The Outside Blog

Dispatches

Victory V's Don't Always Mean Victory

For years, we’ve been discussing the media’s role in distorting female body image. Dozens of studies and campaigns have fingered Photoshopped images in women’s emotional, mental, and physical health issues. Well boys, it seems your time has come. The pressure to look good, bulk up, and build a "six-pack," the supposed stamp of ideal male form, is gnawing away at your happiness, too, and prompting Reddit-topping threads and five-figure play-count videos. The question is: What are you gonna do about it?

Let’s back up a sec to look at just how bad the body image crisis is. A 2012 survey of 394 British men found that more than "half of men questioned (58.6 percent) said that body talk affects them personally, mostly in a negative way," with "beer belly" and "six pack" being two of the most popular terms men use to describe each other’s appearance. Even more disturbingly, more than 35 percent of men surveyed "would sacrifice a year of life to achieve their ideal body weight or shape."

Well get ready to add that year back to your life, men, because "there really isn’t an ideal," says John Haubenstricker, a Research Associate in the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s also a dietitian, coach, and bodybuilding competitor. "Is there an ideal fruit or an ideal car? No. We need to change our terminology. What we should focus on more is: what is the healthy weight people should be at?"

There’s no magic formula for healthy weight. Body Mass Index, often used to help determine healthy weight ranges in the general population, might not be as applicable to athletes who often carry more muscle mass than the average person.

"A good description of healthy weight," Haubenstricker says, "is where you have the lowest risk for death and illness, and where it’s maintainable within your lifestyle." That means you’re not overweight, which can set you up for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, among other things. And that means you’re not underweight either.

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The images you see in the media of men with six-pack abs and "victory-v’s," Haubenstricker says, are often shot when those guys are at their absolute leanest. "Maintaining that level of leanness [around four to five percent bodyfat] isn’t typically recommended for very long," Haubenstricker says. "You’re not getting enough energy to do all of the things you want to do and improve" your fitness. "You’re also increasing your risk of injury."

As Scientific American explains, "fat is crucial for normal physiology—it helps support the skin and keep it lubricated, cushions feet, sheaths neurons, stores vitamins, and is a building block of hormones."

In other words, that "ideal" you constantly see splashed across magazine covers is bullshit. It’s an ephemeral state of being even for the people in the photos.

It’s going to take a long time for society to stop shoving that muscled-up ideal down men’s throats. As Eva Wiseman wrote in the Guardian:

The media is a construction—this is no secret. Magazines, film, TV, newspapers—they all rely on advertising. So reminding ourselves that the body types we see represented are the body types that generate purchases. Asking ourselves: "Am I being sold something here?"

The answer is almost always yes. Diet pills. Diet programs. Workout DVDs. Ab rollers. You name it. All of those things generate billions of dollars in sales by making men feel inadequate. If you believed you looked perfectly great as you are, you wouldn’t need any of those things—why fix what isn’t broken?

"Our culture has to change to be more tolerant" of different body types, Haubenstricker says. His suggestion? Start changing your terminology and perspective by checking out resources from EatRight.org and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

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8 Summer Yoga Essentials

There’s 420-friendly yoga. There’s co-ed naked yoga. There’s yoga California Chrome could love. There’s even yoga that includes a beer chaser. No matter which you choose, you’re likely to need some gear to practice.

We looked high and low for the latest and greatest in yoga mats, bags, and outerwear (for you prudes who don’t go au naturel). Here are our findings:

Lululemon Metal Vent Tech Tee ($64)

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Similar to the now sold-out Assert Tech Short Sleeve Tee we raved about in a recent review of Lululemon products, the Metal Vent Tech Short Sleeve is one of our favorite T-shirts by virtue of the cut alone, which is athletic while not being skin-tight. Put simply, it's damn flattering. And that goes for body types ranging from Cat 2 to Clydesdale. Thanks to anti-stink technology that inhibits the growth of odor-causing bacteria, the only funk that flows from you will be from your earbuds.

Manduka LiveOn Mat ($58)

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New to yoga? Released on June 4, the LiveOn is the perfect first mat because it’s lightweight, and at 5mm, it’s relatively thick (your knees will thank you for this in poses like cat/cow and dolphin). Plus, that joint-saving foam is 100 percent reclaimable and recyclable. Looking for something a bit thinner? A 3mm version is slated to go on sale this September.

The North Face Be Calm Tank for Women ($38)

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More affordable than most, this staple from The North Face is a poly-blend built from recycled fabric that wicks. And it’s cut long enough to reach the top of even the lowest of low-riding yoga pants.

yogitoes We Are One Collection Skidless Yoga Towel ($64)

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Whether you’re down with hot yoga or you just sweat a lot, this skidless yoga towel will save you from a saturated and, therefore, slippery mat. Silicon nubs help with grippiness, which you’ll appreciate in trikonasana and warrior poses when you're squeezing your inner thigh muscles and pushing down on your feet.

Much more absorbent than regular towels, it also dries quickly in the sun. Pro tip: the little nibs go face down. Keeping them face-up is the yoga version of wearing a bike helmet backward.

Yoga Sak ($50)

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Minimalist and multi-modal? Check out Yoga Sak. The fourth generation of this bag stows your mat vertically and is complete with a retractable pouch to make sure heavier mats (like the Manduka PRO) don’t slide out the bottom. 

And for hot-yoga-inclined people, the company also offers a wet bag ($10) for any sweat-drenched clothes. One drawback? The cell phone pocket is too small for an iPhone 5, Nexus 5, or Galaxy S4.

Prana Sutra Pant ($70)

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Although most running and climbing shorts translate well to yoga, the Sutra is our favorite full-length pant. Available in three lengths (30”, 32”, 34”), they’re built from a blend of hemp, polyester, and lycra. With an inseam gusset, front pockets, drawstring waist, and relaxed fit, the Sutra is the Levi’s 501 of yoga—a classic.

Manduka GO Free Backpack ($120)

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Pedaling to yoga is the best. You get a warm-up and another excuse to ride your bike. But carrying a mat can be tricky: if you put it into a traditional backpack, it’ll hit the back of your helmet, testing even the most enlightened yogi’s equanimity.

Save your sanity with the GO Free that secures your mat with quick-release buckles and is big enough to haul a laptop (in a padded sleeve), a few bike locks, and change of clothes. There are also internal pockets for pens, tools, and a pad of paper, plus several large external pockets.

Lululemon For The People Short ($68)

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Although you can practice yoga wearing an old Radiohead T-shirt, shorts are different. Go with a pair without four-way stretch and you’ll be able to blame your clothing for keeping you out of half-pigeon. Go too baggy, on the other hand, and you’ll show too much when you’re upside down.

The tapered For The People were designed for yoga and are sweat-wicking, breathable, and knee-length. Plus, the breathable fabric feels good on your skin.

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Summer Reading: The Siren Call of the Ocean

Right about now, you might find your mind (or VRBO search) drifting toward the beach. But where does our obsession with the sea come from? Sure, there are obvious recreational draws—big surf, small bathing suits—but why, Darwin might ask, do we pay a fortune to flock to an environment we can’t drink or inhabit? That’s the question driving a new field of research—and two of the summer’s more prominent books.

Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols’s answer: “Water provides the most profound shortcut to happiness out there.” Nichols has spent years recruiting brain scientists, biologists, surfers, and artists to build a movement he calls neuroconservation. The idea is that if we can figure out why the sea makes us happier, we can save it. Nichols has an annual conference, Blue Mind; a branded personality (he has graced the cover of this magazine); and now a major publisher backing him. Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (Little, Brown; $27) is as ambitious as its subtitle—part neuroscience treatise and part self-help manifesto. In one chapter, Nichols relays cutting-edge science on neuroplasticity; then it’s on to an analysis of coastal real estate costs and anecdotes from PTSD-afflicted soldiers who find solace in surfing. All that skipping around can leave the reader wanting some literary Dramamine, but the book’s lynchpin is important. We lose ourselves, Nichols suggests, in mechanized repetition, an overworked blur he calls “gray mind.” The ocean’s constant flux offers a cure. “Unlike all of the other suggested means of reaching mindful clarity,” he writes, “water can do the work for you.”

In Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves (Houghton Mifflin, $27), Outside contributor James Nestor throws himself into wild and inhospitable territory. At the French island of Réunion, he accompanies scientists trying to tag man-eating bull sharks. Off Roatán, in Honduras, he rides a creaky homemade sub to the seafloor at 2,500 feet. But the book’s heart lies in Nestor’s quest to learn the sport of free-diving, which he hopes will reveal something essential about our relationship with the sea. The first lesson seem to be that we’re not welcome: Nestor witnesses three near deaths. “My nightmares featured bloated necks and dead eyes,” he writes. But he’s determined to suss out if, as one evangelist tells him, “you are born to do this!” Nestor’s tutorial is a fun and bumpy ride, taking him from Sri Lanka to coastal Japan, where he gets schooled by the ama, legendary freediving fisherwomen. Eventually he catches on, experiencing some blue mindfulness while diving with sperm whales. Freediving, he writes, is “a spiritual practice, a way of using the human body as a vessel to explore the wonders in the earth’s inner space.”

Does all this sound, as Nestor puts it, a little “woo-woo”? Maybe. But if you’re like me, you’ll come away ready for a dip.

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How Water Makes Us Healthier, Happier, and More Successful

This month, California biologist and former Outside cover subject Wallace J. Nichols publishes his first book, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (Little, Brown, $27).

Billed as a “Big Idea” book that will change the way you think, Nichols’s debut effort combines everything from neuroscience to real estate pricing. (A full review is available in the August issue.) Abe Streep caught up with Nichols to discuss the book and how water can impact human happiness.

OUTSIDE: In the book you’re breaking down very complex science. You’re also combining anecdotal reporting throughout the world, real estate prices, and how-to journalism, suggesting ways in which people can improve their lives. What was the process of putting it together like?
NICHOLS: I read a book somewhere that said that writing a book is like creating a sculpture. This felt like creating a sculpture from water. As you mention, it’s writing a book about the brain, which is the most complex thing we know in the universe, and water, which produces life in the universe, and combining those two things—well, it’s a broad topic to say the least. I wrote the title as a placeholder and its subtitle as an outline. Then it was just about going out and finding the best researchers and some great protagonists. And making sure that they were not all surfers. Although, of course, there are several. 

In the book you constantly refer to the ocean as a great healer for many societal ills. How? 
The big conversation is the “red mind” vs. “blue mind” comparison. We live our indoor lives and our workspace lives and our family lives often in what I call a “red-mind” mode. We’re overstimulated, we’re captivated, we’re connected, we’re stressed. We’re behind. We’re trying to catch up. We’re out of money. We’re at deadlines. And we’re surrounded by screams.

Stress isn’t new, but this kind of chronic, constant stress is. Every medical doctor knows that stress is connected to disease. Diseases are exacerbated or caused by stress. So reducing that stress in some way is useful. There are a lot of conversations going around about different kinds of meditation. Sometimes the word meditation isn’t used—different relaxation techniques.

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Athletes use them all the time to reach peak performance. And I’d just add that being by water meditates you. It puts you in that relaxed state. You don’t need to study or practice meditation. You just need to pay attention to the water around you. You can do it in the bathtub, the hot tub, the swimming pool, the creek, the lake, the river, the ocean.

When you unplug and let go, disconnect from a clock altogether, you do what neuroscientists call mind wandering. Rather than data crunching, you’re letting things come and connect. You’re letting innovation happen. We see over and over, people say, ‘This is where I get my best ideas—when I let my brain do that.’ And a lot of times there’s water involved.

You run an annual Blue Mind conference, in which you bring together conservationists, water advocates, and neuroscientists to discuss the ocean’s effect on the brain. How is it working? Do you meet skepticism among the scientific community?
Social neuroscience continues to expand. Neuromarketing is now happening. Executives at Google are having neuroscientists come in and teach them how to be innovative. The greatest source of happiness, of relaxation, [and] of mental stimulation is the outdoors. And we’re still behind. There are people looking into it, through brain-on-nature questions.

But we’re late to the game. There’s a conference I attend every year on neuroscience and music. It’s the eighth year of that conference. There’s Blue Mind, but there’s not an equivalent gathering of neuroscientists and people who are interested in the future of wild places. I still don’t get the buy-in from the ocean community. I think part of it is neuroscience is just a big, hairy difficult, intellectually challenging field. And some people just don’t like to say ‘I don’t understand.’ Instead of saying, ‘I don’t understand,’ they just kind of roll their eyes.

You’re organizing a conference, publishing a book. You have to talk to people like me. How do you create the time to meander in your own life?
I’m certainly not the guru on the rock on the top of the mountain saying, ‘Here’s how you do it, I’ve got this nailed.’ I’m living the red-mind, blue-mind roller coaster right along with the people who will read this book. I benefit greatly from being by the ocean and living next to a creek. It’s called Mill Creek. I hear it every morning, and I go to sleep to its sound every night. What I’ve learned is to pay attention to that. It’s a creek, it’s beautiful. You see the fish come up the creek after a rain. You know that in a few hours the creek is emptying into the Pacific Ocean. All those things you pay attention to. 

Did one anecdote from your reporting surprise you particularly?
I can hang it all on one story. This guy named Bobby Lane, who served in the Gulf, had three different traumatic brain injury episodes. He came back to Texas with his world upside down. He was not speaking clearly, suffering from post-traumatic stress, being overmedicated, becoming addicted to those medications. He lost the desire to live. He tried to commit suicide through what he called “death by cop.” Which is essentially when you do something that gets the cop to come and kill you. Because as a warrior, he said he couldn’t do it himself.

So he tried that, and they shot him with rubber bullets, which really pissed him off, and really hurt, and really messed him up. He ended up going and doing something called Operation Surf, an experimental fringe program for people like him [in Santa Cruz]. He came to Santa Cruz and he had an experience: three tries and he was standing up on his board. Then he saw his life ahead. After having the experience he decided that he wanted to stay around and to live. 

What’s next for Blue Mind?
The goal is to increase perceived value of healthy oceans and waterways. If realtors were to knowledgeably and consciously sell the cognitive and emotional benefits of water, they would become the front line communicators for healthy water.

If health practitioners are saying, ‘I’m prescribing a walk on the beach and a surf session and half the dose of those pills,’ they’re sharing the blue-mind message. That’s the idea. What the environmental movement typically does is say, ‘Here’s something you’re doing that you shouldn’t do. I’m going to tell you why and probably make you feel bad.’ That’s not always the best place to start a conversation. We’re [saying], ‘Here’s something about you that you should know that you don’t know.’

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