in a hundred-year life. Curiously enough, assuming about a meter a stroke, that’s roughly comparable to the 35,405 strokes in an English Channel swim. Or the 42,195 meter-strides in a marathon. Swimming being the only sport I’ve undertaken seriously, I’ve learned the importance of a good, smooth, organic stroke firsthand. Even though I am pretty unhealthy at the moment, my good stroke has stayed with me from my college years. I am pretty sure I could still beat myself at age 18, when I was far fitter, but hadn’t yet had my stroke fixed by my college coach. Here’s the thing about strokes: there are some general rules that always apply (like where to recover and pull out, how far to pull and how to breathe), but every single stroke is also unique. In say, a 1,500 meter race (the longest I ever tried out for), the first stroke is psychologically and physically different from the 100th or the 800th. You do have to do a teeny bit of new thinking around each stroke. If you are doing open ocean swimming, you have to think more; every wave is a new challenge.

So treating a day like a single swim stroke in slow-motion, how do you fix it? I’ve been reading two books about bodily rhythms that might help: Jennifer Ackerman’s Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body and Russell Foster’s Rhythms of Life: The Biological Clocks that Control the Daily Lives of Every Living Thing. I am still groping, but I think there’s something here (reviews coming soon). The good news is that the stupid 9-5 metronome is gone. Now the hard part begins, figuring out your organic stroke in a general way, as well as learning the principles that help you adapt to the unique features of each day.

Principle #5: Trust experts only for details

We need a principle to deal with the health and fitness professionals who are eager to help us in exchange for cash. Can they help? The answer: they cannot help as much as they think they can, but they are not as useless as you might think. If you let Jillian Michaels take over your life for a bit, yeah, she’ll whip you into shape. But there’s no way it’s going to last when you go back to your information-worker lifestyle, because she doesn’t have a clue what the life of a programmer or CEO or lawyer is like, and cannot script your story for you. But what you can get from the experts is useful details. Like not locking your knees when you do that stretch. Or how to fix your swim stroke (the literal one). The more abstract the things they try to say, the less you can trust them. Frustrated health professionals are eventually reduced to “it is simple, you just have to exercise and diet so you are consuming fewer calories than you are burning.” This is no more a blueprint for health than a statement of Newton’s laws is a blueprint for building an airplane. When they trot out this line, you know they’re out of ideas, and you’d better take over the thinking for yourself.

Surprisingly, that other group of experts we trust for different reasons, doctors, need to be put through the same filter. I trust my doctor when he tells me that high cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease, and that Lipitor can help fix it. But I’ve never heard anything even remotely useful at higher levels of abstraction from my doctor.

I find this metaphor useful: athletes, dancers and personal trainers are like fighter pilots. Doctors are like aircraft mechanics. You on the other hand, as an information-worker, are really trying to design a decent autopilot for your one-of-a-kind personal jet,  so you can read the newspaper instead of flying or fixing it all the time. You only have to override and take charge sometimes.

Principle #6: Don’t Feel Your Body, Give it the Vote

I remember being part of a play in college that required me to dance on stage. I have no inhibitions about dancing, but I also have no talent. The talented dancer who was coaching us was hopelessly urging us to just feel the rhythm in our bodies. Flipping this around, it reminds me of the frustrating time I’ve had tutoring math-haters in math. Urging them to “understand the formula, don’t memorize it” is basically hopeless. There truly are people out there who can only do plug-and-play math. Mathematical insight is as mysterious to them as “feel your body” is to me.

Given my rather blunt and clumsy sense of my body, and the State of Me being governed rather dictatorially by the brain, I need a simpler idea. The one that seems to work for me is to think in terms of democratic governance. Give your body the vote. Rather than waiting for your butt to mutiny with a pain signal before you take a break from your keyboard, let your butt vote directly in information-worker decisions like “should I finish this blog post tonight?” and “Do I need a break before the next meeting?” Your brain will have a lot to say and a very loud vote, but poll your butt, back, stomach and left big toe as well.

Principle #7: You are Going to Die

Honestly, Deepak Chopra annoys me no end. Ageless Body, Timeless Mind my democratically-enfranchised ass.  I really don’t get how anyone can delude themselves into believing a health script that does not acknowledge that we all die. There is such a thing as graceful aging, but that can only happen to your mind, not your body. Your body has a design lifespan and it will fall apart. When you put that together with graceful aging of the mind, you get aging as graceful degradation.

Surprisingly, most of the off-the-shelf health scripts and archetypes seem to be explicitly based on the delusion of eternal youth.  This is like adults being restricted to reading ‘happily ever after’ fairy tales. I cannot suspend disbelief that effectively, which means I have to figure out my own health life-script  around a decay-and-death conclusion, the sort found in more adult novels and stories.

Principle #8: Await the Coming of the Holy Wii

Let me finish with the single most important element of happy hamster health planning for information workers. Our brains need to be engaged. Earlier, I said that apparent ‘fads’ are essential to the success of the off-the-shelf health scripts like ‘jock’ and ‘hot girl.’ This is simply the effect of our brains craving variety and stimulation. Mammoth hunting provided that, but hamsters on treadmills get none. Few of us are dumb enough to be entertained for long by switching every month to a new celebrity diet. We need more intelligent stimulation.

The outlook for fulfilling this need has been gloomy for decades. But finally, we are nearing a solution: the Wii. I don’t think the Wii-fit is there yet, but that’s the right direction to go in. Fingers crossed. I’ll probably buy one soon.

Endnote: This piece is inspired by some ideas I am developing in my ongoing book project.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Frankly, you are more interested in writing this and other articles than actually working out. Once you admit that, rest is easy. See, most of us fit folk don’t think so much about working out the way you do. I workout just as I brush my teeth just as I shower just as I sleep just as I eat etc. Now, I am aware there are people who don’t shower or brush their teeth, but obviously I wouldn’t want to be around such people ’cause they would stink, have some diseases etc. By the same token, I avoid those who don’t work out. Who knows what might happen if I pat some non-workout chap on the back ? He might just collapse and then sue me for a million bucks. So better to move among people who brush and shower and workout. Its not too hard to find such people btw. Now, the part about coaxing your body to work out. I find that incredibly dumb. Do you coax yourself to brush your teeth ? Do you coax yourself to take a leak ? Working out is just as natural and obvious an activity. Just play some music, pick up the barbells and pump away. Then run on the elliptical for a bit & take a shower and get on with life. So there.

  2. LOL!

  3. LOL indeed! This one makes me chuckle. When you are out here you will have to check out a crossfit class…it is exactly the opposite of your hamster wheel and the modern equivalent of mammoth hunting. Variety is one of the three fundamental principles (+ functional + intensity).

    Therein lies your objective definition of “Healthy”. Before we became zoo animals and had various degrees of “life support” keeping us marginally alive well past our primes, what was the objective definition of health? Answer: How well could you hunt mammoth? We use the equivalent of this definition all the time, for example in speaking of someone who recently died: “At least she didn’t suffer and she was healthy, able and independent right up until the end.” Clearly in that context “healthy” does not mean “far from death” because the statement is referring to someone who died. Healthy means capable of doing stuff.

    If you want to be healthier then do more stuff…preferably constantly varied functional stuff performed at high intensity.

    I may or may not have drank large quantities of kool-aid, open to debate ;)

  4. One problem is that caffeine is a metronome. It displaces your natural energy, mood, and sleep rhythms with an artificial cycle of dope-high-crash. Same for cigarettes, sugar, anything that “keeps you going.” After a decade or two of that, you barely remember what it felt like to be a kid in summer, completely driven by desire to do whatever you felt like doing all day, sometimes running and sometimes resting.

    Great article about novelty-seeking being an enemy of actual health improvement (because it becomes an end in itself):

    An information worker should have an easy time translating it into practice: find out what actually works, from someone who knows, and do that. As it’s all new to you, there will be plenty of novelty for a long time before you become genuinely bored. If you bring intention, attention will follow. Forget externally-driven pseudo-randomness (Wii or fitness trainer) and find joy in the varieties that you are always immersed in. Programming a hill into your treadmill is not the same as deciding outside whether to take the ramp or the stairs, whether to quicken your pace or stop for the view, etc.

    Of course, as in your Crucible post, a blend of competition and cooperation pushes people to try their best and expand their limits. Meaningful brain chemistry comes from making decisions and acting on them, not from reacting defensively to what’s thrown at you. Perhaps that’s why many people organize themselves into sports teams with around 12 members rather than exercising alone.