When it comes to exercise, there’s a big demand for hyper-efficiency.
Instead of spending hours working out, finish in under 40 minutes at Orange Theory Fitness. Better yet, don’t go to the gym at all, save the travel time (and Covid exposure risk) and work out at home. Hit as many modalities as you can in one workout: cardio, strength, mobility, and meditative cooldown.
It’s not a bad model.
Our lives are busy and our stressors multiple. You can devote an hour a couple times a week to stay in shape, but that’s about it. The demands of work, family, finances, and the wider world never stop, so that hour had better hit all the bases and hit them hard.
So you can focus on the important stuff.
But Tang isn’t orange juice
I’d argue that while life’s other demands are…demanding, all require being healthy to be done well. That should make health-preserving exercise the king of your priorities.
By reducing your exercise to a sweaty pellet of time 3 days a week, you might be super-efficient. But like taking a beef bourguignon made from scratch and processing it into a bouillon cube, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Ideally, an active life would be all-inclusive. There’d be no need to go sideways with a series of curious grunting movements. Your daily activities would be enough to maintain your flexibility, strength, endurance, metabolic function, and emotional calm.
It is possible. Just look at wild animals.
Cheetahs don’t do wind sprints
The key word is “wild,” since domesticated animals live in confined conditions like our own with many of the same health problems.
But wild chimpanzees don’t practice 1-armed pullups, and African rhinos don’t set aside a neck day. For millennia, humanity has prized animals in the wild as inspirations, for their strength, suppleness, stillness, etc.
Much of that comes from evolution and specialization. It’s hard to beat an armadillo for thick skin, since it has a few million years jump on us of being bred for a tough hide. Most animals are ooh and ahhh worthy because their DNA makes them so.
But there is still something special about living more fully in the wild.
Remember: if you take wild bovines and turn them into feedlot cattle, or wild boars and turn them into pre-Jimmy Dean pork, they don’t do so well. Their evolutionary specialization doesn’t guarantee their well-being.
Human societies that live like their paleolithic ancestors have very low rates of health problems…and don’t need to “work out.” And we know about the flip side: modern life imposes so many constraints on how we think, eat, and move that chronic illnesses like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and depression are commonplace. We work out to look and feel better — i.e., to neutralize many of those negative influences.
So, time to run naked in the tall grass?
You are welcome to do so, selfies optional.
Functional medicine, which is influenced by ancestral (aka Paleo) principles, has a theory about the optimal state of living. It’s technically more than a theory because there’s a body of evidence and observational information behind it. Call it a well-supported model of health, with “in the wild,” “ancestral,” “Paleo,” or even “child-like” as easily remembered tags:
- Varied physical activity, including strength, low intensity locomotion, and multidirectional movement
- Time outdoors in nature, in the sun
- Whole food-based nutrition
- Plentiful sleep, not long after the sun goes down
- Inner work/meditation
- Closely socializing with others
Each of these 6 components of health has a scientific rationale, including stress hormone reduction, increased brain bloodflow and neuroplasticity, beneficial alterations in the gut microbiome, and many others.
Short version: the better you do in these 6 areas, the less likely you are to have major health issues and the more likely you are to feel vigorous and happy.
Not surprisingly, modern life chops these down to the nub. We spend way too much time on the sofa watching Netflix or on our smartphones, usually indoors, eating processed takeout, staying up late to binge watch the aforementioned Netflix, stressing out over the state of the world, and isolated from meaningful connection with others (even pre-Covid).
Exercise has been promoted as a panacea for disease and stress, and rightfully so.
The further away from the target 6 you are, the more you need exercise to compensate. And the more concentrated and strange the demands of exercise become (shorter sessions, more sweating, more costly specialized equipment, etc.).
But exercise isn’t the best answer for every deficiency. You can’t outrun a donut, and you can’t exercise away a toxic relationship. Working out may temporarily reverse feelings of tiredness and brain fog, but if those are symptoms of poor nutrition or sleep deprivation, the difficulties will continue.
Necessary but not sufficient
I’ll address this more in the next post, but there’s no way to really pare down the 6 cardinal areas. You MUST have good nutrition, you NEED sufficient sleep, you’ll be CRIPPLED without an inner game, you’ll go BONKERS without relationships with others, and outdoor time with nature in the sunlight…well just step outside for one minute, its value is SELF-EVIDENT.
And you must move. And movement doesn’t substitute for any of the others, and vice-versa.