Fitness has always been an important part of my life. Growing up, my parents owned a martial arts academy and I practiced martial arts from the time that I was a toddler. Although I didn't participate in organized sports, I was an avid figure skater and I started weight lifting, practicing yoga, and running in high school. During college, I became even more serious about fitness and what started as a healthy habit eventually morphed into somewhat of a warped obsession and addiction (although I didn't recognize it as such until much later). I didn't have a body image disorder, but I used my love of fitness as a crutch in a lot of ways. I worked out 6-7 days per week, rarely allowing myself a true rest day. I would feel guilty and uneasy if I did miss a day at the gym. When I was first diagnosed with autoimmune disease, I was in the midst of training for a marathon. I was running daily, followed by additional cardio classes in the gym, heavy lifting sessions, and Crossfit workouts. Knowing what I know now, I realize that my intense exercise regimen, especially the chronic endurance training, likely contributed to the development of my autoimmune issues. The fatigue, stress, and pain that I experienced when I was first diagnosed forced to take time off from the gym for a few months. Even though it was a dark and challenging time in my life, that period of rest was critical to my eventual recovery.
Since then, I've had to learn a lot about the most effective ways to exercise while keeping my autoimmune disease in remission. My formal fitness education is through the American College of Sports Medicine, which I completed several years prior to discovering the Paleo lifestyle. I learned quite a bit about exercise physiology and exercise science throughout the process of obtaining my certification, but the organization is very much grounded in a conventional medical paradigm. ACSM's Exercise is Medicine initiative is a great step in the right direction of conveying the importance of movement in preventing and reversing disease, but the problem is that many modern exercise modalities are unnatural and taxing to the body. Just as with food, fitness can be viewed with an ancestral health lens. How did our ancestors move their bodies in such a way that they stayed strong and healthy?
It's fairly obvious that a big difference between our ancestors and the average American today is that our ancestors actually moved their bodies. Americans are scarily (and embarrassingly) sedentary. In early 2015, a report released by the Physical Activity Council indicated that 28% of Americans were totally sedentary or did not participate in any one of 104 common activities in the previous year. That is in stark contrast to the life of a hunter-gatherer who would have been physically active nearly every single day of their life in order to accomplish activities of daily living.
Of course, our ancestors didn't exercise for recreation or to enhance their fitness levels. Even though my relationship with fitness has been redefined, I still love lifting heavy weights (in the gym no less) and I am proud (although not obsessed) of the muscular definition that I've been able to build. But there is still a lot that I've been able to glean from how the human body is intended to move. For example:
- I prioritize walking. It truly is one of the best exercises that you can do.
- I take rest days when I need them. And I don't feel guilty about it.
- Although I try to be more "active" in general, I "workout" much less than I used to.
- I don't engage in chronic endurance training. While the occasional long run, bike, or swim probably won't be detrimental, frequent and sustained cardio exercise will cause the body more harm than good as it can lead to increased intestinal permeability (a leaky gut).
- Strength training is pretty awesome. And when you combine strength training with a bit of cardio every once in a while (i.e., lifting weights safely at an increased speed), you can achieve some great results.
- Functional movement patterns are key (squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, push-ups, shoulder presses, etc.). Yes, I squat ass-to-grass, and no, it is not terrible for my knees.
- Footwear that permits the natural movement of the body (barefoot/minimalist shoes) allows for greater range of motion and improves balance and alignment. Get rid of those Nike triple-cushion sneakers! Just do it!
How have you redefined your relationship to fitness since discovering an ancestral health lifestyle?