Saturday, July 1, 2017

KineSophy Hall of Fame: Bill Russell

This month features the fourth inductee into the KineSophy Hall of Fame: basketball legend and social activist Bill Russell. The KineSophy Hall of Fame recognizes real-life individuals who exemplify the ethics of human movement. Previous inductees include Aristotle and Serena and Venus Williams.

Bill Russell in his early playing days
William Felton Russell was born February 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana. Growing up in the segregated South where lynchings were still common, Russell also battled multiple illnesses as a child. When he was ten, his father Charlie became tired of the persistent racism and scant job prospects of Louisiana and moved the family to Oakland, California. Yet as migrant black families like the Russells moved into west Oakland, white families moved out, recreating segregation in the Bay Area.

In 1946, Russell's mother Katie passed away. His mother had always supported him and challenged him to succeed academically. Russell was distraught after her death and retreated into his studies. He was not much of an athlete until late in his high school career. He struggled for playing time on the varsity basketball team until finally earning a starting role as a senior.

But Russell had also grown to 6'9" tall and he walked on to the University of San Francisco basketball team in 1952. Two years later, he had earned an athletic scholarship. He led the team to fifty-six straight wins and consecutive NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 and averaged 20.7 points and a whopping 20.3 rebounds per game in his collegiate career. A burgeoning athlete, Russell was also a sprinter and high jumper on the USF track and field team.

Unfortunately, Russell's athletic accomplishments did not shield him from racism. When USF played in a 1954 tournament in Oklahoma City, the city’s downtown hotels turned away the team's black players. In a show of solidarity, the whole team opted to room in an empty dormitory. On the court, Russell said he quickly realized that black players would be denied individual recognition, so he decided to focus on what he could control—helping his teams win.

Russell's collegiate success did earn him a spot on the 1956 Olympic team that won a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Melbourne. The NBA's Boston Celtics drafted him in the same year, and Russell joined the team following his Olympic commitment. Russell averaged 14.7 points and 19.6 rebounds per game in his rookie season. More importantly, his defensive prowess and unselfishness began to revolutionize the way basketball was played. His teammate Bob Cousy described Russell's play as a rookie as "the greatest physical act I've ever seen on a basketball floor." In his first NBA season, the Celtics finished with the league's best record and won the NBA title. The victory continued a trend for Russell, who went on to win a total of eleven titles in twelve NBA Finals appearances during his thirteen-year career.

At the same time, Russell continued to confront racism and injustice in sports and society. He spoke out against the bias against black players in professional basketball (there were only fifteen when he entered the league). In 1961, the Celtics visited Lexington, Kentucky for an exhibition game. When a local restaurant turned away Russell and his black teammates, they boycotted the game. At a time when black athletes were still a significant minority and whites had the tacit expectation that blacks would play ball and keep quiet, Russell and his teammate's response offered a ground-breaking statement.
"Because people like Bill were willing to come here and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us, we knew we could change all of those silly laws."
In June 1963, civil rights advocated Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi. Fresh off his fifth straight NBA title and third consecutive MVP award, Russell phoned Evers' brother Charles and asked how he could help. Charles Evers asked Russell to fly to Jackson and help him open Mississippi's first integrated youth basketball camp.

"It was totally segregated down here then," Evers said later. "We couldn’t drink out of the water fountains because we were Negroes. We couldn’t use the restroom facilities because we were Negroes. We couldn’t even register to vote. But because people like Bill were willing to come here and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us, we knew we could change all of those silly laws."

Russell received several death threats for running the camp. Klansmen stood across the street from the basketball courts. But, Evers said, "we had a few white kids come to that camp. That’s the kind of respect even some of the white folks had for Bill Russell. The camp was a success."

In his typical quiet fashion, Russell declined to elaborate on the experience saying only, "It was just something I felt I had to do."

The following year, the Celtics became the first NBA team to start an all-black lineup. Following the 1966 season, Russell became player-coach of the Celtics and the first African-American coach of a major professional sports team. He led the Celtics to championships in 1968 and 1969 before retiring.

By the end of his playing career, Bill Russell had won thirteen collegiate and professional championships and an Olympic gold medal in the span of fifteen years. He earned five league MVP awards and ranks second all-time in career rebounds. Many basketball historians believe Russell would hold the career mark for blocked shots had the statistic existed during his playing career. He was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1975. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor available to American citizens.

Russell at his Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony
Russell helped revolutionize the game of basketball. Before him, basketball teams looked for shorter, quicker (and predominately, white) players who excelled at scoring and creating offense. Russell moved the game above the rim, leaping to snatch rebounds and block shots (instead of keeping his feet on the floor to avoid having an offensive player drive by him, which was the conventional wisdom of the time). His game combined athleticism and intellect, from his shot-blocking prowess to his ability to anticipate how a missed shot would carom off the rim and move quickly to capture the rebound.

At the same time, Russell helped usher in the second American revolution that aimed to ensure equal rights for African-Americans. Russell's Celtics' teammate Don Nelson once told the Boston Herald:

"There are two types of superstars. One makes himself look good at the expense of the other guys on the floor. But there's another type who makes the players around him look better than they are, and that's the type Russell was."

Whether on or off the court, Russell has never been concerned with making himself look good. He is a deeply principled man who always sought to do what he believed was right. As a result, he managed to improve the lives of everyone around him, regardless of race. He made his teammates look better than they were and he showed society for exactly what it was so that it could become better too.

For his personal convictions, integrity and influence on and off the basketball court, KineSophy inducts Bill Russell into its Hall of Fame.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Interview with Derek Brown of the North Lawndale Boxing League (Part 2)

Derek Brown is a former gang member and current founder and director of the North Lawndale Boxing League - Boxing Out Negativity, a boxing and mentoring program that seeks to protect eight- to sixteen-year-old youths from gang violence in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. Every week, Brown conducts two to three sessions combining boxing lessons and motivational and problem-solving discussions. Enrollment in the program is free, though students must pay by completing school homework and following other rules. Brown has a waiting list of seventy students and spends about twenty percent of his annual salary to keep the program funded. We spoke for almost thirty minutes about Brown’s background, his approach to training and mentoring, and the outcomes for kids in his program. Due to the length of our conversation, you can read the first half of our interview in a previous post and the second half below.

Greg: How did you learn to box?

Derek: When I was eight years old, a guy by the name of Tate asked me did I want to learn how to box, and I said yeah. And he started training me, just out the blue. And I had a discipline and I followed him. And he used to chase me every day and train me to box and one day, he just disappeared and left. I never seen him again. But as an eight-year-old kid coming through the streets of Chicago with that little boxing experience, one thing I have learned, it never left me, what he put inside me.

And as I was going through the streets, I was able to defend myself and I was known as a knockout artist and I was knocking people out. So that’s one thing that got me up in the ranks quick. Because I could fight. I was one of the fighters. I got out the joint at the age of eighteen. By that time, I was known as a heavy hitter, and everybody kept saying “You should box, you should box.” So I joined a gym called Windy City Boxing Club and I was good. The thing is, I just wouldn’t stay out of the streets.

Derek Brown and the North Lawndale Boxing team

Greg: How do the kids you coach find out about your program?

Derek: I’m from North Lawndale. My nickname was Shotgun. I ran the streets. I was known for carrying all types of guns. I sold drugs on almost every corner in North Lawndale. So my name is out there. Everybody knows who I am. Their parents still talk about me, their grandparents talk about me. Most of the time, at the beginning, everybody wanted to be around Shotgun. The key was to get them to me. But once they get into my program, they learn all about Derek. They don’t want to become Shotgun. So it’s just word of mouth. My program is like number one right now in the community, even though I don’t have enough space to roam right now. But I have a huge waiting list. Basically, half is who I am and half is word of mouth.

Greg: After a kid attends one of your lessons for the first time, how likely is it that he’ll come back for a second lesson?

Derek: For some strange odd reason, I’m the hardest guy probably they’ll ever meet in life. But at the same time, they always come back. Like right now, I have a waiting list. When parents want to register their children, I tell them to just get on our waiting list. Versus, I see another little child that needs the program and he comes and asks me, I don’t turn him down. The reason I turn the parent down is because the parent has the support system where they can at least wait for the child or they can keep trying to support him. Versus this child who just came to me on his own that’s out in the wilderness with nowhere to go, with no guidance, I just accept him. And at the same time, they always come back for something. So I’m not going to say no to them.

Hard as I am, how I push them—I push them to their limits—and they just keep going and going and going. I beat them up by working them. And we probably spar once every three months. But you know, I do more with discipline, I do more conditioning. I believe discipline and conditioning, with the fundamentals of boxing, can take you very far.

There’s two good teams right now in the city of Chicago when we do our tournaments. There’s a park that’s called Taylor Park, where Floyd Mayweather and Nate Jones, all of the pros, train these kids, and there’s my team, North Lawndale. And it’s an honor to be able to compete with these guys because look where we come from. We don’t have half the equipment these guys do. My kids train out of my basement, we train outside of my home, and we’re there to compete. If we do get a facility, we’ll be second to none.

Greg: So you do have scheduled fights, whether with other boxing clubs or within your own organization.

Derek: Yeah. Right now, I’ve got known and put a stamp into the Chicago Park District, so the Chicago Park District lets me put my youth into their tournaments as long as we register with the Park District. So the Park District has about sixty teams in the city of Chicago, and again, we always win. There hasn’t been a tournament where we haven’t went and we didn’t win. We’re probably winning five fights out of six.

Derek Brown referees a boxing match

Greg: So once a kid joins your program, how long does he stick with it? Months? Years?

Derek: Years. Since I first started in 2009, 2010. I had a student named Ariana Washington and I’ve been training her since she was a kid, and she just went to college. I had another kid named Tyrell Kirk that’s in college. Malik Coleman just went to college. I have another kid I’ve been training since he was a kid, Anthony Swanson, he’s about to graduate from high school. He might go to the military. I’ve got two kids, Quinn James and Quan James, they just went to the Navy. I’m designing my program so it’s a full circle and I plan to have these youth for life because they can always come back and give back. Now it’s just starting the cycle because a lot of the older kids come through and they help me a little bit right now.

Greg: And I understand you have some specific rules your kids have to follow.

Derek: Oh yes, yes, definitely. Rule number one: I don’t charge no parent, but the students have to pay, and they have to pay with homework. So that’s what they pay, is homework. No homework, no training. Homework is money, knowledge is the key to success.

"How can we help the community? What are some of the things that we don’t like in the community that we have the power to change?"

Greg: Anything else?

Derek: Just to respect the others. Clean up behind yourselves. You have to have self-respect. You have to love yourself. And be a part of my talking circles, my peace circles. You know, some days we sit down and don’t train; we have to talk. And we talk about subjects and things that goes on in the community. How can we help the community? What are some of the things that we don’t like in the community that we have the power to change?

Greg: You said you have a waiting list for students. Are you looking to expand the reach of your program?

Derek: Oh definitely. I want to expand. To expand would be greater and better. So I’m always willing to expand. I definitely want to make the program where I can actually get paid by doing it. Right now, all the proceeds, 100% of the proceeds, are coming up out of my pocket. So I definitely want to change things.

Greg: And how can other people help out? What do you need from other people in the community?

Derek: Basically just support. Support, stay posted, and anything as far as helping us move forward. Any help. The only help that we don’t want is bad help. And like I tell kids, sometimes no help is better than bad help. We use used equipment. We use new equipment. Anything that’s just going to help us grow. We’re not turning no support down.

Greg: So monetary donations, used equipment, new equipment?

Derek: Yeah.

Greg: And how can people keep up with what you’re doing?

Derek: Our Facebook page and the website. I have a lot of events that’s coming up in the summer that’s involving the community. We’re doing a “Pick Up the Gloves and Put Down the Guns” event, and we are going to take my ring and do block club parties on high-risk blocks where guys are doing the most shooting. I have four blocks that’s participating so far. Me and a couple guys from the community sat down with some gang members and asked them would they stop shooting and train one of their fighters to fight in the ring and pick a champion for your block. And hopefully, we’ll do a block trophy or block belt for someone to put it on display and say “We got the tough man.”

Greg: Well thank you very much, mostly for the work you’re doing in our community, but also for your time with this interview.

Derek: Thanks for taking your time. We want to get this message out so people can see that there’s good people and we also want to change the role models that takes place in the world. Because the role models they’re looking up to aren’t that diverse: drug dealers, gangbangers and all these other things. So we just want to post these positive messages out so that our people can look up to positive people with positive influence.

Follow the North Lawndale Boxing League on Facebook to stay up to date with Derek Brown and his organization. Visit for more information or to make an equipment or monetary donation. For more from Brown and his organization, read the first half of our interview.

All images courtesy of with permission of Derek Brown.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Interview with Derek Brown of the North Lawndale Boxing League (Part 1)

Derek Brown is a former gang member and current founder and director of the North Lawndale Boxing League - Boxing Out Negativity, a boxing and mentoring program that seeks to protect eight- to sixteen-year-old youths from gang violence in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. Every week, Brown conducts two to three sessions combining boxing lessons and motivational and problem-solving discussions. Enrollment in the program is free, though students must pay by completing school homework and following other rules. Brown has a waiting list of seventy students and spends about twenty percent of his annual salary to keep the program funded. We spoke for almost thirty minutes about Brown’s background, his approach to training and mentoring, and the outcomes for kids in his program. Due to the length of our conversation, you can read the first half of our interview below and the second half on June 12.

Greg: Let’s start at the beginning for you personally. I know a little bit about your background from having read previous media pieces. What prompted your shift from gang member to mentor for at-risk kids?

Derek: I joined a gang at the age of twelve years old. In my community, it was the only resource that I had that was out there for me. So quite naturally, I was going to be a gangbanger. It looked fun, the TV glorified it as something that was great—watching The Mack, watching Superfly, watching all these movies, of course. But again, once I joined the gang, I wanted to go deeper. I wanted to be the gang leader. So I was a kid with dreams and ambitions. I didn’t want to be a doctor or lawyer or something, I wanted to be a drug dealer. It wasn’t a second thought. It was like waking up and drinking a glass of water.

But what came with the gang was me going to jail, me getting jumped on and shot at, me getting arrested, just a whole lot of hell. And as time went by, I went to the penitentiary at the age of seventeen. By the time I was nineteen, my best friend was shot and killed. Other friends was getting life sentences in jail, some getting twenty-plus years. Some of my friends was strung out on crack, and so just a lot of hell. And at this time, I was just tired. At the age of twenty-two, I was tired. I was tired, but still, no resources. I go to jail, I come home, and I’m a grown man with children, how am I going to be able to feed my family? I tried to get a job in the working force, couldn’t fill the application out. And when I turned twenty-five, I was a full-fledged gang leader, guys was following me, and [I felt] it was my turn, even though there was somebody ahead of me.

Derek Brown and the North Lawndale Boxing team
Derek Brown and the North Lawndale Boxing team

Then one day, this guy got killed, when I was like twenty-six, the guy who ran all the Vice Lords. And I was out there, and when they went and killed the guy, one of the guys turned the gun on me, and God just seen it for me to live. So I lived, and they jumped the guy who ran the gang. And it was like God was saying, “Are you going to lead the people on the path of righteousness or the path of destruction?”

Again, I still didn’t have a way out. One day, I was getting chased by the police and ended up getting away. I was caught dead to rights and I prayed to God that he’d get me out of the situation. And I said “I will never sell a piece of drugs again in my life,” and I didn’t go to jail for this case. I was already out on bond on two cases and finally got caught with this last case, and it would have been over with.

But I stuck to my word. I didn’t shoot up no more drugs, I beat both of the cases, spent a lot of money on it, and I was broke. And by me being broke, it just made me realize, who was I working for? Was I working for me or was I working for the court system? And all the money I done made, I never even enjoyed a dime of it. But my lawyer, the judges, the system, they enjoyed my money more than I did. I was the one who worked hard for it, got shot for it and robbed for it, you know all type of hell. These were like the antennas that stood up before me, and I just didn’t want to see another child going through the hell that I went through. And by the grace of God, He just put me in the right position, and I got out.

So the work that I’m doing right now, and if you could really see the work that I’m doing, you would say that I was always watched over, like I’m powered by a spiritual being. It’s not me. It’s my physical body and everything, but who I was, is no longer. I’m definitely somebody else. I’m not that ignorant young man that’s coming through the system that thinks he knows everything, thinks he’s grown. I guarantee I can tell you stories, and there are miracles. I just had to be here where I’m at right now, and the change that I’m making in people’s lives with something as small as boxing.

A lot of people think that my training and me teaching youth how to box is brutal, but that is the only way. Boxing is sexy to them. Boxing is something to glorify because the fight is everything. To learn how to fight and to learn how to be constructive and to hold your ground… Everybody wants to learn how to fight. But once they get into my program, they learn discipline, they learn how to love themselves. And all of that aggression that they get, it vanishes. It disappears, and it’s a controlled aggression. It’s wanting to learn, wanting to help others. It’s learning to love yourself, learning to respect yourself. And once you’re able to love and respect yourself, that’s only when you can go and love and respect someone else. I take some of the worst of kids that people done gave up on, failing kids, and I get them wanting to learn and go from F students to A students.
"Everybody wants to learn how to fight. But once they get into my program, they learn discipline, they learn how to love themselves."
Greg: Can you say a little more about that transition? As you mentioned, critics of your approach might say that you’re attempting to steer kids away from a violent lifestyle by teaching them a violent sport. So how exactly do you use boxing to make that switch from an aggressive mindset to one of self-control?

Derek: First off, I teach kids to love themselves. I start by asking, “How many people love themselves?” Everybody’s going to raise their hands. And I ask them, “How many people get in trouble?” Of course, they raise their hands. “How many people get in trouble more than three times for the same thing?” Everybody. Unfortunately, everyone raises their hands. “How many of y’all gets whuppings? How many of y’all gets yourself hurt? How many of y’all go back and forth to jail?” And some raise their hands, and I keep going on and on and on.

And then I go on to tell them how much I loved myself when I was their age. I say, “This is how much I loved myself. I loved myself so much I joined a gang. I loved myself so much that I got in trouble, I kept going to jail.” Then they start looking at me, and I start talking about all the madness I did and I ask them, “Does that look like I loved myself?”

Derek Brown leading a North Lawndale Boxing training session
Derek Brown leading a North Lawndale Boxing training session

See, they haven’t been taught how to love. They haven’t been shown love. They haven’t been shown respect. So once you get them to look at themselves in the mirror and check themselves, that’s when they begin the process of loving and respecting themselves and others. It’s a process. Everything that I do is a process. It’s just like when I tell a kid, “Run around the block.” Well, you get a kid that first comes to you and you tell him to run around the block—because running around the block is normally a punishment—he’ll say “What did I do?” Because he’s aggressive.

Now, they don’t even have to do nothing. I can just say “Run around the block,” and they do it without fussing. That’s the hidden discipline that they’re getting that they normally wouldn’t listen to. Normally, they don’t want to listen to nobody, and somebody walks up to them and tells them to run, they’re like “Are you crazy? You done lost your mind.” And they always question, they always ask, “Why?” But it’s a sneak discipline. Once you get it to that point, that’s when you know your discipline has kicked in. And then it’s time to take the boxing steps to another level.

Greg: So if I understand you correctly, it’s really a matter of getting kids to love themselves and realize there are things they want to accomplish, things that are important to them, whether that’s boxing or any other pursuit. And once they realize that, then they want to take the necessary steps to reach those goals.

Derek: Right. But anybody can teach this, but they don’t want this teaching from just anybody. You got to give a credible message. It has to be someone that they’re looking up to. When I was on the street, I seen some messages that says no to drugs. Most of my friends used drugs. It was because it wasn’t the message, it’s always the messengers. Their messengers was high on drugs, which was their gang chief, which was somebody they looked up to, which was somebody they seen every day. To change these types of behaviors, you have to find advocates like myself who have been through the turmoil. Like I don’t use drugs, I don’t smoke, I don’t smoke weed, I don’t drink, I don’t do anything. How can I go to an addict and tell the addict how the addict should feel and tell the addict, “Don’t do it?” Versus an ex-addict, because that ex-addict understands and feels the pain he feels.

Follow the North Lawndale Boxing League on Facebook to stay up to date with Derek Brown and his organization. Visit for more information or to make an equipment or monetary donation. And stay tuned for the second half of this interview on June 12.

All images courtesy of with permission of Derek Brown.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Finding Feyisa Lilesa - Part II

In August 2016, Feyisa Lilesa won Olympic glory. His next challenge: keep himself and his family alive and safe in the face of Ethiopian ethnic purges.

Part I: The Oromo

Part II: The Reunion

After three weeks in a Rio de Janeiro hotel following the 2016 Olympics, Feyisa Lilesa moved to the United States in September 2016. He was granted an American O-1 visa, a status reserved for individuals with an extraordinary ability in athletics or other fields. He settled in Flagstaff, Arizona and continued his training. Almost 9,000 miles around the globe, his family and friends feared for their safety under the repressive Ethiopian government.

His brother-in-law, Tokkuma Mulisa, had been imprisoned in early 2016 and reportedly tortured. His younger brother Aduna, also a runner, was attacked by government soldiers in October. The soldiers struck Aduna in the head with the butt of a rifle, kicked him and threatened to shoot him unless he gave them information about Feyisa. Finally, Aduna lied and said his brother "is a terrorist; he is no good." In addition, Aduna's wife was suspended from her job with Ethiopian government radio following Feyisa's Olympic protest.

Feyisa Lilesa greets his wife, daughter and son in Miami (

Meanwhile, Feyisa's wife Iftu Lilesa, five-year-old old daughter Soko Feyisa Lilesa, and three-year-old son Sora Feyisa Lilesa languished in Ethiopia after Lilesa's daring protest. Lilesa managed to communicate with his family regularly but feared for their safety. After the Olympic marathon, he admitted, "I do have a concern for my family but what I’m thinking about today is not so much bringing them here, but change will come to Ethiopia so I can go home to my family," However, he soon realized that goal remained far in the future.

Instead, Lilesa began to make arrangements to bring his family to the United States. They filed for immigrant visas for his wife, children and brother, but the U.S. executive order issued in January to block immigrants and refugees from entering the country put those plants in jeopardy.

Regarding the executive travel ban, Lilesa said, "The day I left my country is the day I gave up my rights. This is not my country. Donald Trump was elected through a process and he’s ultimately here to decide what he wants to do about his country and he is in charge. But, I do think it’s unfair to separate people based on their religion and it’s good to understand that people come to this country, refugees and immigrants, because they have problems like I did in my own country."

When the travel ban was overturned in February, the U.S. consular staff in Addis Ababa approved Lilesa's family for immigration. His family boarded a flight to Miami, where Lilesa met them on Valentine's Day. Overjoyed at seeing his family once more, Lilesa remained mindful of the situation in his native country.

"Despite my physical safety here in the US and now a family reunion, the Ethiopian government's ongoing abuse of the Oromo people gives me no rest," he said in a press statement. "As I celebrate this small personal victory, I want to make sure that we don't forget the plight of millions of Oromo and other Ethiopians who are still being killed, beaten, imprisoned, dispossessed and kept in poverty."

Aduna Lilesa left his brother and his family and returned to Ethiopia in mid-March. The visas for Lilesa's wife and children expire in July, but they hope to receive green cards before then. In the meantime, Lilesa continues to balance training and activism.
My biggest wish is to see the freedom of my people—all people, in every country.
Lilesa won the New York City Half Marathon in March, outsprinting the second-place finisher and flashing his crossed-arms "X" symbol at the finish line. He was also among the leaders in last week's London Marathon before dropping back to twelfth place.

Through it all, his message has never wavered. Before the London Marathon, he exhorted Brits "to put pressure on their government because they do provide the biggest amount of aid to the Ethiopian government, to use that leverage not to cosy up to the Ethiopian rulers but to change their behaviour and to allow our people to have their freedom and rights."

And even as he fights to keep his wife and children safely by his side, his thoughts remain with the struggle of his countrymen halfway around the world. "I will continue to speak out against injustice and its perpetrators using my platform," Lilesa says. "My biggest wish is to see the freedom of my people—all people, in every country."

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Interview with Juliet Starrett of StandUpKids

I have discussed the connections between cognitive function and physical movement and health in several previous articles (see especially "Fitness and Intelligence," "Fitness, Cognitive Performance and Longevity Redux" and "Cognitive Ability and Physical Performance"). In this piece, I welcome some further insight on the subject from Juliet Starrett, founder of StandUpKids. Juliet is the co-founder and CEO of San Francisco Crossfit and and the recipient of the 2007 Jefferson Award for public service for her work with GirlVentures, a girls empowerment organization, and Liquid, a kayaking camp for children with HIV. StandUpKids is a 501(c)3 charity whose mission is to get every public school child at a standing desk in the next ten years in order to combat the epidemic of sedentary lifestyles and inactivity and better reflect twenty-first-century education goals. You can read more about the history and implementation of StandUpKids at

Greg: StandUpKids aims to bring standings desk to all public schools. How does standing impact learning?

Juliet: Students who stand at school are more attentive, focused, and have better cognition and executive function. Standing can be particularly helpful for kids with attention issues as it allows them to move. For many such kids with ADD and ADHD, they literally cannot learn unless they are moving. Standing desks also allow kids to be in continuous small motion (think fidgeting), and teachers report that the ability to move helps kids' behavior, too. 

Greg: The StandUpKids website has calculations for caloric expenditures of sitting versus standing. How did you calculate these figures and how significant is the difference between sitting and standing in student populations?

Juliet: Our calorie calculator is based on research done by a desk manufacturer named Ergoton but supported by the important research being done by Dr. Mark Benden at Texas A&M. His studies show that kids who stand and school burn an additional 25-35% more calories versus kids who sit all day. Indeed, just last year, he published a hugely important study showing that, over a two-year period, there was a 6% BMI difference between the kids who stood and the kids who sat. The BMI of the standing desk kids went down by more than 3 percentage points, while the BMI of the sitting kids when up by more than 2 percentage points, for a delta of nearly 6 percent between sitting and standing at school. This is a huge deal and could make a significant dent in childhood obesity, especially over a full childhood of schooling. 

Greg: There was a recent article in Scientific American* in which researchers tracked the daily energy expenditures of traditional hunter-gatherers in Africa and compared those numbers to energy expenditures of Western individuals. Contrary to my expectations, the researchers found almost no difference in daily energy expenditures between the two cultures despite vast differences in activity levels. Is it possible that the weight loss Dr. Benden observed is linked to other lifestyle factors (for example, schools that provide standing desks may be more likely to serve healthy lunches)? 

Juliet: I would point again to Dr. Benden's two-year study showing the BMI of standing kids went down, while the sitting kids went up. My only explanation of that is the standing kids are moving more, burning more calories, and not gaining as much weight. All other factors were the same between those two study groups—same school, same PE (or not), same amount of recess, etc.

Students who stand at school are more attentive, focused, and have better cognition and executive function. Teachers report that the ability to move helps kids' behavior, too.

Greg: I use a standing desk at home and work. For more creative tasks, I find that walking stimulates my thoughts, but I prefer to sit down if I need to focus on a particularly complex problem, especially one involving mathematical calculations. I'm thirty-one years old and grew up in schools with sitting desks. Is thinking while standing is a skill that is especially important to develop early in life?

Juliet: Yes. Here's a story for you. When we converted our pilot school from sitting to standing, the older kids (particularly fourth and fifth graders) took much longer to adjust to standing at school. The younger kids adapted almost immediately and it literally seemed normal and natural for them right away. We also see many adults fail in their efforts to convert to standing for a variety of reasons—they don't adjust their desk correctly, they stand still, they don't create a bar or place to put their foot, and so on. Imagine a world where ALL kids stand and move at school—when they get to the workplace, they will, of course, choose to stand and move at work. They will consider a sitting desk a "beta" desk.

For more news and research related to the benefits of standing desks in schools, follow StandUpKids on FacebookTwitter and Youtube. And to learn more about the organization and contribute to its mission, visit

*-The original Scientific American article by Herman Pontzer can be found behind a paywall at A free summary of this study is available at A list of Dr. Benden's research is available at

To evaluate energy expenditure for sitting and standing students, Dr. Benden and his coauthors used a Sensewear Armband, which measures motion, sweat and body heat and uses these data to estimate energy use. Students in this study wore the Armband during school hours for five consecutive days.

In contrast, Pontzer and his team used the doubly labeled water method to track their subjects' total energy expenditure over the course of entire days. In this measurement technique, considered the "gold standard in public health" for measuring daily caloric burn, subjects drink water enriched in deuterium and oxygen-18, which allows researchers to analyze the concentration of these isotopes in their urine in order to calculate their daily carbon dioxide production and energy expenditure. Several previous doubly labeled water studies comparing humans around the globe with varying activity levels show similar figures for energy use across all subjects.

I would hypothesize that both studies are accurate. Taken in isolation, standing and moving require more energy than sitting. But Pontzer suggests the bodies of active hunter-gatherers may make up for energy demand during activity by working more efficiently and commanding less energy during rest and when undergoing routine physiological processes. Applied to the matter at hand, standing students burn more energy during the school day but their bodies may conserve energy at other times so that sitting and standing students expend the same amount of energy over the course of an entire day.

As Juliet pointed out, Dr. Benden also found that students using standing desks showed a smaller increase in BMI over a two-year period, compared to students in the same schools who used sitting desks. If Pontzer's paper and the supporting evidence cited therein are correct, it is still possible to attribute Dr. Benden's results to changes in lifestyle that accompanied standing desk use. For example, students who used standing desks may have become more active in general, spent less time eating and consumed fewer calories. They may have consistently left the lunch table earlier than their sitting counterparts or they may have been more likely to play outside instead of snacking on the couch. Yet whether the relationship between desk type and student BMI is direct or indirect, this relationship exists.

Finally, both sets of researchers agree on the benefits of movement beyond its effects on energy expenditure. Juliet cited several non-energy benefits of standing desks, and Pontzer notes "You still have to exercise... Exercise has tons of well-documented benefits, from increased heart and immune system health to improved brain function and healthier aging." Isolated energy expenditure is probably less important on a large scale compared with the many benefits of physical activity on disease, cognition and potentially on other lifestyle factors.

Image Credit:
"" Image. 21 July 2015. Online. 18 April 2017.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Interview with Laps filmmaker R.J. Lozada

R.J. Lozada is an award-winning multi-media journalist and filmmaker who explores and engages multiple diasporas. He earned an MFA in Documentary Film and Video from Stanford University, where he produced four short films: Justice is a Warm Cupcake, Andy's Youth, Distance Between, and Laps, a documentary about the San Quentin 1000 Mile Running Club, whose membership is comprised of inmates who seek peace in long distance running within California's San Quentin State Prison. He has also been a contributor and host for APEX Express, one of two weekly Asian and Pacific Islander radio magazine shows on Pacifica Foundation’s network, and has served as Multimedia Editor for Hyphen Magazine. More information about his past films and future projects can be found on his website In this interview, we discuss his film Laps, which I featured on KineSophy last year.

Greg: What was your inspiration for this film?

R.J.: 2009: I was an avid runner, I was also working as a paralegal for a state agency that represented the men on death row in their appeals process. I hadn't gotten as close to the criminal justice system as I did as a paralegal for the state, so being able to bring both worlds together was a hard to come by concept that only manifested when I was visiting the recreation yard filming another project called Breathin': The Eddy Zheng Story. During that production day, I caught sight of three runners running the same lap over and over and over for the two hours that our film crew was out there. Even though I didn't film the runners at all, the image and my imagination took hold, and I thought, "if I run alone and run all over San Francisco and still find it limiting, how are these guys doing it in prison?"

Fast forward to 2015, I'm approaching my final year as a documentary film grad student at Stanford, and—while no longer a runner and no longer a paralegal—was still deeply interested in this long-held image in my mind. I wanted to understand long distance running in confinement, in their context, when the criminal justice system, and by extension, mainstream society, has already dehumanized you, how can running bring your soul to clarity, to peace? How can I best convey all of this in this incredibly limited form known as documentary film?

Laps by R.J. Lozada. Watch in HD.

Greg: How long did it take you to complete the project? Were there any particular struggles unique to filming in this environment?

R.J.: The entire project took a year to make. Most of the work was spent on the ten months of pre-production, and of that ten months, nine were spent building with the guys inside. Building with them meant making a trip out to San Quentin two to three times a month and either running with them or just hanging out during practice runs. With no cameras, no recording devices, just curiosity and respect.

I had significant struggles with prison bureaucracy—despite the fact that I cleared my background check to enter as an employee for a legal outfit with the state of California, I had to go through a different process as a media producer. Additionally, my status as a film student meant additional hoops to jump through, but I almost didn't get approved on account of a prison administrator delaying my application to the state office up in Sacramento. If not for running coach Frank Ruona, and his commitment to the project, then I wouldn't have been able to get my project approved.

When it came time to film, I pitched four consecutive days—which was rejected. Prison administration gave me two days, and because of scheduling issues, spread each shoot date three weeks apart. I definitely had to change this up from how I had been building the project in my mind's eye and production treatments—I was deeply invested in a look and when that was compromised a week before the first day of shooting, I had to think quickly. Despite my scramble, I still had to adjust my ideas during the shoot as the filming conditions were far more limited than discussed.

Thankfully, I had built up a strong enough relationship with the runners that they were game for anything I needed in the time that I had, no questions asked—even if that meant they had to run three to four hours straight so I can recreate a marathon-like experience on film. For that, I am humbly indebted and really learned the strengths of honesty, sincerity, kindness and respect for my fellow human no matter the context.
Running helped build up their mental endurance and gave them emotional resources that made them feel like they were attaining a goal that would ultimately reshape their world view.
Greg: Can you tell me a little more about your practice runs with the inmates? How did those sessions influence your attitudes toward running and toward the inmates?

R.J.: Frank Ruona is the San Quentin 1000 Mile Running Club coach (—he's one of the main faces out the outside and also one of the mainstays. The men have so much respect for him and his commitment to running. Coach usually goes into San Quentin on Monday evenings and some Friday mornings. Running with them was very humbling for me—they have strong running principles, and also push themselves incredibly hard. I have a tendency to give most people the benefit of the doubt, and these men are no exception—I'm reminded of [lawyer and activist] Bryan Stevenson who often states a well-known and really universal truth that you are not your worst act. Framing my position from that starting point really allowed me to, dare I say, appreciate the opportunity and privilege to learn about who these guys are and what they're trying to do with their lives, given their circumstances. I understand that they're in prison for some choices that they made in the past, but they're making choices now to rectify and be at peace.

Greg: How much did the makeup of the running group change over your year with the runners? Did most individual runners tend to stick with the group throughout your time there?

R.J. I can't really answer this accurately,  but I will say that the group stayed pretty consistent at around forty to fifty-plus members. They do attract new runners, and I'm guessing they always manage to lose as many (men who are paroled) and gain as much back.

Greg: In the film, prisoners talk about how running helps them work through the problems and confrontations in their daily lives and escape mentally from the harsh realities of prison life. What were some of the other benefits the prisoners felt they gained? Were you able to notice any changes in the prisoners over the course of your filming?

R.J. A lot of the men felt that running helped build up their mental endurance and gave them emotional resources that when combined with whatever prison programs they were participating in, made them feel like they were attaining a goal that would ultimately reshape (or in some cases, reaffirm) their world view. Additionally, they all talked about a lot of the health benefits as a result of sustained, regular running, from pulling them from depressive emotional states to major weight loss, a lot of guys were reaping so much. However, they still got injured—messed up knees, rolled ankles, and while this meant runners would have to sit out for a couple of weeks, most of them always showed up for regular running events and some practices to show support.

Check out more of R.J. Lozada's work on his website, or on Vimeo and Instagram.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Why this pet-care product is the harbinger of humankind’s demise

For some dog owners, playing with their pets has become a chore instead of a game, a shift that reflects our increasingly sedentary and time-obsessed society.

Fetch is a game you play with your dog (or perhaps, a game you play on your dog), in which you throw an object, your dog chases it down and brings it back to you, and you restart the process by throwing the object away again. Fetch requires next to no effort from the dog owner. It is so simple and monotonous that telling another person to go fetch something is almost demeaning. But humans, in our infinite quest for ease and comfort, had to make fetch even easier. Hence, (for lack of a better term) the fetching stick:

In short, some dog owners have decided that fetch is no longer a game, but a chore. Grabbing a ball off the ground became too burdensome, so they needed a tool to make it easier. Perhaps their bodies were no longer accustomed to the simple movement of bending over to pick up a ball. Perhaps they simply became lazy.

But, really, how hard is it for a perfectly able person to bend down and grab something off the ground? Are humans so indolent they no longer want to perform basic movements? Or so deconditioned that even touching their toes is an injury risk?

Advertisements for these products offer excuses for their existence:

1. "Never pick up a slobbery ball again!"
You pick up your dog’s poop and you’re squeamish about saliva? And if your dog hasn’t tried to lick you before, you haven’t owned a dog.

2. "Throw farther and faster than ever before!"
Whose dog needs them to throw a ball 200 feet for a proper game of fetch? If you can’t toss a tennis ball far enough for your dog to chase it, figure out why you can’t throw instead of disguising that glaring movement hole.

3. "Exercise your dog in a fraction of the time!"
Because it takes so long to bend down and pick up a ball with the intricately evolved tool Nature has given you called your hand. Besides, playing with your dog is not a race. It’s not a chore. If it is, don’t get a dog.

These products would transform a game of fetch into a menial duty. They are marketed toward dog owners who acknowledge the importance of play and exercise for their pets but find it too burdensome to engage in minimal movement themselves. And even worse, the most preoccupied owners can purchase an automatic ball launcher so that they don’t even have to spend time with their dogs at all:

Of course, the symptom of the fetching stick goes far beyond pet care. In an increasingly sedentary and burnt-out society, personal health and the necessity and pleasure of physical movement have become casualties of the perception that there is never enough time. Many people have developed a pathological fear of physical discomfort that prohibits any type of exertion. Many wrongly imagine life as a constant, progressive race against time. The fetching stick is merely a symbol of a society that has neglected movement in favor of sloth, play in favor of unending work, relaxation in favor of efficiency. It’s time to make a change, and maybe that change needs to start with man’s best friend.

Image Credits:
1. "ChuckIt-grass." Image. Online. 24 March 2017.
2. "godoggo-remote-fetch-automatic-tennis-ball-launcher-for-dogs-xl." Image. Online. 24 March 2017.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

An interview with free skier, trail runner and airline pilot Darryl Ball

After earning a university degree in Aerospace Engineering, Darryl Ball chose to pursue his dreams and travel the world as a competitive free skier and coach, spending most of his time in Whistler, Canada and Wanaka, New Zealand. Today, he lives near Stockholm, Sweden and works full-time as a commercial airline pilot for Norwegian Airlines but still manages to shred the slopes during the winter and run trails year-round. He has appeared in numerous ski magazines, including the Telegraph Ski and Snowboard Magazine, and is sponsored by Vivobarefoot and Line Skis UK.

Greg: You grew up skiing and more recently transitioned into running. Have you participated in any other sports?

Darryl: I have always been interested in a variety of sports. At school, I played rugby and squash. I also like kitesurfing, wakeboarding, snowboarding and longboarding. This year I hope to give Obstacle Course Racing and SwimRun a try!

Greg: What attracted you to running in the first place? Was there an adjustment period in moving from skiing to running? Have you noticed any similar movement patterns between the two sports?

Darryl: I used to run a bit for basic fitness maintenance even when I was skiing, especially between winter seasons, so it was a natural progression to start running regularly when I stopped doing ski seasons and began flight training. I needed to do something active every day, especially when I had been sitting in a classroom, and running suited me perfectly, both physically and psychologically. I started running more and more, until eventually running became my main activity.

I find that trail running has many similarities with skiing. Form is very important, that the centre of mass is always well balanced over the base of support. This is especially relevant when skiing or running steep slopes. Also the need to look ahead and resist the temptation that many people have to look at the ground directly ahead of them. This allows you to move with much better flow through the terrain, improving speed and effectiveness. It stimulates the body to feel the ground and use all of your senses. By using minimalist shoes from Vivobarefoot I can feel everything and my feet can function to their full ability.

I also like ski touring which, like trail running, requires endurance and strength. The sensation of escaping into nature and leaving the developed world behind is unbeatable!

Darryl Ball skiing Ekerö powder, Sweden

Greg: You mentioned how running suited you "physically and psychologically." How does running fit your psychology?

Darryl: Running provides a sensation of freedom through natural movement. I always feel refreshed and calm from spending time outdoors, whatever the conditions. Not only do I get stimulated by sunlight, but I also appreciate breaking away from the comfort of daily life when it's dark, cold, rainy and/or windy, and a personal favorite is running in the snow. It's through these extremes that I can expand my mind to try and optimize my own capabilities. When it's time to knuckle down and get on with work it's much easier to focus!

Greg: Did you start running in the minimalist shoes you use now or thick-soled/big-heeled shoes?

Darryl: I started off running with modern conventional shoes that squash the foot and provide too much cushioning, making it almost impossible to feel the ground and run efficiently. Combined with all those years in ski boots, I damaged and deformed my feet significantly! It was only when I started learning about natural running and using minimalist shoes that I realized that there is a better way to run efficiently and avoid injury. I went to barefoot clinics, walked barefoot as much as possible and made sure that my work shoes, casual shoes and training shoes are all minimalistic from Vivobarefoot. I have also been using toe spreaders to accelerate the process and I'm happy to say that my feet are returning to their natural form and are far more functional! I wouldn't say that the transition was difficult as my feet were strong, despite being deformed, but it definitely takes a lot of time and patience! Now when I run it's almost like I'm hovering over the ground, gliding with almost no impact. My legs work faster and I can feel the surface below my feet, which is much more efficient, allows me to run faster and makes running even more enjoyable!

Darryl Ball running in a Vivobarefoot promotional video

Greg: You earned a degree in Aerospace Engineering and work full-time as an airline pilot but you've also skied and coached professionally. Is there any overlap in your approach to these seemingly different career paths?

Darryl: I don't have time to coach much these days, as my priorities have shifted more towards my family, but I am still getting lots of time on snow each year and I am on the Line Skis UK team. I wouldn't say that my degree has any significance to my sporting interests, other than that (just like with all things in life) it takes a good attitude and dedication to be successful at something. Focus is very important. I would also say that skiing taught me to deal with stressful situations, manage risks and multitask effectively. All of these are important skills as a pilot! My coaching experience has also helped me work as a simulator instructor, developing newly employed cadets at Norwegian Airlines.

The pilot lifestyle allows me to work hard and play hard, and I make sure that I exploit every opportunity that I get to run and ski.

For more skiing and running photos, videos and training advice, follow Darryl on Instagram, Twitter and Vimeo, and check out his website

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Finding Feyisa Lilesa - Part I

Six months ago, Feyisa Lilesa won Olympic glory. His next challenge: keep himself and his family alive and safe in the face of Ethiopian ethnic purges.

On the final day of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Feyisa Lilesa crossed the marathon finish line in second place. As he did so, he raised his arms above his head, wrists crossed in an X. Most viewers around the world probably assumed this gesture was some personal expression of triumph in celebration of his Olympic silver medal.
Instead, articles published shortly after the race informed the world that Lilesa's gesture was a symbolic protest of the Ethiopian government's persecution and killing of members of the Oromo ethnic group to which Lilesa belongs. More than 400 Oromo people were killed between November 2015 and the August 2016 Olympics. Many others have been, or are currently, imprisoned. In Ethiopia, the state television network did not air a replay of the Olympic marathon finish.

"The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere, as Oromo is my tribe," Lilesa said after the race. "My relatives are in prison, and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed."

He also knew his freedom would be in jeopardy should he return home after his symbolic gesture. "If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they will kill me. If not kill me, they will put me in prison. I have not decided yet, but maybe I will move to another country," he said.

Part I: The Oromo

In 1991, the year after Lilesa's birth, the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took control of the nation's government, a position it has held ever since. From that time forward, the EPRDF has worked to create animosity between the country's two largest ethnic groups: the Oromos and Amharas. The EPRDF has routinely blamed the Oromos (who made up 35% of Ethiopia's population in 2012) as secessionists and terrorists in order to further divide the different ethnic groups and justify the continued monitoring, control and policing of Oromo activists.

Feyisa Lelisa grew up hiding from the government security forces arresting Oromos throughout Ethiopia. Then came the 2005 elections, which the government promoted as openly democratic. Yet when early returns showed a large lead from groups opposed to the EPRDF, the government delayed final vote counts, killed almost 200 protesters and arrested 20,000 more. Mass arrests were common in Lilesa's hometown in the Jeldu district, and the purges were so aggressive that fifteen-year-old Lilesa and his friends and family would conceal themselves in fields of unharvested crops to avoid nighttime raids.

Unrest and persecution have continued into the current decade. According to Amnesty International, at least 5,000 Oromos were arrested in Ethiopia between 2011 and 2014. These arrests included thousands of peaceful protestors and hundreds of members of political movements opposed to the ruling EPRDF, as well as hundreds of other individuals arrested based on the mere expression of dissenting opinions or their suspected opposition to the government.

In April 2014, the Ethiopian government announced its "Integrated Master Plan," which called for expanding the capital city of Addis Ababa into neighboring Oromo villages and towns. The Oromo people responded with renewed protests against what they saw as a move to evict Oromo farmers from their ancestral lands. Federal police and military special forces shot at and beat hundreds of protesters and bystanders. Thousands more were arrested.
"The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere."
Further government crackdowns followed additional protests in November 2015, but the government did drop its "Master Plan" in early 2016. Lilesa's brother-in-law was arrested around the same time. When he was selected for the Ethiopian Olympic team in May, Lilesa decided on his protest, later recalling his thoughts at the time, "If I get good result, the media would be watching and the world would finally see and hear the cry of my people.” He left his wife, five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter in Ethiopia on August 17, knowing he might never see them again.

His symbolic "X" gesture as he crossed the finish line at the Olympic marathon four days later signified his solidarity with the Oromo people still suffering in Ethiopia. After the race, he reiterated his message in a brief press conference before returning to the Olympic village where he collected his belongings and snuck off to a Rio hotel, distrusting the Ethiopian Olympic officials who had accompanied him to the Games.

He stayed in his hotel for three weeks while Oromo sympathizers in Rio assisted him with a visa application to the United States. He arrived in America in early September 2016, with no intention of returning home until the political situation improves. His family remains in Ethiopia, and Lilesa plans to continue running to raise awareness for their plight and the struggles of all Oromo people.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

RumbleRoller Giveaway

a Rafflecopter giveaway

I have long been fascinated by the overlap of physical fitness and philosophy. My final paper in my very first college philosophy course was an overview of depictions of physical virtue across several works of philosophy. But the most direct influence behind the creation of KineSophy comes from Kelly Starrett, founder of Mobility WOD:
"All human beings should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves."
Since ethics is the study of how humans should act, Starrett's use of "should" in his motto signifies that he is making an ethical claim. His statement falls in the same category as prescriptions like "all humans should be capable of performing basic mental arithmetic" or "all humans should be capable of judging right from wrong." If you are a healthy adult human being, you should be able to move well and take care of your body when it requires basic maintenance.

Furthermore, self-care demands that you have a certain attitude about yourself and your value. You have to believe that you are worth a little bit of extra effort. You have to believe that your health and your comfort matter. 

I know that sounds pretty simple, and you may find it easy to tell yourself "of course I matter." But even if you want to believe your health and well-being are important, think about how often you also tell yourself "I don't have time for that" when confronted with basic self-care prescriptions.

When you care for your body, when you believe that you should not be in unnecessary pain and you act to make yourself feel better, you are affirming your worth as a human being. That sense of self-worth is the basis for believing that other humans have worth. When you value yourself, you recognize that other humans value themselves and that you all deserve to be treated with respect.

There are a lot of tools available for physical self-care. My wife and I personally own four different varieties of rollers (foam and otherwise), lacrosse balls (separate and taped together in a peanut-shape) and a pair of squishy, grippy Yoga Tune Up balls (see my KineSophy interview with Yoga Tune Up founder Jill Miller).

A compact RumbleRoller just like the one pictured above is my go-to tool for breaking up knots and sore spots in large swaths of tissue like my thighs, calves and upper back. It's firm enough to withstand years of use and it has little bumps that act like a masseuse's fingers and dig into tender spots. 

That's why I'm so thrilled that RumbleRoller offered to give one of these rollers to a lucky KineSophy reader. When you enter this giveaway, you're not just trying to win a very useful prize, you're telling yourself that you, your body and your health are worth this prize. You're affirming that you matter. And that basic affirmation is at the heart of what KineSophy is all about.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

An interview with nutritionist, writer and organic farmer Diana Rodgers

In my recent Complete Guide to Sustainable Protein, I created a list of the most protein-dense and sustainable protein sources for any diet. Last month, I was fortunate enough to interview Diana Rodgers, RD, LDN, NTP, in order to shed some more light on the sustainability and nutrition of animal- and plant-based protein sources. Diana is a “real food” nutritionist and writer living on a working organic farm in Carlisle, Massachusetts. She runs a clinical nutrition practice, hosts the Sustainable Dish Podcast, and speaks internationally about human nutrition, sustainability, animal welfare and social justice. Her work has been featured in The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Outside Magazine, Edible Boston and Mother Earth News. She can be found online at

Greg: Can you say a little more about how you came to be where you are today: a nutritionist living on an organic farm? Did you move down the farming path first or the nutritionist path?

Diana: I have been interested in food and farming ever since I was a kid. I was always sick as a kid and wasn’t diagnosed with celiac disease until my mid-twenties. I was always very hungry—if you put a full Thanksgiving plate in front of me at any time during my childhood, I would have easily devoured the whole thing! I used to love to go clamming and fishing with my dad, growing up near the ocean. When I was a teenager, I worked on an organic vegetable farm during the summer and continued through college.

When my boyfriend Andrew (now my husband) and I had our first apartment at age twenty, we had a big vegetable garden, worm farm and compost patch. After college, we moved to Portland, Oregon to get “real jobs,” and Andrew hated working for corporate America. We would take off and visit farms on the weekend, and that’s when he learned about CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] farms. He was always an environmentalist and after reading The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry, he decided at age twenty-six to become a farmer. We moved back to Massachusetts, and he enrolled in a master’s degree program in soil science and worked on a farm to get the hands-on experience. He was quickly hired to manage a 250-acre farm north of Boston, where we lived for ten years.

I had been working in marketing for food companies, NPR and then Whole Foods before quitting my corporate job and joining Andrew on the farm. I ran the CSA, farmstand, kitchen and events. I kept getting questions about some of the products we stocked in the store and wasn’t really sure why coconut oil was so good for you, why butter was okay to eat or why grass-fed meat was more nutritious. I decided to learn more, for my own health reasons and to better answer everyone’s questions. I attended a Weston A. Price conference and then enrolled in Nutritional Therapy Association’s course.

After finishing with my NTP [Nutritional Therapy Practitioner] certificate, I wanted to pursue my RD [Registered Dietitian] so that I could practice medical nutrition therapy, dive deeper into the science of nutrition, and to gain more credibility from the medical community. I now have a busy clinical practice plus I write and speak about sustainability and nutrition issues in the food system. I help people learn how to balance their blood sugar, lose weight and fix their guts using real food.
"Modern food production uses tremendous fossil fuels and destroys ecosystems."
Greg: It's a popular belief that cattle are one of the biggest agricultural culprits when it comes to consuming water, energy and land and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. But in your article Meat is Magnificent, you make a distinction between grass-fed beef and modern, heavily-processed beef and show how properly managed grazing cattle can improve soil quality and reduce environmental damage. In contrast, what are some of the ecological problems with processed foods, both meat- and plant-based?

Diana: Modern food production uses tremendous fossil fuels and destroys ecosystems. When large fields are converted to cropland, habitats are destroyed and the biodiversity of life both above and below ground diminish. This means less birds, frogs, insects AND beneficial bacteria and fungus that nourish the plants and sequester carbon. One of the best ways to actually build soil and sequester carbon is to use ruminants (cows, sheep, and other animals that graze). When they chew the grass, it stimulates growth both above ground and at the roots. Their hoof action creates little pockets to collect rainwater, and their manure inoculates the soil with healthy bacteria.

This entire system does not happen in a large field of mono-crop wheat, corn or soy. Plus, when those grains are harvested, they are heavily processed in order to convert them to the convenient, nutrient-poor junk food that Americans live on. Animals (primarily chickens and pigs) raised in CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation] are raised indoors eating only grain, which is why grass-fed beef and lamb are a much better choice for sustainability reasons than animals raised on grains. Also, pasture land is largely uncroppable, so [pasture-raised animals don't] compete with humans for food. Most cattle are raised in areas far too dry or hilly to crop.

Greg: You mentioned how modern food production destroys ecosystems and animal life, a topic you also discuss in your article More Protein, Better Protein. Can you go into more detail about how even a plant-based diet can result in animal death? Is there a way vegans and vegetarians can avoid or reduce these costs?

Diana: Eating a vegan diet does not mean blood is not shed to bring food to the table. As I mentioned in the previous answer, when you eat food that was grown in a mono-crop method (basically, any grain, but even many vegetables) biodiversity is lost to make room for these large and very unnatural fields. They are heavily sprayed, which kills insects, birds, frogs, the soil, and runs into rivers killing fish. Even if they’re organically produced, there’s still blood. When tractors go through and harvest, they are squashing and chopping up bunnies, field mice, etc. Compare this to a cow eating grass. One cow can feed a family for a very long time, compared to the thousands of lives lost in a conventional or even organic mono-crop system.

Vegans and vegetarians can reduce their grain consumption and focus more on legumes, which can benefit the soil because they fix nitrogen. They can also buy their vegetables from small-scale, organic farms in their communities, reducing food miles and supporting better biodiversity. But there’s something important to note: life cannot happen without death. In order to have healthy soil, you need manure, bones and blood. Animals are part of the cycle of any healthy system, including our food system. Acknowledging this is important.

I often then get the question, “well can’t we just have animals to build soil but then not eat them, and just let them live out their lives and die naturally?” This is not necessarily the most humane way to end a life. Animals (just like humans) don’t always just die peacefully in their sleep. Dying at the jaws of a coyote or hyena is not pleasant. Humans have the ability to be “humane” in the way we end an animal’s life. We can make it fast and low stress, much lower stress than most “natural” deaths. Also, animals provide important nutrients that humans need to thrive. In many parts of the world, animals are the ONLY thing that grows well. Think of Africa, it’s a hot dry place. Growing tons of grain or water sucking vegetables is not realistic there, but cattle and goats do very well in those environments.
"Animals are part of the cycle of any healthy system, including our food system."
Greg: You seem to be arguing that if the goal is being humane and sustainable, the best way to produce those outcomes is not to go vegan but to eat local, organic produce and grass-fed, pasture-raised meat and animal products. Is that correct? Would the more environmentally sustainable methods you advocate be capable of satisfying the food requirements of a rising global population?

Diana: Yes, this is correct. The current way we’re cropping is ruining the soil and turning it to dust and is completely unsustainable. It’s not possible to continue this way. Our views on how to create food for the masses are completely myopic. We need to consider what will happen in 100, 300 and 500 years from now. Small-scale, integrated farming with both animals and plants mimics natural ecosystems and is the only way to produce food in a healthy way that will be regenerative to the soil. When you produce cheap, nutrient-poor food on a massive scale without considering what will happen to human health or the soil health 100 years from now, you end up with obesity, diabetes, nutrient deficiencies and soil that has been raped of its nutrition.

The same thing happened in the Roman empire—they farmed their way to death. Sure, we can have a population explosion on cheap processed food, but is this a good thing? Do we want billions of sick people walking the planet, polluting it and exploiting the resources? Thinking that we can remove animals from the process of food production is a very naive and reductionist view. Only natural ecosystems can heal themselves, and this means animals AND plants in the mix.

Greg: You talked earlier about the problems with CAFO chicken or pork and you've also argued in favor of eating feed-lot beef over CAFO chicken or pork when organic/grass-fed/pasture-raised options are not available. Assuming I have access to sustainably and humanely raised meat, is there a balance I should seek between animal protein sources?

Diana: Because I live on an organic vegetable farm that also raises meat and eggs, nearly all of my protein comes from the farm. I also love to eat fish, and I do eat out, so sometimes I don’t know the source of the meat. I think it’s optimal to do what you can to get the best meat, poultry, eggs and seafood you can afford, as they are the best sources of protein. Legumes like lentils are one of the best plant-based protein sources, for both nutrition and the environment, so I eat them occasionally too.

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