Many people, myself included, prefer streamlining fitness to obsessing over its minutiae. Although I’m no fan of their footwear, Nike’s “Just Do It” really does capture my view of what exercise should be. Find what you like doing and what works for you, and simply go do it. But not everyone is that way. Tons of people truly enjoy the nitty gritty details. They like the research, the nutrient timing, the supplementation. They’re the ones discussing the respective differences between sumo deadlifts, regular deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts. They’re the ones who want to wring out every last drop of performance.
I get that. I used to be like that, too, but now I take more of an academic interest. That’s not to say I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing, because while I like to think I’m just going with the flow and doing what I enjoy, I also like knowing that what I’m doing is effective. Basically, I don’t like wasting time. Plus, many readers fall into the latter category of those who want the details.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of protracted stretching routines or extended warmups that end up taking longer than the workout itself. I like simplicity. I like cutting corners without sacrificing quality or results. I’m okay with warmups that fulfill their basic goal – getting the muscles warmed up and ready for movement – and with active stretches that move you through the full ranges of motion you’ll be traversing during the workout, but that’s about it. If there was strong evidence in favor of stretching as a protective measure, I would be all over it, because I hate down time. But the latest research indicates that stretching is harmless at best and a performance-detractor if done excessively. Furthermore, warmups, while effective in the right doses, can lead to fatigue and lower performance if overdone.
So what does the research say and what should we be doing (if anything) to prepare for physical activity?
Dr. Loren Cordain and a few MD colleagues have recently published a paper (PDF) called “Organic Fitness: Physical Activity Consistent with Our Hunter-Gatherer Heritage.” It makes for a great companion piece to Primal Blueprint Fitness, and it encapsulates quite nicely the breadth of research into the physical activities of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Read the whole thing. There’s probably nothing really new to you guys already well-versed in this stuff, but it’s good having it all in one space, and it’s good having it from more sources (not just me). If someone ever asks you why you go barefoot, avoid weight machines, squat below parallel (don’t you know it’s bad for your knees!?!), go on hikes for fun without sunscreen, and hate treadmills, you can send along a nice, neat package including the PBF eBook and the Cordain paper. This isn’t a “nyah, nyah, proven right again!” type thing (well, kinda). This is a “buttressing the incoming unavoidable inexorable impossible-to-ignore flood of evidence in favor of listening to evolution in matters of health and fitness” type thing. The times they are a changin’, eh?
Anyway, let’s get to the meaty bits of the paper – to what they call the “fundamental elements of ‘organic exercise,’ which may serve as a template from which to design a fitness strategy for adults living in today’s modern industrialized culture.” I’ve bolded and italicized their words (from a section of which the title of this article is derived) and followed up with my commentary:
The idea that brain and brawn are mutually exclusive is fairly well embedded in our culture; the popularity of phrases used to describe weightlifting enthusiasts, like “dumb jock” or “meathead,” make its pervasiveness pretty clear. But is it true? In a word, no. Anyone who’s ever heard Mark Rippetoe assess a novice squatter like a master mechanical engineer, Keith Norris wax poetic about the savage grace of physical culture, or Robb Wolf employ a Battlestar Galactica reference to explain the biochemistry of a glutenous assault on your intestinal tract knows it to be false, but the rest of society tends to lag a bit. Luckily, a few recent studies suggest that resistance training actually promotes neurogenesis – the growth of new neurons in the brain – while another links overtraining to impeded cognitive ability later in life. It may be high time to start disseminating the image of the dumb jogger instead.
A few studies caught my attention this week, not for being all that surprising or groundbreaking or even new, but because they jibed with something I’ve been mulling over: physical activity in old age.
Studies: the first and second. I grouped these together because they largely deal with the same thing. The first, actually a review of a couple dozen separate studies, discusses how basic physical capability seems to predict mortality later in life, while the second focuses entirely on the predictive ability of a person’s walking speed. This is redundant to anyone who’s ever felt a euphoric post-workout rush or the satisfaction of completing a physically taxing task, but judging from the number of people who make endless loops in the parking lot to score that sweet spot by the door and avoid empty staircases in favor of crowded escalators, we are in the minority. Things like grip strength, the time it takes to rise from a chair, the ability to balance on one leg, and walking speed were strong determinants of mortality. The death rate was 1.67 times higher in folks with weak grips, 2 times higher in those who were slowest to rise from the chair, and 2.87 times greater in people who walked at the slowest pace. Most of the studies reviewed were of older subjects, but the physical activity markers were predictive in young people, too. The walking study found that normal gait speed was an indicator of mortality with predictive power similar to BMI, smoking status, blood pressure, and other chronic conditions.
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