Same old, same old… if you want to get old in good shape

Exercise, Everyday, Health, Fitness, Training

Go ahead, make a move! Make it over and over again…

I know, I said I would write about physiology next. But that will have to wait just a little longer.

Today’s post will sound like I’m repeating myself, and of course it is a little the case.

In my defense, it is a well-known fact of communication that in order for your message to get through, and for it to be believed, it must be repeated many times. (Preferably by more than one independent “sources,” though that never stopped anyone. Just think of the persuasion success the American leadership had a few years ago about weapons of mass destruction…)

So while I continue learning about physiology (I’m taking an online course, among other things) and clarifying my thinking about how to get that message across effectively, today I’m inviting you to review some recent news items about the importance of fitness for long-term health.

(Added note: I know most bloggers would have split this up in 2 or 3 topics. I’m not most bloggers because I prefer to see things as they fit together, not apart. And I think most people are capable of taking a bit of extra time to read a slightly longer post, instead of three short ones. Like my coaching, my blogging is about quality, not quantity…)

In the News

There has not been anything ground-breaking in the news lately; the artificial conflict between maintaining (or returning to) a healthy weight through diet alone versus exercising more (while being careful what we eat) has been raging. Because most folks on the “food only” side are clearly peddling books and special diets, I’m not even going to talk about what ridiculous stuff has been said on that side of the “debate.”

Instead, you should keep in mind that the best way to increase the odds of being healthy for a long time is through exercising a lot, and being careful about the food (not too much, mostly from plants) we ingest. That’s the “same old, same old” part of my message.

In support of that, you should read an interesting article about how many of the health problems of aging are due to inactivity, not “just” getting old. This is exactly what I mean when writing about muscles being extremely important, not just for metabolic reasons, but to keep bones and brains healthy.

Basically, to be healthy and active well into old age, you need to use your muscles more. The thing is, as one of my favorite authors on the subject has recently added, you don’t even need to do a whole lot in order to reap the benefits. That’s a key point about the approach I embrace and promote: balance is more healthy than excess.

Exercise, Health, Fitness, Training, Marathon

Running the New York Marathon in 2013.

For instance, while I say that we should all move a lot more than we currently do, there are some who say that we should all be training like professional triathletes, 25 or more hours per week. And others say we should not move at all, and instead restrict what we eat in a radical way.

I’m clearly not on the side of diet restrictions without any exercise, and I’ve run ultra-marathons and I do an ironman distance triathlon each year “just to stay in shape,” but even I would not pretend that such a level of training is sustainable for everyone. Although not sustainable, it may be something to shoot for, or, at least, going well beyond the “standard” recommendations of some 150 minutes per week of exercise, remains a very good idea.

Which brings me (finally) to a third tidbit of news about those who have been clamoring that doing marathons and intense training for more than 150 minutes per week were actually causing damage instead of doing good for their health. In light of new research, it seems they are admitting that our bodies can really benefit from a lot more exercise than they previously allowed for.

Moving More, Up to A Point

But keep in mind that, based on the research, there is a diminishing return to be had from increasing the activity level. And at some point, while it may not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer (which is what the study was concerned with), you up the risk of injury, which is not really taken into consideration from what I’ve read so far.

As reported in Runner’s World:

When mortality rates were adjusted for exercise levels, the researchers found the lowest rate among those who exercised about three to five times the amount recommended by federal guidelines (i.e., 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise like running). However, the increased benefit of working out three to five times more than the guidelines was modest, the researchers wrote.

More importantly to serious runners, there was no evidence of harm at ten or more times the recommended minimum.

At three to five times the federal guidelines, you are in marathon and short-distance triathlon training territory. Maybe up to a decent half-ironman. Nothing crazy. And sustainable, if part of a lifestyle choice that features living a long and healthy life as its Purpose.

And you can go well beyond that, if you are careful.

Same Old Advice (Summary)

In summary, allow me to repeat what little wisdom I can impart, based on what I’ve learned and what more knowledgeable people have said before me:

  1. Move, a lot, because our bodies are at their best when they do.
  2. Eat food, not too much, mostly from plants.
  3. Obtain, and follow, the advice of a coach (especially if you are going to train seriously for something like a marathon or triathlon (or any endurance- or speed- or strength-focused sport).
  4. Steer clear of excess and obsession; strive for balance in all things.

Oh, and I should probably have added “stay tuned.”

Because I’m bound to come back to this subject, and provide more specific advice over time.

After all, much like with training, repetition is what eventually gets the message through… and turns it into a no-brainer.

Running, Marathon, Fitness, Health, Training, Exercise

A bunch of superheroes with their capes, or tired marathon runners done running?

Photos by the author at various events.

Of mice and men (and petri dishes)

Science, Exercise, Physiology, Research

It takes eggs to make an omelet; it often takes lots of mice to do science. (And like the eggs, they don’t survive the process.)

How much do you understand about science?

In particular, when it comes to science in the news, how much of it do you really understand?

And when it comes to research about the effect of nutrition and exercise on health, can you really tell what is good science and what is not?

A recent piece of news about fake research, which you might have read about, should cause you to consider carefully your answer. (You can read a shorter perspective here.) Anti-science folks will take heart, no doubt, to once again see that it appears possible to make science say whatever we want it to. But that is not the point. (And it is not actually true, at least not of well-done science.)

Let’s face it, we can’t all be research scientists, or experts at evaluating which study is well designed and performed, and which is flawed. That’s why we rely on experts.

To be clear: I love science. Science is a wonderful thing. It is our best bet for making sense of the universe. It has been wildly successful at bringing about our technological world. Which is precisely why anyone who is trying to sell you something uses what appears to be science, but often is shaky, or not at all, in order to convince you to buy.

Therefore, there are peculiarities of scientific research about physiology, health, and biology in general, that we should all keep in mind when reading or hearing about new results. And that’s what I’d like to offer in this post.

Who am I to say those things?

For full disclosure, you need to know that I am “only” a physicist.

So, while I know a lot about particles and galaxies, I’m more fuzzy about things of sizes in between (like the human body). However, because I have training in science, I understand the general process of research, and the inherent limitations of the methodologies employed. And I tend to be very critical of what I read.

My purpose is therefore not to impart absolute truths (we don’t have such things in science, by the way, only very reliable understandings about how things work).

If the only thing you remember from this post is that you should be very doubtful of what journalists write, I’ll claim a big victory. So let’s get going.

Petri dishes

The most basic way of doing research in biology is to study cells and tiny living organisms in a special environment in which they normally should thrive. That’s what petri dishes are.

It used to be, and in many cases it still is the case, that in order to identify what ails someone, you would take a swab, and smear it onto various petri dishes. Depending on the characteristics of the medium in each dish, and where the bacteria would actually thrive, you could tell what bacteria were actually causing the infection. (That explains in part why it took so long to get the results.)

We’ve gone a little away from that nowadays, but what is still often being done is still using petri dishes.

For instance: Take cells of a certain type, like cancer cells, and cultivate them in a medium that is nourishing to them (i.e. a petri dish with the right medium for cancer cells to grow). Then you add some substance and see if the cells still thrive, or stagnate, or even die.

Research, Science, Physiology

A scientist “doing” the (petri) dishes…

If you find something that can kill cancer cells (or bacteria, or some fungus), you may have a candidate for a drug or medication.

That is how a lot of research on anti-oxidants is being done, for instance. Anti-oxidants of all sorts are found to be bad for cancer because in petri dishes they clearly impede the growth of the cells.

But there is a big, really big, problem with that approach. In fact, there are two huge problems:

  1. Petri dishes are not like a living organism. So what takes place there might not be the same as what will take place in the body, especially for cancer cells, because they interact with the entire organism.
  2. It is easy to deliver a specific molecule or drug to a cell (or bacteria or fungus) in a petri dish, but delivering it in a living organism is not the same. Our bodies have natural mechanisms for treating what comes into them; through eating, there’s digestion, through the blood, there is filtering by the liver and kidneys, our natural detoxifiers. So just because in works in a petri dish, it does not mean it will get to the right target in the right kind of shape in a real body.

This explains in large part why you should probably not give too much credence to anything about anti-oxidants and food supplements in general. They have been shown to not have much of an effect, if any, in humans in part because our bodies handle them in such a way that they are not the same once they reach cells. Moreover, once they reach cells living in real, complex organisms, often the interactions are not the same as those taking place in petri dishes.

Mouse model

A lot of research on the effect of drugs and nutrition regimen is done on what is called the “mouse model”. Basically, mice are being used, and researchers perform studies while maintaining a keen awareness that mice are an approximation, a stand-in, thus a “model,” for the human body.

That keen awareness is not always communicated by reporters of the results.

The good side to doing this is that mice are short-lived, compared to a human being, and scientists have developed breeds of mice that have very well known characteristics over the years. We even have mice that are bred to have cancer with a very high probability. Furthermore, we can manipulate mice genomes to the point of being able to induce certain conditions that can then be “cured” by drugs or specific food or exercise patterns.

Hence it is possible to do a lot of research in a fairly short amount of time. Generations of mice stand in for generations of human beings, but the research takes months instead of decades.

The downside, and you must keep this in mind, is that mice are not men. Especially mice that are bred for some very specific traits or diseases. Therefore, what takes place in mice is only a hint of what might be taking place in the human body.

I recently heard a top cancer scientist talking about how, according to her, we need to move away from the mouse model in medication research. Her argument was that many drugs that were found promising in specially bred mice were later on found to be totally ineffectual in humans. That’s a big downside, and a lot of research money wasted.

Despite opinions to the contrary by conspiracy theorists, scientists don’t like to waste money, and time, on fruitless research. Especially cancer researchers, who are human as well, and have loved ones who are affected by those diseases.

The bottom line is that just because some research says an effect was found in mice, it does not hold that the same is true for humans.

Science, Research, Physiology, Biology

From petri dish to humans, there is a really big step.

Cohort (and longitudinal) studies

Perhaps the least understood of the research methodologies is that of the cohort study. Sure, you probably think, one should be careful of petri dish and mouse model research, but when it comes to health and fitness being studied in real human beings, that’s another matter entirely.

Is it?

The advantages of petri dish and mouse model research come from the ability to observe in details what is taking place. The mechanisms might be observable through microscopes, and mice can be (and often are) dissected to verify what is going on.

Humans are not, as a general rule, dissected, as part of physiology research. At best, some biopsies are taken, but even that is limited. (This is a bit of humour. The part about dissection. Not the part about biopsies. That hurts for real.)

What researchers rely on instead is recruiting willing subjects (i.e. a cohort), asking them to follow a specific regimen (which could consist of a special diet, or exercise, or both), and then following-up on their progress through surveys over a period of time (long ones are called “longitudinal” for that reason).

Yup, basically, they are asking participants to fill a questionnaire about what they did, what they ate, how much of it, etc.

In the best designed research, there is close follow-through of the program by researchers. They might even sequester the subjects for the duration of the study, but that is very, very rare. In many cases, the questionnaires are asking about stuff that happened days, and even weeks, earlier, and there is no direct verification.

How well do you remember what you did, and how much you ate, on Wednesday of last week?

Therefore, often the researchers only ask about general habits and levels of activity, or take a sampling that they hope is representative by asking about the most recent day.

I think you understand where that is going: What you do on any given day may, or may not, be representative of your general diet and exercise habits…

Where does that leave us?

Again, I’m all for science. The more, the better. As a scientist, I am keenly aware that, at the very least, science is self-correcting; by which I mean that if somebody gets the answer wrong, for whatever reason, someone else will eventually point it out, and overall we’ll get it right.

But it might take a while. Because it is difficult to do science well when the subject is the human body and its complex, diverse, interactions with the environment.

There are things about physiology that we understand very well by now; I’ll get back to that topic next time. But keep in mind that biology, in comparison to physical sciences, is bloody complicated. Climate science, in comparison, as complex as it gets, is a breeze.

There is a lot of research that is well designed that can help us make sense of how our bodies work. The accumulation of individual pieces of evidence eventually lead to a more accurate bigger picture. That’s the process, and it works.

Just be careful of individual pieces of research being reported as having widespread, and very radical, implications for your health. The more fantastic the implications, the more cautious you should be.

Especially if somebody is using the findings to sell you something.

Images from Pixabay

Use it, or lose it (a.k.a. Why bother exercise?)

Exercise, Aging, Everyday, Weight Control, Muscle Mass, Bone Density

Ready to take the plunge? If you don’t now, you may not be able to later.

Are you trying to exercise more? Or at all?

Has it been on your mind for a while? Perhaps you used to, but as the years passed, you went from “active” to “weekend warrior,” and ultimately to “I just don’t have the time.”

Perhaps you weren’t all that active as a youth, but as you went through your 20s and 30s you’ve noticed the loss of your effortless youthful figure.

No matter your story, you know you should be getting moving more. You feel it in your bones (quite literally, as it turns out).

You are not alone. And you are not alone in the struggle, either.

But have you stopped and really explored why it is so important to exercise, or to exercise more than you currently do? In that deceptively simple questioning might be hiding a profound source of Purpose

That is the question

Why is it important to you to exercise regularly?

Is it because you think it will make you look better (or a certain way)? To control your weight, perhaps?

Maybe it is to lose a few extra pounds accumulated over a few years of too much sitting behind a desk, in a car, and on a couch. Or all three, in turn.

Any of those may be a valid ultimate objective; they are certainly valued to varying degrees by different people. Yet they are not the reason why regular exercise is a good idea.

Leaving aside my own (admittedly strong) opinions on the goals and objectives of folks who exercise regularly, allow me to offer a simple and compelling reason why you must exercise regularly. As background to what you are about to read, you might want to look back at the principles behind training.)

The answer

The answer is simple: If you don’t exercise regularly, you’ll lose important muscle mass and bone density.

Muscles, Athletes, MRI, Ageing, Muscle Mass, Bone Density

Which one do you want to be when you grow old?

You see, if you don’t exercise, your body, being the result of hundreds of millions of years of evolution, does the most logical thing and stops investing in expensive to build, and costly to maintain, muscle mass.

In turn, when muscle mass decreases, strain on bones also decreases: Basically, if you don’t move much, your bones don’t need to be strong. So once again your body does the evolutionary logical thing and divests itself of bone density, which is expensive to maintain from a biological standpoint.

That’s how the body works: If you don’t use it, you lose it.

And that’s the real answer. Anything else is confusing the main cause (muscle mass and bone density loss) with its consequences, or symptoms.

The consequences (or symptoms)

Yeah, sure, you may gain weight of the fatty kind if you don’t exercise. Exercise burns calories, so it helps keep the weight off in the long run, or maintain a healthy weight. If you keep eating like you did when you were 20.

But keep in mind that when you start exercising, you will gain some weight of the non-fatty kind, so at first your weight may go up, not down. Or stay the same if you never really let yourself go.

Also, the main reason you gain weight, which is the symptom, is that without enough muscle mass, your base metabolism is greatly reduced. So if you keep eating the same quantity, or, worse, you eat more as you age, you will put on the pounds. However, this is not what happens to everyone.

Another, less talked about consequence of “losing it,” is an increased risk of injury from not having sufficient muscle tone and bone density when attempting certain actions or movements. We are accustomed to think of this as the “natural” frailty that elderly folks have as they age, but it is already showing up at younger ages, especially for those who forget that they are no longer 20…

And there is nothing natural about becoming frail as we age. That frailty is the direct consequence of losing muscle mass and bone density. Of not using our bodies enough.

There is also mounting evidence that our internal organs, and our brains as well, don’t function optimally when our bodies are not moving enough. Though that is a little beyond the scope of this post, the principle of “use it (your body), or lose it (your mind)” also applies.

All good things must come to an end

Our bodies are marvelous biological machines. But they are not magical; they obey very specific rules that make sense from an evolutionary, biological standpoint. And they get older, of course.

Magical thinking about being able to be healthy in the long run without exercising regularly, or just by controlling what we eat, won’t make it so.

It is a fact that we all age and that some day we’ll die. It is a fact that many of us are getting heavier and rounder due to fatty deposits over time. And it is also a fact that many become frail as they age.

But it does not have to be so. Although there is no absolute guarantee of health into old age, because much can happen, the way to improve the odds is well known.

The key is to move more, everyday, so as to maintain the all-important muscle mass and bone density you’ll need to age gracefully into your 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and well beyond if you keep at it.

And here’s a further thought in closing: Since you want to have all those years ahead of you, consider picking up a new sport now that you’ll be able to practice when you retire. After all, you’ll have a lot of time on your hand then; might as well fill it with something fun to do.

More alike than not… except in the details

Sports, Exercise, Performance, Athletes

A diversity of shapes and speeds at the Rome marathon a few years ago. All athletes, in a way.

Time for a story. (Isn’t it always?)

Once upon a time, in pretty much all lands on this planet called Earth, the thinking of sports federations and elite coaches was that an Olympic athlete had to be of average height and build, with lean bone and muscle mass providing a streamlined body type.

For all Olympic sports.

Such athletes were selected and tested early, then subjected to years of grueling training. Only a very small portion of even such “ideal” athletes rose to the top of each sport and were deemed good enough to represent their respective countries against the rest of the world. (The story does not say what happened to those who did not rise to the top, but rumour has it that they started hating sports, and took up knitting instead.)

This had come about because there was a clear picture of the “ideal” human shape that had endured to some extent since the time of the original Olympic games in Greece. But with more clothing. No doubt the statues of antiquity, and later re-born in the Renaissance, had helped solidify such an image of the perfect athlete.

Allied to that image was the notion, very much born of religious thought, that only through a lot of hard work and pain could the most gains be made in training. Fierce competition, even among teammates, was seen as the way to build stronger individuals.

Thus many countries went about, and generations of kids, teenagers, and young adults went about their training. Only a very small portion of all those who started in such programs ever made it, and they won medals and set world records.

But this story is not about world records and Olympic medals. It is about how athletes were selected and prepared to compete.

It all changed, of course, when atypical athletes started winning medals and breaking world records. This came about because many countries simply did not have athletes with the expected, “ideal” body type. They were not expected to win, yet there they were, running faster, jumping higher, lifting heavier than the rest.

Suddenly, coaches caught on to what biologists must have realized much earlier: That there might be something about the specific genetic make-up of an individual that might make them better athletes at SOME sport in particular.

Nowadays, we fully understand that notion, and athletes are not expected to look the same across all sports. That explains why we see a lot of Kenyans and Ethiopians win marathons, and tiny little guys and gals ride race horses. Volleyball players are tall and somewhat lanky; ping-pong players somewhat short but extremely quick.

You get the picture. We each have specific genetic variations that make us more or less good at some activities or sports. Some are very visible, others not.

As the eminent (running coach) Jack Daniels pointed out in a seminar I attended a few years ago, you would not expect Shaquille O’neal and Mary Lou Retton to perform at an elite level at each-other’s respective sports. (The reference to those athletes provides an idea of the age of Jack Daniels, and of the attendees, not of the date of the seminar.)

Big differences are expected, for instance, between a basketball player and a gold medal winning gymnast. (Just to be clear, for those of a different age…) Mary Lou could not possibly dunk a ball, and Shaquille might very well break the asymmetric bars. Hence athletes are largely selected based on their body types nowadays.

Tragically, what hasn’t changed (yet) is the notion that training has to be uniformly hard and painful for everyone. That is why we see PE programs in schools that are still based on (unfriendly) competition and pitting everyone against each other to be the best, or to meet some specific standards of fitness arbitrarily defined by someone.

That’s in large part been identified as the prime culprit for turning the vast majority of people away from doing sports on a regular basis. If all that seems to matter is winning, and there can only be one winner, that means there are a lot of losers. And nobody likes being a loser.

So it starts by hating PE, then it becomes hating sports. Except for those you can watch while drinking beer, and even then, it is watching games, not playing.

Exercise, Movement, Daily

Watching is definitely not the same as doing.

At the same time, the understanding that we are all different has been taken much too far: Nowadays, a lot of folks think that they are simply not athletic, not meant to do sports. There are winners, who are jocks, who are meant to do sports, and then there’s the rest of us who should not do sports. Who cannot do sports.

Given the premises of differences between individuals and of personally hating sports, it is understandable that many reached the (erroneous) conclusion that they are not meant to move.

But the reasoning is incorrect, and one of the premises is false.

The facts, based on biology, are all pointing in the direction of our bodies being meant to move. Needing to move. Regularly.

Hating sports and exercise is a learned behaviour; it can be unlearned, replaced by something better.

We are all different, but even in our visible (and invisible differences), we are more alike than not.

The story time being over, I’ll conclude this post by pointing out the ways in which we are alike, and those in which we differ. And I’ll come back some other time to the fascinating topic of how to learn to like exercise.

Ways in which we are all alike: Basic morphology and physiology

Cells, Physiology

The marvelous machinery of life.

  1. We all have the same number of limbs, fingers, heads, internal organs (types and numbers), etc., and they all are built according to the same plan. (Yes, I know, there are accidents of biology, but the basic plan before those accidents is the same.)
  2. We all have muscles connected to bones in order to makes us move; those muscles all work according to the same principles, and allow sensibly the same movements to be performed by everyone.
  3. We use carbohydrates, lipids, and to a lesser extent proteins, to generate the energy that allows our cells to function. Including muscle cells, which are used to move our bodies. More specifically, there are fast and slow ways of generating that energy, and although they vary in relative terms, they are all present in all of us.
  4. We all obtain such nutrients from eating; our digestive system, comprised as it is of our own guts and the microbiome therein, functions fundamentally the same way in all of us. Besides nutrients, we need water and oxygen (not too much) for our metabolism to operate.
  5. We need to move; for our bodies to be healthy, we need to move. The stress imposed on our bones, muscles, and internal organs by intense activity is what keeps bones strong, muscles large(-ish), and organs performing their normal functions. Including digestion and waste disposal.
  6. All of our bodies respond to exercise (or to a lack thereof). If you exercise regularly, the body changes to adapt to the exercise, and the organs and energy systems hum along. If you don’t exercise, the body “relaxes” and things start to breakdown, fat reserves accumulate, digestion is slower and we get constipated, etc.

That’s just how our bodies work. We are all very much alike.

Ways in which we differ: The details of performance

Because of the details of how each of us is shaped (tall or short, thick-boned or thinner, etc.) and how cells function physiologically, there are aspects of performance in which we differ. Specifically:

Sports, Physical Activities, Training

So many sports, so many choices…

  1. How much endurance we have (mostly due to differences in energy systems at the cellular level, though that’s trainable to a great extent, perhaps the most of all aspects of performance)
  2. How fast we can be (also highly trainable, but limits imposed by physiology exist in each of us, also at the cellular level in muscles)
    How strong our muscles can be (small differences there)
  3. How big our muscles can become (bigger differences there)
  4. How flexible we can be (muscles, ligaments, but also joint movement; we can’t all be circus performers!)
  5. How coordinated we can be (agility, efficiency, also technically trainable to a great extent)
  6. How a wide range of our senses perform (eyesight, hearing, smell, etc.) and how efficiently our brains put all of that together

Taken together, and in the right combinations, the accumulation of small differences is what, along with adequate training, makes top performing athletes.

So, while it remains true that there can only be one winner in each discipline, and that at the top level (Olympics, for instance), only a small portion of the population is equipped to truly compete, we all have the potential to take enjoyment in some physical activity. And we may even do pretty well, locally or within the cohort of people our own age.

What matters most, however, is that we are all alike in fundamental ways. We all need to move, a lot, to keep our one and only body functioning optimally for a long time.

It’s up to us to figure-out what makes us enjoy it the most.

Exercise, Endurance, Physiology

The author, laughing at a well-deserved muscle cramp, after having completed an iron-distance triathlon.

For an interesting discussion of physiological differences in triathletes, see the recently published book Triathlon Science by Joe Friel and Jim Vance.

Pictures from Pixabay and the author.

Theoretically speaking…

Exercise Theory, Training, Fitness, Coaching, Sports Science

A little theory has never hurt anyone. Unless you drop a big book on your foot and break something…

Because a bit of theory never hurt anyone, and because about a year ago I promised I would do so, this post is about the principles underlying training methods aimed at increasing physical fitness.

Because that theory is well understood, and very simple, this will be a short post.

Because simply saying “you train hard, and you get better” is not enough, this post won’t be that short.

A bit of biology

No matter how complex, or simple, an organism, biologically we all are the same in that we interact with our environment to find our sustenance and proliferate. (By the way, even a single-celled bacterium’s complexity should not be under-estimated. But that’s another discussion altogether.)

A large proportion of those interactions can be summarized by a simple cause and effect relationship:

Stimulus ——> Response

Even if the initial action was a movement by the biological entity, the resulting stimulus of the environment on the biological entity will cause a response. For instance, you move your hand to seize a cup on the table; at a touch (stimulus), you feel the scalding heat of coffee therein, and withdraw your hand (response).

Another example: You are sitting quietly in a cafeteria when an alarm rings loudly (stimulus); you immediately get up and leave (response).

Now, often, as the examples above show, the response is one of fight or flight or avoidance. Much like if you start exercising vigorously and find it difficult, the response to the discomfort might very well be to cease the exertion. But sometimes the stimulus is a pleasant one, like sweet food (or sweet NOT FOOD), and the response then becomes to eat more of it.

There is always a response to the stimulus.

However, there is an extension to the simple cause and effect relationship when it comes to biological systems (i.e. living beings). This comes about when the stimulus is provided repeatedly:

Stimulus (repeatedly) ——> Response (each time) ——> Adaptation

Basically, when a biological system is subjected to a stimulus often enough, not only does it respond in the short term, but it can also modify itself (its behaviour, its own sub-systems) so as to be able to change the short-term response and even deal with the stimulus.

That, as you may be able to guess, is the basis for the Training Principle.

(Admittedly, human beings have big brains that allow us to speed up adaptation, and even predict stimuli we don’t particularly care for. However, how effective we are at doing that is still subject to debate. Revisiting the example of the fire alarm in the cafeteria, if your response is to stay put because there have often been false alarms, then your adaptation to the stimulus could end up costing you your life. But I digress.)

The Training Principle

Simply stated (in my own words):

Subject the body to a specific physical stressor (stimulus) repeatedly and provide sufficient recovery time from the ensuing fatigue (response) to allow it to become stronger (adapt) in dealing with that specific stressor.

That is how all exercise regimens and training programs function.

The trick, the real job of coaches, is to vary the correct details. Because the body will adapt to the stimulus it is subjected to, and only to that stimulus.

That is why you will not gain much muscle mass by doing endurance training; that is why doing a lot of weight lifting (a.k.a. body building) will do almost nothing for your cardio-vascular capacity; and why doing always short bursts of intense activity may gain you some muscle mass and power, but will not make you burn much fat because that energy system is barely used in that kind of activity (you’d need to do longer, less intense activity for effective fat burning).

Moreover, note the potential pitfall in the principle: The body adapts to the stimulus provided. Which ultimately means that the body will not change beyond a certain adaptation if the stimulus remains the same.

That is why simply jogging 30 minutes per day will only get you so far in improving your fitness. To get even better fitness, you need to vary the stimulus once the body has adapted to it, or a little before that.

Sport scientists often use the acronym FIT to describe how the stimulus can be varied:

  • Frequency: How often one trains or exercises.
  • Intensity: At what intensities.
  • Time: Or duration of each training session.

Some even add a second T (making it FITT) by including Type, because different types of exercises also make a difference. For instance, doing core work, which is strength training, is now recognized as a way to improve running performance. But it was not the case until a few years ago.

I like FITT. That’s what coaches work with. That’s what is fun about coaching: Finding the correct mix of FITT for each person to get them to increase their fitness as fast, and as safely, as possible.

But it all starts with subjecting your body to the right stimulus. Or stimuli. Like getting up and moving.

The nice thing is that one of the ways in which your body will adapt, past the initial response of finding it hard, is to ask for more. You just have to use your big brain to deal with the temporary discomfort, and then you’ll be on your way to better fitness…

In a future post, and hopefully not in a year’s time, I’ll describe the many ways in which the body adapts to exercise. That’s also fascinating, and goes a long way in explaining why better fitness leads to increased odds of being healthy for a long time.

Picture from Pixabay.

The message is simple (but it is worth repeating)

Movement, Diet, NOT FOOD, Everyday

A new beginning, of sort, so time to get moving again.

To get the ball rolling, not because of the new year but because of the launch of the No-brainer Fitness Facebook page (yes, I finally did that; one thing off my list, hooray!), I thought I’d re-visit the message of No-brainer Fitness.

Although it is the time of year for lists of resolutions and things to do, don’t be mistaken: This is NOT a list of resolutions.

It is much simpler than that. It is what should always be on your mind, every year, every day, every moment. To the point that it becomes automatic or, as I put it, a “no-brainer.”

About that name

By the way, for those of you curious about it, that is the point of the name “No-brainer Fitness.”

It is what Zen is all about. Far from being a mystical philosophy or esoteric design principle, Zen is about practicing something consciously so much and so systematically that thereafter you simply do whatever it is you have practiced without having to think about it anymore.

Anything you put your mind to long enough, practice hard enough, becomes second nature. Something in which your brain no longer needs to take an active part. Thus, a “no-brainer”.

The other meaning, that of something which makes perfect sense, and does not need to be thought through much, or at all, is also valid. Moving more is such a thing.

So let’s get back to it

One thing you need to know about No-brainer Fitness is that, although I get side-tracked at times, and try to infuse the posts with my own type of humour, I always get back on track.

Therefore, what you need to know about No-brainer Fitness, is that it stands for one single, very simple prescription, and two secondary recommendations:

1) Move more

Movement is the key to fitness and health. It has been shown time and time again, be it in terms of the effect of exercise on body functions, brain activity, and as was recently reported, our ability to age well and remain healthy and active for a long time.

Some the prescription is to move more, move all the time, move everyday. Not necessarily training for a specific sport, which is great and I encourage, but at least get into the habit of NOT being sedentary and using energy-saving devices like cars and elevators all the time.

2) Don’t diet

So you’ve gained some weight over the years (who hasn’t?). Your sedentary lifestyle and sitting job are causing your mid section to expand faster than the rest of the universe? What’s the solution?

Go on a diet, of course!

WRONG!!!

The problem is, in a large proportion (pun intended), that you do not move enough. So the solution cannot be to change what you eat. At least, that is true in the same proportion as the cause of the problem.

So the first recommendation is to NOT go on a special diet, NOT focus on what you eat, and NOT obsess over your weight. And I’m not alone in saying it. (That, by the way, is a link to an excellent and very refreshing blog post by a dietician.)

Rather, get moving more, and slowly learn to listen to your body. Because, guess what, if you listen, it will tell you what it needs, and over time you’ll get to eat better, without counting calories or obsessing about food. (Obsession of any kind, even obsession about training and exercise, it NOT healthy.)

For more specific food advice, I defer to those who know more than I do on the subject. I prefer to stick to a simple (no-brainer) approach: Eat food, not too much, mostly from plants.

3) Cut back on NOT FOOD

Which of course does not preclude me from making further suggestions about what NOT to eat.

You see, the “Eat food, not too much, mostly from plants” statement above is not originally from me. It seems simplistic, but for full effect you have to consider what “food” actually is. And for that, you need to remember that we are, fundamentally, animals.

Animals eat plants and other animals. At least, that’s what omnivores like us do. They don’t eat inorganic matter, stuff that does not grow on plants or that don’t move of their own volition.

The way I like to put it, “food” is anything that comes directly from plants, or that has been transformed mechanically and/or chemically from plants by other living creatures. Another way of putting it: food is biological matter that has been minimally transformed by means other than other animals’ biological processes.

Yes, I know, it can get messy and scientific-y. So often I use a shorter definition: If you can’t find it in nature in the form you eat it, then it’s probably overly processed, and you should pass.

For instance, things like coffee, doughnuts, soft drinks, and booze, are what I consider NOT FOOD. (For more on that, feel free to read a couple of my past posts.) When’s the last time you came across a free-flowing river of coffee? Or a tree in which Coca-Cola bottles grow? Or dug up a plant and found perfectly shaped and wrapped Hershey Kisses in its roots?

You get the point.

Cut back on those NOT FOOD items is my second recommendation; you’ll not only remove unnecessary calories (and in some cases drugs) from your body, but you’ll make room for the real taste of food, and the refreshing feeling of water going down. And that’s why you should do it.

That’s it

The rest, as they say, is details. (That’s also, as they also say, where the Devil lives, but that’s another story.)

If you insist on seeing this as a list of resolutions for the new year, then consider that you don’t need a list. You need only one item:

Get moving more!

You body will do the rest; just pay attention to what it tells you in the process.

I’ve now taught you everything you need to know. But feel free to keep an eye on this blog, and like the brand spanking new Facebook page… (Please?)

Picture from Pixabay.

What is “fitness”? (Part 1)

That’s perhaps not a question you’ve asked yourself, but like so many things we take for granted, it is worth taking a step back and thinking about.

That’s why my first post is dedicated to this simple question. As will be the second, because there’s too much to explore for a single post.

First this first part, a bit of travel back in time is on the menu.

In the somewhat strict biological sense, fitness is the ability to exist, survive, and reproduce, in a given ecological niche. (I’m paraphrasing, of course, since I’m not a biologist.) In essence, the individual “fits” with the conditions and environment that prevail at that time. So:

Fitness = Adapted to one’s environment

More often than not, biological fitness is measured by the transfer of genes from one generation to the next. This “success” at reproduction is what leads to the notion of survival of the fittest. It does not mean the individual has beaten up all competitors (that may happen as well, but not as often as popularly believed); it is a simple indication that the individual has given rise to a sizable portion of the next generation. Thus:

Fitness = Reproductive Success

We’ve come some way from our origins as struggling animals. We’ve distanced ourselves from the hardships of the environment through clothes, fire, housing, agriculture, machines of all kinds, etc. Some might argue we’ve completely detached ourselves from the grips of evolution. They’d be wrong, of course; we’ve only changed our environment, modified it much faster than we’ve modified ourselves through natural (or otherwise) selection.

In that respect, our reproductive success is amazing, but our bodies may no longer fit the environments in which they now live. This leads to lots of health problems. Those among us who are overweight are only the most visible aspect, a symptom really, of this. (Careful: overweight does not necessarily mean unfit. The correlation with many health issues, however, is undeniable.)

I would go as far as to say that our current way of life makes us all unfit to a great extent. We have facilitated our lives to the point of taking cars everywhere instead of walking, taking escalators and elevators instead of stairs (yes, I’m aware there were no stairs in the African Savannah, but bear with me), eating our fill pretty much every single day (for a large portion of the population, pun intended), etc.

Our bodies are not prepared for that, and it will take time for evolution to compensate. But I don’t think we should let evolution take its course in this case. It would simply take too long, and too many would suffer needlessly in the process.

That’s why those definitions are not entirely satisfactory anymore. The first one still has value, as we’ll see later, but it demands that we consider a bit more what our environment has become.

As to the second definition, I think we should reject it altogether. We have developed technologies that compensate for nature in guaranteeing reproductive success. At any rate, overpopulation and the footprint of humanity on our only planet are already problems that demand a lot of attention. Let’s not focus on adding more of us as a measure of success.

So we must look elsewhere for a current, useful, definition of fitness.

That’s what I’ll continue doing in the second post on this topic.