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A Different Kind of Fitness Resolution

It’s the month when gym memberships spike and fitness equipment flies off store shelves. I think most of us begin the year wanting to be healthier, and fitness stands as an essential element of that endeavor. Logical. Reasonable. Commendable. Yet, the common interpretation of what it will take to get there suddenly veers off in a white knuckle, nonsensical detour. Yes, let’s hear it for the chronic cardio [1] model. As a former cardio king [2], I rack my brain questioning why so many people still subscribe to the “exhaustion or bust” mentality. (It’s unfortunately one of the reasons many said memberships will go unused by the middle of next month and the aforementioned equipment will begin gathering dust in a corner.) As with so many aspects of healthy living, the conventional fitness culture often misleads because it ignores what can and should be its ultimate guide – the nuanced role of physical activity in evolution and the simple but rather elegant connections that movement has to overall vitality.

Sure, this could be a book unto itself (or several). What got me thinking was a New York Times article called “Exercise and the Ever Smarter Human Brain [3].” It highlights research that connects higher endurance capacity in species to larger brain-to-body size proportions as well as the effect of “endurance exercise” on BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein associated with brain growth and neuroplasticity. According to anthropologist David A. Raichlen, the extra BDNF that our human forebears developed in their endurance pursuits (e.g. chasing prey) was able to “migrate” to the brain’s use. Over time and selection, the added BNDF became a boon to early human cognition. Incidentally, research today suggests the same principle. When we exercise, we benefit from a temporary boost in BDNF and an apparent upregulation in cellular processing of BDNF. With more BDNF in circulation, researchers speculate [4] that more is available to be assimilated into central tissue and offer beneficial neurological impact.

I love this. (But there’s one thing that sticks in my craw.) Let me explain. I love it because it highlights an absolutely essential principle that still doesn’t get enough press: movement is critical for cognitive health and neuroplasticity – the forces that keep us sharp and creative over the course of our lifetime. It also connects evolution with our current physiological needs. (Gotta love the Grok factor [5].) Our bodies and brains need exercise today because we are products of an evolutionary design that intertwined them both.

As for the frustrating bit, I question how many people will look at “endurance” and think the only way to access this benefit is to slog away on the treadmill or spin (class) themselves into delirium. As I’ve said many a time, our ancestors’ version of endurance didn’t involve marathon training [6]. Chasing prey – even to the point of exhaustion (as the researchers who were noted in said article postulate) – wasn’t an exercise in constant motion. Mental tenacity and strategy would’ve mattered as much if not more than actual physical endurance. This kind of persistence hunting wouldn’t have been an everyday occurrence anyway. Grok’s endurance was built around a mix of extended walking and low level activity interspersed with bouts of power, strength, and sprinting.

It’s the nature of our evolutionary activity that tells us the most when we’re looking to expand our own physical abilities. Our ancestors’ fitness developed through frequent but fractal activity [7]. Their movement was variable throughout the days and weeks. It often took precision but also let loose in creative play [8]. It was rarely rushed. Although it might have been routine at times, it wasn’t careless.

Sometimes in our motivation to get to the next level fitness-wise (whether we’re beginners or performance athletes), we simply push ourselves harder at the same game, the same activities, the same game. It’s not what our evolutionary story suggests is the answer, and it’s not what modern research tells us is the most effective path.

In an interesting new field of research called neuromovement, for example, experts like Anat Baniel emphasize the potential of movement to build new neurological pathways that in turn support expanding physical abilities and healthier neurological functioning. It’s reciprocal benefit at its best that taps into – as well as extends – the powers of neuroplasticity. (The body and brain after all are still as imbricated as they were in their evolutionary development.) The approach has revolutionary potential for those with chronic pain or movement based disorders and disabilities, but the philosophy behind neuromovement can benefit people without impairments and even professional athletes. The fact is, we all have rigidity of some kind to move past – whether it’s a wall we hit in our performance or a limited focus in what we do for movement and exercise in a day.

Baniel highlights nine “essentials” [9] that offer food for thought in rethinking movement in our lives. Within these, she stresses the importance of elements like attention, subtlety, awareness, slowness, and variation. (I think there’s something decidedly Primal at work here.) It’s worth asking, how these principles can help us break boundaries in our own fitness and movement each day.

Whether it’s the ancestral model of the PB [10] or the nuances of the latest neuromovement research, what a contrast there is to how we often approach movement today. We look for every technological contraption and short cut to avoid 90% of activity a day but then spend an hour making up for our sedentary life on the same machine doing the same mindless motion? The struggle that characterized our evolution was anything but sedentary. Likewise, the terrain that refined our development wasn’t anything akin to an elliptical machine. Although we’re burning calories, strengthening some muscles, and offering our cardiovascular system a sporadic (but not ideal) bout of exertion, we’re missing out on the full, subtle, and fractal spectrum of physical benefits – not to mention the plain fun.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Do your resolutions include something in the fitness realm? Good luck with your new year challenges, and offer your thoughts in the comment board. Have a great weekend.

The Sequel to The Primal Blueprint Releases on January 8

Next week (next week!) I’ll be releasing The Primal Connection, the long-awaited sequel to The Primal Blueprint [11]. As friends and colleagues within the ancestral movement have so generously described, The Primal Connection offers the first really new dimension in the paleo/Primal space in years. Is there any better way to start the new year – not to mention the fact that we all survived the Mayan apocalypse? In all seriousness, I’ve been pumped about this launch for months now.

Like The Primal Blueprint [11], The Primal Connection is both a culmination and expansion of principles I’ve first introduced here on MDA. It picks up where The Primal Blueprint left off, by extending the primal theme beyond the diet and exercise basics. In it I present a comprehensive plan to overcome the flawed mentality and hectic pace of high-tech, modern life and reprogram your genes to become joyful, care-free, and at peace with the present. Inherent to The Primal Connection is the concept that we can use the model of our ancestors to create not just a healthier existence but also a more balanced and fulfilling life. My hope is that upon reading it you’ll emerge with a renewed appreciation for the simple pleasures of life and our most precious gifts of time, health, and love.

Just as I did [12]for Primal Blueprint Healthy Sauces, Dressings & Toppings [13] earlier this month, I’ll have something special put together for devoted Mark’s Daily Apple readers when this book is released on January 8th, 2013. So mark your calendar and be ready to jump on the offer while it lasts.

P.S. If you’ve pre-ordered a copy of The Primal Connection [14], don’t worry. All pre-orders will be eligible to receive the free bonuses that will be part of the book release offer.