Jan 3, 2013

Physicality, Part 2

Developing Physicality, Part 2

I'll write an abbreviated version of what I originally intended to post, because otherwise I'll never get around to finishing this topic. 

Basically, the questions I have been trying to answer are, What is optimal health and well-being (let's call this "personal functioning"), and what is necessary to attain it? 

There are many aspects of personal functioning — for instance, physical health and robustness, relationship skills, mental sharpness, and emotional life. Science is uncovering more and more connections between these areas that in some ways are surprising and in others confirm our intuitions. Some of these areas are more basic than others; for instance, improving your physical health (e.g. nutrition and exercise) will improve mental functioning much more than vice versa, and emotions and human interaction are almost as basic as physical health. 

So, speaking of physical functioning, what types of, and how much, exercise is necessary to get the lion's share of the benefits, which extend into one's emotional, intellectual, and interpersonal life?

Here are some research findings that I have found particularly significant:

1. 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (brisk walking!) 3 times a week is enough to enjoy the substantial cognitive benefits it brings, which stem primarily from increased oxygen flow. Additional exercise brings decreasing cognitive returns. Hormones are also released during aerobic activity which serve to regulate mood and stabilize emotions. 

2. Strength exercises, particularly involving large muscle groups and when performed to failure, not only build muscle, but cause hormonal responses that are important to maintaining health and well-being: growth hormone, testosterone, and IGF-1. 

3. To get decent-to-optimal amounts of vitamin D, which affects numerous body systems, you need to spend a lot of time outside with your body exposed to the sun. Or take vitamin supplements. 

4. Fitness is best enhanced through short bursts of anaerobic (maximum effort) activity, or "interval training," rather than by sustained, monotonous aerobic activity.

So, someone who's really getting the lion's share of possible exercise benefits is going to be doing a fair bit of moving around on foot with occasional bursts of speed, doing varied light physical labor (or working out) with occasional bursts of intensity, and loafing around outside partly clothed. 

What kind of body does this lifestyle produce? A lean, muscular, highly functional body with great endurance — basically, a kind of all-purpose athlete. This is accessible to nearly all of us, and our biology suggests that this is how we're "supposed" to be. 

Of course, one can live a "normal" modern life without any of these things, but your brain will be operating below potential due to lower oxygen flow, and may tend to develop hormone deficiences, low vitamin D, etc. 

Furthermore, because of decreased physical development and body awareness, your attention might more easily become overfocused on your mental or emotional life — errands to run, information to consume, online interaction, your own or other people's problems, etc. My experience is that engaging the body more — effectively putting it back in its rightful place — makes it easier to see the relative importance of different activities and let go of "parasitic" ones. 

Of course, I'm speaking from the perspective of someone whose body has been chronically underused. Most of us are in this boat. Relatively few people in developed societies today overuse their body and underuse their minds and emotions, though this would have been a common problem in generations past. 

It seems there are two basic ways to incorporate the four above points into your lifestyle — the "left brain" way and the "right brain" way (these are my terms).

A "left brain" approach would be to put together an exercise regimen incorporating all of these elements at levels necessary to reap the benefits. If you don't get enough sun, you can always take vitamin D supplements. This route allows you to spend a minimal amount of time (as little as 2 hours a week, including walking), but requires a lot of willpower (a limited resource) and planning to carry out, because abrupt — rather than spontaneous or organic — shifts in activity will be necessary to keep to your particular exercise regimen. 

A "right brain" approach would be to find ways to weave physical activity and time outdoors into your daily life, and then take advantage of moments when your body feels ready to do something aerobic, anaerobic, or intensely muscular. This route requires more time overall, but less willpower. It may also be more sustainable in the long run because its protocols are simpler and more intuitive. However, most people who pursue specific results are attracted to left-brain approaches, which seem more reliable and results-oriented. 

I personally have settled on a mostly right-brain approach, given my tendency to do things only when I feel like doing them. I spend a lot of time walking around and really enjoy running when I'm late. I do a few different kinds of athletic activities — mostly with other people — and am looking for more. Variety is crucial, unless you have found an activity you're truly passionate about. Physical activity is hardly time lost, even when I'm alone. I like to listen to interesting podcasts or language recordings, and when I have something stimulating to listen to, it's a great pleasure to go out for a long walk, putting in some sprints here and there when I feel ready for it. 

I've noticed that as I become more physically active, I tend to have more "physical" thoughts and impulses — for instance, to strain some set of muscles for no particular reason while standing around, to jump up and touch the ceiling, hang on a bar or tree branch, lift a heavy object in a particular way, try to perform an ordinary movement gracefully, etc. This is a good example of how, by turning one's attention to a particular set of problems or stimuli, one can develop one's brain and personality in a new direction. In addition, the further one goes down this path, the more pleasure one gets out of it. The endorphins seem to come easier and easier. 

P.S. I have not mentioned here many related subjects, such as the value of physical play, friendly competition, developing motor skills, flexibility, and communing with nature. Plus, I haven't even talked about nutrition. This post focuses exclusively on exercise. 

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