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« Terence Cuneo, Literal Artistic Icon | Main | Q&A With Mark Sisson, Part One »

August 11, 2009

Introducing Mark Sisson

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

As some visitors may have noticed, over the last few years I’ve been blogging a lot about food and fitness. Partly this has to do with having been laid off -- er, with having retired. As a downsizing casualty, I have the time and leisure to concern myself a lot more with quality-of-life questions than I once did.

But it's mainly been because, despite having a lively-enough mind, I’ve always been a physical guy. I learned early in life that when I treat my body severely, or when I neglect it, I pay a price. Not only do aches and pains pile up, my soul starts to sag and moan too. When, by contrast, I make an effort to foster a respectful relationship with The Bod -- when I’m active, out in the world, and treating The Bod to some love and some pleasure -- my experience of life generally is much improved. I’m bright-eyed: alert, resilient, and optimistic.

In the last couple of years I’ve found myself more and more interested in one particular branch of the food-and-fitness world. As far as most Americans are concerned, healthy eating is low-fat eating, and sensible exercise is either loads of cardio or regular sessions of wipe-you-out weightlifting. That’s the mainstream-expert antidote to the usual American-slob predicament.

The people I’ve become fascinated by -- the low-carb people (my favorites are Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades); the Real Food and Slow Food crowds (especially Nina Planck); Dr. Barry Sears and his Zone Diet; the Weston A. Price Foundation; and the Paleo, Evolutionary, and Primal worlds (especially Loren Cordain, Arthur De Vany, and Mark Sisson) -- dispute all of this. They look at the usual American health-tips litany and wonder: What if lowfat eating contributes to diabetes, cancer, and heart disease? What if the heaps-of-cardio approach to activity produces not health and peace of mind but stress and boredom?

What if, in other words, what’s usually thought of as the solution to the usual dispiriting American thing isn’t a solution at all? What if instead it’s contributing to the problem?

So what does this crowd peddle as an Alternative Way? One thing they certainly share is a vision of the problem. They generally feel that many Americans are wildly out of touch with their innate rhythms, and that obesity, TV addiction, slobbiness, and distractedness are convincing evidence of this.

(FWIW, I agree -- although I also feel that if anyone wants to live on chips and soda pop, spend his / her day driving from parking lot to minimall, and treat his / her brain to regular jolts of “American Idol,” it’s OK with me. It’s also none of my business -- at least until these people start imposing too many of their values and priorities on my life. Then it’s war.)

The crowd I favor addresses the problem -- for those who experience it as a problem -- from two directions. One is paleoanthropology. Although some evolution has clearly occurred in the last 10,000 years -- click here to read our interview with the brilliant Gregory Cochran -- it’s also true that as animals we generally evolved to flourish in conditions that don’t much resemble how we live today. Perhaps we’d do better if we took this fact into account.

The other is genetics. Genes are genes, and many people are (thank god) now comfortable acknowledging that genes will have their impact. But we also now know that, while genes condition almost everything to do with life, they don't determine everything. We also know that they can be gamed to express themselves in less and more desirable ways. So why shouldn’t we choose “more desirable”?

Present-day Sisson

Though I’m a big fan of everyone in the group that I’ve mentioned, Mark Sisson is a special favorite. His enthusiasm, braininess, cheeriness, and knowledge are exciting and inspiring. As a fitness coach and a former competitive athlete who once bought into the lowfat-and-endless-cardio dogma, he speaks from considerable personal experience. Though he’s well-versed in the science, he doesn’t suffer from restricted vision, the way so many researchers do. He’s able to do the job of evaluating and synthesizing that the doctors and scientists are often too busy to do. Although a man of definite and strong opinions, he seldom lays things out in a my-way-or-the-highway fashion. He also seems honest about the degree to which this stuff is certain or uncertain. And he’s a generous and dynamic blogger. (Always a good sign.)

What I mainly like about Sisson, though, is that his focus isn’t on fitness in the abstract (“How big you can get?”), or on health in the abstract (“You can live disease-free forever!”). It’s on activity and eating as they affect quality of life. With some effort -- not all that much, really-- your experience of life can be greatly enhanced. You’ll feel better; you’ll have more fun. Your stock of what I think of as “life is worth living points” will grow. Sisson offers simple steps towards a more rewarding life.

I’ve been edging in a Primal / Paleo / Evo-fitness direction for a while now, and can report excellent results. Years ago, when I was a near-vegetarian, my total cholesterol was bizarrely low; meanwhile my triglycerides were sky-high. These days, my total cholesterol is up somewhat, but so is my HDL (the “good” cholesterol). And my triglycerides are ‘way, 'way down.

As a fat-shunning near-veggie I always had to monitor my weight. Doing the Primal thang, by contrast, I eat to my tummy's content and never need to worry about packing on the poundage. In the old days I was a near-constant nibbler of what I imagined were healthy snacks. These days I barely eat between meals at all -- I just don’t feel like it. The Wife, who does 99% of the food-prep in our relationship, and who has always been a sweetie about indulging my food manias, reports that she’s a far happier cook than she used to be. Fish, meat, fat, butter, and cream -- all smiled on by Sisson's Primal Blueprint -- mean serious flavor, as well as a far broader range of sexy materials for a gifted cook to play with.

Exercise-wise, I used to have to grind myself down to near-exhaustion in order to feel good physically. These days I’m far less ambitious. I don’t knock myself out. Instead, I mix up beginning yoga and Primal workouts. Result: I’m relaxed and cheery -- and, for a change, I have plenty of physical energy and mental will left over for the rest of life.

Sisson’s website is a marvel -- rich in information, suggestions, exercise ideas, links, and yummy recipes. It’s a major project in its own right. To complement the website, he recently wrote and published a book entitled “The Primal Blueprint.” In it, he pulls together the main elements of his approach into a coherent and organized whole.

I love “The Primal Blueprint.” At the most basic level, it’s accessible, helpful and informative -- one of those life-tips books I’ll be going back to, over and over, for many years to come. It’s also a fascinating and satisfying performance that delivers on many levels. It offers an overview of the vision. It summarizes and presents the science and the research. If you’re the type who wants to know whassup with statins, C-reactive protein, glucose and insulin, you’ll learn a lot.

And it boils its advice down into memorable takeaway images and phrases. Sisson’s main ploy is a fictional character he calls Grok -- a human from the era before agriculture. “What would Grok do?” Sisson wants you to ask yourself over and over. Would Grok run every day for an hour just to keep in shape? Would Grok live on salty / crunchy foods cooked in industrial-era vegetable oils? (Answer to both of these questions: Are you crazy?)

The voice in the book is informal and enthusiastic in a popular way that I find very likable. Sisson is, after all, a coach. He likes being right there with you, urging you along. Even so, the book is so rich that -- as eager as I was to burn my way through it in a night or two -- I wound up reading it four or five pages at a time instead. I made notes. I let it affect my thinking. I got used to its ideas. I found that I needed to digest its content and ideas slowly as I went along. It's an easy, fast read in many ways, but it's seriously dense with information and helpfulnesses.

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, architects often offered what were called “pattern books” -- volumes of choose-your-own tips and ideas for people who wanted to make their homes, properties, gardens, and neighborhoods nicer than they’d otherwise be. (Ah, for an era when architects didn’t think of themselves as theorists or visionaries, but instead as classy service people offering ideas and skills that normal people might find helpful!) It was these “pattern books” that Christopher Alexander was deliberately echoing when he and his collaborators published their great “A Pattern Language” in 1977. (Read our mind-blowing interview with Alexander’s associate Nikos Salingaros here.)

I think of Sisson’s “Primal Blueprint” as a pattern book for fitness and health. It reads straight through -- but it’s also a prismatic experience, with each section illuminating all the other sections. It exists to help you roll your own fitness and health. It’s an impressively lucid distillation of a lot of research and material. It’s likably peppy -- but it’s also impressively substantial and deep. Incidentally, as an enthusiast about self-publishing, I love the fact that Sisson published his book himself. If you’re going to be independent and take charge of your own message and fate, why not go all the way with it?

The book itself, in other words, practices and exemplifies what it preaches, and in many different ways. Beat that, modernists.

The moment has perhaps come for a full-disclosure personal note: I know Mark Sisson. Well, I know him a little. A couple of years ago, when I first ran across Sisson’s online presence, I was struck by the name ... And that blonde hair of his certainly reminded me of someone ... But what were the chances, really? I mean, I was recalling someone I knew decades ago. Still, I wrote him and said hi.

When he wrote back, I learned that the Mark Sisson I’d become a fan of online is in fact the Mark Sisson I remember from long ago.

Sisson in '73, as I remember him

Back around 1970, Mark and I were dorm-mates and friendly acquaintances at a New England boarding school. Mark was a distance runner who was one of the school’s best athletes. Even as a teen he was deeply into health and science. Unlike almost every other jock I’ve known, Mark had a powerful drive to learn about the How? and the Why? of health and fitness.

In any case: Make your own decision about whether or not my acquaintanceship with Mark needs to be taken into account where my enthusiasm about his work is concerned. As for me, it doesn’t matter in the slightest. I’m tickled to be on friendly terms with a superb fitness coach -- but it doesn’t affect the basic fact that I’m a huge fan of the guy’s work.

Shameless opportunist that I am, I quickly capitalized on our friendship to ask Mark to do an interview on the occasion of the publication of “The Primal Blueprint.” Luckily for me -- and for y’all too -- Mark was enthusiastic about the idea. Starting on Wendesday, you’ll get a chance to read the results.

Visit Mark’s blog and website. Buy Mark’s book. (UPDATE: Or buy it at Amazon -- thanks to Janet for pointing that out.) Check out his pills and shakes. Yak with others who are trying out some Primal ideas. And come back on Wednesday for Part One of my two-part q&a with eating-and-fitness guru Mark Sisson.



posted by Michael at August 11, 2009


I love reading his blog and how he highlights lifestyle changes (especially the importance of sleep and certain exercise methods).

I've been meaning to purchase his book (I wish it was on Amazon).

Posted by: thehova on August 11, 2009 2:49 PM

Whatever Mark Sisson is doing, it obviously is working for him. That makes him worth listening to.

Posted by: kurt9 on August 11, 2009 4:00 PM

I just checked and his book, The Primal Blueprint, is available on Amazon.

Posted by: Janet on August 11, 2009 4:19 PM

Are these the same pills and shakes that Grok used?

Posted by: aggieann on August 11, 2009 4:34 PM

Janet's right.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 11, 2009 5:35 PM

Sorry, but anyone who claims you can reprogram your genes is either a scientific illiterate or a charlatan. Making extraordinary claims that are physically impossible always rings my mental alarm bell. Sisson looks good because he spends all his time working out and micromanaging his diet and lifestyle. Jack Lalanne did the same thing for decades without the pseudoscientific hugger-mugger.

Plus, some people are gifted with good genes and metabolism to begin with. Most people who are born ectomorphs usually end up thin or thinner when they're old. Look at Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, or Fred Astaire, who stayed thin long after he stopped dancing.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on August 11, 2009 9:07 PM

Peter: have you heard of epigenetics? Of course you can change gene expression (or to put in layman terms, reprogram your genes).

Posted by: Nathan on August 12, 2009 6:18 PM

I like Sisson's advice. Going low carbs is a relatively painless way to lose weight. His exercise plan isn't very time consuming either. Short periods of heavy weights and sprints.

I say give it a try and see if it works for you.

Posted by: lemmy caution on August 12, 2009 7:12 PM

Hey Michael, it would be nice if your blog allowed optional comment subscription. What do you think?


"Are these the same pills and shakes that Grok used?"

I can't believe how many knee-jerk reactions there are to these interviews with Mark Sisson, when the people obviously haven't read the site or tried this way of living.

Mark actually addresses this supplementation "issue" on his site. Hypocritical? I don't think so. Yes, he has some ads on the site, but he isn't constantly talking up his own products. 99% of his content isn't related to supplementation.

Posted by: Arlo @phareon on August 20, 2009 3:32 AM

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