Human beings need to move. Just about everybody, except perhaps the dedicated couch potato, would agree to that statement. However, what is the best kind of exercise? Should we be devoted joggers, running every morning before our day begins and signing up for marathons? Is walking the dog a couple of times a day good enough? What about joining the bodybuilders at the local gym (if we’re not too intimidated by the tattoos and grunts)? How about yoga or Pilates, or an aerobics class?What to make of all this? No wonder many people join a gym as part of a New Year resolution but then as time goes on, fall by the wayside, adding to the profits of the gym owners, but not getting any healthier.
Well, to begin with, any exercise is better than no exercise. Our hunter gatherer ancestors, and even our Victorian forebears, had little choice but to move a lot. Apart from those wealthy enough to pay others to move for them, most people a few generations ago were toiling in factories or working in the fields. Whatever their way of earning a living you can be sure that for most people it involved using their bodies. Modern life is very different. We have machines for washing our dishes and clothes, for taking us to work or to the shops. These days, thanks to the wonders of Skype or FaceTime we can even have ‘face to face’ meetings without leaving home. Clearly, if we are to live in any way approximating the way that our genes and biology expect, we need to move more.
There are three lifestyle habits relating to movement, that, taken together, provide a sensible, balanced framework for ensuring that we move in ways that foster good health. These habits are: move frequently at a comfortable pace; sprint once in a while; lift heavy things. Each of these in some way resembles how humans have always behaved. Let’s look at these one by one.
Moving around at a slow pace is something humans have been doing for millions of years. Imagine a world without cars, escalators, buses, trains, labour-saving machines, and you’ll get the picture. This is something we can all do without special clothing, health club memberships or expensive equipment. True, we may need to develop new habits like checking in with oneself every day to ensure that we have made time to move. We can leave the car at home; if we need to use the car we can leave the car on the far side of the car park; we can walk around the neighbourhood every day, or at least during a lunchbreak; we can stand up as much as possible. With a little forethought and awareness, we can all move more than we do.
Doing some form of intense aerobic exercise like sprinting, every seven to ten days, is another form of exercise that has been shown to be beneficial. This could be running, cycling, rowing. It doesn’t need to be either frequent or for a long duration. And of course, great care should be taken by anyone who is out-of-condition or in any way at risk of injury.
Lifting heavy things is another human behaviour that needs to done with care. It’s a natural human movement but, like sprinting, can be problematic for the older person or anyone who is in poor physical shape. This is an area where a gym, and guidance from a personal trainer or strength coach, is invaluable. According to Starting Strength, the best method of strength training is barbell training. Whilst resistance machines have proliferated in gyms in recent years they are often not as effective as barbells because they exercise individual muscles, or muscle groups, in isolation. There are no natural human movements that only call upon the quadriceps or hamstrings in isolation. The resistance machines concept, of rotating through a range of machines to train individual muscles, can be inefficient and may be ineffective. Barbell exercises like squats or deadlifts are closer to the kinds of movements our biology is adapted to, and use many muscle groups together, which is a more efficient use of time and energy. Weighted barbells enable the exercises to be progressive, leading to an increase in strength over time. In the absence of a gym or barbells, bodyweight exercises can also be beneficial.
What we don’t need to do to be healthy is jog every day. In fact, this can be unhealthy. A basic principle of all purposeful exercise is that it causes stress which is followed by recovery which leads to adaptation. According to the nature of the stress there will be a certain kind of adaptation. Lifting heavy things will bring about an adaptation to increased strength; running long distances will increase endurance. Key to the adaptation is the recovery, the duration of which will depend upon the intensity of the stress, the age and condition of the person, and other factors like nutrition, sleep, and levels of chronic stress. Thus it is that with the right kind of exercise programme, a human being will be getting stronger or developing endurance, even whilst they sleep! A problem with daily exercise is that, for most people, it does not allow enough time for recovery, thereby causing chronic stress which can lead to other problems.
So, no, you probably don’t need to run for your life to be healthy. But you may need to move more than you do now.
What do you find works best for you where exercise is concerned?