We are programmed against inactivity

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In theory we should be very physically able. Potentially we can perform all sorts of athletic feats; running, spinning, vaulting, climbing, jumping and rolling to name but a few. These movements may be familiar to anyone who practises voluntary exercise. Parkour, for example is often described as a type of ‘street gymnastics’ (1). It involves rediscovering what it means to be human by interacting with our environment, being physically active and trying to exceed what we perceive to be our limits. Whilst this kind of exercise might appear pretty extreme to most of us, it does serve to highlight the fact we might have forgotten what it means to be human.

So what does it mean to be human?  It seems that nowadays physical activity is less and less an important part of our lives. We can spend long hours huddled in front of a computer and we do not even need to interact with our environment. At the click of a button we can do the shopping, explore a number of entertainment options or communicate to the world via email. And all of this without even moving, certainly not our leg muscles anyway! Yet in the past, exercise was at the very basis of our survival. We are still here today because we could run long distances to search for food or hide from danger. Now when we are hungry we go to the fridge, when we are thirsty we turn on the tap and when we are cold we turn on the central heating. All of these conveniences remove the need to move spontaneously and we are suffering as a consequence.

Physical inactivity has been linked to many chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and even depression. But we have not always been so inactive. We were once self-sufficient; we had to be responsible for our own food, our own water and our own shelter. In the last hundred years this has changed and instead we are ‘served’ our dinner, our drinks and our accommodation. According to the British Heart Foundation seventy-five per cent of the population do not even manage to do the minimum amount of exercise recommended by the World Health Organisation (2).

Before, and we are talking five million years ago, we could outrun large animals like wildebeest until they collapsed with exhaustion. We are made for this kind of athletic activity as our genes are still back in the Stone Age. Not only do we have a large number of sweat glands to enable us to adjust to the heat, we also have short toes that are custom-made for running (3). We do not need to rely on high meal frequency and food in abundance to provide us with energy when we are moving. The organs that need it the most - the brain, heart and muscles – can produce it very cleverly from other sources such as protein or fat.

In fact physical inactivity may well be the cause of chronic disease. We know from NASA that spending long amounts of time in microgravity environments can cause a rapid loss of tissue mass, weak skeletal muscles and loss of bone mass (4). But it gets worse, inactivity can also cause constipation, lack of energy, breathing difficulties and we become stupid! The part of our brain that deals with learning and memory becomes impaired until we are no longer capable of decision making or having any form of self-control! We lose the ability to respond to signals from our body systems that tells us when we are hungry and when we are full, when we are tired and when we should move. Our ancestors, on the other hand, were obliged to move to find food when they were hungry and rest when they were full. We have lost the rhythm we have been programmed for.

Our laziness has now had to become our protection, particularly when we are unwell. Our diets may be so nutrient-poor that we lack the raw materials to produce the right messenger substances, hormones and neurotransmitters, to function. Suffering from a chronic disease means that there is an incredible demand for energy by our immune system which is working hard to make us well again. This means we do not have any left over to do any physical activity, to go out and meet friends, indeed to focus on anything or make a rational decision. To make matters worse, we have a large brain compared with other animals which also needs a lot of energy to keep it functioning. Energy will be taken from the rest of the body, often at the expense of other organs which are lower down in the pecking order. This can mean less for the liver, for example, which may be busy dealing with toxins or the breakdown of fats.

Because we are genetically identical to our ancestors, we are programmed against inactivity. Running, crawling, jumping and throwing should be part of our daily lives. By eating a healthy balanced diet and living an active life, we have an opportunity to stay well and be strong.

Fleur Borelli

Research references

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parcour
  2. http://www.bhf.org.uk
  3. http://jeb.biologists.org/content/212/5/713.abstract
  4. http://weboflife.nasa.gov/currentResearch/currentResearchGeneralArchives/weakKnees.htm

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