Author: Bruce W. Perry
Aimed at: Geeks
Pros: Well written and a good read
Cons: Not geeky or scientific enough
Reviewed by: Mike James
This is another really good idea from O'Reilly in its series to get geeks to look at other topics from a geeky point of view.
After all, if you are a geek then you at least claim to understand how some things work, so why not extend that point of view to cover other areas? The subtitle suggests that this is going to be the real deal - "Real Science, Great Nutrition, and Good Health". The only problem is that over many years I have followed scientific fitness advice only to discover that much of it is later overturned by the science that establishes it. Not only that but when I am told that a scientific fact about fitness or nutrition and then go and look for the scientific proof - it often doesn't exist or it is very weak.
Fitness is an area where even good science seems to be lacking. It is partly because the topic is a very complex one, even though it appears to be very simple on the surface. It is also partly because we can all be an expert on the topic without even having to do any research. All you have to do is assert something that seems reasonable and do it with sufficient conviction and common sense justification that it cannot reasonably be argued with.
This is not science.
The first warning sign for this book is that the author isn't a scientist. He doesn't claim to be. His credentials seem to be about fitness, running, hiking, training and so on. So what we have is an enthusiast at the helm of a book that is trying to navigate some of the most complex waters you can find. But this doesn't mean that the book will fail to be logical or well thought out.
In fact the book starts of really well by pointing out that human evolution means that we are not suited for the jobs we do. The first few chapters, and indeed most of the book, use the idea that we are essentially hunter gathers who have turned to agriculture and on to science. We sit all day, eat a modern diet and so on and yet we still have the bodies that were evolved to do very different things. This is a persuasive argument, but where does it get you?
The first thing to say is that while it is a persuasive argument - this isn't science. The idea that we did eat a paleo-diet also doesn't mean that we should still eat a paleo-diet. Overall there is very little in this book based on well proven scientific fact.
Another good point is the emphasis on measurement. It is clear that if the human body had been evolved with an easy to read fuel gauge then keeping trim, if not fit, would be easier. Measurement is a first step in adjusting your behavior to move what is measured in the right direction.
There is a lot of coverage in of fitness apps and gadgets such as Fitbit and Endomondo. It might be that Endomondo is featured too much but I have to say that its the app I use when hiking or running.
After dealing with the tech we get to chemistry and here the gaps begin to show. It is a broad outline of the biochemistry that relates to food and metabolism but it reads much like the sort of article you would find in a magazine aimed at a non-techie. If you know anything about the subject there are no surprises here. A lot of it sounds like the standard unscientific advice that you have been hearing since you were little - eat your greens, eat a variety of things, get some sunshine, use the stairs, stand don't sit, and so on..
An interesting chapter is on food timing, a subject that has long interested me. The question of when you should eat to reduce the effect of excess calories is never really discussed in scientific terms, however, so at the end you are left wondering.
Then we get to how to get exercise - in the outside world and in the gym. The gym chapter goes through all the exercise machinery, how it works and how to use it. Yes, this is a bit geeky. Then it moves on to a collection of random items such as the role of rest and supplements.
Overall this book isn't so much geeky as trendy. It suggests you use the apps to measure and then mostly you end up not knowing what to do with the measurements.
What the book fails at is to give you even a rough idea of what the system is you are dealing with. You could say that it never rises above the point of view that to lose weight, say, all you have to do is make sure that
calories in < calories used.
This is true - it has to be true.
But the book doesn't discuss how to manipulate this inequality in any sensible way, let alone a geeky way.
In any case this is the first order approximation to the system that we are trying to control. The point is that calories used is also a function of calories in and this is what makes it so difficult to control. You can get yourself to any point on any performance curve you care to mention but it doesn't mean that once you reach that point it is stable. This is one of the reasons most sustainable diets work for a while and then fail. It isn't necessarily because the dieter is weak (although they sometimes are) but because there is no long term equilibrium. In simple terms the inequality is satisfied for a while but then the body adjusts its operating point and it isn't in equilibrium any more. In this day of increasingly easy self measurement, it should be possible to make use of the data to improve fitness and body mass but how exactly isn't clear.
This particular book will appeal to you if you like to subscribe to the latest trends in food and exercise based only on the tiniest evidence and a lot of appeal to how reasonable it all is.
If you really want to know how to run your body in a correct way then you need to wait for another book to come along, because this one isn't the manual.