We all know that we can exercise too little. We’re not designed to be couch-potatoes, chair bound in an office or in a vehicle all day, or even to stand in place for hours on an assembly line. The body actually becomes diseased from being used too little, from avoiding physical challenge, from having not enough variation in activity.
But, in terms of being healthy and long-living, there can also be too much exercise. For those of us who heed the need to ‘get in shape’ or ‘be fit’ do we know where the line is?
Even if we feel we’re safely in the middle, undoubtedly we will run into someone who (having enough free time on their hands) seems to be doing too much. But how much is too much?
Following the evolutionary narrative, our human bodies evolved to move every day, and much more per day than humans typically do now, outside of our exercise time. For thousands of generations humans hunted, gathered stuff, carried loads, manually prepared food and supplies and gear, and they traveled by foot everywhere. The fitness that promoted human life was built into the activities that preserved that same life.
From the inception of the human genus, Homo, approximately 2.4 million years ago, our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers for approximately 84,000 generations. Survival within the hunter-gatherer niche required a large amount of daily energy expenditure in activities such as food and water procurement, social interaction, escape from predators, and maintenance of shelter and clothing. This lifestyle represents the exercise patterns for which we remain genetically adapted. Accordingly, humans are superbly capable of performing the wide array of physical actions and behaviors required of the hunter-gatherer. Quantum improvements in technology such as those that spawned the agricultural revolution (350 generations ago), the industrial revolution (7 generations ago), and the digital age (2 generations ago) have engendered large systematic reductions in the amount of physical work required by humans. Nonetheless, our innate exercise capabilities and requirements that evolved via natural selection over thousands of millennia remain essentially the same as for our Stone Age ancestors. Marked deviation from those indigenous exercise patterns predictably results in physical disability and disease. An understanding of the typical hunter-gatherer physical activity pattern would seem to be an ideal template from which to design a modern exercise program. (Achieving Hunter-gatherer Fitness in the 21st Century: Back to the Future by James O’Keefe MD in The American Journal of Medicine 2010)
Suddenly (on an evolutionary time scale), we humans stopped doing all this necessarily and health-promoting work, and we’ve started to get ill from the lack. Now we’re trying to make up for it by swimming laps or joining a spin class or training for triathlon an hour or two several times a week.
Then we have those people held up as fitness role models who train for high performance as a profession – they work out 6 days a week, for several hours every day. They make it onto podiums and onto the covers of our favorite magazines. They go hard in training every day so that they can show us what amazing things the human body is really capable of.
But those activities we often do, and those activities the famous athletes do still don’t quite simulate the kind of work that humans are most suited to, the kind of work that actually keeps us in the best shape for doing a wide variety of daily activities, and living longer.
“Though running fast may win races and satisfy individual performance goals (who doesn’t like setting a new PR), speed increases forces and thus increases injury risk. “Running to compete” has been identified as a risk factor for injury in runners, and if you make a decision to compete in races and chase time goals, then you must accept that there is some risk associated with doing so. Elite athletes accept this risk every day – to be able to perform their best in competition, they run a very fine life in attempting to maximize the benefits of training without pushing so hard that they get hurt. But, elite athletes are usually paid to train (it’s their job), or they are on scholarships. Furthermore, they typically have support networks, trainers, massage therapists, coaches, and so forth to keep their bodies in highly competitive shape. The elite athlete has both needs and means that are very different than those of the weekend warrior.” (pag 203 in the book Tread Lightly by Peter Larson and Bill Katovsky)
As a matter of fact, training for years and years to triumph in speed and power over other humans in one particular sport is arguably not healthy for us. But exercising a lot in our favorite activity is not necessarily the problem – always aiming to go faster and harder is. By always aiming to beat others or our own best times, we might end up defeating ourselves in the long run. After some point in this ambitious pursuit it may not make us more resilient against break down and disease but less.
If you’ve got a half hour or so, you may be interested in listening to the viewpoints of Tim Noakes and James O’Keefe on what may be the signs of too much. And these views aren’t coming from people who shun high performance athletics, but who love it and have participated in it themselves.
A Lot Of Movement, Of The Better Kind
What humans seem to be uniquely suited to do, what keeps us particularly healthy, is to keep moving much of the day, in a variety of ways, at fairly low intensity, though with periodic bouts of great effort, spread out over the weeks and months and seasons of the year. Humans are made to move a lot, but not often at highest speeds or at highest intensities. And when there is time to rest, we should really rest.
Yes, we are versatile. We are capable of sitting around all day and not dying from it immediately. We are capable of going-going-going hard for days and weeks and months and years and not dying from it immediately. And we hear stories of individuals here and there seem to get away with both extremes. But scientific studies are increasingly exposing the health risks of doing too little and too much. The challenge for us is to build a lifestyle that is has us moving a lot between those, to create the kind of variety in our activities that does a better job of provoking our full range of strength and vitality than imitating the feats of elite or extreme athletes do.
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