We need to rethink exercise
Then vs Now
I’m not sure our hunter-gatherer ancestors would understand the word “exercise”. They’d describe their movement as either hunting or building or playing, but not as exercise.
Exercise exists to compensate for our sedentary lifestyles. The modern environment is inconsistent with what our bodies need and were built for so we need to supplement with exercise.
Sure, we are making progress in many areas, but often at the expense of our health. Having everything delivered to your door is great, and it’s great you can make money by moving not your whole body but just your fingers. But every step forward in convenience must be compensated for by an extra dose of exercise. The prevalence of health issues and obesity tells us we suck at compensating.
Modernity has given us longer lives but not healthier lives. Not being fit, not using the muscles we’re given, needing to catch our breaths when we climb two stories of stairs... It's an insult to millions of years of human evolution.
To move enough, despite increasing environmental pressure toward the opposite, there are two options:
- Turn your own microenvironment into one where it’s impossible not to be fit. Here, discipline is outsourced to the environment, so you move effortlessly; moving is the default.
- Conform to the sedentary macroenvironment but force yourself to exercise. Here, your discipline and habits are the only thing keeping you active; not moving is the default and you must constantly push uphill to deviate from this default.
For the most part, we fail at the first option, so we resort to New Year’s resolutions and (atomic) habits and buying workout programs from slightly obnoxious if not narcissistic Instagram fitness gurus. And, for the most part, we fail at this second option, too.
So we need to rethink exercise. Not only do we move less than we should, but when we do, we move for funky reasons and in funky ways, as we’ll now explore.
Aesthetics vs Function
Being fit isn’t the same as looking fit. Let’s unpack the difference between aesthetics and function (or as I like to call it, cheap muscle vs costly muscle).
Cheap muscle is when you have the appearance but not the function. So you may look strong and in control of your body, but you still struggle to do 10 pull ups or a handstand. You start from the end, which is the muscles, instead of the beginning, which is the function.
In nature, function means what you can do with your body. Can you run, climb, hang, play, throw, lift? But, in modernity, we have decided that function means what you can do with weights in a gym. Because we are obsessed with muscles, the output is all that matters, no matter how you get the muscle. So obviously, we get it the cheapest way we can: artificially inflating the muscles with hypertrophy-focused movements in the sterile environment we normally call “the gym”.
Cheap muscle is gained with the intent of gaining muscle (vs the intent of gaining function). In particular:
- Muscles that are mostly for decoration. Chest, biceps, traps. You barely use them, no matter what you do day-to-day. The core and glutes and back is where the strength’s at.
- Muscles that are the largest but not necessarily most important from a functional perspective. For example, no bodybuilder cares about the hip flexors or the supporting muscles around their shins, even though they serve a big functional role. They’ll just do another chest day.
In comparison, costly muscle is what you get from “functional exercise” (which is a funny term because what exactly is exercise that isn’t functional?). You get both the function and the muscle, not just the latter. So your calves are big not because you rise to your toes 30 times a week but because you run fast, stop fast and jump explosively.
Hunter-gatherers had just the muscle they needed and used. We have muscle we never use outside of the gym. Muscle used to be a result of function and exist only as long as it had a function. Today, we mindlessly amass muscle (like we mindlessly amass possessions and everything else) even when there’s no real-life function.
Artificially inflating your muscles (especially the big, decorative kind) is a cheap way to signal your fitness. It’s much costlier to first develop the functions that then lead to muscles. But your average gym-goer just hopes no one stress tests their fitness in the real world. They are a boss in the sterile environment of the gym and they look great, and that’s enough for them.
If you rethink why we exercise, you see we’ve chosen appearance over function even though nature has intended the opposite. And, generally, it’s not a good idea to bet against nature.
Natural vs Artificial
While there are many ways to exercise (and we’ll get to those later), there isn’t a more Instagrammable option than the gym. Unsurprisingly, then, it’s one of the most mainstream options. Even if it’s a mostly artificial enterprise.
Consider what a fairly normal gym-goer does:
- Artificial protein and supplements
- Specialized gym equipment
- Workout gear like straps, belts, gloves, wrist wraps…
- Performing repetitive movements with known weights that are evenly distributed on the bar
- Perfect alignment, form and movement patterns (often enforced by the machines)
- Precisely 3 sets of 8-12 reps with progressive overload, then going home and enjoying 1.5g of protein per kilo of body weight
- And if you’re especially focused on hypertrophy, maybe you’ll try to avoid cardio, running in particular, because that breaks down some of those sweet, sweet gains of yours. (If you forgot everything about modern day body standards for a second, how messed up is it, for a human, to not run?)
Everything about gyms is artificial, predictable, pre-planned and repetitive. In other words, gyms have sucked nearly all variability away from human movement. You must have perfect form, perfect movement patterns, perfectly timed and measured protein, perfect grunts during each rep… none of it is natural. Sure, we control the weights. But not our bodies.
We think we’re serving our bodies with all this predictability and calculated optimization. But we’re actually serving the gym, the modern religion. Our bodies like variance and randomness. If you consistently run in the forest, your ankles get resistant against straining because of all the unpredictable stressors provided by the environment. But if you run on a treadmill, that same effect doesn’t happen. (Relevant post)
Gyms do to exercise what schools do to learning. Artificial rules that are removed from real life, hackable metrics, no variation, repetition day-in and day-out. Don't think you dislike learning if all you've done is school, and don't think you dislike exercise if all you've done is the gym.
If you rethink how we exercise, you see we’ve chosen probably the most artificial form possible. We’ve domesticated movement.
Whole vs Compartmentalized
Have you noticed how there’s a separate gym machine for just about every muscle, barring perhaps your ears (but I’m sure if we found bulky ears more attractive, you’d find an ear muscle machine at your local gym - one for each ear most likely).
We isolate. But in nature, one muscle never works alone. Even if you did biceps with a bar, thus targeting one muscle group, you’d need your core muscles to keep you balanced and prevent you from rocking back and forth. A gym machine does this balancing for you, so your body’s muscles don’t learn to work together.
Nature gave us antagonistic muscles, supporting muscles and the bigger muscles, the “push” and “pull” muscles… there’s always a force and a counter-force, and the system works well in nature. But then we introduce isolation and isolation machines, and suddenly start developing imbalances and repetitive stress injuries. Who would have thought?
Sports more widely, not just the gym, suffers from overspecialization. We isolate a movement pattern, like the long jump or the golf swing, and train that ad nauseam. But in nature, you hardly follow the 10,000-hour “rule”.
Even if the sport developed many qualities - like soccer which gives you endurance, speed and strength - it’s still specialization. Not as grossly so as working out in a gym, but specialization nevertheless, which makes you more fragile. Focusing on one sport, you’ll eventually get your last injury (from repetition): tennis players have their elbows, soccer players have their knees and marathon runners have their shin splints. All competitive sports optimize for something, but it isn’t function, longevity or overall health.
Humans weren’t made for specialization or to optimize for one metric. Our bodies are those of a generalist. You can tell by the way we have all this redundancy built-in (so a human is able to deadlift or squat 500kg, even if we would never do that in nature) and how we can adapt and excel in so many different ways (so a human can run a marathon in 2h, and a member of the same species could carry 10 of those stick-like runners on their back).
If we were meant to be specialists, we’d all be good at one thing and suck at many other things. Each human would look similar to each other. We’d be like cheetahs: each individual is extremely fast and we can’t tell them apart. But we’re humans: you can’t find this amount of variability in any other species.
In intellectual matters, many keyboard thinkers repeat Robert Heinlein’s famous words: “Specialization is for insects”. Becoming a polymath is trendy. But with matters of the body, why is the opposite, complete specialization, trendy?
What would it even mean to be a polymath with your body? A “bodymath”, if you will.
An intellectual polymath can explore almost any topic; nearly anything the brain can conceive, they can explore. Similarly, anything the body is physically capable of, the bodymath can explore. Both kinds of polymaths have a wide and extremely strong foundation from which they can derive new ideas and new moves (a foundation not gained via specialization).
The “movement guru” Ido Portal says you are able to improvise with your body when you play on the beach for an hour and don’t repeat yourself once. Another test: can you discover new ways to move your body? Do a movement or a sequence of movements with your body you’ve never seen anyone else do before?
Like a polymath effortlessly connects ideas from one discipline to another, the bodymath effortlessly connects elements from gymnastics, martial arts, dance, parkour, yoga…
Picture in your mind a person who’s really mastered their body. They are to bodies what Einstein is to brains. Do they just look fit, or are they also able to do something with that body of theirs? If Einstein turned complex stuff into elegant equations, the Einstein of bodies can do immensely complicated moves with such simplicity and ease you wonder if different rules of gravity apply to them.
While I explored a few differences, I think the distinguishing factor between a specialist and a generalist is improvisation. A specialist will follow rules and conditions, and thus they are confined to a limited, predictable range of possibilities. A generalist is able to improvise because there are no rules - the limitations are natural (physics), not social (for example, what is allowed in tennis).
But it is a lonely path to become a generalist with your body. Specialists get the spotlight: the gym freaks get our admiration on social media, Olympians get the medals, and the soccer stars get our loyalty. Yet, I believe bodymaths can gain a level of control over their bodies specialists can only dream of. A certain sense of freedom and optionality from having a balance between all qualities (instead of, say, max strength but limited speed).
I’m obviously not a polymath nor a bodymath. But as I aspire to become the former, I find it hypocritical not to aspire for the latter, too.
So from now on, I will no longer train in silos. No more isolations, unless they are a necessary path towards improvisation. No more obsessing over aesthetics at the expense of function. No more identifying myself as a runner or a swimmer or a gym-goer. Just as a human with a human body. No more settling into a routine with my body, like I don’t want to settle into a routine with my mind.
We’ve now started to rethink what exercise stands for. In the first section, we questioned the fact that we even need to exercise in the first place. Section two questioned why we move while the last two sections analyzed how we move, first with a gym focus and then more widely.
In matters of the brain, we aspire to be critical, take no one’s word for it. But in matters of the body, we don’t have that same criticality. We sort of accepted that we need to work out (probably looking at the mirror), accepted that working out means going to the gym, and accepted that all these artificialities and specializations are a natural part of it.
So, you need to rethink exercise for yourself. You cannot take cues from others; that will leave you unhealthy, one way or another.