This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Richard Nikoley. Richard wrote the insightful book Free The Animal, runs the wildly popular blog of the same name, and is here to chat about some awesome exercise insights and a bunch of other fun stuff.
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Jonathan: Hey, everyone Jonathan Bailor here with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast and actually our first breakfast podcast here. I’m joined early in the morning West Coast time with the famed Richard Nikoley, and I’m just so excited to chat with him — a fascinating story and man after my own heart who takes not only looks at nutrition, but also looks a little bit deeper into the philosophy and asking bigger why questions, and I just love that. I love to be sharing a virtual coffee with him and sharing our conversation with you today, so, Richard, welcome to the podcast.
Richard: Thank you Jonathan. It’s a pleasure to be here actually, and I’m excited at the work you’re doing, which makes it particularly enjoyable.
Jonathan: Thank you so much, Richard. I want to just get started with because I’m fascinated about your story. You have a story, a bit of a transformational story, and I don’t want to turn this into an Oprah episode, but I fear… actually there’s little risk of that. I don’t think we are going to do that, but I love just for you to tell us about your story.
Richard: Well, it was a, you know, just a briefly, and I told it many times before . I’m a business guy, and I built pretty nice business, stepped away from it to trade options full time, and got myself… I thought it would be fun and easy but basically I ended up getting myself way stressed out with big money in play and swings here and there. Anyway, long story short I ended up in 2007 weighing about 240 pounds and being miserable and drinking a half bottle of whiskey a night and that sort of thing; and so I went to the gym.
I actually stumbled on what was a pretty SANE workout thing, intensity and endurance and versely related kind of like Art Devany, and someone actually pointed that out because I blogged about it in comments; and that’s kind of where it took off evolutionary approach and so on. Over the next year and half or so of just doing half an hour twice a week of mainly weight lifting, cardio and a lowish curb Paleo type of diet, I took off about 60 pounds. Eventually, I was a blogger since 2003 so it was very easy for me to just you know blog about that.
I think it’s around 2009, four years ago, I basically converted the blog into just blogging pretty much exclusively about Paleo diet, issues and exercise and so on, with the occasional foray into the social commentary that I do. I got a little bit exuberant at the gym and somehow herniated a cervical disk. The pain from that put me out of the gym for about a year. I had like three months of absolute 24 x 7 chronic pain in my right arm, lost a huge amount of strength in right arm and shoulder. Consequently, pretty much got really sloppy with the diet and self medication, and when you combine that, it’s easier to eat in a non-proper way and ended up probably putting on about 15 to 20 pounds from that. The last finally, and every time I went to the gym to try it out, I would end up right back in the same place again, although typically for a week or two of pain.
It’s so intense and so excruciating 24/7, you can’t sleep and everything. It scared me away, so I give it a good long time; but in the last six months or so I’ve been able to go and I switched to doing a Doug McGuff Body by type of thing, you know, the big five, once per week with the addition of dead lifts. because I love dead lifts. So call it the big six, I guess. It works phenomenally, and I had been, I had gotten more and more disciplined with diet so, a kind of comfort circle and basically doing what I used to do back in the beginning and incorporating some of it with fasting and it’s quite interesting. I would get back to where I was slow and steady. That’s my story.
Jonathan: I love that, Richard. I love that you’ve wrapped up there with the phrase slow and steady, because I feel like so much of what we see in the, especially the exercise arena and especially nowadays, is all about this inSANE crazy. It’s this fire and brimstone just go, run your body into the ground, and everyone who is one the TV advocating this is 22 and has their shirt off.
Richard: That was exactly what happened with Paleo, because it is sort of a… there is sort of an intellectual side to it as well with the science intellectual side to it, with the evolutionary background. It’s far easier for young people which are more accepting of the science of evolution, and so there was a lot of the doctors in the young folks and the cross fit gyms kind of gradually went from a zone sort of protocol to a Paleo. In the cross fit gyms, the young people, they have all the energy in the world.
They really love to get out there and just beat themselves up, which probably when you’re in your 20’s is no big deal; but, then it kind of creates, I think, a false illusion. There is a redundancy. It creates this illusion that anybody can easily get to this ripped state. Everybody is different, and you can even look at pictures of hunter gatherers, and people are different. Some have more body fat. The women particularly have more body fat, but some of them may even have a little belly fat on them.
It doesn’t mean that they are unhealthy or anything like that, it just means that bodies are different, metabolism is different, and physiology is different. It depends on what your genetic lineage is as well. When they came out of Africa, did your ancestors turn left or right? After a while did they go North or South?
Jonathan: Yeah, what I love you brought about it creates maybe a false impression. Don’t get me wrong, I love anything in the main stream that helps move people towards, not focusing on jogging on pavement for as long as you possibly can and more towards an intensity focused work out, I think is beautiful; but, the other conflation that I think sometimes people may see in it. It might scare people off, and I would love for us to address here to helpfully clear that up.
Is this false sense that, to increase the intensity of one’s work out, you also have to increase the risk or the danger, right? People look at cross fit and say, “That’s awesome.” But, I see cross fit more as a sport. It’s sort of, if someone would say “I’m going to go box in a ring to get in shape.” I’d say,” well you will get a good work out boxing, it’s also going to do some other stuff to you.” You can increase the intensity of your workout as you know from Doug McGuff and John Little’s work, without increasing risk and actually decreasing risk.
Richard: Oh yeah. That’s why I think that this sort of a workout for me, it’s like 20 minutes a week. I add a little bit of my own thing here and there, but basically I’m going in and doing six exercises and one set, maybe two. I will do one set super slow, and then the second set with a little bit more rhythm to it. I don’t feel, sometimes I get done and I’m like, “Wow! That couldn’t have benefited me much,” and then two days later I’m sore all over.
It is deceiving, because some people think that unless you leave the gym just completely rung out, that you didn’t get benefit. I think the benefits are downstream for the next few days. That’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for something that is not risky in terms of injuries, but will deliver you benefits for two or three days to come in terms of fat burning and muscle growth.
Jonathan: I think that’s really the key, Richard, is you hit on another way to phrase what you’ve said is, the benefit to cost ratio. I think, we do this with medication all the time. We say, is the therapy going to cause more harm than good? As you know, I’ve torn my pec. I’ve torn my hip flexor. I’ve blown my knee out three time. I’ve torn my arm string. These were all doing things, I used to play football, and these were doing all from training for football or playing for football; and I was in great shape, but I’m very limited, I’m a fairly young guy, but I’m still fairly limited in what I can do now and what I can do for the rest of my life because of the approach I took early in my life. That’s because I was getting results, but I wasn’t looking at the side effects that came along with those. It’s neat to know there are ways to exercise that can give you similar, if not superior results without any of those side effects.
Richard: Yeah, in one curious way, it’s interesting that I injured myself for the very first time, because I had worked out like three years twice a week for two or three years and never had an injury. Then, Bam! I was 49, but imagine if I had sustained something like when I was in my early 20;s. Now, that would really suck, because those injuries at an early age, I think, by the time you get to be 50 years old, might come back to haunt you. So, you want to really be careful if you’re young.
Jonathan: Absolutely. Here is a whole-hearted endorsement, I blew my knee out for the first time when I was 18, for a second time when I was 19, and for the third time when I was 20. At this point I actually don’t have an anterior cruciate ligament in my right knee because I didn’t get the third surgery because the first two didn’t work, so I said, the answer is to just stop doing what I doing to tear it, rather than fixing it and continuing to do that.”
Jonathan: I have no meniscus in that knee as well, because I just had to take it out. That’s a challenge because I feel that if it happens when you’re young, speaking from experience, that’s really no fun. You’re really rolling the dice I feel there is only so many hits a body can take before, maybe for some people one in one million, chance maybe for some people one thousandth chance, but it’s just the more times you expose your body to a risky situation, sooner or later, hopefully later it’s going to catch up to you. It’s just a matter of time.
Richard: Yeah, and also I would say that when you’re young, you tend to more easily sluff off injuries. “You know, injuries happen.” Whereas in my case, being a little older perhaps wiser, that really woke me up because it was like, “I can’t live like this. There is just no way.” I am now very careful with what I do because I just don’t want to go down that road again. It was very miserable.
Jonathan: What I think it’s a very interesting distinction, too, Richard, to make the distinction between: I’m doing this for pleasure or for athletic enjoyment or I’m doing this for my health, because if we are doing it for our health, if our goal is “I’m go in to improve my health.” Then doing anything that can cause damage to our health is counterproductive. Now if your goal, if you love boxing or you love jogging because it’s just the way you achieve flow, and cross fit does the same thing for you. I say go do that, but let’s call it what it is. Let’s call it athletics. Let’s call it a hobby.
Jonathan: Let’s not call it healthy exercise.
Richard: Exactly, and I kind of harken back to one of those light bulb moments back reading Art Devany way back when and talking about aerobics and jogging and treadmills and stuff like that. He said something to the effect that, and I actually quoted that in the latest version of my little you know book on Paleo. It’s like your heart is not a diesel engine sitting in a basement generating electricity at a steady state forever on and on.
Your heart is a very dynamic organ that’s supposed to have spikes and everything. It’s not supposed to be doing the same thing for a long, long period of time. That’s right, we walk, we sit, we lay down, we sprint and everything, but this idea of going out and jogging — unless you’re are a specialist persistence hunter that runs down a room over a day or two, what is the possible evolutionary use for jogging? I just don’t get it.
Jonathan: I love your analogy there about the diesel engine and the heart, and I think it was in McGuff’s and Little’s excellent work Body By Science, they talked about people generally see aerobic conditioning as being so critical to heart health. When you think about a heart attack, heart attacks usually happen when you are under a spike in stress. It’s not your running a marathon, then you have a heart attack at the end because your heart wasn’t in good enough shape, it’s more that there was this massive stress placed upon the heart that it couldn’t handle. If you want to avoid that, doing almost little immunizations like low doses of intensity onto the heart, really help to protect it against exactly that.
Jonathan: I think just so fascinating, because we talked about this just monotomous beating of the heart, and it’s just the cost benefit isn’t there. Richard, one of the things that I wanted to ask you about, was, I know you do some great work just in terms of how humans think and perception, and I love your commentary there. You mentioned something earlier about you leave the gym — staying on the topic of exercise — you leave the gym, and how could so little do so much? One analogy, I think it’s a function of human perception and I love your take on it. One analogy I’ve tried to explain this when I speak to people is imagine I don’t like to use pills, because so many of these pills have a bad kind of connotation around them but we don’t look at the size of a pill and think that is in any way indicative of its potency. It’s not as if you had a pill the size of a baseball, you would be like, “That pill right there .That’s going to make me better, but that little pill? No way.”
Jonathan: We do make that perception in the gym for lack of better terms.
Richard: Yeah, the same sort of thing applies to poisons or toxins. The dose makes them poison, so it’s a whole spectrum of things. It is. it’s our perception is wildly different, and it’s the whole spectrum of things, like chances are, as big as it is, an elephant isn’t going to harm you if you don’t get right up in its face; or a tiny little spider or a snake, that can kill you. It is a perceptive thing probably from our reptile brain or something like that where size, out in the wild, size is a size or mass or stature are some good tools to take into account; but they don’t mean everything.
Jonathan: I think that’s a wonderful distinction there that sometimes things can seem to make sense like, on the surface look out your window it makes sense that the world is flat. That theory makes a lot of sense. In fact if you told me the world was round, I would be like, “What, people would fall off the bottom of it.”
Jonathan: We can’t always take things at first glance. We’ve got to look at what’s actually been proven, and the actually research behind it.
Jonathan: That, I think is one of the beautiful things about what you do, is what you combine. I think more of an instinctual approach with also more of a scientific and philosophic rigger. I think that’s the key, because you always want to do a pass the sniff test. Like,” Wait a second that doesn’t” That’s just commonsensical doesn’t make any sense. I think you could do of both of those, which is just great.
Richard: Right, well if I had a final plan I would add is that going to some of the social philosophy that I also blog about, is that people are creatures of learning. They tend to think that this makes sense, because I think it. My argument is, “No, you don’t. You’re regurgitating what you learned.” When you look at social structures and talk down authority, hierarchies, people tend to regard that as the given, yet if you look at the human evolution, we evolved to account for the values and actions of about 30 to 60 other people. We did have social organization and social structure. We had leaders within those tribes and so on. My argument is, it does not scale to 300 million.
Jonathan: Well, it sounds like that might be some of the reasons that we see a lot of the unfortunate things that we see today is that disconnection there.
Jonathan: I love it, well Richard I wanted to close just here what’s next for you? You’ve been making some awesome contributions for quite some time now. What’s next?
Richard: Well, it’s interesting that you bring that up, because the last few days. I’ve written a couple of posts on my blog freetheanimal.com on how I am changing things. Blogging about Paleo became a little bit restrictive for me, partly because of the social stuff that I talk about as well. The Ancestral Health Symposium last August, I actually did a presentation on social stemology and socialism. That’s an interest. Diet and health is an interest. I’m also a business guy that has had a financial services firm for 20 years.
I want to talk about things like that debt finance, money issues, things like that. I have a pretty good life style, and I do some fun things in terms of travel. I want to blog about life style and some of the social stuff. I have basically split my blog into those sections, and I have RSS feeds and email delivery. You can get everything, or you can get any part of it. Some people love some of the things I talk about and hate others. Now you don’t have to whine anymore, because they can just get what they want.
That’s really the next step, so I still will be blogging about, substantially about health and fitness and some of my evolving ideas in that. I still, on an average am pretty low carb, but like some days, I eat significant amount of starches, and it hasn’t bothered me at all. I have incorporated dairy, particularly post workout, yoga, cottage cheese, whole milk, things like that.
I’ve seen really good stuff from that, and I say, “Hey, if you don’t have a problem with the lactose, why not use it.” I laugh at the idea of Paleo man didn’t have milk. Well yeah, they didn’t have a lot of things. Evolution didn’t stop 10,000 years ago. There was an evolution to a allow the continued digestion of lactose, so why not? If you can use it, use it, it doesn’t harm you. Blogging about all that kind of stuff is how it’s going to go forward.
Jonathan: I love that the Paleolithic man didn’t have access to a lot of things, because I often think that myself. As I’m reading a blog, maybe a more extreme blog, and it’s making these claims and I’m saying,” Well you know, Paleolithic man didn’t have a blog either.” The rule can’t be if Paleothic person didn’t have it, it’s bad. That can’t be the rule. The other thing you mentioned that I really appreciated is, and this is something that you will see more of out of me and hopefully out of other people as well.
If we can get it started is, I love your commentary because of your experience in the social arena, it’s fun to pick teams and it’s fun to make extreme unwavering claims; but as you’re experiencing, the human body is a very diverse thing. It’s seems like there are some common truths like processed sweeteners are bad and refined starches are bad and processed fats are bad. All these engineered thing, those are poison, and we probably should stick away from them; but if we could somehow just unite around a more basic and fundamental set of principles so that we can maybe effect some more change in the mainstream.
I just struggle… I continue to struggle and would love your insight on it. It seems like it’s human nature to pick teams, and it seems it’s like human nature to focus on what we disagree on rather than what we agree on. But, if we want to save lives, which is really what we are talking about here, and if we want to affect the mainstream feel like we got to unite as a community. What do you think?
Richard: That’s another big change going forward, because I just blogged about this a few days ago. I am kind of a ranter and a potty mouth on my blog, or have been and I became embroiled in a few different controversies last year. I came to realize how silly it was, because you are… it’s the Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule. It’s funny how people tend to focus on the maybe 5 to 20 percent of something that may be questionable, controversial or even wrong and ignore the 80 percent, which I could say in this context is the Paleo diet framework, not reenactment.
It’s a framework to evolutionary frame work, in which you try to evaluate modern things to say, is this going to be beneficial to me? I got off track, so I can see how anybody can. I’m looking at it. I’m saying, “Now there is all this dispute between low carb, Paleo this and science over fructose whether it really is bad. Is it the dose that makes the poison sort of thing and Taubs and Kenny Moore and marketing and so on and so on. All of these things that people, like you say choosing teams or assembling into tribes and so on, throwing spears at each other. Some people, that’s literally all they do.
They don’t contribute one thing to helping anybody, because you don’t help anybody by saying,” No, that’s wrong that’s wrong” You can find something wrong in something everybody is doing and saying. If you focus on that rather than this guy is doing 80 percent plus right, he’s actually helping people you can see it, right? Why do I want to undercut that? It’s the same thing with the simple initiative and criticism like, “It’s not simple” Well what? “Yes it is.” You know what, it should be.
If it’s complicated, then someone’s complicating it for complexity’s sake to put themselves up as an authority, rather than saying, “Here. let me show you how to make it simple for you and then you don’t need me anymore.” You can stick around. You could be my fan and cheerlead me and help others like in my comments, a lot of people, they maybe get some help from me, but then they go into the comments threads which go sometimes to 2-300 posts, and they get a lot of help from other people that have a similar thing.
Why does somebody want to undercut that? I don’t get it. To the extent, I’ve been involved in drama, I’ve done a disservice to the people who have read me for a long time, and it’s no more. I’m going to be focusing on everybody out there in the general, SANE, real food, low carb, Paleo, ancestral, Weston Price… all these people out who are really do good things to help people and that’s going to be my focus.
Jonathan: I got a little bit of chills there, because that makes me so happy. I just can’t tell you how much sleep I’ve lost after we see, there is just so much brilliance out there in the groups you just mentioned, just so much brilliance, there is just so much great science, then what some people I think may lose sight of is their one celebrity who makes some calorie-counting traditional American diet in Shape Magazine, like, that’s who we’re up against.
Jonathan: We are not up against each other, and the only way, even the biggest names in this internet world… I mean, if you look at the Twitter followers it’s still 120th. If you combine them all of this. It’s unless we came together, I really don’t feel like we stand the chance against the mainstream.
Richard: Yeah, it’s like I used to use this analogy in my finical business, because we kind of in a very niche sort of financial focusing on restructuring debt and so on for small companies and eventually individuals, even settling debt with creditors. Initially, there was like, very small thing back in the early 90s, and people started talking about, “Don’t tell him your secrets.” I’m like, imagine that you’re the very first real estate agent, and then some people say, “Wow you now that sounds like a good idea, I’m going to be a real estate agent too” eventually across the United States and you have like 25-50 real estate agents and you start fighting with each other, instead of looking at how many properties there are to sell. That’s kind of what we are talking about.
We are talking about going against what’s really bad, so instead of going against everyone who has got 80 percent plus right and focusing on this 5 to 20 percent that may be questionable or controversial or even wrong, how about realize that, that whole thing I don’t know just pick a number five percent or less of the total health and fitness, diet and health fitness stuff out there and realize what an enormous potential we have because it’s actually simple and it should be simple.
Jonathan: I love it. Hallelujah, Brother. Well were can people go to learn more about the legend, Richard Nikoley.
Richard: It’s simple freetheanimal.com, that’s it. You find everything there. I’ve been blogging since 2003, there is 3,500 posts. There is about 70,000 comments from readers, very deep archives. And in terms of diet and fitness stuff and food porn, you’re talking probably half of those posts are about that. There is plenty to read there. There is a book, a how-to book in version two that we did a few months back, and it’s like 8 bucks or something like that. It’s no big deal, and then I’ve got some how-to videos as well on there. For anyone interested in my take on it, that’s where you go freetheanimal.com.
Jonathan: I love it Richard. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. I hope we can do it again brother.
Richard: Thank you for keeping it simple.
Jonathan: My pleasure too, I’ll talk to you soon Richard.
Richard: Thank you, bye.
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