Tag Archives: exercise

The human body is an athletic machine.

A growing body of evidence is telling us that exercise is one of the most important ways to prevent all sorts of chronic diseases. This list includes (but is not limited to) various cancers, diabetes, clinical depression, and osteoporosis.

Although we could just leave it at that, and say “exercise if you’re chronically ill,” we can take this evidence a little bit further: it tells us something very important about the relationship between exercise and the human body.

What chronic diseases mean for the body is that our systems aren’t resilient: the very same problem springs up again and again, and our body has los the capacity to change that. Because by exercising, we can reduce the risk for these diseases, this tells us something about the optimum state of the body: when we don’t exercise, our risk of chronic disease begins climbing. When we don’t exercise, our bodies stop being resilient. This means that the body’s resilient state is one in which it’s constantly exercising.

There is another growing body of evidence that suggests that cognitive flexibility and neurogenesis (the creation of neurons and neural pathways) increases during exercise. This means that, both physiologically and psychologically, exercise increases the body’s capacity to deal with new, novel, and unexpected stresses. Simply stated, exercise helps the brain and the body meet the demands of the world on the world’s own terms.

Thanks to this evidence, we can infer something about the body: if the human body and human mind’s resilient state corresponds to a state of constant activity and exercise, then the body isn’t meant to be passive, at rest, and unchallenged. The human body’s baseline state is one of exercise—one where it’s being constantly challenged physically, physiologically, and mentally.

In other words, the human body is an athletic machine.

This conclusion tells us something very interesting: the prototypical western, sedentary human doesn’t reflect the optimum state of the human body. And to snuff out a possible counterargument before it arises: we haven’t “evolved” out of the athletic roots that were so important in our early history and prehistory. Socially, we may be an entirely different animal (although many, myself included, would argue against that—we are as reactive, addictive, violent, aloof, and oppressive as ever). But physiologically and psychologically, we’re basically the same. If we had in fact evolved beyond those athletic roots, exercise would have no causal relationship whatsoever to chronic disease.

Which in turn opens up a very interesting line of inquiry: the pool of subjects used when we move new cures and treatment methods into human testing is highly skewed: we test these methods and cures on a population that, while ostensibly representative of the western, sedentary human, is not representative of the ideal—i.e. resilient—state of the human biological and psychological system.

What this basically does—and has done—is to get us into a mindset where prevention doesn’t exist, and cure is the only option. In systemic terms, prevention means increasing the resiliency of the system. Once that system is resilient beyond a certain threshold, there still may be some ailments that need curing. But when the prospect of increasing resilience is completely off the table—or worse, marketed as an “alternative,” and not as the necessary first step towards a solution—everything needs curing.

Don’t confuse exercise with training!

Outside Magazine just came out with an article that talks about the difference between exercise and training. The contention is that exercise is more of a social activity, while training focuses on the development of the body.

The article cites an interview with Mark Rippetoe, the first coach to give up his National Strength and Conditioning Association credential. Rippetoe believes that one of the problems with the fitness industry is that they develop and market exercises to appeal to the consumer, not to develop the body—and worse yet, they either obscure this distinction intentionally, or are happy it remains in neglect.

I am excited that Outside Magazine is grappling with these distinctions, and promoting knowledge for the lay athlete. Because these marketing and social forces shape and ultimately define our training, our athletic development is at their mercy. The key to dealing with them is knowledge: by “trusting” in an exercise or a diet, we are sure to be playing to someone’s marketing scheme.

Ultimately, simplicity wins out—but it is impossible to market. There will never be an exercise better for developing aerobic power than endurance running. Since it is simplicity that makes it work, no amount of sophistication will do the trick. The same goes with strength: floor and barbell exercises are by and large all you need—and perhaps a simple weight such as a kettlebell.

So the fitness industry has no choice but to fabricate a story as to why so much variety and so much complexity is so important. Buying into this media machine means that while we look for ever more obscure and esoteric exercises, the athletes that keep it simple will be faster and stronger—and the reasons for their speed and power will remain completely obscure to us: the media veil that the fitness industry succeeded in putting over our eyes filters those reasons out of our awareness.

As Bruce Lee said:

“It’s not about the daily increase, but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”

He said this for a reason. It’s up to each of us to explore why.

Why we can’t “get fit:” Societal standards, negative-feedback loops, and the hedonic treadmill.

Many of us work out to “get fit.” But “getting fit” doesn’t really exist in the world, except as an ill-defined idea. In a multitude of ways, it’s just vague: The “standard” for fitness is mostly unclear—is it how bodies perform? Is it how bodies that can supposedly perform should look? What particular kind of performance is it? Running? Bodybuilding? Or is it about looking like we can perform some particular physical activity (regardless of whether we actually can)?

But let’s not stop here: “Getting fit” is vague in various other ways: When does it “end”? (In other words, how do we know we’ve “gotten” fit)? Is it when we’ve reached some particular aesthetic standard? Some particular functional standard? I’ve been training for most of my life, and I’m no closer to answering these questions—not that I think they need answering.

Because these ideas are so vague, and the questions seem to yield such contradictory answers, my conclusion is that our notions of “getting fit” are (and have been) entirely missing the point.

Continue reading Why we can’t “get fit:” Societal standards, negative-feedback loops, and the hedonic treadmill.