Why is exercise important for a healthy body?
In this article, we will answer three questions: What is exercise? Why is exercise a necessary component of life? Is there a type of exercise that is best or that will give you the best results?
If you look up Exercise in the dictionary, you will be told it is bodily exertion for the sake of developing and maintaining physical fitness, or something performed or practiced as a way to develop, improve, or display a specific capability or skill. For most, however, the word exercise brings to the mind images of heavy barbells, professional athletes training in a gym, or flexing bodybuilders glaring at themselves in a mirror. But why do people exercise? What benefit do they get from training in a gym or for a sport? Why are Americans spending almost sixty billion dollars a year on gym memberships, exercise equipment, and weight loss products? Why is it that so many people are unhappy with how their current body looks and feels?
The human body is a biological systems with an astonishing capability of adapting to the external conditions in which it finds itself. Unlike genetic evolution which sometimes requires tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years and hundreds to thousands of generations of genetic trial and error, cellular and hormonal adaptation to external physical stress can and does happen on the individual level and within very short periods of time. These changes are called adaptive tissue and hormonal responses and take place within cells of a tissue or the balancing of hormones.
Many of these effects are can easily be recognized by looking at a person. Someone who carries a lot of muscle on their frame has likely lifted a lot of weight or encountered a great deal of physical resistance in life. Conversely, someone who is very thin with little to no muscle on their frame likely has not. A person’s skin color can lighten or darken depending on how much sun exposure they’ve had. Other adaptations are harder to see, such as increased mitochondrial density within the skeletal muscle or an elevated maximal oxygen uptake as a result of cardiovascular exercise. Regardless, these adaptations are the body’s way of creating the most capable version of itself to survive outside conditions and pass on its genetic code. Boiled down to the basics it looks like this: An outside stressor damages human tissue, such as running from a tiger, lifting heavy rocks to build a shelter, or squatting a loaded barbell for repetitions. The body will eventually rest and repair that tissue, however to a more resilient degree. It does so to better deal with the same stress more readily in the future.
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It’s important to note that adaptive tissue and hormonal response is a two-way street. Just as muscle mass increases and the ability to perform difficult tasks becomes easier as the body adapts to heavy lifting and an active lifestyle, a lack of physical stresses on those systems will propel the tissues in the opposite direction. A muscle never used becomes atrophied. An energy system never exercised becomes weak and less capable. In short, you are either growing stronger and healthier or weaker and sicker.
Exercise, as we know it today, is a relatively new phenomenon which arose during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I say as we know it today because, although ancient civilizations used physical exercise for thousands of years to prepare soldiers for war or athletes for a contest, not until recently have entire populations adopted exercise routines to attain their health and physique goals.
In ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt there were no spin classes, pilates studios, indoor boot camps, or big box gyms toting the latest bodybuilding equipment. Regular physical exercise just was a part of life and, even if you did train for sport or war, any exercise training was rooted in primal movement patterns using body weight and the occasional stone, log, or improvised weight.
If you go back further, before the time of ancient civilizations and the agricultural revolution, our ancestors would have laughed at the very thought of physical activity, exerting themselves to attain a six pack or reduce their risk of heart disease. Despite their lack of gym memberships and use of protein powders, our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors would have put Charles Atlas to shame, displaying a lean, muscular, and highly mobile body. When your daily life consists of walking incredibly long distances, running down wild game, eating whole foods in modest amounts, and squatting down to sit only on occasion rather than regularly sitting in chairs, physical fitness simply becomes a necessary component of survival.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we should throw all of our modern conveniences out the window and adopt a life of nomadic hunting and gathering. I am saying, however, that it is important for us to understand what our physical bodies are naturally created for and contrast that with what we now subject them to in our modern life. Your body is designed and built for natural movement in all planes of motion. If confined to a chair, a couch, or a driver’s seat for the majority of the day, you must either remedy that unnatural lifestyle with corrective and therapeutic exercise or prepare to accept the consequences. Did you know that the average North American sits down for 13 hours a day? If you factor in the 8 hours a day you spend lying down on your bed asleep, you are sedentary 21 hours in a 24 hour period. Sitting down and living a sedentary lifestyle is already associated with increased risk of mortality, but when a sedentary lifestyle combines with a poor diet, a laundry list of serious diseases is the inevitable result.
Let’s again look back to the time of the prehistoric human and compare their lifestyle, one our biological body was built and adapted for, with the average lifestyle we find ourselves living out today.
Prehistory men and women often moved, living predominantly as nomads and traveling great distances regularly. Contemporary men and women sit at breakfast tables in the morning, cars and buses during their commute to work, at desks once they are at work, and on the couch in front of a TV before lying down in bed, then doing it all again the next day.
Prehistoric men and women ate only when they had access to food, which was irregular, exclusively consisting of what we would now call whole, organic foods. These people spent incredible amounts of energy in the pursuit and preparation of those foods and consumed a minimal amount of animal protein. When they did eat animal protein, it consisted mostly of insects and small mammals with only occasional mid-sized to big game.
Contemporary men and women have access to food at any time of day and in just about any situation and season. They predominantly eat a large amount of processed, unnatural foods not found in nature and which are incredibly high in calories, and chock full of salt, sugar, fat, pesticides, and chemicals. Today people spend pretty well no caloric energy in the pursuit and preparation of their meals (depending, of course, on how hard they’re pushing the grocery cart down the aisle at Trader Joe’s). The modern diet contains an amount of animal protein and other products derived from animals that is vastly out of proportion to what the human biology can handle.
Prehistoric men and women climbed trees, balanced themselves as they walked across fallen logs or rocky terrain, carried heavy objects overhead, squatted down or sat cross-legged when they needed a rest, and moved their bodies with force through all planes of motion.
Contemporary men and women move, when they move at all, almost exclusively through the forward and backward plane, what is called the sagittal plane of motion. We rarely lift things overhead, squat down or sit cross-legged, balance ourselves through movement, or use our strength to manipulate the world around us in any appreciable amount. Instead, we sit facing forward towards our computer screens with shoulders and head slumped forward, and we stay in this position for most of the day. This restricted movement and collapsing forward causes the body’s ability to move in the other natural planes of motion to atrophy. Back pain, tight hips, poor posture, and an overall painful experience exists for modern humans as soon as they leave the comfort of the seated, slumped forward position.
What conclusions can we draw from this comparison of the prehistoric human and our contemporary way of life? Is there a form of exercise that can draw upon our most primal movement patterns and lifestyle habits as a means to improving strength, balance and overall health to our abused body? I would argue, with the exception of modern gymnastics training, no one exercise routine or practice outdoes the others in its ability to promote optimal health, strength, mobility, and well-being completely and entirely. Instead, the trick is to find the forms of modern exercise that you genuinely enjoy and which, when combined, put you on a path towards the attainment of your ideal health, physique, and unrestricted of movement.
In the next article, we will discuss how to find out what training methods and types of exercise will best suit you as you go after your goals. We will also go over some tricks and tools to help those of you who may need help discovering what goals you would like to accomplish are and how to train for them.
As always, thank you so much for taking your time to read this article. If you got something from it, or you know someone who would benefit from this article, please feel free to share.
If you have any questions or suggestions for future articles or videos, please leave me a message in the comments or reach out to me on social media!
And remember, with everything in life the secret to success is getting started. So get started!
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About the author
I switched careers from a mechanic to a personal trainer and life coach after seeing the difference one made in the life of my mother. I watched as she transformed herself, changing her path in life to one that allowed for the enjoyment of what she loves most. Our family saw how powerful an impact her trainer had on her health and happiness, and we couldn't have been more grateful. From then on, I knew I wanted to help others take back their lives the same way her trainer had helped her.
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