After a few detours the past couple of days I'd like to return to the four pillars of health. Next up is movement. Many think of exercise as an extracurricular activity they have to perform to stay in shape. Let's take a step back and recognize that exercise is just one aspect of daily movement. Movement isn't extracurricular. Movement is fundamental to being human. To illustrate this point we can look at the life of the sea squirt. He starts off as a tadpole swimming around looking for a rock on the ocean floor to which he attaches himself permanently. At this point, no longer needing to move, he promptly eats his own brain for food. And this guy isn't just some weird sea creature. He's in our phylum. We are fam-i-ly. What this tells us is that the brain's primary purpose is to engage in adaptive movement. Long before we started using our brains for emotion and cognitive thought we used them to orchestrate movement. In fact, developmental psychologists now know that movement is integral to how children learn and develop social skills. Also, a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of Alzheimers. The mind-body connection is strong.
OK, so how should we move? What should we be doing and how often? To answer this question let's look back. Again, the premise of ancestral health is that while the world has changed radically over the last 10,000 years, we humans are the same biochemical creatures. The lifestyle we led back then is what our bodies are optimized for. We spent most of the day walking around. So it makes sense that walking would be a wonderful daily activity for maintaining our health. The magic of walking is that it is a full body exercise performed at a very low aerobic level. It's at this level that the mitochondria (the mini power stations within our cells) thrive. There is a current theory that almost all modern disease is due to mitochondrial dysfunction. Walking typically gets you outside, so now you're getting sunlight. You're in nature so your stress levels are going down. Remember how I said everything is connected?
Walking... check. What else? Again, let's look back. It's for sure we had to run for our lives every now and then. Lions, tigers, and bears... oh my! In the fitness world we call this training with intensity - or interval training. This is not walking on the treadmill while watching Judge Judy. This is exercise that is brief - maybe 10 or 15 minutes - but leaves you gasping for air. Why do we need this? Well, it's a kick in the pants, and our body responds at the hormonal level - testosterone, growth hormone... all the good stuff. You only need a couple of high intensity sessions per week. The idea is to give your body a dose of acute stress, and then let it rest and develop the beneficial fitness adaptations.
What other physical activities did our ancestors engage in? Dragging home heavy carcasses... Lifting heavy stones and logs? Check and check. We need weight training - lifting heavy things and putting them back down. It's a similar concept to interval training except instead of stressing the cardiovascular system, we're stressing the musculoskeletal system. That system responds with stronger muscles AND stronger bones. Muscle is critical for favorable body composition. Bones and organs are a constant. The only thing you have control over is your ratio of fat to muscle. Some people say, "Well, I don't want to be muscular. I just want to be toned.". Your body doesn't have tone. It has muscle and fat. If you want to be toned, you want more muscle and less fat. The beauty of increasing muscle is that muscle tissue is metabolically active which helps to burn fat. Can you smell the two-for-one value? Similar to intense exercise, you only need a couple of weight training sessions a week.
We covered a lot. Here's the take home message. Walk every day. Knock yourself out with intense exercise a couple times a week. Incorporate weight training a couple times a week. What you don't want to do is engage in what I call "no-man's land cardio". This is cardio activity that is more intense than walking but less intense than interval training and typically lasts 45 minutes or longer. For most people this takes the form of jogging. While this type of activity is better than nothing, it isn't optimal. Recall that acute stress followed by rest is the pattern the body prefers. Chronic cardio elevates stress hormones that signal our body to store fat and diminish testosterone. Not what we want. A lot of material to digest here. Feel free to drop me a line with questions.