Pillar #2: Movement in Practice

The Characteristics of Movement: Physically Challenging

Yesterday we looked at movement from the point of view of evolutionary biology. Humans are animals, and like all animals, we have our default and preferred ways of getting around the world.

And we saw that bipedal locomotion - walking, jogging, running - is the essential human form of movement. So if we have the physically capability (ie two working legs), that has to form a basis of our exercise or workout regimens.

But we all know people who get on the gym treadmills for an hour a day and still are unhealthy and unfit. 

If walking was sufficient, then everyone with a FitBit would be on the cover of Runner's World.

In addition to the functional aspect of movement, there are two other characteristics that we must embrace to get the full benefit. Today let's talk about the first one: our movement must be physically challenging.

Physically Challenging

Our paleo ancestors wouldn't understand this characteristic at all. "You've got to chill and conserve your energy" would be their movement mantra. Don't waste any calories - you never know when you'll find more.

So why shouldn't we follow the same advice?

Two reasons.

First, most of us live in an environment of caloric excess. So there's no good reason to conserve energy if energy isn't a limiting factor in our lives.

But that's not a good enough reason, if you thin about it. Because we could simply decide to impose caloric restriction upon ourselves. You know, eat more greens and vegetables and less bread and pasta and hot dogs and chicken-fried steak.

So what's the real reason to make our movement physically challenging?

Because in paleo times, we wouldn't have had a choice. If you wanted to live, you moved hard.

You ran away from predators with sharp teeth and claws. You ranged across your territory daily, dealing with threats and gathering food. You hauled boulders and sharpened stones and pounded berries into dye.

You worked your ass off because you didn't have power tools, or internal combustion engines, or employees, or slaves, or any other kind of "labor saving" strategy. 

In that environment, conserving energy made perfect sense. And that's why conserving energy is hard-wired into our brains as a default movement strategy. 

Our modern environment and our evolutionary heritage are totally mismatched. The result is a huge imbalance on the side of NOT moving. Of dialing it in. Of coasting. 

And when we don't challenge our bodies to work harder and get stronger, they decay. The shocks and stresses of hard exercise are necessary for us not only to get better, but to avoid falling apart.

We are what philosopher Nicholas Nassim Taleb calls "Antifragile," meaning that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger. And avoiding that which doesn't kill us makes us increasingly fragile and subject to disease, disability, and early death.

Three Aspects of Physically Challenging

So how do we make our workouts physically challenging? By mixing and matching these three phenomena:

  1. Aerobic / Anaerobic zones
  2. Muscle micro-tears
  3. Muscle confusion

Aerobic / anaerobic zones

Working in our aerobic and aneorobic zones mean that we are pushing our cardiovascular system to become more efficient in delivering nutrient-rich blood to the muscles and organs of our body.

Muscle micro-tears

Muscles are the perfect metaphor and example of antifragility. When we push a muscle to failure, it responds with micro-tears (tiny breakdowns).

And then it builds itself up to be able to respond to future demands that may be even greater than the one that just taxed it past its limit.

Muscle confusion

Essentially, this means mixing things up so your muscles don't get into a rut, knowing in advance what will be expected of them. Our paleo ancestors didn't have a choice about this; they had to deal with dozens of new and unexpected challenges each day just to make it home alive with enough calories to feed the family.

So don't just do the same workout every day. Go faster one day. Cross-train in the pool or on a gym mat or on a bicycle. Dance hard. Do jumping jacks.

Run on bumpy trails as well as on roads and treadmills. Lift unwieldy objects like bags of rice and gallons of water as well as barbells and medicine balls.

Keep your muscles off-balance, and they'll be much better at adapting to whatever life throws at you in the future. 

Tomorrow's Lesson

Tomorrow we'll look at the third characteristic of natural movement: wholistic, full-body activities.