Health : fitness :: fitness : health

There are a variety of things our biology expects in order to stay healthy and strong. Other than air, water and sleep…there are the micro and macro nutrients we need from our food. Vital messaging from sun exposure. And, a whole host of beneficial signals from being physically active.

Our bodies were honed and trained over millions of years to benefit from the act of physical work. Our biology did this, does this, because it knows that more often than not the act of surviving begets survival. With each act of “surviving” that we engage in, if we come out a little healthier and stronger and faster, then our chances of continued survival goes up. We knew this act as hunting, roaming, climbing, scavenging, chasing…or being chased. Today, we know it as exercise. And today, no matter how convenient or comfortable our lives are, it’s still not an option if you want to experience optimal health and age well…

It is said that exercise is the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth. It is vitally important for our health and longevity. Proper exercise dosing can up-regulate a variety of chemical messengers, antioxidants, beneficial bacteria, and enzymes that keep us feeling energetic, slow aging, and help us fight off disease. It is critical for the proper functioning of our immune system, organs, metabolism, endocrine system, and mental health. The problem is we’ve misconstrued and over engineered exercise, and reduced it to a tool for weight loss and looking good. While staying active and maintaining lean mass is critical for our metabolism, exercise’s function goes way beyond aesthetics.
The point of exercise is to mimic the type of active lives that our bodies need and expect. Our DNA evolved over millions of years under particular circumstances…circumstances that required us to use our bodies in a variety of ways. Our entire biological systems were created in such a way to allow us to benefit from applying the demands of physically active lives – of survival. We know today that not applying those “demands” down regulates critical messengers in our bodies and tells our cardiovascular system, our brain, our digestion, hormones, immune system, muscles and bones that they aren’t really needed to stay optimal, to stay healthy.
In the past we had to be very active, today not so much. It’s really easy to go long stretches of time without having to use our bodies for much other than breathing, digesting, some thinking, scrolling the internet, and watching TV.
Since our health is directly connected to the use of our bodies, but we no longer really have to use our bodies much anymore, we must solve that problem through exercise. 
The point of exercise is to send the signal your body that it needs to stay capable, prepared, ready— healthy, fit.
Exercise can be thought of kind of like a drug. The dosing needs to be right for you: too much and it can become detrimental, not enough and it’s not as effective.  Sometimes we think that if some is good, more must be better, but this isn’t always the case. Today, there seems to be a preponderance for extremes. There’s a growing sect of the population that is running themselves ragged by over-exercising, while there is an even larger sect of the population not doing anything at all. Neither are good, nor what nature intended.
Getting and staying fit doesn’t have to mean super low body fat and bulging muscles—because in some cases that isn’t healthy either. What it does mean is maintaining optimal functioning of our bodies as was intended: going for long walks without tiring, carrying weighted things (or children) for periods of time without collapsing, having the energy and stamina to be gently active most of the day, engaging in short bouts of intense activity, and recovering quickly. When we are fit, healthy, we naturally maintain a optimum blood pressure and heart rate, we are able to move in a variety of ways without pain, we are balanced and have proper posture.
You can’t have true health without fitness nor true fitness without health.  And achieving this was never supposed to be complicated. We are all designed with the same pathways to fitness: limbs made for movement, skin made for temperature control, hearts and lungs made for respiration. Through our evolution, being physically capable was critical for survival, and the more we had to physically work for our survival the healthier we were.
The lesson here is that in our modern, high tech, convenient, comfortable lives, to be truly healthy we must stay engaged in work, as defined by nature. 

In a future post I’ll talk more specifically about what that can look like. For now, if you’re someone less prone to exercise, it’s as simple as this to get started: go for a walk everyday. A couple of days a week make that walk a little longer, maybe a little faster. Now and then find a steep hill and power walk it as if your life depends on it…because it does.

Start today.

Heeding the call of our DNA

Underneath this current health threat is another one—the declining state of our species’ health and resiliency. A decline that has been going on for decades…

Modern life is turning us into distant reminders of our badass ancient ancestors. Our senses and capabilities are being dulled. They’re being lost. 

As a whole we’re less healthy, too. The research tells us that it’s the combination of misaligned lifestyle factors that are contributing to our ever increasing rates of chronic disease, obesity, autoimmunity, depression, and anxiety. There’s no shortage of statistics confirming that a large part of today’s population are dealing with at least one, if not several, of these issues. 

These are modern problems.  Their biggest impact is not that some of them can lead to early death, but rather it’s their detrimental impact on our quality of life. That’s the tragic part. Too many people today will never know how good it feels to feel good. And a population that largely doesn’t feel well is just not ok.

This wasn’t the kind of living we were designed for. If it was, we wouldn’t have been able to overcome the challenges we did in order to even be here. The ironic thing is that some of those very challenges are why we are here today.

Environmental pressures over millions of years forced us to become the incredibly capable creatures we eventually became. Over the last 300,000 years, our DNA, our biology, hasn’t really changed. What it expects, and needs, hasn’t changed either.

Key nutrients from food were important in the process that got us here, but so was facing and growing from challenge, danger, discomfort…and quiet.  These too are forces that resulted in our becoming capable, intelligent, and robust. Key food nutrients alone couldn’t have done it. It was this food (and sometimes lack of it) plus: long, long walks to develop strong feet, legs, and organs; short sprints and a quick climb up a tree to escape danger and hone our athleticism; ample play and leisure to learn new skills and challenge our brains; stretches of being in quiet to sharpen our senses. (In an environment of clean air, clean water, and yes, clean dirt.)

Without these “signals” we wouldn’t have been forced to become the smart, enduring creatures we became. So you could say, we were built for the occasional challenge, to withstand discomfort, to be exposed to and handle a little danger, to play, to be immersed in periods of quiet.

The question is, what happens if we remove these things from our lives? What if we spend most hours indoors, driving everywhere, ordering take out, glued to a screen, always comfortable, distracted, disconnected? (In an environment teeming with synthetic toxins.)

Here’s what happens: we don’t stay as sharp, or strong, or happy, or resilient, or aware. Slowly our vitality starts to wane, since it’s no longer needed.  Eventually, our DNA stops seeing the need to keep us healthy, because why should it? 

Today, the new norm is a low-grade chronic discontent and sub-par health that we don’t even know we have. We self-medicate and self-soothe with things that really are only keeping us exactly where we are. 

For me, I can tell you that when I started to “feed” my DNA with the variety of signals our bodies and minds expect I was transformed, experiencing better health thanks to a more robust immune system, greater resiliency to stress, improved fitness, sharpened senses. I realized that not providing my body and mind with the signals they need was like trying to drive a car with flat tires—it’s doable but far from ideal.

In the grand scheme of things, these are nice problems to have. I’m a privileged person living a comfortable and abundant life. I cringe a little to even write this post because I know there are too many humans today, near and far, dealing with very real and inhumane levels of challenge, danger and discomfort.  

But for those of us living in excess, know that avoiding the variety of signals our bodies and minds need is contributing to our poor health. It’s numbing us to our world, too.  

There is a tragic disconnect between what we were designed for and how we’re living. It is imperative for our health as modern beings to heed the call of our DNA, to live a little more deliberately….a little more wildly.

We haven’t finished evolving

The idealist in me wants to believe that the challenges from this pandemic, however unequal, may be a collective wake-up call bringing us closer together in solving not just our individual and public health problems, but more importantly our planet’s. Time will tell what we do with what we’re learning today…
As I write this, the ground beneath us is shifting. It is shifting for everyone, one way or another. I’m not going to be Pollyanna saying it’ll all be for the better. Because, really, we don’t know. But things will be different.
We will be different.
We’ll forever wonder what invisible threats are looming that are going to upend our lives. We’ll forever know that whatever safety nets we have, including our health and institutions, too, are tenuous. 
Maybe, we’ll also have a newfound appreciation for some of the simpler things. A walk. The way the sun feels on our skin. Sleep. A good conversation. A home cooked meal. Play. Extra time. 
Perhaps there’s another benefit to this forced foray into simpler living…
This week we celebrate Earth Day—we take a moment to say thank you, I see you, I respect you. A Hallmark holiday for the planet. Nothing wrong with that, except, it’s kind of empty. Do we really know what it means to respect our planet? Are we willing to do what this requires?
The only thing that will truly help our planet is if we accept responsibility for the harm that has befallen our home, and vow to do better. Because our leaders and their agreements and action summits may not solve anything. 
But we can. 
We are extraordinary creaturesWe possess an amazing ability to learn, to adapt, to grow—through struggle, through challenge, through discomfort.  We didn’t evolve because life was easy, rather because life was hard. 
We may no longer be evolving much in the biological sense, but I hope we are still evolving. Environmental pressures over millions of years forced us to advance as a species. Perhaps today, it’s a different kind of pressure that can move the needle. 
Between this pandemic, human accelerated global warming, vast inequities, and dangerous public discourse, we have a colossal amount of challenge to work with. What are we going to learn? How are we going to adapt? In what new directions are we going to grow?
We all get a say. 
Our individual choices matter—they matter to our resiliency to this and other health threats, they matter to our loved ones and neighbors, and they definitely matter to our planet. 
We’ve got to wake up to the reality that business as usual is causing our species’ health to decline. It is causing alarming damage to this home that sustains us, and it is perpetuating inhumane cycles of poverty and inequality. Even small changes can not only improve our health and the quality of our individual lives, but also the lives of others, including all of our ecosystems.  
It should go without saying that caring for ourselves means caring for the environment, nature. We breathe its air. Drink its water. Eat its food. We depend on its stability.
We can start caring for our planet better by reconnecting with ourselves. Reconnecting not just with our ‘human being’ needs, but our ‘creatures of nature’ needs….asking, what do I actually need to protect my health? To be resilient? To live a truly full life? To experience deep joy and satisfaction?  
And what don’t I need?
When we start exploring this, we may just love what we find.