On Proper Exercise: Corrective AND Protective

I’ve been enjoying Katy Bowman’s podcasts lately. Given that I have a similar science background, I appreciate how she blends some really interesting science into her practical explanations as to how people can improve their movement and reap the benefits therein. She is also accurate in pointing out that you are how you move: I’ve said many times that the longest-lived cultures on Earth don’t “exercise”, but are forced into movement on a regular basis by their environment. Their lack of opting-out means they live similar to how they lived the day before, all the way until their death.

And in spite of that, I doth protest! I was having a discussion with a movement-minded Physical Therapist about how I feel that leveraging proper exercise is a big “blind spot” in (some of) the movement-only crew:

  1. To keep with the idea of “movement nutrients”, then we can perhaps separate “physical activity” into micronutrients and “proper exercise” into macronutrients. You need both.
  2. Using exercise for rehab, and then abandoning for the sake of a “movement lifestyle” ignores the profound benefits that exercise has beyond rehab. Exercise allows the limiting of risk for upside-reward, accelerates the rate of adaptation, and allows for enhanced post-rehabilitation, never mind the strengthening of the prime movers that drive our phylogenetic loading patterns. If exercise is medicine, it can be both treatment & prophylactic.
  3. Further, if we were to separate “exercise vs. physical activity” into primal terms, then exercise is hunting & physical activity is gathering. You’re going to spend a hell of a lot of time gathering as compared to hunting, but hunting is going to be significantly more intense. You need both; we can use the model to limit the risk while maximizing the benefit.
  4. The idea of a specific “dose” of physical activity misses the point. Extant hunter gatherers engage in levy flight behavior with a power law distribution of distances they would accumulate day to day. Further, some studies suggest that they spend 70-80% of their waking hours just sitting around. More on this in James’ talk. The point is that it’s not about hitting a magic distance or number of steps. Think dynamic changes from day to day, with occasional “big efforts.” For example, while I tend to average ~8,500 steps/day (weekly average; daily dynamic change),  ACLfest resulted in 3 days in a row exceeding 17,000 steps. The result was a drop in the days afterward to a few thousand steps.
  5. Due to the biomechanical nature of our body, the greater the force, the simpler the movement pattern, thus “loading pattern.” We are capable of a nearly infinite combination of joint articulations, along with their own changes in the way force distributes across muscles and bone. However, when you increase total force output (as opposed to relative force) you must simplify the movement pattern for both safety and efficacy.
  6. This explains why there are in fact only a relative few “good” gym exercises. You might be able to make a biomechanical analysis of the relative distribution of force contribution of involved musculature to move a load in a specific way (say that 3 times fast!) but that doesn’t account for the forces the muscle are producing relative to the joint position and if those forces (namely torque) are disproportionately loading your joints over your prime movers.
  7. There is psychological value in doing hard work. This idea is from a health education perspective, but when you do hard things, you feel like you can take on the world! It’s something I encourage my clients with as a carrot: “If you can work that hard, walking more isn’t so tough!” Beyond this, doing more of the less-hard thing results in more self efficacy because you did the thingIt’s a beautiful relationship that develops self-efficacy for other similar things.
  8. From a physiological perspective, doing intense work results in the release of myokines which signal all sorts of changes in the body. The release is proportionate to the effort, and you don’t get it with merely accumulating distance or time.
  9. In speaking of time, I think it’s a bit of a straw man the way that people frame training. My total weekly training time amounts to maybe an hour. This leaves 167 other hours to move around a lot.
  10. Age-related loss of muscle tissue is only the tip of the iceberg. You must also consider how that muscle produces force and resistance training is the fastest way to bridge the gap, which I wrote a bit about in my osteoporosis piece. The short version: we lose the ability to create force for a given amount of muscle tissue with age (Dynapenia), which is the first step toward sarcopenia, and then on to osteopenia. Resistance training brings that strength back to being useable in relatively short order in a way that merely being very active is not protective against.
  11. As always, why not both?

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