Test­ing lim­its of our world

Aus­tralian tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter had long feared water - now he knows why.

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Ican re­mem­ber as a young boy walking to school in kneedeep snow through the grave­yard be­hind my house dream­ing of ‘‘other worlds’’.

Maybe it was the harsh­ness of my en­vi­ron­ment or the small is­land I lived on, but I al­ways wanted to ex­plore some­where else.

When I got older I re­alised those ‘‘other worlds’’ were all around me and that I was some­how drawn to them like a naive child run­ning to­wards a warm but dan­ger­ous fire. Some of the at­trac­tion was cer­tainly the risk and the in­evitable dopamine­fu­elled feel­ing of be­ing alive, but most of it was an in­sa­tiable de­sire to un­der­stand why and how things worked.

In many ways, Body Hack was born from this col­li­sion.

Body Hack is an ad­ven­ture sci­ence se­ries on a mis­sion to ex­plore some of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary peo­ple on the planet, to see what we can all learn from their lives. At the heart of the se­ries is a be­lief that to truly un­der­stand peo­ple you need to walk in their shoes, no mat­ter how un­com­fort­able or seem­ingly dis­turb­ing those shoes are. So rather than ob­serve them, I tried to be­come them – to tease out the prac­ti­cal tools, tips and tech­niques they use to live these colour­ful and some­times con­tro­ver­sial lives. I got to ex­plore the na­ture of en­durance, re­silience, pain, di­et­ing, self-talk, risk-tak­ing, sleep and death.

The first episode we filmed was ar­guably the toughest: cage fighting. Mixed Mar­tial Arts is a global phe­nom­e­non and the fastest grow­ing sport in the world. It com­bines five Olympic dis­ci­plines into one dan­ger­ous and po­ten­tially deadly fighting style. It’s easy to write it off as mind­less violence, and many peo­ple do, but my job was to try to un­der­stand and learn, not judge. Like them or not, these unique ath­letes have an ex­cep­tional abil­ity to en­dure stress, pain and man­age fear – skills we can all use in our daily lives.

When it comes to fear, fighters tend to em­brace fear and their se­cret weapon is breath. Breath is the bridge to our ner­vous sys­tem so if you want to trick your body into be­liev­ing ev­ery­thing is OK – slow down your breath.

I knew step­ping into a cage to fight a pro­fes­sional fighter in front of 2000 peo­ple in New Mex­ico, af­ter two weeks of train­ing, was al­ways go­ing to be a risky propo­si­tion. And, it would be fair to say, it doesn’t end well for me.

Once I re­cov­ered enough and my face healed, my next stop was mag­nif­i­cent Tan­za­nia in Africa. Liv­ing with the Hadza, one of the last re­main­ing true hunter­gath­erer tribes on earth, re­ally chal­lenged my no­tion of food pro­duc­tion and my priv­i­leged Western sen­si­bil­i­ties around the killing of an­i­mals. The Hadza are known for hav­ing the most di­verse stom­ach biome in the world and, as a re­sult, they live nearly dis­ease free.

Western sci­en­tists are scram­bling to un­der­stand them and their diet be­cause they may hold the se­cret to a longer and health­ier life. It’s the real pa­leo diet, not the one re­pur­posed in the West to sell over­priced prod­ucts. The keys here are diver­sity of bac­te­ria in your gut, eat­ing huge amounts of fi­bre and in­ter­mit­tent fast­ing. Our Western lives are sim­ply too clean and, in­stead of help­ing us, it has be­come our hand­i­cap. Still the thought of killing and eat­ing a ba­boon, a pri­mate that is 91 per cent hu­man, pushed me out­side my com­fort zone.

For me, the French For­eign Le­gion had al­ways ex­isted in a cloud of mys­tery and in­trigue. A Spe­cial Forces unit made up of mis­fits and out­casts from around the world fighting se­cretly be­hind en­emy lines. Here, I wanted to ex­plore what builds re­silience. Train­ing for 10 days in Ama­zo­nian French Guiana on the ‘‘Toughen Up’’ course brought me to my break­ing point. I got in­jured on the first day and from then on I was fighting a strong de­sire to quit.

I learned a lot about pain and men­tal tough­ness in the jun­gle. The sol­diers know that pain is a re­ally im­por­tant sig­nalling sys­tem, and with­out it they would be in­jured all the time, but they don’t let it con­trol them or dom­i­nate their mind.

As a non-swim­mer, I knew liv­ing with the sea gyp­sies in Bor­neo wasn’t go­ing to be fun. I spent more time in the water on this shoot than I have in the past 10 years. In many ways this be­came a form of ha­bit­u­a­tion or ex­po­sure ther­apy. Spend­ing so much time in the water also trig­gered a re­pressed child­hood mem­ory of a friend drown­ing which helped me fi­nally come to grips with my ir­ra­tional fear of open water. Yet, see­ing a man dive 15 me­tres to the bot­tom of the ocean in only his un­der­wear then walking on the ocean floor with­out weights for nearly four min­utes ab­so­lutely blew my mind.

I had never been to In­dia so I was ex­cited to shoot there but this ex­cite­ment quickly turned to con­cern. Ten min­utes af­ter ar­riv­ing at the Mum­bai Stunt School the in­struc­tor asked me to jump out a sec­ond-floor win­dow. I said, ‘‘No way, don’t I get a les­son on how to do it?’’ He said: ‘‘Yes, this is the les­son.’’

Stunt­men are the masters of risk and anx­i­ety man­age­ment and I wanted to know how they per­form un­der ex­treme pres­sure. We now know that risk-tak­ers have much higher amounts of dopamine that drives them to seek out new ex­pe­ri­ences. In ad­di­tion, they tend to have lower lev­els of sero­tonin, which nor­mally puts the brakes on im­pul­sive be­hav­iour. In the end, I got to per­form my skills in a Bol­ly­wood ac­tion film and let’s just say, I’m go­ing into hid­ing when this one comes out.

Hav­ing al­ready climbed Mount Ever­est, I thought this would end up be­ing a rel­a­tively easy mis­sion but what I un­der­es­ti­mated was the dif­fi­culty and dan­ger of get­ting an en­tire crew, which had never been to al­ti­tude be­fore, to the sum­mit of a 6200-me­tre Hi­malayan peak. Al­ti­tude sick­ness quickly be­came one of the ma­jor char­ac­ters in this un­pre­dictable drama.

Sher­pas have a unique adap­ta­tion al­low­ing them to oxy­genate their blood with­out in­creas­ing haemoglobin and this dra­mat­i­cally im­proves their ef­fi­ciency at al­ti­tude. But we can all ad­just to high al­ti­tude, it’s just a mat­ter of time and tam­ing our egos.

This se­ries took me to the limit of what I thought was pos­si­ble. In fact, I cried more in the last year film­ing than in the last 10. I be­lieve we are all ca­pa­ble of much more than we think and this se­ries is a cel­e­bra­tion of that po­ten­tial with some of the most eclec­tic teach­ers on the planet.

Body Hack 9.30pm, Tues­days, TVNZ1.

Todd Samp­son pushes him­self to the limit and be­yond in his new se­ries Body Hack.

Stunt­men are the masters of risk and anx­i­ety man­age­ment and Todd Samp­son wanted to know how they per­form un­der ex­treme pres­sure.

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