For many people, exercise is intended to feel one of two ways:
Unbelievably hard (#beastmode)
As minimally uncomfortable as possible (e.g. reading on the treadmill)
This article isn’t about which one is good, which one is bad. They’re both terrible, obviously. Exercise is the worst.
This is really a perspective on exercise through the lens of evolutionary biology.
Certain things are trying to kill us. Whether you’re being chased by a bear or a rogue streetcar, it doesn’t really matter to your body. The stress response is the same. Catecholamines (stress hormones, like adrenaline) are dumped into your bloodstream to ready you for heightened performance. Meanwhile, your arteries tighten and your blood pressure shoots to speed up your blood’s round-trip to the heart.
You can see why these changes make sense. And you can also see why longer-term processes like tissue healing and fat oxidation get jettisoned. Who needs the long-term when the short-term is in jeopardy? It’s like worrying about your investments while you’re getting mugged.
Want to simulate the same fight or flight response on a regular day? Maximal bursts of physical effort will do the trick. This could be during a sprint interval or under a heavy bar. For extra points, down a bunch of coffee (or another stimulant) and perform in front of a shrieking crowd. You may achieve peak performance. But part of that will stem from operating at peak stress levels. This is not inherently bad. It’s just something to factor into your lifestyle equation.
The gentler side of this coin is the question of how much physical work you can do without your body registering it as a stress. You’d have to demonstrate:
– No significant elevation in blood pressure
– Low to moderate psychological arousal
– High repeatability (you’d be able to come back and do the same thing just as well tomorrow)
Why go light when you could go HAM (hard as gosh-darn heck)? To answer that, I’d like to draw your attention to the Blue Zones. These are communities around the world that exhibit exceptional longevity and health. Oddly, none of these cultures are centred around exercise. Rather, their everyday lives just happen to require a great deal of physical activity.
As you can see in this Venn diagram, these communities don’t have everything in common. But they all share a few important things: lots of veggies, strong social and familial ties, reasonable lifestyle choices, and constant, moderate physical activity.
Much of this activity is non-negotiable due to terrain and lifestyle. Whether it’s daily gardening or steep climbs to a mountainside home, Blue Zone inhabitants simply move more than most other humans. In a world filled with escalators and automatic doors, these places almost appear reverse-engineered away from convenience. Of course, they weren’t reverse engineered. More accurately, they were engineered a little and then left the hell alone.
But we like convenience. And we like specialization. So, North Americans often trade off the former for shorter, more intense, more directed blocks of exercise. Again, there’s no good or bad here. There are only context and best fit.
I’m going to summarize here:
High-intensity work functions a lot more like getting chased by a predator. These experiences are huge triggers for adaptation but people tend to respond best when there’s lots of time or rest and recovery. Otherwise, the unrelenting stress will beat us down.
Low-intensity work is low-stress and highly repeatable. No particular 20-minute block of movement will significantly put you ahead. Adaptation here comes from sheer volume and repeatability.
“Great. But what am I supposed to do?”
Enhanced strength is highly desirable. It increases resilience. The ability to perform short bursts of high-intensity cardio is an asset. Add some mobility and movement skill to the above and you’ll find yourself a pretty adaptable physical being. However, health outcomes and fitness outcomes are different. In other words, how long you live and how great you look in a Speedo are not the same things.
Structure your exercise based on your stress reserve
If you are a lady or gentleman of leisure and have no real stresses, then high-intensity exercise is not only useful, it’s essential. To keep your body and mind sharp, you’ll want to push yourself to new heights with exercise so challenging that it DEMANDS recovery. And then you’ll go back to cucumber sandwiches and critiquing the decor of other millionaires. Hard bursts of activity followed by quality recovery is a rhythm that works.
If you are a walking stress case, you may not benefit from the addition of high-stress exercise. To help recover from the rest of your life and level-up long-term regenerative processes, you’ll want a different approach. Traditional cardio will do this. Keeping your joints healthy will mobility will do this. Low-volume strength training will do this. But taking a page out of the Blue Zones and upping your daily non-exercise activity is perhaps the most effective. So don’t buy into the idea that every workout has to end feeling like you’ve been physically shattered. That’s a trend, which is not to be confused with a good idea.
For everyone else, you’ll probably find your training somewhere in the middle. You need to know when to shift the pendulum from week to week and how to balance the long-term with the short-term. Stress isn’t inherently bad. But not being able to recover from it sure is.
Fine-tune your exercise and recovery balance and you will find that it makes both your physical and mental life all the better for it. And if you’re wondering how to do that, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org