Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Evoutionary fitness

Over the last couple years, I’ve lost about fifty pounds. (It was sixty, but then I started going to the gym, and have built up muscle mass. A fair trade-off.) I’m one of those people who can’t lose weight steadily: a diet works, then I hit a wall, and an enormous amount of effort is necessary to start losing again. Playing on a concept from evolutionary biology, I jokingly called these “out-of-fitness plateaus.” But it turns out that there are people who actually have thought about applying evolutionary biology to fitness.

A couple days ago I posted about weight loss and long-term thinking about the future, and how the challenges of dieting are a nice example of how the challenges we face in all long-term projects. In response, someone pointed me to a fitness guru named Arthur De Vany, and explained, Nassim Taleb “often credits Devany when discussing… [his] weight loss and new found fitness (which incorporates…..randomness).” (Taleb is author of The Black Swan, and one of my favorite people.)

Turns out De Vany is a professor emeritus in economics at UC-Irvine, and an expert on complex networks and natural resources. He’s also author of a major book on the economics of Hollywood. As Taleb says, “at seventy two, [De Vany] looks like what a Greek God would like to look like at forty two.” It’s true– the guy is seriously ripped (and I suspect he makes more as a fitness expert than an economist).

Essentially, the idea is that we didn’t evolve to work out three days a week, eat three balanced meals, etc.: we’re built for long periods of light activity (picking berries) and sudden bursts of intense stress (chasing the mastadon, running away from the tiger), and for eating episodically. As De Vany describes his approach,

Brief moments of high intensity are mixed with exercise on all scales in a way that trains all the metabolic pathways. Power Law training follows the natural patterns of all wild living things and mixes intensities of all scales in a healthful, fractal pattern. It is how children play when they are left to their natural patterns.

Taleb’s description of its effect on him (from the introduction (pdf) to the new edition of The Black Swan) is worth quoting at length, if only for the swipes at bankers:

Organisms need, to use the metaphor of Marcus Aurelius, to turn obstacles to fuel.

Brainwashed by the cultural environment and by my education, I was under the illusion that steady exercise and steady nutrition were a good thing for one’s health –not realizing that I was falling into the rationalistic arguments; the Platonic projection of wishes into the world. Worse, I was brainwashed while having all the facts in my head.

From predator-prey models (the so-called Lotka-Volterra type of population dynamics), I knew that populations will experience Extremistan-style variability, hence the predator will necessarily go through periods of feasts and famine. That’s us, humans –we had to have been designed to experience extreme hunger and extreme abundance. So our food intake had to have been fractal. Not a single one of those promoting the “three meals a day”, “eat in moderation”, idea tested it empirically to see if it is healthier than intermittent fasts followed by large feasts.

After my Aha! flash, under guidance from Art de Vany, I embarked on an Extremistan barbell lifestyle: long, very long, slow meditative (or conversational) walks in a stimulating urban setting, but with occasional (and random) very short sprints, making myself angry imagining I were chasing the bankster Robert Rubin with a big stick trying to catch him to bring him to human justice. I went to the weight lifting rooms in a random way for a completely stochastic workout –typically in a hotel when I was on the road. Like the Grey Swan event, these were very, very rare, but highly consequential weight lifting periods, after a day of semi- starvation, leaving me completely exhausted, then I would be totally sedentary for weeks and hang around cafés. Even the duration of the workouts remained random –but most often very short, less than fifteen minutes. I put myself through thermal variability as well, exposed, on the occasion, to extreme cold without a coat. Thanks to transcontinental travel and jet lag, I underwent periods of sleep deprivation followed by excessive rest. When I went to places with good restaurants, like Italy, I ate in quantities that would have impressed Fat Tony himself, then skipped meals for a while without suffering. Then, after two and a half years of such apparently “unhealthy” regimen, I saw serious changes in my own physique on every possible criterion –the absence of unnecessary adipose tissue, the blood pressure of a 21 year old, etc. I also have a clearer, much more acute mind….

The only thing currently missing from my life is the absence of panics, from, say, finding a gigantic snake in my library, or watching the economist Myron Scholes, armed to the teeth, walk into my bedroom in the middle of the night.

[To the tune of Derek and the Dominos, “Got to Get Better in a Little While,” from the album Live at the Fillmore East (New York NY), 24 February 1970 (a 3-star song, imo).]


  1. I’d read Taleb reference this briefly in interviews before and assumed he’d joined the CrossFit cult. This is at least as interesting.

  2. Yeah, I agree. There's actually something interesting there. Don't know how well it would work for most of us, but I've found that different diet strategies work for me at different times, and old ones cease to function after a while. It's like my body wants to gain weight back, and will adapt to do so.

  3. You may be onto something here. I’m especially intrigued by the sedentary periods spent in cafes and overindulging on Italian food. 😉

  4. Fifty pounds in just a couple of years. That’s amazing man. I am also dieting and doing some fitness jobs but still I haven’t lose considerable weight.

    Is there some effective ways, effective here means truly practical, not just giving lectures or theories of hours.

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