This is the monster article I mentioned a while back. I got inspired to write it after reading this 52 page research, Role of Inactivity in Chronic Diseases: Evolutionary Insight and Pathophysiological Mechanisms. A real page-turner. And heavily referenced in this article.
Here’s what to expect:
Part I is about the benefits of participating in frequent vigorous movement, beyond of the “to look good on Instagram”. Yes, for most people a part of training motivation is the vanity aspect. That’s cool. I am not above that. Honestly, it’s probably a bit weird if it’s not. Yet, if you are like me and motivated more than just owning a body you can rub in coconut oil, this is for you.
In the end of Part I I’ll cover how much of physical activity to aim for at minimum.
Part II dwells further into physical inactivity and how it relates to osteoporosis, cardiovascular health and mental health, among other nasty stuff. So if you want to know the specifics of why physical movement is the best thing ever, you’ll love Part II. In the same way you love Godfather Part II vs Part I. I mean, both are amazing. But in unique ways.
Movement Is a Gift, Not a Necessary Evil
Physical activity and exercise are often seen as a necessary evil that people must do. It’s the force-fed solution to losing weight, to look good and “to not get fat”. It’s that annoying thing we have to do to fit into our jeans, look good in a tank top or get into a smaller dress size.
But looking better is only the cherry on top of the health-cake that frequent and vigorous movement practice delivers. Although vanity can make up for a potent cherry for motivation it unfairly gets most of the attention. And sadly it’s the same vanity-cherry that drives most of the marketing and values in the fitness industry.
Just check on Instagram if you need a reminder of the values that health and fitness industry is build upon. Big, plum-like butts that shake to the sounds of whoever is playing highest in the charts. Developed (and coconut oiled) male chests that rhythmically flex to the tunes of our empty values.
In essence, we’ve stripped the definition of health and fitness down to “you have to look like this.” And people who are not strongly driven by these values of vanity (and the smell of coconut oil) struggle to find anything to grip. For them it is harder to make a frequent physical activity a sustainable part of life.
Essentially, the fitness industry has become this self-absorbed monster, masturbating on its own reflection. It’s hardly a surprise some people often feel alienated by every aspect of it.
Why Is Vigorous Movement So Important for Our Health
Vigorous physical movement will give you a resilient body. And a resilient body allows you to live a louder life. Even if you like being quiet.
Vitality to have more energy in our everyday lives. Mobility to move and explore the world pain free. Longevity for long life. Even better, a long life to not only exist, but to thrive in a sedentary world plagued by chronic illness.
Still too often we measure health by the outside factors. We stare at BMI, focus on the scale weight and judge someone’s inside health based on the outside. But this doesn’t tell us what the ratio between fat and lean muscle is, how much visceral fat they have hugging their organs, what their strength levels are, where they stand with their cardiovascular fitness, and how well they doing mentally.
As an example, research shows that BMI and physical inactivity are independent predictors of diabetes. So it’s possible to be at a perfect BMI and be as unhealthy as a donkey sitting in acid rain. Inactivity increases the visceral fat tissue which is associated with cancers, hypertension and type II diabetes. Especially when compared to a “healthier fat”. The one that is not hugging the organs.(1)
So yes, it’s possible to look skinny on Instagram and still have the organs screaming in agony. On the flip side, it is possible to not fully fit into Instagram’s mold of “fit” and still be healthy.
Being physically active is like putting money on your savings account for the future
Unfortunately, just like with real money, most of us don’t like to think too much of how the actions today will shape our future. We ignore vigorous physical movement only to pay the price later on in life. Similar to the way we are driven by commercialism and spend faster than we can earn.
Our current physical activity levels are vastly different compared to what humans evolved to do. We sit in offices, in public transport and slouch on couches. And our societies are plagued with chronic illness. World Health Organization ranks physical inactivity as fourth leading cause for global mortality.
Research shows that physical inactivity is associated with 35 chronic illnesses. For some chronic diseases the likelihood of chronic illness goes up by 20-45% due to physical inactivity. There are estimates that 6-10% of deaths worldwide from chronic diseases such as heart attacks and stroke, cancer, asthma and diabetes are because of physical inactivity. And this is not only the case with those who are overweight or obese. Inactive groups have higher death ratios than moderately active people, regardless of being lean or obese.(1)
We ignore that our physical inactivity doesn’t only affect us but also has a long reaching consequences. A life lived in sedentary will eventually become a financial cost not only for the society, but also an emotional burden for our loved ones. If we ignore physical activity long enough we will need someone to care for us at a relatively young age. At an age when we should still be thriving. Maybe it’s a hip fracture. Maybe a serious chronic disease that needs to be managed by doctors and healthcare providers.
The health system is great at helping us once we’ve shat our pants. It’s the systems that’s designed to remove the tumor, fix our broken hip and give us medicine to manage and fix our disease and pain. And the same time, it’s a system that doesn’t always have time for helping us with the preventive medicine. Preemptive medicine is challenging to do with 10-15 minute consultations.
A Brilliant Preventative Medicine at Our Disposal Whenever We Want
Let’s not ignore the power of a humble walk
This is clear in the study of double-decker bus drivers who sat all day and conductors who had to climb stairs to collect fares in 1953’s London (1). The conductors had a roughly 30% less coronary heart disease compared to bus drivers. Conductors were also older when diagnosed and had a lower death rate compared to bus drivers.
Then there was a 12 year study in Southern Ontario(1) where the most walkable neighborhoods had lower level of incidence of type II diabetes.
This is science and biology telling us that we evolved to thrive on frequent, vigorous physical movement. It’s impossible to ignore the signs that physical inactivity is a cause of not only most chronic diseases, but biological aging. And what eventually happens with biological aging? Immobility and death.
The greatest effect against biological aging and immobility may come from vigorous movement that’s started at a young age and practiced through the lifetime.(1) And the best time start? Yesterday. But if you haven’t started yet it’s ok. The next best time to start is today.
How Much of Vigorous Movement Is Enough?
Honestly, when it comes to movement I don’t know if there is such a thing as too much. Australian Department of Health website gives us the following guidelines for adults between 18-64 years of age:
- Doing any physical activity is better than doing none.
- Be active on most, preferably all, days every week.
- 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week.
- Do muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week. (like this program here)
This doesn’t mean that you should do a marathon of high intensity body pump classes and Crossfit each day of the week until you throw up a little in your mouth.
Immune system can act as a guide
Immune system is heavily influenced by physical activity. Too much activity with high levels drops the immune system. But do too little and your immune system takes a hit and goes to the shitter. It has to be just right. If you find yourself getting the flu and random colds all the time, take a look at your movement and physical activity levels. It’s not necessarily that you’re doing too much, but rather, with too high intensity and too often.
So yes, there’s a point of too much. But for most people, except for the HIIT bunnies and Crossfit He-Mans it’s probably something we don’t have to worry about for now.
That’s the end of Part I. If you are interested in this stuff as much I am keep going to Part II where I dwell more into the research. Osteoporosis, movement and mental health, and all that jazz. It’ll be captivating and somewhat morbid. Just like Godfather Part II.
A Deeper Dive Into Why Physical Movement is Better Than Dope
Osteoporosis – Movement against the loss of bone mass
As we know osteoporosis is more likely in sedentary and physically inactive people. As the body doesn’t deem bone to be important for function (if you remember from here, the body and therefore bone reacts to force) it will start to piss out the unnecessary bone minerals as muscle and bones are not stimulated in inactivity.
All of that increases the likelihood of bone fractures.
In an extreme case the loss of bone mass and minerals is what happens in astronauts who spend extended time in space and don’t have to bear the load of gravity. Again, body reacts to force, gravity being the greatest. As it says in the research “We’ve known for a long time that mechanical loading is crucial for optimal bone mass.”(1)
The bone mass levels are highest around 18-20 years, after which it is difficult to gain higher levels. This density is maintained at maximum until roughly 30 years of age. And after that it becomes a battle of survival to keep all the possible bone mass that we’ve gotten in our developing years.
The amazing story is that being active during or prior puberty may have bigger effect on bone mass than many pharmaceuticals taken by adults with osteoporosis.(1) It’s like at the end of the night when you want another drink but the bartender has closed the bar and refuses to sell you another drink. Except that the night is you in your 30’s and bartender refuses to sell bone minerals. Well, sort of.
Sarcopenia – Movement against the loss of muscle mass
Sarcopenia is the degenerative loss of skeletal muscle mass quality and strength associated with aging. It’s a component of the frailty syndrome and one the biggest reasons for functional decline and loss of independence as we age.(2)
In men this starts as early as in the 30’s. Then the losses accelerate in the 50’s when muscle mass drops 1-2% per year and strength 1.5%. After 60 years the strength loss speeds up to around 3% each year. Keep in mind that power drops double the rate of strength. Another reason to add some explosive shenanigans into your training routine.
Get a grip!
There is data now supporting the thought that muscle strength (not mass), such as a simple grip strength measurement, may be a better predictor of mortality. Poor grip strength could predict onset of sarcopenia, pending disability, physical health problems, cognitive decline, as well as morbidity and mortality risk.(1)
So if those jars are getting tighter and tighter it might be a sign to get a grip. Ideally while listening to the album of the same name by Aerosmith.
Often when strength and muscle mass drop falls become more common. And when a frail body falls with velocity to meet a hard surface things tend to break. Hip fractures being an unfortunately frequent theme.
Walking and movement becomes a struggle without a hip. And reductions in life quality due to broken hips are comparable to reductions for multiple sclerosis or developing Parkinson’s disease.(1) So although we live longer than ever in the history of humankind, our quality in later years is often debatable. Only because of we are not taking preventative action.
Practicing vigorous movement could delay the onset and severity of these diseases
Some smarty pant scientists discovered that deaths from all causes, suicide and cardiovascular disease were 41, 70 and 46% higher, respectively, in the 1.1 million (!) Swedish males with the lowest strength level 24 years after measuring their strength at 16-19 years old.(1)
And because body reacts to force the whole principle of movement practice is based around “use it or lose it”. The body adapts to whatever stimulus we provide. If we’re sedentary the body will adapt to that too. Obviously we can’t stop aging but it’s worth trying to slow it down to get more out of our later years. Live a vigorous life and drop dead doesn’t sound too bad.
More to lifting weights than the coconut oiled bodies on Instagram. And I love coconut.
Movement against the brain loss (that’s a term, I think…)
There’s an abundance of research supporting the fact of higher level of physical activity improving cognitive development in some areas of the brain. And as expected, being sedentary and physically inactive reduces these same qualities.
Whether you are an old or young reader research supports that people who are physically active either early in life or after teenage years have lower chances of cognitive impairment later in life.(1)
Vigorous movement practice could act as a potent protective force for dementia. And Alzheimer’s disease risk related to physical inactivity overpowers the risk factors that come with depression, diabetes, low education, hypertension, obesity and sucking down the cigarettes.(1)
Movement against depression and anxiety
Even without research most of us can relate to how moving our bodies makes our minds feel better and brighter. The National Physical Activity Guidelines report concluded that physical inactivity raised anxiety disorders by 175% and by 138% when adjusting for sociodemographic and illness. Sedentary individuals were roughly 45% more likely to have depressive symptoms compared to those who moved. Further, being physically inactive for four years raised the risk of depression by 22%, after adjusting for the risk factors.(1)
What’s more, there is some research about physical inactivity being a cause of depression in some cases. And how choosing a couch over a bike could increase the chances of developing anxiety disorders.(1)
Physical activity guidelines to lessen the symptoms of anxiety
Based on this The National Physical Activity Guidelines recommend more than 25 minutes of exercise (both aerobic and resistance) to lessen the symptoms of anxiety. This doesn’t mean that being physically active will necessarily cure these issues on its own. But it could be a potent (and perhaps underutilized?) part for the process of trying to get better.
The effect can be seen as early after walking 30 minutes per day for 10 days.(1) Now that is some strong medicine.
Movement against the heart and lung explosion
Your time on this planet can be shortened or lengthened by the level of movement practice you participate in. Meaning that your time of death is not set in stone with genes but can be altered by taking a part in lifelong movement practice.
Aerobic training delays cardiovascular aging by two to four decades. Further, the drop in normal aging between 30 and 50 years of age could likely be close 100% because of the level of physical activity. Aerobic fitness and physical activity were stronger predictor of chronic diseases than established risk factors of smoking, hypertension, obesity and diabetes.(1)
And there’s the reason why I finally convinced myself to add more aerobic training into my days. I used to hate running until I fully understood how much benefits it can have for my health.
We have the power to directly affect the speed of our aging. If that is not motivating I don’t know what is.
Movement against diabetes and metabolic syndrome
You might already know that physical activity increases the need for glucose needed to be transported into muscle cells. So higher levels of activity leads to higher levels of depletion in the glycogen stores which in turn increases insulin sensitivity.(1)
That’s why some high level fitness enthusiast time their most carbohydrate heavy meal right after training. This way insulin can shuttle the shit out of it all the way to the muscle cells.
Newsflash: insulin sensitivity is good
In contrast if the glycogen levels are high due to inactivity the need for glucose is low. And so is the body’s need for insulin sensitivity.
It’s like insulin just hangs on the couch and watches cricket in the pancreas because it’s not needed anywhere. Eventually insulin gets so caught up in the cricket that it opens a bag of potato chips, unplugs the phone off the wall and checks out. When you need insulin it won’t answer the phone because of cricket. And potato chips.
So what the hell does all this mean then?
Physical inactivity can contribute more to insulin sensitivity that aging (I know, another surprise). Research shows that each additional hour of physical inactivity increases the odds of type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome by 22% and 39%.(1)
When someone tells you that as they’ve gotten older they are putting on more weight because of the age related decline in metabolism you can now tell them that it’s partly horseshit, To a point. Part of it is due to them being less physically active compared to their hey days in the youth.
Movement against chronic inflammation
Physical activity at a sufficient intensity has an anti-inflammatory effect, while physical inactivity increases the continuous level of pro-inflammatory effect. Sure, acute inflammation is great. It’s an important part of healing of cuts, sprained ankles etc.
But we know that chronic inflammation in the body is no bueno and can affect the body in all the ways already mentioned, including cancer. With colon cancer there’s a increased risk of 24% when comparing inactive and active groups. With breast cancer there are more complex factors in play but physical inactivity is major factor in increasing the risk of it as well.(1)
Movement against shithouse energy levels
We already know that vigorous movement and exercise increases the energy levels. Here’s summary from study comparing studies. “All of the studies suggested that there was an association between physical activity and a reduced risk of experiencing feelings of low energy and fatigue when active adults were compared with sedentary peers.”(3)
But it’s a tricky situation. Being sedentary makes us tired and therefore we don’t feel like doing any sort of movement. Yet the remedy is the thing that we feel like doing the least: physical activity. Not to run ourselves to the ground with high intensity exercise. But to take a “movement snack” in the middle of the day.
When I do a long day of writing articles, training programs and some admin stuff I take one movement snack after two hours and second in the mid afternoon. Anything from walking, skipping, rolling on the ground, joint mobility, on the spot marches. Sometimes it’s 10 minutes, sometimes an hour. And I am always energized after it.
Here’s some ammo to support it, if you need it. “Physical activity recommendations has benefits for energy and fatigue even when combined with an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. Moreover, in women who are insufficiently active, being less sedentary is associated with lower levels of fatigue that are comparable with women who are meeting recommendations.”(4)
Movement to drive up the sex drive
Physical activity, when not done to excess, has the power to increase sex drive. It’s again one of those U shaped curves where not enough exercise can reduce sex drive and too much strenuous exercise can suppress it. The same way as it is with immune system and too much strenuous exercise.(5)
Vigorous movement is so good and powerful for us that you’d be forgiven to think it should be illegal. Like dope*. But luckily it’s not. Go find a movement practice you enjoy. Try things that you think you hate. Maybe you’ll learn something about yourself, like I did with running. Play the long game. Reasonable done with consistency beats extreme done sporadically.
*Not that dope is good for us. That’s why it’s illegal. Don’t do it. Rather, go participate in vigorous movement.