Fitness: to Survive or Thrive?

FITNESS, according to human evolution.

Fitness human evolution

The battle between ourselves and our body (whether for health, aesthetics, or performance) comes down to miscommunication between our conscious mind and our biology. What WE want is not the same as what our BODY wants and what our body can do. So what do most of us do? We bully our way to achieving our whims: we use force to chase down our goals and wonder why our bodies don't cooperate. As a result, we live with a disconnect between our conscious mind and the vessel we use to navigate life as if our body is a constraint instead of a way to freedom. 

The first step to becoming a "Human, Unleashed" is realising that our body can adapt and that it will do this regardless of conscious thought. Our body can adapt based on its agenda of survival, but we can also learn to adapt our body IN OUR FAVOUR. We can release perceptions, constraints and habits that lock us into a bad relationship with our self and instead live with the knowledge that we are capable of meeting our full potential by understanding and collaborating with our own biology. 

There is our agenda, and there is the body's agenda. To "unleash", you really need to understand each other and find a place to meet in the middle. When you realise the power you hold within, you'll realise you're the best friend you've ever had.

"Life finds a way" were the words of warning we heard in Jurassic Park when it dawned on Dr Ian Malcolm that the safety measures put in place to prevent the dinos from breeding like rabbits were not going to work. Just like a plant will crack through rock to make its way to sunlight, the de-extinct dinos would find a way to continue their species.

Humans Unleashed: to survive or thrive?

Whether you like it or not, you are a form of life and part of this planet. This body that you carry around is governed by the same laws of biology that drive other forms of life. Plants, dinosaurs, humans - we're all linked as we are each a form of life. And life is bloody stubborn and tough. It's got one agenda: pass on the genetic code. Life hasn't survived 6 billion years to die off quietly. No, it's learned to adapt, evolve, and develop into forms that are best suited to survival.

Understanding the basic principle of life's "agenda" is the first step to understanding your body; what makes it thrive or merely survive. Essentially there are two routes you can take:

  1. Live blissfully unaware of the forces that make you who you are. Perhaps you'll be carefree and happy, or perhaps you'll be frustrated endlessly by the body you carry around that keeps getting in your way. 

  2. Consider how your body works (i.e., the life that carries you) so you can understand how to "drive" it better. 

What is fitness according to human evolution?

Life wants to be successful. So it will find the best way to keep going and survive, even if it means making some sacrifices here and there. Surviving is your body's main agenda. But whether or not to thrive, that's for you to decide.

Science does not have all the answers, and the details are always under scrutiny, with new research coming to light even as you read this. Though scientific breakthroughs have moved mountains in the last few hundred years, many ancient cultures already had a lot of the answers - long before microscopes were invented. To get your body to cooperate, you don't have to be a biology major or a sports scientist. You just need to get to grips with the basics and learn to listen to your own body. Traditional forms of training such as martial arts, (including Tai Chi Qi Gong) and yoga, are proofs of this. 

So what basics can we learn from the study of genetics, biochemistry and evolution that we can apply to develop a good mind-body relationship?

  1. Life evolves over time. Top agenda: survive.

  2. Life finds a way. It will adapt to overcome obstacles.

Life is economical. It wants us to be energy efficient, increasing our chances of survival.

Life evolves over time, and our body has the ability to adapt during our lifetime: crudely, this is what we refer to as ageing. You're out of shape and everything hurts: "It's ok, that's a normal part of ageing" is what we love to say to comfort each other. 

The truth is that ageing is the RESULT OF OUR HABITS OVER TIME. Your body doesn't give two hoots if you live with good habits or bad habits; it will adapt, re-mould, and find ways to keep going around your good or bad decisions. Even if it's painful and even if it's ineffective because life's master plan is to find a way. Your body is stubborn as hell and will give everything it's got to survive... until it can't. 

This happens:

  • When it reaches its breaking point 

  • When the obstacle is too hard to overcome

  • When an accident happens

  • Due to the lottery of genetics and probability: disease

It's just like a live-action movie where the secondary character keeps dodging impossible obstacles until SMACK, he gets hit by a bus. Isn't life fun?

So while we wait for that fateful day when life will get the better of us, we can help our body to improve its "survival kit". We can even have some fun with it.

Training: Upgrading our Evolutionary Survival Kit

When we are training, we're asking our bodies to adapt by gradually triggering life to "find a way around" the obstacle - in this case, the training stimulus. By training, we are invoking our biology's ability to adapt to meet our needs. Plateaus happen when our biology has figured out the best way to deal with the obstacle or the stimulus, and it remains there. 

So how do we take all this evolutionary science stuff and put it into practice? By really tuning in to the agenda of life ("find a way"), we then learn to apply this principle to ANY type of training, whether you want to play basketball, master the violin, or "be your best self"… But if you ask me, just simply getting through life pain-free and happy with yourself is already a pretty good goal too. 

Remember, life's agenda is surviving, it doesn't care about thriving. It's tough, stubborn and will die trying. It's how we're able to walk through life with our bad habits only to notice when it's a little too late.

Life will find a way (until it can't)

There comes the point where adaptation can only take you so far. If you plant a palm tree in the Arctic or try and explain to a polar bear that he should move to the desert, you probably won't get a great result. The key is understanding the spectrum of adaptability, otherwise known as the trainability factor, which can be influenced by genetics and body composition. 

The key here is that it's YOUR body - your biology, habits, and potential to thrive. The best strategy is to make sure you know how far it's useful to push before getting hurt. Yes, of course, you can trust a professional to help you, but nobody knows YOU better than YOU. Understanding the basics and learning to read and govern your body will help you think critically before accepting advice from a professional or concerned family member. 

Life is economical - it prepares for the worst

Harvard professor and author Daniel Lieberman E PhD is the world's leading paleoanthropologist; the study of the combination of human evolution, biomechanics and sports science. He wrote several wonderful books exploring the history of our body and how our innate laziness results from our evolution. What Dr Lieberman explores in great depth is the concept of energy conservation. Essentially, our body is always preparing for Doomsday.

"No hunter-gatherer goes out for a jog, just for the sake of it, I can tell you from personal experience - they go out to forage, they go out to work, but anything else would be unwise, not to mention maladaptive." - (Lieberman, 2015)

In essence, the human body has evolved to conserve energy to avoid us running out. Our body is incredibly efficient at storing fat in case we run out of food and finding the most energy-efficient way to reach its goal. Sure, being in top shape will win you medals and looking Instagram-worthy might be an effective way to secure yourself a partner (this is known in the study of evolution as sexual selection). Actually, your rock-hard abs and your gym selfies are no different from peacocks flourishing their tail feathers and monkeys wiggling their brightly coloured butts to attract a mate.

Of course, you can still shake your tail feathers and win your medals. Long gone are the days when our function as humans was solely to hunt for our food, so if we want to thrive, we must adapt. But unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we have to make a conscious choice to ditch the car and move around on foot. By understanding that our body's agenda is different to our own and looking back at how we got here, we'll find the path to thriving a lot easier and a lot more fun. Your body can adapt to become effective just as much as it's got the ability to be lazy.

Why is it important to always keep this at the forefront of our training strategy? 

Even though ADAPTATION is possible, your individual genetics will influence how you respond to different stimuli, and your body's innate tendency to conserve energy will lead to training plateaus. 

Your body takes 8 - 12 weeks to gradually adapt physiologically to a stimulus. So essentially, it has 2 - 3 months to figure out the shortcuts to become efficient at whatever crazy thing you're asking it to do. Capillaries will grow, connective tissues and muscles will shape, and your lungs and heart will adapt to meet the demand, along with all of your other systems that help your body along in their own distinct way. Your trainability is your body's ability to adapt to become more efficient, and this can either be your biggest asset or it can be your downfall. 

So will you just survive, or will you thrive?

References from Evolutionary Sports Medicine

Lieberman, D. E. (2015) 'Is Exercise Really Medicine? An Evolutionary Perspective', Current Sports Medicine Reports, 14(4), pp. 313-319.

Jessica Christensen - Writer & Academy Director

Jessica is a holistic sports science & training specialist and industry innovator in the sports, fitness, and wellbeing education sector. With over 15 years of experience, her studies include NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) Harvard Medical School HMX Physiology, L4 Advanced Anatomy & Physiology, Evolutionary Biology, Philosophy of Science, TQUK L3 Award in Education, with continuing studies in evolutionary biology and sports science USCCE Accredited Program Director.

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