Provision #503: Fitness 401

Laser Provision

Today we shift our focus from the input to the output side of the optimal wellness equation. Having looked extensively at nutrition during 2006 it’s time now to look at fitness. What do we do with the energy we consume? The key to health is not to become an exercise addict; the key is to develop consistent daily routines that both raise and lower our heart rate. Such variability is both predictive and indicative of fitness. Have you got rhythm? If so, then you’ve got health. Read on for an overview of where the next few months will take us.

LifeTrek Provision

Back in July of 2006 I began our series on Optimal Wellness with a Provision titled “Nutrition 401“. My objective was to give you a more advanced view of optimal nutrition than what you might glean from either the popular press or from government sources such as the recommendations made by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in their latest iteration of the food pyramid.

After introducing the topic, I took five months to share with you much of what I know about the input side of the equation. What to eat and drink was my focus, and I presented a number of surprising but well-researched recommendations including the elimination or at least the reduction of grain, dairy, and processed food products. My foods of choice are a wide variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, wild fish, as well as organic, free-range poultry and lean, pasture-fed meat (all preferably from local sources). Throw in the recommendation to drink copious amounts of clean, filtered water and you have a great foundation for optimum nutrition.

These recommendations are illustrated by what we call the Optimal Wellness Prototype, an hourglass form set against a backdrop of benevolence. We covered the top half of the hourglass, what goes into our bodies, with our series on nutrition. It’s time now to dig into the bottom half of the hourglass, what comes out of our bodies, with a series on fitness. Stay with me and you may discover a few surprising recommendations in this arena as well.

We used an hourglass form for the Wellness Prototype to indicate the flow of energy. Our food and drink put energy into our bodies, and what goes in must come out. There is no other way. Every calorie or kilojoule of energy that goes into our body has to go somewhere. The first law of thermodynamics makes clear that although energy can be changed from one form into another, it cannot just disappear to nowhere. That’s why all the positive thinking in the world cannot make someone thin if they continue to eat and drink beyond their level of activity.

In the spirit of first things first, the body uses the energy we consume for survival before everything else. It takes energy to breathe, for example, as well as to pump blood, to digest food, to eliminate waste, to regulate temperature, and most of all to think. The human brain consumes about a quarter of the body’s energy intake at rest. When we fail to properly supply the body’s energy needs, we experience a variety of cognitive, emotional, and functional problems. We quickly get the message: “Eat!”

Staying alive is so energy intensive that it takes more energy to lie in bed for 24 hours than it does to run a half-marathon (more than 13 miles or 21 kilometers). Although temporary variations are easily tolerated (such as when people go on diets), the body will decline and eventually die if its basal metabolic requirements are not met over time.

It’s instructive to calculate our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), since it often turns out to be lower than many people imagine. That’s especially true if we base the calculation on our optimal body weight rather than on our current body weight. The question is not, “What’s the minimum number of calories or kilojoules I need to consume in order to be fat?” The question is, “What’s the minimum number of calories or kilojoules I need to consume in order to be fit?” It’s easy to calculate your BMR with an online calculator.

All the energy we consume beyond our BMR is either expended through activity or stored as fat. Those are the only two alternatives (remember, excess energy cannot just disappear to nowhere). If you are gaining weight, then you are consuming more energy than you are expending. If you are losing weight, then you are consuming less energy than you are expending. If you are maintaining a constant weight, then you have hit the sweet spot where energy in equals energy out. The challenge of maintaining that balance, which has a very narrow range, explains why so many people have trouble maintaining a steady weight. It’s far easier to gain or to lose weight than to keep it constant.

Yet that is exactly the promise of the Optimal Wellness Prototype. By taking us back to our evolutionary roots, both when it comes to nutrition and now to fitness, the Prototype makes it easier for people to achieve and to sustain optimal wellness.

That’s been a refrain you have read repeatedly in our recent series of Provisions. The more we eat like our ancestors, not just our recent agricultural ancestors but our distant hunter-gatherer ancestors, the healthier we will be. That’s because our bodies are evolutionarily best suited to eat the foods we have been eating the longest (and the more science studies the matter, the more they concur from the point of view medical science and functional foods). Eating modern, invented foods • ranging from high-fructose corn syrup (invented circa 30 years before present) to wheat (invented circa 9,500 years before present) • puts the body under stress. Eating the foods our bodies are designed to eat keeps the body happy.

It works the same way when it comes to fitness. The more we understand about hunter-gatherer lifestyles, the more we can seek to emulate their patterns of activity and rest. To borrow a phrase, the more we can eat and live like stone age people in the space age, the less stress and more wellness our bodies will experience. Just as our bodies were not meant to eat processed foods out of cellophane wrappers, so too were our bodies not meant to sit all day in chairs in front of computers. It only makes sense.

Fortunately, just as we can choose to eat like stone age people in the space age, so too can we choose to work and rest like them. Their lives were not “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” as Thomas Hobbes put it in 1651. On the contrary, recent ethnographic data indicate that hunter-gatherers worked far fewer hours and enjoyed more leisure than typical members of contemporary, industrial societies. They ate well and lived long, without the diseases of civilization (e.g., cancer, heart disease, and diabetes) that today afflict millions if not billions of people.

The secret of their fitness was not continuous activity. The secret was oscillating between activity and rest, including lots of sleep. Their activity-rest pattern meant that they were frequently raising and lowering their heart rates, promoting the very thing that researchers are now increasingly documenting as evidence of optimal wellness: heart rate variability (HRV).

As a diagnostic measure, and for personal training purposes, HRV refers to the variability of the heart rate at rest. The more variability, the more vitality. The less variability, the closer we are to death. Literally. As we age, HRV declines until it becomes a flat line. From beat to beat to beat, there are little to no variations. When that happens, the life force is on its way out.

Although biofeedback training is one way to increase HRV, it’s also helpful to significantly increase and decrease the heart rate beyond its baseline through exercise and relaxation. These large swings in HRV, when practiced daily, are the natural healing rhythms that lead to optimal wellness.

That’s why the output side of the Optimal Wellness Prototype includes both invigoration and relaxation exercises. We need to do both, at regular intervals and spontaneously through the day, in order to tap into our body’s natural potential and inclination for wellness. It’s the rhythm between work and rest, not just the workout, that determines our fitness.

I notice this in my own body by looking at another  measure of heart health: blood pressure. Like all people, my blood pressure varies throughout the day depending upon a wide variety of factors including activity level, stress, and my own circadian rhythms. Lying down, at rest, my blood pressure quickly falls below 120/80 millimeters of mercury for my systolic (pumping) and diastolic (resting) levels. That is ideal.

As the day goes on, however, my blood pressure can easily climb to 130/90 or even higher. That is not ideal. It’s one thing for blood pressure to rise while engaging in aerobic exercise; that’s to be expected along with a return to optimal once the exercise is completed. It’s another thing for blood pressure to creep up and to stay up throughout the day. When that happens, high blood pressure is undermining our health and wellness (regardless of whether or not we “feel anything”).

The antidote to blood pressure creep is the same as the antidote for low HRV: we need to break up the day with a variety of exercises including balance, stretching, movement, strength, breathwork, and sleep. Sitting for many hours in front of a computer screen writing Provisions, or anything else, with no breaks is a formula for health problems. It’s not the way our bodies were designed to work and rest and it’s not the pattern recommended by the Optimal Wellness Prototype.

Once again, as with optimal nutrition, science continues to verify that our ancient patterns are the best patterns when it comes to human health. A recent study, for example, of 24,000 people found that those who took at least three midday naps per week lasting 30 minutes or longer were nearly 40% less likely to die from heart disease than those who did not take naps. Researchers suggest that midday naps might protect the heart by lowering levels of stress hormones. Naps have also been shown to improve learning and productivity.

Such results should come as no surprise. Our bodies are made for variation, both when it comes to the foods we eat and the activities we perform. To work nonstop from morning till night, often from before the sun comes up until long after the sun goes down, is not healthy for humans and other living things. No wonder cardiologists prescribe afternoon naps after people suffer heart attacks or go through bypass surgery. With a doctor’s prescription, even employees in traditional workplaces can usually find ways to put their heads down for a siesta.

Breaks are not only expected, they’re often legislated for smokers and hourly workers. That pattern is good for one and all. It’s not only how much we work and rest, but also the rhythm and quality of our work and rest that determines our fitness. As any athlete knows, interval training is the key to performance improvement. Fast…slow…fast…slow. What works on the track works in life: alternating between quality patterns of exertion and quality patterns of recovery is the best way to avoid suffering the pitfalls of either overtraining or undertraining.

Quality is key when it comes to both exertion and relaxation. Our heart rate needs to get both high enough and low enough in order to have health-promoting effects. On the high side, we should seek to double our resting heart rate during 20-minutes of exertion (the stress response); on the low side should seek to cut our resting heart rate by at least ten beats per minute during 20-minutes of relaxation (the relaxation response). Such variability is both predictive and indicative of fitness.

Unfortunately, most people do not live and work in environments that support such healthy patterns of exertion and relaxation. We may work at jobs that stress us out mentally and emotionally but that give us few opportunities to exert or to relax ourselves physically. We may work all the time but never work out; we may rest when we can but never recover. This is not the way to optimal wellness, as the Prototype makes clear.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors developed healthy rhythms of activity and rest as they dealt with and evolved through the challenges of their own environments. Today we would do well to follow their lead, establishing patterns and designing environments for success, satisfaction, and salubrity. I hope you join in the weeks ahead as we learn how to make it so.

Coaching Inquiries: What are your rhythms like when it comes to exertion and relaxation? How much and how often do you raise and lower your heart rate on a daily basis? After vigorous exercise, how quickly does your heart rate return to normal? What are the invigorating and the relaxing activities that you most enjoy? How can you include more of them your life? What supports would you need to design?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

Your Provisions are the first thing I read on Sunday morning. Thanks so much for making my day! 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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