I was reading an article on BBC written by a genetic epidemiology professor named Dr. Tim Spector who went to live with a hunter/gatherer tribe, the Hadza, in Tanzania. He was studying the link between what we eat and the diversity of the microbiome of our digestive system. In the course of 3 days, Dr. Spector’s gut diversity increased 20% by eating foods outside of his daily regimen including local plant life and porcupine. Our guts contain trillions of bacteria that are at the core of our metabolism and immune system, and a growing volume of data suggests that greater diversity of bacteria in the gut provides improved health and a lower risk of disease. 20% of trillions is a lot of bacteria! It is clear that adding a little diversity to the good doctor's diet resulted in an impressive return in health for a short-term investment.
So what does a diverse gut signature have to do with movement? Multiple branches of science have shown time and again that what is good for one system in the body is often good for the others. Cruciferous vegetables? The research suggests they are potent anti-cancer agents, as well as conducive to heart, gut, and brain health. Walking? The research suggests it is important for decreasing the incidence of all-cause mortality as well as cognitive health. A diverse gut biome is increasingly deemed necessary for optimal immune and neural health, as well as overall capacity to physically thrive. And a diverse movement biome is increasingly recognized for optimal neuromuscular, musculoskeletal, and cognitive health.
15 years ago, I met a man who told me that gyms were invented for people who did not own peach trees. He had owned many acres of peach trees for over three decades. Each day he would tend the trees and the land – harvesting, raking, planting, mulching, trimming, planning, and fertilizing. He was always moving, and his movement varied considerably day to day. He did not have any significant issues with pain until a year and a half after he sold his land and peach trees. That is when I met him. His movement biome went from robust and constant to limited and minimal. He basically became sedentary. His back, shoulders, and knees all became an issue from the marked decline in his physical capacity instigated by the narrowing of his movement biome.
I was at a photo and video shoot a few weeks ago, and a young creative asked me, in my professional opinion, what the best workout was. She said is it yoga? Running? Lifting? Zumba? Biking? Swimming? I said yes. She said but which one? I said all of them. As much variety as she could handle. She did not appear ready for that answer. And I thought that was odd. When I got to thinking about it though her response was not surprising. Watching tv and social media, one would think the gym or a phone app is the place where physical health and resilience are attained. Much of the research the public is exposed to regarding parameters of physical activity and exercise have to do with minimal amounts of cardio or strength training one needs to do in order to achieve improvement and some curbing of disease processes. There are often suggestions that some programs/movements are good and others bad. Like you can attach a moral imperative to a movement pattern?
More recently, we see in the emerging research that the thousands upon thousands of low threshold, variable repeats that occur throughout the day of an active, non-sedentary (read that sits less than 3 hours a day) person are where the underpinnings of overall physical health and capacity are achieved. Work done by Rezende et al suggest that people who sit for more than 6 hours a day are 40% more likely to die from all cause mortality in the next 15 years than people who sit for less than 3 hours a day. Their work further suggests that hitting the gym hard for an hour each day may not be sufficient to bridge the gap in health from a sedentary existence. Our society seems fixated on doling out the minimums rather than the optimums.
The gym means different things to different people. In my own experience, it is one of my favorite places and a place I have spent a great deal of time in throughout my life. It has been a training facility, a medical facility, a temple, a meditation hall, a laboratory, a social club, an office, and a library to me. For me it has also always been an adjunct to the work of living an active life, not something that took the place of it. The capacity I gained there allowed me to hustle for pucks in the corner of the rink without being knocked over. It allowed me to crash my snowboard without dying. It allowed me to hike without knee pain, to clear my head after an argument, and to manage my stress. It has always been a way for me to build greater resilience into my system to allow for life overall to be more healthy, fun, and robust. It has never been a replacement for living actively.
In the long game, 3 sets of 10 twice a week do not fix 10 hours of not picking anything up every day for 15 years. 5 minutes of couch stretch each morning does not counteract 45 years of riding a desk. 3 sets of heel raises do not counterbalance walking a tenth of a mile daily and leaving your feet in foot coffins for the past 10 years. They can help of course but are insufficient in isolation. These efforts are most effective when mixed in with a more active and variable daily movement biome. It is the difference between thinking of movement as an intervention versus a lifestyle change. It is the difference between looking to do the least required to see a change versus doing what it takes for things to actually be different.
So get up. Get out. Do stuff. Lots of different types of stuff. Sit less. Move more. Hit the gym. And the stairs. And the woods. And the climbing wall. Ride the train on one foot. Hang off the monkey bars. Watch tv on your belly. Do your paperwork on the floor. Learn new tasks, new sports, new skills, new instruments. Your cognitive pathways and motor pathways run next to each other. Let all of you improve and enjoy the benefits of engaging more fully in the world around you.