In photos, professional surfer Laird Hamilton is glowing with health—literally. It’s a natural radiance befitting a man who spent his childhood bodysurfing on the beaches of Hawaii. These days, Hamilton is hailed as the world’s greatest big-wave surfer, a man who “is to his sport what Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Lance Armstrong are to theirs,” according to Lesley Stahl on television’s 60 Minutes.
But Hamilton’s life isn’t one big surfing vacation. Like any serious professional athlete, he spends hours each day building up the strength—both physical and mental—he needs to take on the challenges of his game. That game isn’t like others, though, and it’s not for nothing that Hamilton’s sport has been called the most dangerous in the world. Baseball players don’t face adversaries like big waves the size of a six-story building, and tennis players don’t risk being killed (literally) by their opponents.
Hamilton’s recent book, Force of Nature, affords readers a look at the mental and physical philosophy behind facing any challenge in life. It’s not just a fitness book, though, as Hamilton is quick to point out. “It’s more a guide to life,” he says. Which makes sense, when one considers that Hamilton has probably done a good deal more “living” than the average person: there is likely nothing quite like riding a 60-foot wave to make one feel alive. That said, the pages of his book—and of his life—are filled with tips that can be applied by anyone to improve their own quality of life, and to help them take on the challenges of being physically and mentally fit no matter their situation. Guest writers frequently drop into the book’s pages and offer their own advice on living well, among them Hamilton’s wife Gabrielle Reece, a former professional volleyball player and model.
Before we can improve any aspect of our lives, Hamilton says, we first and foremost need to get back in touch with some pretty basic instincts. As a surfer, one of his primary instincts is fear—perfectly understandable when facing a fast-moving wall of water the size of a city block. But fear is an instinct that often must also be overcome by someone facing something as seemingly non-threatening as going to a gym for the first time.
While Hamilton is frequently portrayed by the media as fearless, he says nothing could be further from the truth. “I’m actually the most scared when I’m facing that big wave.” But fear is a powerful energizer, he points out: “It can make a mother suddenly able to lift up a car to save her children.” In modern society, he feels, we’re getting farther away from our basic survival instincts with each passing generation. “If it’s hot we put on the air conditioning, if it’s cold we put on the heater. We don’t typically have to tap into raw emotions like fear that originally allowed us to flourish as a species, to escape being eaten so that we could survive to reproduce.” People get jaded when they don’t have to use those instincts on a regular basis. “They’re still there, though. You can’t just erase thousands of years of evolution.”
Whether riding a 60-foot wave, or just making the decision to take control of one’s life and embrace fitness, Hamilton believes the act of channeling our fears empowers us and brings us closer to being more fully “human.”
Hamilton believes the act of channeling our fears empowers us and brings us closer to being more fully “human.”
Parenthood has made him think more about the things he does, but it hasn’t really slowed him down—not yet, anyway. “Dying is easy; it’s staying alive that’s tricky,” he laughs. “Life is a risk. That said, of course I’m going to back off from some of the really risky things. I don’t want to leave my kids without a father.” On the other hand, Hamilton also wants his three daughters to know him as he is: “A big wave rider and adventurer. I want them to see what it does to me spiritually, the joy it brings me, so that they’ll want some of that in their own lives. Hopefully they’ll find their big wave, or whatever it is that wakes up their instincts.”
You Are What You Think
Hamilton says being physically active is an important component in focusing and utilizing those instincts, as well as for one’s overall health. “Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, lack of libido; they’re all related to lack of physical exertion, again resulting from not using our survival instincts.” In order to make the most of our lives, no matter what the activity, he believes it’s crucial to have a body that is going to cooperate, and therefore one that is kept in the best condition possible through regular exercise.
Some might feel Hamilton has an unfair advantage, especially after looking at the beautiful images in the book. After all, living in Hawaii, he has an entire ocean for a gym. But he says that doesn’t mean someone in, say, Kansas can’t obtain the same level of fitness. “The first and most essential part is making the decision; just to think about it. We are our own greatest inhibitors, and people don’t realize how powerful thought is. To think it is to do it.”
Hamilton mentions studies where one group of people did curls with weights, while another group just thought about doing them. “Twenty percent of the people who just thought about it had the same amount of gain as the people who lifted,” he says. “So a big part of it is the mental decision: I want to be in shape, or be more flexible. When you want to do it, it becomes real, and you start to find ways to get there.” He also doesn’t buy the excuse that people are too tired to exercise after working a full day. “Nothing will make you more tired than sleeping. Energy perpetuates energy, and if you work out, you can do more,” he says.
He is convinced that people who work 11 hours a day will find they can actually be a lot more productive if they exercise for an hour, eat some good food for an hour and then rest for another hour, than they would be if they worked those 11 hours straight. “Half the time they’re in a delirium at the end of the day, and the last three or four hours are unproductive anyway.” He feels we have a tendency to be a “sacrificial lamb” society. But are we ultimately being more industrious? Just consider the number of unhealthy Americans, he says.
Maintaining the Machine
Hamilton maintains that examining one’s eating habits is the best place to start when tackling fitness. “If you want to be healthier, eat less. Next step, eat less, but with better quality food. Then add in the working out.” The idea is that conscientious and vigorous exercise can to a certain degree help mitigate other “sins,” meaning indulgences like drinking or eating pizza at 2 a.m. Hamilton emphasizes the word vigorous, adding that it’s important to also pay attention to what you’re doing when you exercise. “It’s easy to park a piece of fitness equipment in front of the television and say, ‘hey, look at me, I did the elliptical trainer for two hours.’ But your brain has been shut off for those two hours, and you gave yourself no neurological challenge.”
Far better than plodding along while watching CNN, he says, is to bring your heart rate up to a point where all you can think about is if you can sustain the amount of load for ten minutes and make it to the end. “You get far less benefit from exercising with a lower degree of mental engagement. One could almost call it anti-exercise.”
To get the brain involved, Hamilton suggests incorporating activities that use balance, such as standing on one foot on a wobble board while doing arm exercises. Since everyone’s body has one side that is stronger than the other, this also prevents unbalanced or disproportionate development. “When you have to think about what you’re doing so that you don’t fall over, you’re a lot more focused, and you get a lot more benefit.” He also avoids routines in his fitness, which he feels are the quickest route to boredom and burnout.
In the gym Hamilton is a big proponent of circuit training, which he says dials up the intensity of your workout, keeping the heart rate in a constant elevated state. Briefly, circuit training involves moving quickly between workout stations, utilizing whatever is at hand. The beauty of circuit training is that you don’t actually even have to be in a gym. “Even if you only have a pair of dumbbells, you can create a routine that works your entire body.” In effect, you’re getting a cardio workout while you’re lifting weights. “If you apply yourself to this method of training, you’ll get much greater results in half the time.”
The vital thing, no matter what your choice of exercise, is to get some gratification from it. “Fitness doesn’t have to be a duty,” writes Hamilton in his book. “It should be a pleasurable part of your life, and it should include things that you do purely because you enjoy them.” But regardless of what activity you opt for, Hamilton stresses that intensity is key. “Go to any yoga class and you’ll see people there who aren’t even breaking a sweat, while you can barely touch your toes but you’re soaking wet. Who is getting more out of it? You, because you’re pushing yourself.”
Insurance Against Aging
Aside from helping him survive a 60-foot wave, Hamilton’s healthy lifestyle will, he hopes, enable him to enjoy many of the same things in his 70s that he did in his 20s. Nothing can completely negate that apprehension over growing older, however, no matter how active you are. “Age is a lot more of a decision than an actual reality,” he says. “Society sticks that age thing on professional sportspeople in particular. We are often thought to age out in our 30s, but nothing says it has to be that way.”
Still, Hamilton knows that when he’s in his 70s he can’t realistically expect to do the same physical activities, and with the same intensity, that he does today at 45—and he admits that part of him is in fact looking forward to slowing down, even if just a little. “In a way it will be a relief to put a lot of the young and foolish stuff behind me. But I’ll still be in good shape if I can help it.”
It’s easier to stay in good health if you maintain a regimen, rather than to try to recoup, he points out. “If you go completely out of shape, it’s a lot harder to get back into it. A car that stays running”—even one that has seen a lot of miles—“works a lot better than one that has sat parked.” And staying in shape physically, he adds, also helps the mind stay in peak form.
Another key to staying mentally young is to keep challenging yourself with goals. “Ideally, you want goals that modify, or evolve, so you never really achieve them,” he says. “The peak of the mountain always moves a bit, so you’re constantly striving for it. You keep going at it one step at a time.” Too many times, he says, he sees people who set goals that they achieve at age 18. “And then what? They spend the rest of their lives going to reunions and talking about that big high school game. Keep moving. Don’t just bask in the things you have already achieved.” He admits with a laugh that he still needs some work on that last aspect.
The foundation to good health, Hamilton states again, is good nutrition. He feels that if you honestly can’t get to the gym, at least make an honest attempt to eat better, after taking the first step to eat less. It’s that second step, however, that can turn out to be the biggest stumbling block. The old adage is that you are what you eat, but Hamilton prefers the more modern version: “Garbage in equals garbage out. Our food these days is filled with additives.” He eats as close to the source (i.e., naturally) as possible, and he reads food labels. “The list of ingredients is surreal. If I can’t pronounce it or don’t know what it is, it’s not going into my body,” he says.
Organic produce and meat without any hormones or other additives form the backbone of his diet along with food that hasn’t been irradiated. “The Europeans have banned the process, but the FDA has endorsed it for all kinds of foods,” Hamilton writes in his book.
Somewhat ironically, fish is a staple for him; and sticking with his “as close to natural as possible” eating mentality, he consumes wild-caught fish whenever he can. “As a source of clean protein and omega-3s, it can’t be beat,” he states. What about increasing fears over mercury content in seafood? “I can’t speak for anyone else, but I grew up eating a lot of raw fish, and I’ve had lots of blood work done; I’ve never had any evidence of mercury trouble. The positive, for me, outweighs the negative.” For Hamilton, it goes back to that old fear instinct. He feels that while you of course have to be practical and keep informed of the possible dangers, if you were scared of everything, then you wouldn’t do anything. “You’d be scared to leave your house. But just the thought of being afraid of doing something is harder on your body than actually doing it.”
No matter how healthy you eat, however, Hamilton is a big advocate of adding supplements to his daily intake (see sidebar). “Especially these days, since our food isn’t as healthy as it used to be. So much of our fresh produce has been leached of its vitamin and mineral content,” he says.
Of course one of the best things you can do to boost your health doesn’t cost anything. “Be happy,” advises Hamilton. “Learn how to enjoy life and have fun. It’s clinically proven that positive people have stronger immune systems.” And another supplement takes even less effort: “I read that it takes 43 muscles to frown, but only 17 to smile.” And there is evidence that smiling relieves stress and produces endorphins. “Want to know the best part?” Hamilton asks. You can hear the grin in his voice: “Smiling is free.”
For more information about Force of Nature (Rodale Books, 2008) or to contact Laird Hamilton, visit www.lairdhamilton.com.