The human body is an economic system. If only we treated it that way. The ways in which the magazines and the latest trends compel us to go about exercise and physical development just don’t observe this reality.
Because the body functions like an economy, the surest way to achieve any goal is creating the conditions for growth in that direction. This is why I speak in terms of liquid assets: assets which can be sold very quickly and without losing market value in the process. Increasing the liquidity of our body’s relevant nutrients—fats and carbohydrates, to name two—is the very first step towards entering a cycle of investment to drive the body’s economy in the direction we want—even when “growth” corresponds to growing in the direction of a lower body mass.
Even when we’re talking about running for the sole purpose of being skinny, constraining calories just won’t cut it. By forcing the body to implement austerity measures (through dieting), we destroy its ability to grow in any direction. Even though we’ll achieve skinniness in the short-term, doing so will compromise the body’s ability to maintain it. In systems-speak, this is a classic example of Shifting the Burden.
Counting calories (or miles, for that matter) destroys cooperation between the body’s systems—impoverishing a once-rich exchange of goods and services—and puts them into direct conflict with each other. When the body begins fighting internally over a resource, we see its performance capabilities summarily collapse. Systemically speaking, (without even getting into the biological aspects), there is no way that this sort of infighting would allow the system in question to exhibit any kind of competent performance. Any strategist will tell you: this is a clear example of “Divide and Conquer”—a principle of warfare.
That is why overtraining is such a common syndrome—or why chronic injury is so widespread.
In order to change that, we must understand the body as an economy. And like most economies, it has a centralized government, a defense force, a vast industrial sector, and a critical and decentralized power sector. We must recognize that the surest and safest way to develop our own performance capabilities is by enabling this economy to grow strongly interconnected. The only problem is that a lot of the tactics that we use (like dieting) are incredibly shortsighted—and do nothing more than obstruct the functioning of the body’s highly redundant and highly resilient internal economy.
In a resilient system, there is always a lot of “talk” between the component parts. In fact, connectedness is not only a hallmark of a resilient system, but a necessary attribute of one. These kinds of connections are intricate, and exist as continuous flows. This means that the different biological subsystems in the human body should be sending nutrients and messages all the time. The more the better. Economically speaking, this amounts to an increase in liquidity: increase movement and you increase the amount of assets that each economic unit—each cell—must have at its disposition at any given time. By doing so, you effectively create a body that is highly capable of burning calories: what I like to call a “calorie-burning machine.”
A high liquidity means that the body is increasingly capable of burning calories at any given time. If the body can move a large amount of the relevant fuels very quickly through the bloodstream (and there’s plenty available to begin with), it’s becomes very easy to exercise. We create a situation where the body will have a greater percentage of assets in transit between each economic unit—and therefore a lower percentage of frozen assets at any given time. Enabling the body to maintain a rich and mobile internal economy, means that more units of energy are in active transit instead of remaining in storage. Greater, richer, and more varied activity means less stored fats. The equation really is simple as that.
The answer isn’t to burn calories—or to engage in any form of “calories in, calories out”—even when all the relevant nutrient intakes have been supposedly been taken into account. The answer is to increase calories moving internally. The way to do that is by increasing liquidity.
While this obviously implies that calories are moving in and out of the body at a greater rate, a “calories in, calories out” mentality shifts our focus away from measures that don’t explain why the body’s economy works as it does. Instead, we need to turn our attention towards measures that actually satisfy the body’s infrastructural needs. If the infrastructure becomes strong, it will support greater growth. Only then will we begin to see lasting improvements to our athletic development. This approach exemplifies one of the principles of systems thinking:
“Don’t push growth. Remove the limits to growth.”
Which is why it’s important to shift the conversation away from net calories in the economic system (or even net nutrients) and towards liquidity. It doesn’t really matter how many net calories anyone has in their body. If that were the case, we would see that someone with lots of muscle and lots of fat would be the better athlete every time. But the real answer is much more complex, and yet much more similar to what you get in a “typical” economy.
It’s just not as simple as the magazines and exercise trends make it out to be. Training only does anything for us insofar as it increases the liquidity of the body’s assets, its mechanical dynamics, and its physical capacity and resilience for athletic output. We have to look deeper—at the underlying characteristics of the system. That’s what systems thinking is for. By “just” running, lifting weights, stretching, and counting calories and miles, we aren’t addressing the core issues of why anything that we’re doing actually works—or doesn’t.