It's Action Hero Week on Gizmodo right now; a fun look at at the the tough guys we all like to watch in movies and on TV. But you don't have to watch that stuff and look on in envy, you can be one of those heroes. Here's how.
The Will To Act
We ran a story a couple of week ago about Corey performing CPR on a man who collapsed at a well attended public event. Corey wasn't first-on-scene, a dozen other people were, but he's the guy who got down to the business of clearing the dude's airway and performing rescue breathing. With the aid of another bystander performing chest compressions, they brought the guy back from the dead.
When I was a kid, I stood on a beach with a dozen other Boy Scouts and watched in horror as one of our friends was swept out to see, drowning in a rip current. So I dove in, swam out, and pulled him back to shore.
Neither Corey or I have ever been the biggest or toughest guys around. In the crowd that day, there were probably people who had had CPR training more recently. On the beach, I certainly wasn't the most physically capable kid or even the best swimmer. What set us apart was that we were the ones that acted. The ones who got over our fear or shock and did what was necessary.
And this is a constant thread runs throughout many action movies. Often, the hero isn't the most obvious, it's the guy or gal who decides to do something, then sticks with that choice. Think Bruce Willis in Die Hard or Ice Cube in Anaconda. The movies are written that way because it's how it works in the real world; heroes aren't the guys with the biggest muscles or best guns, they're the ones who say, "Hell no" when the snake is about to eat Jennifer Lopez.
Super Strength And Immortality
Of course, we also see people in these movies who can wrestle giant snakes or haul 38kg miniguns through the jungle to hunt alien predators, then take a licking and keep on ticking. Honestly, of all the action hero merits, this is the easiest one to attain.
Weight lifting requires the least amount of time and is the most effective at producing dramatic changes in your body of any form of exercise. It will benefit anyone, from pigeon-chested teenagers to senior citizens.
Yes, it's unrealistic to think that you'll look like Arnold Schwarzenegger on three hours of lifting a week, but just that will produce dramatic increases in strength, flexibility, endurance, balance and yes, physical appearance, in anyone. Weight lifting will make you better at anything you do.
Increasing the size and capacity of your muscles has also been shown to increase bone mineral density — it makes your bones stronger and less prone to breaks — and organs like your heart and lungs also have to increase their capacity and size to fuel larger muscles.
What's this mean for your own survivability? Body By Science puts a fine point on it:
"The medical literature affirms the absolute role that increased muscle mass plays to one's benefit during life-threatening situations. A lot of the beneficial effects of strength training come from the fact that other organs of the body increase their functional capacity to track, one to one, with increases in muscle mass.
As an example, if you were to be in a severe traffic accident and had to be admitted to intensive care, the 'start' point from which you would atrophy all your organs is predicated on your degree of muscle mass.
In other words, how long it will take before you reach multi-system organ failure and die is directly linked to your level of muscle mass, because all your other organ weights are going to be proportional to that."
You may never become more powerful than a locomotive, but you can become vastly stronger and more resilient than you are right now.
You've heard of the ruler test. Have someone else drop a ruler vertically through your fingers and measure how far it falls through before you catch it. Two inches for each 100 milliseconds. Average response time is 150 to 300 milliseconds for most people. You can logically extract this to how much you'd miss a quickly-thrown ball by or how badly you'd fail to correct a slide in a race car.
And you can improve your reaction time through conditioning. The good news is that one of the most effective ways to improve hand-eye-coordination is by playing video games. Fast-paced activities like motorcycle and mountain bike riding, boxing or even skipping rope will also help condition you to translate neural impulses to physical actions.
Growing up, Davey Crocket was one of my heroes, so I read and re-read all the books I could find about him. One of the passages that stood out at the time and that I've retained to this day was an anecdote about him avoiding an assassination attempt by a Native American. As the likely much-fictionalised story has it, the assassin had travelled from a different region to ambush Davey. And as the explorer was walking down the trail, he noticed an alien pine needle on the ground, realising someone must have carried it there on their clothing. Ambush spoiled.
Elsewhere, Davey's habit of always keeping his eyes moving is described multiple times. He used a technique known as "scatter vision" that's well known among outdoorsmen. The basic idea is to always keep your head and eyes moving all around your environment. Don't just focus on what's ahead of you on the trail or street or hard-focus at any particular range, instead soften your focus and redirect your vision through and around all the ranges and angles you can see.
Through that, allow your mind to identify patterns and movements. Does a silhouette stand out from its background? Does something move differently from the gently swaying leaves around it? Does something appear alien to its surroundings? Practice this and it will quickly become second nature. And this technique is equally applicable whether you use it in the woods or while riding your motorcycle through dangerous traffic.
You can read more about techniques like these and more in Tom Brown's excellent book, Nature Observation and Tracking.
We've all played the game where you try to find the sniper hidden in a picture. They use visual concealment and stealthy movement to move through and hide in differing environments without detection.
While wearing a ghillie suit on your next camping trip may be impractical, you can achieve many of the same benefits through practical choices in your wardrobe. In the outdoors, simply wearing muted earth tones will enhance your ability to fade into any background while, in town, muted grey and brown tones will be best.
Consider your environment as you move through it, taking advantage of natural features to conceal your presence. Walk in shadows rather than where the sun will hit you directly. Avoid silhouetting yourself against the sky, walking just below the top of hills rather than directly on top of them. Consider where you're putting your feet and try to use firm surfaces and dry places to avoid leaving tracks.
Concealment can work in a crowd too, the idea is simply to avoid standing out. Wear clothes that fit in with the culture you're participating in. Don't wear flashy jewellery or a watch. Wear shoes that look appropriate, yet allow you to move quickly and decisively. And carry yourself in a way that avoids unwanted attention. Don't skulk about, but also don't shove your way down a crowded street, forcing others to move out of your way.
If you need to hide, your best technique is simply an ability to hold perfectly still. This is applicable in a city or outdoors, where movement is typically what gives people away. If you're wearing muted colours that fit with your environment, simply dropping into a shadow and holding perfectly still is often the only thing you need to do to go undetected.
Like all these skills, practice makes perfect. Try to seamlessly drop out of sight of your friends or dog next time you're in the park or woods. You'll be amazed how easy it is.
Action heroes can fly planes and pilot speeding buses and kill baddies with a single shot. Know what? None of that is particularly super, it's just practice. Here's a few basic skills that will benefit anyone and on which you can build a solid basis of super ability.
First Aid: Everyone should know the basic first aid priorities, basic skills and carry the basic tools. This is as simple as reading a book and buying a basic first aid kit.
Driving: The most dangerous thing most people do in their everyday lives is also the thing most people are worst at. Don't rely on a basic licence course; just look at the average level of driving ability demonstrated on American roads to see how effective those are. Instead, seek further education. While a racing school like Skip Barber is the single most effective way to learn how to drive for real, it's also very expensive.
Luckily, there's a multitude of books and videos around the subject. If you have an educated driver in your life, take advantage of them and ask for pointers or even practical lessons. The more vehicles you can learn to operate competently, the better. At a minimum, at least know how to operate a manual transmission, you never know when that most basic of abilities may be required in an emergency. Add motorcycles, trucks and construction vehicles to that list if you really want to be prepared. Bonus: they're all pretty fun to learn to use.
Swimming: In 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the Potomac River. Hundreds of people were looking on as helicopters pulled survivors from the wreckage. Suddenly, a woman failed to grasp the rescue line and was on the verge of being swept away. Lenny Skutnik, a government office assistant, was one of the people watching from a bridge. He dove in and pulled the woman to shore, earning recognition from President Reagan for the rescue. All action heroes need to know how to swim.
Animals: Being familiar with animal behaviour and confident in your ability to control them could save your life or theirs. In cities, you and I both see people everyday who are scared of dogs. That could potentially lead to those people being attacked or limit the areas in which they're free to move.
Our little buddies are pretty dumb and also need human help to avoid injury or death a lot of the time. Being able to confidently grab a strange dog and pull it from harm is a basic thing anyone should be capable of. Outdoors, having this same confidence around large animals or even snakes is crucial.
Navigation: In an emergency, you may not have access to Google Maps on your phone. I know, the mere thought of that is terrifying. Having the ability to find your way using a map or even reading the world around you could save your life. Without cheating, which was is north right now? You should always, always have that knowledge in the back of your head.
The more stuff you know how to do, and do well, the better equipped you'll be to deal with an emergency.
Super Suits And Tools
Every good action hero has a costume. That may be a stretchy leotard of you're Jean Grey or a leather jacket if you're Bruce Willis, but regardless it's something that helps you move and keeps you safe and comfortable through extreme situations.
And those are merits you and I can build into our daily wardrobes. Do your shoes allow you to move with confidence, speed and safety? They should. Do your pants allow you to jump and run? Is anything you're wearing going to get in the way in an emergency?
If you want to be a real life action here, those are the minimum requirements. But, modern apparel and gear is capable of going much further.
I wear the world's most breathable fully-waterproof jacket when I do stuff outside in the wet. It keeps me dry and comfortable through extreme conditions, even when I'm running or climbing.
You see action heroes wear body armour. Most of the time, that's stuff pulled from the shelves of a motorcycle shop. What does that tell you? An extraordinary level of protection is available for your day to day life. Even a subtle leather jacket will help keep you safe in a fall or prevent injury in a fight or car accident.
And I go nowhere without a basic augmentation to my natural abilities: a knife, multitool, torch and pry bar, in addition to other tools. Those all give me a level of capability to fix, fight or heal that I could never achieve with my bare hands.
An action hero is only as powerful as his sidekick. Mine is Wiley, a two-year old mutt who keeps my girlfriend safe when I'm not around, warns me of danger, scares off rednecks and keeps bears out of my food.
If you have a dog, it's your responsibility to make it a good companion. That includes both obedience and confidence. Make sure he's safe around other people and in dangerous environments through training and socialisation. And then work with him to give him the confidence to live up to his potential. Wiley knows to hold still while I carry him up and down rocks and that traffic represents danger. He'll stop chasing bears if I call him off.
Your friends should accentuate your abilities too. Sharing your knowledge, tools and abilities is the best way to end up with friends you can rely on in dangerous situations or to save your life if you make a mistake. None of us are infallible and my girlfriend knows what to do if I get hurt as a result. And just be choosy with who you hang out with.
Chris, Corey and Ty are welcome on any trip I go on because I know I can trust them both to make smart decisions on their own and rely on them to help if I or anyone else needs it. I don't want to say I choose my friends based on their ability to potentially save my life, but I basically do.
Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger
Don't sit idly by and fantasize about being your hero; be your own hero. Strive to improve yourself, your body and your mind. If you can't do something now, learn how to do it or practice that skill until you can.
Do this to benefit yourself; being a hero needs to be its own reward. Other people will make fun of you for training every day or for carrying that knife wherever you go. They won't believe you when they hear your stories. But, you'll know they're true. And you'll be alive to tell them.
And you'll be surprised, with great power comes great opportunity. Suddenly being the person that takes charge or goes running towards an emergency opens up a whole new range of experiences. Having saved a life may not directly bring rewards to your own in the form of fame or finances, but the additional confidence you achieve can do just that.
Photo: Chris Brinlee Jr.