Testing limits of our world
Australian television presenter had long feared water - now he knows why.
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.