2013-05-16

Laugh, And The World Laughs With You

Cry, and you cry alone.

An Interesting Concept Came Up In Conversation Last Night
We had family over at our place last night, and the conversation inevitably turned toward diet, exercise, fitness, and health in general. I say "inevitably" because any time you fill a room full of people who are either health nuts, diabetics, foodies, and fuddy-duddies, the conversation will turn to health. In my case, I happen to meet all four criteria, as do some of our family members, so there you have it.

During the discussion, one person noted that whenever she exercises regularly, she finds she also eats healthy food; whenever she eats healthy food, she finds she exercises regularly. The point was that she wasn't sure which way the causality went. Do we exercise when we eat well, or do we eat well when we exercise?

Some fitness gurus have suggested that whenever we engage in a lot of physical exercise, our bodies naturally crave the proper fuel we need to keep exercising. Under this theory, the harder you exercise, the less you crave pizza and hamburgers and the more you crave chicken Caesar salads and low-sodium sushi. I certainly can't speak for everyone, but I can say that in my own personal experience, the exact opposite is true. The harder I exercise, the more I crave calories of any kind; anything will do, and the more of it, the better. Fast food is cheap and plentiful, and burgers are delicious. The more I work out, the more I crave greasy, carby, inflammatory junk food.

Another person suggested that it happens together because whenever one is engaged in eating well, one is "looking after oneself," and so the inclination to exercise regularly is a natural compliment. And vice-versa, of course: when one exercises, one also feels an inclination to look after one's diet. Her point was that neither exercise nor eating right was the causal factor so much as the internal desire to take care of oneself.

An Underlying Culture Of Activity
This plays into a concept I often discuss in conversation, but to my recollection have never blogged about. I call this concept "fostering a culture of activity" in your life. I use that term to describe a proclivity some of us have to move our bodies around a bit despite technological conveniences that might render it unnecessary.

In other words, some people walk to the grocery store. Some people bike downtown to run some errands. These folks aren't usually viewing such activities as a "workout." They walk or bike because walking and biking are time-tested, reliable, and convenient modes of transportation. Where other people will just drive because it's fast, comfortable, and air conditioned, other people honestly wouldn't think about it. They wouldn't because in their minds "cars" are associated with long(er)-distance travel, packing up, etc. Bikes and shoes are associated with short, nearby errands.

The difference between these two groups of people is neither "laziness" nor "healthiness." It truly is a matter of perspective, psychology, or "culture." I was raised in an area where the nearest grocery store was a little less than a mile away, along a very safe street. When we needed something from the grocery store and time wasn't an issue, we walked or rode a bicycle.

Until I was in my 20s, it had never occurred to me that riding a bike was a workout. Honestly! And I considered driving distances as short as a mile to be an extreme hassle, not a convenience. Again, this is not because I am some health obsessed whack job or fitness superman who considers sedentary life to be a negative thing. It is simply a result of my parents' having "fostered a culture of activity" in my family.

Ryan Does Everything Right... Right?
Eventually, the conversation wound its way to individual comparisons: This person eats too few vegetables, that person eats too many sweets, this one over here does not spend too much time thinking about what to eat, but tries to have everything in moderation, that one over there eats fine but exercises too little, while the other one exercises regularly but does not eat enough. And so on, and so forth. We covered the full spectrum of diet and exercise behavior, including all extremes. Of course, in that crowd, I played the role of the one who exercises regularly and eats flawlessly.

To be clear, I certainly don't feel this way about myself. I have a tendency to eat Tex-Mex food. I have a tendency to drink beer. I have lazy days on which I can't be bothered to work out. I eat a lot of cheese. I often feel as though I could stand to work out a little harder, and I certainly feel that I could walk to the grocery store more often than I drive.

But these concepts are relative. If a person cannot stand the taste of vegetables, than a person like myself - who loves them - will appear to be extremely healthy. In fact, I remember one time in school a classmate gave an oral report on the State of Hawaii, and passed out slices of pineapple as a visual aid. Many of my fellow students didn't want their pineapple, so I happily suggested they give me their slices, and they readily complied. One classmate (WT, who may in fact be a faithful Stationary Waves reader - Hello, WT!) remarked that I was "so healthy." I hadn't really considered that. I was just enjoying my pineapple slices.

Meanwhile, my sister bikes everywhere, is always engaged in some kind of gardening or home-improvement project, goes on a lengthy mountain bike excursion nearly every weekend, camps often, goes to the gym regularly, watches her diet well, is a bit of a Crossfit aficionado, and so on... In my mind, whatever level of health I enjoy pales in comparison to her herculean ability to squeeze physical activity into nearly every waking moment of her existence. It's truly impressive.

...And yet, I can recall more than one occasion during which she has recounted to me a description of someone she knows who is even fitter than she is.

Odd, For A Hunter-Gatherer Like Yourself
They sure do spend a lot of time warning us of the dangers of a so-called "Western diet," and making recommendations as to the proper amount of daily physical activity we should all be getting. It might all be true, too, but I have always felt that such messages completely miss the mark.

Why? Because they take us back to the start of last night's conversation: Do we "westerners" eat hamburgers because we're fat and lazy, or does the fact that we're fat and lazy make us want to eat hamburgers?

(Somewhere in the far reaches of cyberspace, a Mark-Sisson-wannabe is writing a treatise about how unhealthy foods are literally addictive, that science proves this, and that only by doing Crossfit and eating bacon-lettuce wraps can we return to the halcyon days of our paleolithic ubermensch predecessors.)

Stop, take a backwards step, and look at the whole picture. We're not "addicted" to food any more than we're addicted to oxygen and working for a living. Eating, breathing, and working are necessary parts of the human experience. You can't Crossfit your way back to the paleolithic era. We're no longer the tribal cave-dwellers that we once were. Sure, we biologically resemble those hirsute great-grandparents who hunted ox so that we can enjoy desk jobs, but modern human life is altogether different than it was back then.

You do not spend eighteen hours a day foraging for grubs and berries, and roasting the occasional rodent over an open fire. You might think you're "fostering a culture of activity" by getting a gym membership and drinking seven yolks a day, but remember what I said above: It's all relative.

Even working out twice a day is insufficient to deliver the kind of physical exertion that was typical among the cave men. Aboriginal Australians, for example, wandered the desert ceaselessly - literally continuously - in search of roots, grubs, and lizards to eat. They paused only to sleep through the night. I know it feels like serious exertion to do 45 minutes of calisthenics at the gym, but compare that to 18 hours of constant motion in the raw elements of nature and the truth rears its powerful head.

We have to foster a culture of activity. A few short generations ago, human beings just lived it, and that was all. There was no such thing as sedentary.

So when studies come out saying that we eat too much pizza and do too few HIIT repeats, the bigger picture is overlooked. I'm not convinced grubs and lizards are healthier for the human diet than pizza, nor am I convinced that HIIT will protect you from diabetes. (It certainly didn't protect me!)

What makes more sense is the fact that, over time, human beings have gained access to ever-more-impressive technologies that have provided us with an astounding level of modern convenience. We can get anywhere and do anything with hardly any effort at all; most of the "hard stuff" involves intellectual, not physical effort. Mark Sisson's "Grok" had to wander the plains for a full day to gain access to 1500 calories. All it takes me is a single trip to McDonald's.

Conclusion
No, it's not diet or insufficient exercise that's killing us. Life has changed for human beings. It's not a bad thing. But we must learn to deal with it if we want to be healthy.

Part of this is learning that, unless we want our bodies to atrophy and rot, we must engage in physical exercise to compensate for the fact that we do not spend all day wandering the Serengeti. Everyone flinches and shakes their head when they see new pictures of Jason Becker or Stephen Hawking, both of whose bodies have been ravaged by Lou Gherig's disease - but no one flinches at all when they see that very same process happening to their own bodies over the course of the decades that occur after age 21.

The human body is "use it or lose it." Those who find little to offer their health after enjoying the fast metabolisms that came with the youth and drug use and bare necessity of their younger years will suffer a long deterioration that will ultimately end in death.

I, too, will die, but will likely be active and mobile until the end. How do you want to spend your final years? In a wheelchair, with bedsores, or on your feet? To me, it is not even a question.

Do you eat junk food because you're not exercising, or are you not exercising because you're eating junk food? Neither. We all have access to the same crap, be it french fries or television programs. It is not an act of iron will to say "no" to free pizza. It is a choice, based on how you feel. The first question is, "Am I even hungry?" The subsequent questions involve what kind of culture you're choosing to foster in your own life.

If you exercise regularly and eat a sane diet, then who cares about even multiple slices of free pizza? The lifestyle you foster will more than compensate for a few measly slices of pizza. If you don't exercise ever, then each slice is taking you further down into a pit, and the further down you go, the further you have to climb to come back out again.

To a great extent, it comes down to culture.