In this mini-series, I’m going to talk about fitness, health, and longevity. We’ll also look at why the conventional approach is pretty far off base.
The first concept that it is important to understand is why we need to exercise at all: it’s essentially because in the modern world, we lead our lives completely unlike what a human being is designed for. We are supposed to be outdoors and move a lot, doing light physical activity daily. We’d do this year round, no matter whether young or old. Occasionally, we’d need high output bursts of activity. We wouldn’t sit much, squatting instead as a resting position.
We’ve engineered nearly all work and physical activity out of our life, instead replacing it with constant stress, sitting, and odd occupational movements repeated endlessly. It’s no wonder that we begin to malfunction, or that it is beginning at ever younger ages due to kids not playing outside as they always have. We now need to exercise as a replacement for this missing movement; it’s the price we have to pay for the luxury of not actually having to move.
Given this reality, does a lot of what is traditionally done for exercise really make sense? What should our priorities be?
I like the quote by Ido Portal: “We are humans first, movers second, and specialists third” This is essentially a pyramid, where each tier or ability is built on the foundation of those below it. Sadly, most of us don’t function well as a human should, we have very poor movement patterns and mobility, but then we try to get fit by starting as a sport specialist! What I mean is that we just go out and do one thing on top of that poor foundation: We train for a 5k. Or, we lift to build muscle. Maybe we just play a rec league sport, and so forth. It’s like starting your college education by doing your doctoral work – completely skipping the foundational bachelor & master’s degree portion.
I am going to drill into each of those tiers and what they mean to me in the coming weeks, and also why they are so important. I’ll also share some tips to put it into practice in each time.
Being human in the 21st century.
We live in an odd time today where we have a ton of possessions, plenty of security, and we are surrounded by comforts. At the same time, we are breaking down and becoming old and sick at an ever faster pace. Unfortunately, this slide into dysfunction is a direct result of our modern lifestyle, a lifestyle far removed from how humans have always lived.
When I refer to being human, there are many factors, but basically I mean having the properly functioning body and mind that is natural for us as a human being.
Not having this foundation is the early stage of chronic disease, weight gain, and generally a poor quality of life. It also directly opposes any effort we make to get fit or leaner! Now, what are some important parts of this foundation, and where do we go wrong?
Our hormones are out of whack. Most folks are walking around with hormone levels in a survival mode; not a thriving mode. This is actually a perfectly natural phenomenon; your body has lowered your youthful hormones of vitality like testosterone, thyroid hormone, progesterone, etc to help you survive the stressful grind. This is great as you hang on to grind tomorrow, but you certainly won’t thrive! You’ll feel older than your age, actually be aging faster, recover poorly from exercise and not get the full benefits of training that you should. Why are you in survival mode? Chronic stress, poor sleep, poor eating habits, lack of physical movement (or too much of all the same kind, see part 2). You will sleep poorly, probably have poor digestion, may suffer anxiety or depression, and more. In the place of these youthful hormones, you’ll instead have high cortisol, estrogen excesses (in both sexes), high adrenaline, high insulin, etc. This is not the natural hormonal state for humans, even though it’s very common today.
Autonomic nervous system (ANS) imbalances. This refers to the 2 main branches of the ANS – the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest), and this goes hand in hand with the above hormonal dysfunctions. All the constant busyness keeps our fight or flight system cranked up. You become numb to it as your cellular receptors down regulate. This sympathetic dominance is also an inflammatory state and contributes to nearly every chronic disease. For a snapshot into the all-too-common “Hurry Sickness”, check this article out.
When it comes to health and fitness, those unable to get out of a sympathetic state cannot activate the anabolic parasympathetic system and therefore won’t digest food well, won’t absorb nutrients effectively (regardless of how “clean” your diet is), and you won’t recover from exercise well. You might not build much muscle due to never being able to get into an anabolic state. You may not burn much fat, as your blood sugar will run high as your system is always ready for action that rarely comes. And, you’ll probably be fairly inflexible, immobile, and uncoordinated due to chronic tension!
In our natural environment, when we were stressed, it nearly always meant that some form of physical activity was imminent. This movement allows the stress hormones to clear and calms the system down. Nowadays, our sedentary lifestyles mean that we rarely get movement after we are stressed and cannot clear these hormones properly.
We have poor aerobic function. Recovery, whether from any type of exercise or from mental stress, is inherently a function of the aerobic system. Those with poor aerobic systems recover from everything much slower and therefore progress more slowly. True aerobic function is a product of many hours of low intensity work. We’d do this as a matter of our daily life if we lived in our natural environment. Nowadays, few have the time to put in to develop this to the levels a human naturally should have, so as a result we recover more slowly and overuse our anaerobic system for everything. This is a stressor in and of itself.
No downtime. The balance between rest and work is very off today. See the above link on hurry sickness. It has been estimated that humans in the natural hunter-gatherer state only worked about 10 hours per week – and this would include tasks that today we don’t even think to put in the “work” category like cooking, cleaning, grooming, etc. If we include those tasks, few people today get away with working that little in a single day – and they do this day in and day out!
Even if this estimate is a little off, it’s easy to see there is still a huge difference here. If you are always tackling a constant to-do list from the time you wake to the time you go to bed, it’s highly unlikely you have a foundation of good health, as this is at total odds with our genetics.
Getting outdoors – numerous studies show all kinds of benefits of being out in nature on the brain, hormones, and more. Of course, we are looking at this the wrong way – NOT being outside has a negative effect on our health, and that negative effect is our daily baseline. Even brief exposures to nature can reverse this temporarily.
If some or all of these things are out of line, the person will have a limited reserve to adapt to fitness training. The individual may be so close to, or beyond threshold that adding fitness training is perceived as a threatening input and the body goes into even deeper protective mode. The unfortunate truth is that just because you put in the work, it doesn’t mean your body will automatically adapt and get fitter.
It’s something that few coaches or gym owners talk about, but the truth is that there is a significant group of non-responders to diet and exercise programs. In the 12 years of running this gym, I’ve seen them thru the years – they put in the work, many I am confident eat well, but they build little muscle or loose little if any fat. They get a little stronger, and learn some skills, but never look any different. What gives? These folks are running on such a broken human foundation that they cannot benefit and may in fact be making themselves worse.
Given all this bad news, what can one hope to possibly do? If you’ve read some of the articles I’ve written over the last year, then you probably have a pretty good idea already. I talk about this foundation a lot. If you are just starting out of a fitness & health quest, then I highly suggest you implement the basic ideas below as a first step. This must come beforehand if you want the full benefit.
You aren’t going to be able to maximize everything, at least not without moving back to nature. Ideally, we want to use our big brains to figure out how to maximize the benefits of both worlds. We just need to minimize the damage that our occupations and lifestyles create. We actually have a lot we can do to rebuild this basic human foundation and most of them are very simple, but few do them. Some things that will bring balance and allow you to make long term progress with your fitness and health:
• Sleep – 8 hours per night, minimum. And, ideally in bed before 10pm. If you do shift work, make a longer term goal to get on a day shift or change careers.
• Light movement/aerobic activity – it’s critical to get the parasympathetic nervous system more active. This is probably the biggest benefit of low intensity aerobic work. Make a point to walk every day, find ways to move more through your day. Ride a bike or hike. Find something you enjoy and do it.
• Eat regularly. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of being too busy to eat. This is a prefect way to keep stress hormones elevated and activate your body’s fat storing systems. The reality is that frequently going hungry makes you a fat storing machine, not a fat burning one.
• Take downtime. This should be a feature of every day in some way. It’s crucial to health and quality of life.
• Get outside as much as possible, all year long. It doesn’t have to be for too long, short exposures have been shown to be beneficial.
• There is probably a few mental/emotional things that each of us need to work on. One of the most poisonous to health and fitness that I’ve seen is body image issues. This all goes beyond the scope of this article, but you must find and address some uncomfortable issues if you want health and quality of life. The good news is that the above points often help this one, as anxiety, depression, and more are a direct result of an overactive sympathetic nervous system.
In the second part, we’ll look at the second tier – movement.