Friday, 31 December 2010

Intermission - religion and science

Some thoughts on the brink of a new year. An intermission in the exercise for fat loss rambling was at its place.

There are people in this world, quite a few people, who would let their children die in the hands of a holy man rather than have them live by the hands of a doctor. A holy man is trusted at the expense of logic and reason and without taking into account the human minds ability for imagination and self-deception. The doctor is disregarded because to the layperson he operates in a field as difficult to understand or more so than a religion with simple answers.

A holy man, be it priest, mullah, shaman or other is trusted because he is there, unlike the scientific paper(s) or the lines of reasoning that might, in the presence of sufficient schooling and training, convince people otherwise. 

In the health store the poster tells us that the vitamin C supplements can cure our colds. It might be right even though Linus Pauling was made a laughing stock claiming so, but that’s not the point. The poster is there, unlike the scientific papers or biochemistry textbooks undermining the claim. It is there with bright colors, a friendly smile and a promise it would be so nice to believe in.

We humans are prone to base our beliefs and understandings on the closeness of the source of information. Of course we are. Education and religion show a negative correlation. In areas where education in increased religion is decreased. When the textbook is slammed on your desk with the incentive to learn its contents the information is there whether you want it or not. The availability of good information make the esoteric unnecessary. This is not to say that any religious person is less smart or wise than the atheist, the human brain is more complex than that.

As frustrating as it is to see religions firm grip on virtues I hold high like those of reason, logic and skepticism, it is also very understandable. The holy man is there.
When your doctor tells you to reduce your saturated fat intake he does so because the information that he relies on is there. It is there in the local medical journal and it is there in pharmaceutical statin commercials sent to him.

Albeit, closeness of information is not all it takes, but I believe it to help more than it may seem. The doctor is unlikely to being swayed just by being shown a meta-analysis from Kraus, by being told the story of Ancel Keys or by some of Ravnskovs marvelous statistics. Just as a devout christian is unlikely to cast away his beliefs when listening to the evolutionary biologist.

But, the presence of good information is likely to sow seeds of uncertainties. I know from my own experience that my present views are the product of constant drops of information leading to uncertainties not to be left unexplored.

When someone close lose weight by eating fat and the results are there and clear in my face the impact is stronger than simply having heard of a similar episode somewhere. Of course, we can train ourselves to be more or less open and skeptical and the training can reduce the effect of the distance of the information. But, before we are properly trained to investigate information for what it is, irrespective of its closeness, distance matters. The commercial poster beats the journal, and the priest beats the scientist by being there.

My conclusion and solution to all of this is to keep being up in peoples faces. Be there. Talk to the doctor and the priest and your friends, write a blog, write a letter and spread seeds of potential knowledge. Admit to it when proven wrong and yield when a better argument is presented, but don’t keep your knowledge to yourself.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

What is the best exercise for fat loss? Part II

Energy expenditure – does it count?

No current treatment for obesity reliably sustains weight loss, perhaps because compensatory metabolic processes resist the maintenance of the altered body weight.
Leibel, Rosenbaum and Hirsch 1995 [1]


The energy
For some background reading on energy, this might be of interest.

Most endurance exercise apparatus found in a gym are equipped with a calorie counter. By inputting your weight and height and measuring your heart rate the display will tell you how many calories (kilocalories) you’ve burned (Calorie is a measure of energy. The international standard is Joule, but this is largely ignored.). You can literally count the fat loss while exercising. Or can you?

Robert W. Jeffery and coworkers randomized 202 obese men and women to standard behavioral therapy with the goal of either expending 1000kcal/week of exercise or 2500kcal/week, for 18 weeks. The actual reported energy expenditure for kilocalories per week at 18 months was 1629 and 2317 for the 1000- and 2500-kcal/week groups, respectively. At 6 months, there were no differences for weight loss between the groups, despite a reported difference in weekly energy expenditure of 562kcal. Reported energy intake was similar between groups. At 18 months the high PA (physical activity) group showed significantly more weight loss than the low PA group, 8.8kg vs 6.7kg. Now that’s a lot of extra exercise for a mere 2kg extra weight lost over 18 months [2].

All participants in the Jeffery study were instructed to reduce daily energy intake to 1000–1500 cal depending on initial body weight and to consume less than 20% of energy as fat. In addition they attended weekly group sessions for 6 months and one session per month thereafter. That is a lot of effort, exercise and starvation for 7-9kg of weight loss in 1.5years. It should also be mentioned that unlike the low PA group the high PA group were instructed weekly by trained exercise coaches and the participants in the high PA group were given 3$ for each week that they achieved or exceeded the energy expenditure goal of 2500 kcal/wk during the last 6 months of active intervention. Imagine the cost of treating overweight this way.

The authors of course concluded that when it comes to weight loss, more exercise is better and Donnelly [3] uses the study to conclude similarly – more is indeed better. However the study shows how there is little association between the amount of energy spent and consequent weight loss.

Many studies have showed that adding exercise to an energy restricted diet does not cause a greater weight loss [4-6] . If you are still a believer in the energy in energy out dogma this should have you worried. The truth is that expending more energy often does not lead to greater weight loss.

Leanne M. Redman [7] reported that one study [8] showed an 80% increased weight loss with exercise. Participants in the study were put on a National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) diet or the same diet with exercise (brisk walking or jogging 3 times a week). What Redman forgot to mention was that the exercise group also reported a 550 kJ/day smaller energy intake compared to the diet group.

McTiernan and co workers [9] randomized 202 men and women (sedentary/unfit persons, 40 to 75 years old) to control or an exercise intervention for 12 months. The exercise intervention was facility- and home-based moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic activity, 60 min per day, 6 days per week. Mean exercise time was 370 min per week for men and 295min per week for women. At 12 months exercise had resulted in 1.9kg and 3kg reduction in fat mass in women and men respectively. As mentioned in my previous post, it is difficult to account for all the variables in a study. Although the participants were asked not to change their diet, the researcher has only poor data on the participants’ diet.

You might argue that the above study shows positive results, showing how exercise effectively reduces weight and hinders weight gain. However, exercising for 60min per day for an entire year only to lose 3kg of fat, do not strike me as great results. Clearly the energy expended through exercise should have resulted in a larger weight loss according to the leading energy in - energy out dogma.

Joseph A. Houmard [10] and colleagues randomized 154 sedentary, overweight/obese subjects to either control or an exercise group for 6 months: 1) low-volume/moderate intensity group [~12 miles walking/week at 40–55% peak O2 consumption], 2) low-volume/high-intensity group (~12 miles jogging/week at 65–80% VO2 peak), and 3) high-volume/high-intensity group (~20 miles jogging/wk at 65–80% VO2 peak). At six months the low-volume/moderate intensity group had lost 0.8kg of body mass. The low-volume/high-intensity group lost 0,6kg of body mass, while the high-volume/high-intensity group which expended the most energy exercising, lost a whopping 1,8kg of body mass.

The fairies in the back of my garden were thrilled.

Back to Leanne M. Redman at Pennington Biomedical Research Center. Although she is convinced that the human body can be considered equal to a closed system where energy in and energy out is easy to measure and control and is the only thing worth measuring, she has done some very fine research. With her colleagues she did a study where 36 overweight, but otherwise healthy people were randomized to either control (healthy weight maintenance diet), caloric restriction (25% reduction in energy intake), or calorie restriction plus exercise (12.5% reduction in energy intake and 12.5% increase in exercise energy expenditure) for 6 months. After three months weight had declined by 7.4% for calorie restriction only and 5.8% for calorie restriction plus exercise. At six months the numbers were 10.4% and 10.1%, respectively. So the weight loss was equal using two different strategies and calculated energy deficit was equal. However, for men in the diet group fat loss accounted for roughly 64% of the weight lost and 68% in the exercise group. For women, fat loss accounted for 75% of total weight lost in the diet group and 85% in the exercise group.

There was a substantial loss of non fat tissue regardless of method, but the loss of different tissues also indicates different amounts of energy lost.

In 2002, Jeff Volek and co workers [11] put 12 overweight women and 10 overweight men on a low fat/low calorie diet and made them exercise four to five times a week. The goal was to reduce weight by 5kg in eight weeks. The women in the trial lost 4.3+3.4kg. But only 58% of this was fat mass. Percentage body fat went from 44.2 to 43.2. After eight weeks the women were just as fat. Had all the weight lost been fat, body fat percentage would have dropped to 41.8 – a much more reasonable drop. Imagine these women losing weight like this outside of a study setting, eating less and exercising – perhaps watching the calorie counter on the treadmill. They would probably have been thrilled to lose 0.5kg of weight each week.

Robert Ross [12] randomized 52 obese men to control, weight loss by diet alone, weight loss by exercise alone or exercise with stable body weight. Participants in the diet-induced weight loss group were asked to reduce daily intake by 700kcal during the treatment period to achieve a weekly weight loss of approximately 0.6kg. To lose the same amount of weight, participants in the exercise-induced weight loss group were asked to maintain a pre study isocaloric diet for the duration of the treatment period and to perform exercise that expended 700 kcal/d. Participants assigned to exercise without weight loss were asked to maintain body weight and to consume enough calories to compensate for the 700 kcal of energy expended during the daily exercise sessions.

The average weight loss was similar for both the diet-induced weight loss group (7.4 kg) and the exercise-induced weight loss group (7.6 kg). And the caveat? Calculated daily energy deficit (Doubly Labeled Water 14 Days during Weeks 6 to 7) was -663kcal in the diet group and -1039kcal in the exercise group. And although the participants in the exercise group were to not change their diet, they were instructed to follow official dietary guidelines. In addition the total fat loss in the diet group was 4.8kg and 6.1kg in the exercise group.

I could go on showing exercise studies that does not support the view that energy expenditure and intake is something we can control and should base exercise on – that we can calculate fat lost by exercise. Weight loss is vastly different between studies that are aiming for similar energy deficits. It is likely that the type of exercise is a confounding factor, as well as individual differences and lots of other hard to control for variables. My point is, if researchers struggle this hard to calculate fat loss and to use energy expenditure and intake as guidelines in weight loss, how is regular Joe to cope with the same task?

In “Exercise for overweight or obesity”, a Cochrane Database Systematic Review from 2006, the authors found that “When compared with no treatment, exercise resulted in small weight losses across studies.” The actual mean weight lost with exercise was 0.5 to 4.0kg. In the conclusion come the rather sad statements: 
The results of this review support the use of exercise as a weight loss intervention, particularly when combined with dietary change. Exercise is associated with improved cardiovascular disease risk factors even if no weight is lost.” 
Meaning that, exercise is good for you, even though you probably won’t lose any weight.   

In “A dose-response relation between aerobic exercise and visceral fat reduction: systematic review of clinical trials,” Ohkawara [13] and co workers found that there is a correlation between visceral fat loss and amount of energy expended exercising. But, the correlation was only present in subgroup analyses and nonexistent if people with metabolic-related disorders were included. Once again those with metabolic dysfunction ruin the perfect stats, and once again it seems that in those that need it the most, exercise don’t yield the expected results.

Robert Ross also did a dose-response review, in 2001. He found a dose response relationship between exercise and weight loss only in short term studies (less than 26 weeks), and not in long term studies [14].

Although there is a positive dose response correlation between exercise and weight loss (fat loss) in subgroups of people we still cannot assume that the correlation exists because more energy expended causes more weight loss. Exercise may cause a shift in the metabolism that make us less hungry and make us compensate less for the energy expended. The effect may also be unrelated to the amount of energy expended. As mentioned, there are a lot of variables at play here. Often when energy expenditure is upped it is through higher intensity exercise. Any difference between low and high energy expenditure might just as well be because of different intensities.

You will have a difficult time finding solid data showing a strong correlation between energy expended during exercise and consequent fat loss. More exercise and more energy demanding exercise does not necessarily give better long term results. (it often does not) Because of this, when we want to find the exercise type that is best for weight loss, we should base our decision on factors other than energy expenditure.

The question is what factors?

I’ll let Katarina Melzer at Geneva University Hospital have the last word on this subject:
Increased energy expenditure due to short-term PA is not immediately compensated for by changes in energy intake. Once moderate to intense PA is performed regularly and on the long-term basis, however, a distinction has to be drawn between lean and obese subjects. While the lean show a tendency to balance the extra PA energy expenditure by adapting their energy intake accordingly within a period, of about 3 days, the obese, probably due to their excess energy storage, do not show such a compensatory mechanisms.” [15]

Next: Exercise intensity

References

1. Leibel RL, Rosenbaum M, Hirsch J: Changes in energy expenditure resulting from altered body weight. N Engl J Med 1995, 332: 621-628.

2. Jeffery RW, Wing RR, Sherwood NE, Tate DF: Physical activity and weight loss: does prescribing higher physical activity goals improve outcome? Am J Clin Nutr 2003, 78: 684-689.

3. Donnelly JE, Blair SN, Jakicic JM, Manore MM, Rankin JW, Smith BK: American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand. Appropriate physical activity intervention strategies for weight loss and prevention of weight regain for adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2009, 41: 459-471.

4. Nieman DC, Brock DW, Butterworth D, Utter AC, Nieman CC: Reducing diet and/or exercise training decreases the lipid and lipoprotein risk factors of moderately obese women. J Am Coll Nutr 2002, 21: 344-350.

5. Cox KL, Burke V, Morton AR, Beilin LJ, Puddey IB: The independent and combined effects of 16 weeks of vigorous exercise and energy restriction on body mass and composition in free-living overweight men--a randomized controlled trial. Metabolism 2003, 52: 107-115.

6. Dengel DR, Galecki AT, Hagberg JM, Pratley RE: The independent and combined effects of weight loss and aerobic exercise on blood pressure and oral glucose tolerance in older men. Am J Hypertens 1998, 11: 1405-1412.

7. Redman LM, Heilbronn LK, Martin CK, Alfonso A, Smith SR, Ravussin E: Effect of calorie restriction with or without exercise on body composition and fat distribution. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2007, 92: 865-872.

8. Wood PD, Stefanick ML, Williams PT, Haskell WL: The effects on plasma lipoproteins of a prudent weight-reducing diet, with or without exercise, in overweight men and women. N Engl J Med 1991, 325: 461-466.

9. McTiernan A, Sorensen B, Irwin ML, Morgan A, Yasui Y, Rudolph RE, Surawicz C, Lampe JW, Lampe PD, Ayub K, Potter JD: Exercise effect on weight and body fat in men and women. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2007, 15: 1496-1512.

10. Houmard JA, Tanner CJ, Slentz CA, Duscha BD, McCartney JS, Kraus WE: Effect of the volume and intensity of exercise training on insulin sensitivity. J Appl Physiol 2004, 96: 101-106.

11. Volek JS, Gomez AL, Love DM, Weyers AM, Hesslink R, Jr., Wise JA, Kraemer WJ: Effects of an 8-week weight-loss program on cardiovascular disease risk factors and regional body composition. Eur J Clin Nutr 2002, 56: 585-592.

12. Ross R, Dagnone D, Jones PJ, Smith H, Paddags A, Hudson R, Janssen I: Reduction in obesity and related comorbid conditions after diet-induced weight loss or exercise-induced weight loss in men. A randomized, controlled trial. Ann Intern Med 2000, 133: 92-103.

13. Ohkawara K, Tanaka S, Miyachi M, Ishikawa-Takata K, Tabata I: A dose-response relation between aerobic exercise and visceral fat reduction: systematic review of clinical trials. Int J Obes (Lond) 2007, 31: 1786-1797.

14. Ross R, Janssen I: Physical activity, total and regional obesity: dose-response considerations. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2001, 33: S521-S527.

15. Melzer K, Kayser B, Saris WH, Pichard C: Effects of physical activity on food intake. Clin Nutr 2005, 24: 885-895.

Monday, 20 December 2010

What is the best exercise for fat loss?

You’d think this question was easy to answer after studying exercise and health for many years. You’d think I would know. I would think I would know, but when asking myself the question recently, it struck me that I didn’t. I can make a calculated guess, but I should know.

What sort of exercise would you recommend for an overweight person wanting to lose weight? Cardio, strength, plyometrics, combos? What about sets, repetitions, load, restitution and what about energy expenditure? Different exercise forms give different stimuli and affect different tissues, so it is likely that some forms of exercise are to be preferred to others. But which? 

In "the Biggest Loser," overweight people are pushed through extreme exercise to lose weight
The Science

Let’s look at the basic science as an introduction.

If I was to give an overweight person exercise advice based on a superficial glance at the scientific literature, the advice would be, “Don’t exercise. It doesn’t work”. Exercise trials are usualy ineffective unless accompanied by a dietary intervention. 

A 1995 meta-analysis [1] concluded that:.

Aerobic exercise causes a modest loss in weight without dieting. Exercise provides some conservation of FFM [fat free mass] during weight loss by dieting, probably in part by maintaining glycogen and water.

When the John E. Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health sponsored two conferences that dealt with obesity as a public health problem, there was controversy surrounding the question of cause and effect and they concluded: “The importance of exercise in weight control is less than might be believed, because increases in energy expenditure due to exercise also tend to increase food consumption, and it is not possible to predict whether the increased caloric output will be outweighed by the greater food intake.

A recently published study showed how overweight women put to exercise regularly, unconsciously compensated for the increased activity level by being less active when not exercising [2]. Based on my own experience with sports, I don’t find this odd at all.

Joseph E. Donnelly from the University of Kansas was the lead author of the American College of Sports Medicine position stand on “Appropriate Physical Activity Intervention Strategies for Weight Loss and Prevention of Weight” from 2009 [3].

On the question of whether physical activity will prevent weight gain they give it evidence category A. Evidence category A is in the words of NHLBI "Evidence is from endpoints of well-designed RCTs (or trials that depart only minimally from randomization) that provide a consistent pattern of findings in the population for which the recommendation is made. Category A therefore requires substantial numbers of studies involving substantial numbers of participants." 

Trouble is, there are no studies that can point to exercise being the cause of weight not gained. It’s all based on the much observed inverse relationship between body weight and physical activity level. It is based on two factors co appearing i.e. leanness and exercise, but we do not have any data suggesting that the exercise is the cause of the leanness. Evidence category A anyone?

On the question of whether physical activity will prevent weight regain after weight loss they gave it an evidence category B. Evidence category B is defined thusly: “Evidence is from endpoints of intervention studies that include only a limited number of RCTs, post hoc or subgroup analysis of RCTs, or meta-analysis of RCTs. In general, Category B pertains when few randomized trials exist, they are small in size, and the trial results are somewhat inconsistent, or the trials were undertaken in a population that differs from the target population of the recommendation.

Donnely et al refer to the 2000 systematic review by Finnish researchers Mikael Fogelholm and Katriina T. Kukkonen-Harjula [4]. This review concluded that “…the role of prescribed physical activity in prevention of weight gain remains modest.” Much of the blame is placed with study participants who showed poor adherence to exercise programs.

Joseph E. Donnelly
But Donnelly and colleagues agrees that physical activity is a poor strategy for weight loss and writes: "Few studies with sedentary overweight or obese individuals using PA as the only intervention result in >3% decreases of baseline weight. Therefore, most individuals who require substantial weight loss may need additional interventions (i.e., energy restriction) to meet their weight loss needs.

As Gary Taubes pointed out in The scientist and the stairmaster: "Rare is the person who decides the time has come to lose weight and doesn’t also decide perhaps it’s time to eat fewer sweets, drink less beer, switch to diet soda, and maybe curtail the kind of carb-rich snacks—the potato chips and the candy bars—that might be singularly responsible for driving up their insulin and so their fat."

Even the ultimate tome of complete gibberish, the report by the World Cancer Research Fund: “Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective” (http://www.dietandcancerreport.org/) gets at least something right and writes: “Eventually, food intake will increase to compensate for the exercise-induced energy loss, although the degree of compensation may vary greatly between individuals.

The report from WCRF gives us several references in support of their argument that physical activity reduces the risk of obesity, but a closer look at the references reveals that more of the references go against the conclusion than are in support and none of the studies can show anything but correlation.

A new analysis in JAMA that notes an association between physical activity and weight gain start off with saying: “Data supporting physical activity guidelines to prevent long-term weight gain are sparse, particularly during the period when the highest risk of weight gain occurs.

Another quite recent prospective cohort study involving 34 079 healthy US women (Women’s Health Study) found that among women consuming a usual diet, physical activity was associated with less weight gain only among women whose BMI was lower than 25, suggesting that if you’re already fat physical activity does not help. The study authors wrote: “…once overweight, it may be too late because physical activity—at least, at levels carried out by study participants—was not associated with less weight gain.”[5]

It is not hard to paint a bleak picture of the role of exercise in weight loss and weight loss maintenance. However, I still remain convinced that exercise is and should be a cornerstone in obesity treatment.

The trouble with exercise interventions is the same as is the subject of Gary Taubes recent blog post. The trouble is controlling for variables. If overweight people are included in an exercise intervention, it is very likely that they will also be more health conscientious when it comes to other lifestyle factors. When interventions that include both diet and exercise approaches are carried out, the researchers will try to control for the effect of different variables by doing multivariate analyses. But the analyses cannot and do not say anything about causation. Do people exercise because they are losing weight or are they losing weight because they exercise?

The fact that exercise recommendations are based on the correlation between exercise and weight loss and the fact that no study can point to a definitive causal link, does not mean that that causal link is not there. It does not make it less likely that exercise do cause weight loss and prevent weight gain. It just means we have to be careful when interpreting and to be open to new information.

The reporting of mean weight loss may also be deceiving. Boutcher and Dunn writes: “The results of exercise programmes designed to reduce body fat are disappointing. However, the reporting of weight loss as mean values disguises those individuals who do lose significant amounts of fat.”[6] Again, weight loss in those who actually do lose weight when exercising might be caused by many things, but it might also be caused by exercise. In addition, there is the trouble with reporting only weight loss, and not body composition.

Despite the lack of support from many scientific trials there are physiological mechanisms that make it likely that physical activity can prevent or protect against weight gain. There are also many risk factors related to the metabolic syndrome that are improved, seemingly by exercise alone – and if so, why should not fat mass be improved? The above mechanisms are the ones we have to efficiently address if we are to use physical activity as a weight loss tool. In addition many clues may in fact be hidden in articles whose conclusions does not favor exercise.

I will break this subject into several posts. Next posts theme: does the amount of energy expended during exercise affect the amount of fat mass lost?

References

1. Garrow JS, Summerbell CD: Meta-analysis: effect of exercise, with or without dieting, on the body composition of overweight subjects. Eur J Clin Nutr 1995, 49: 1-10.

2. Manthou E, Gill JM, Wright A, Malkova D: Behavioural Compensatory Adjustments to Exercise Training In Overweight Women. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2009.

3. Donnelly JE, Blair SN, Jakicic JM, Manore MM, Rankin JW, Smith BK: American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand. Appropriate physical activity intervention strategies for weight loss and prevention of weight regain for adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2009, 41: 459-471.

4. Fogelholm M, Kukkonen-Harjula K: Does physical activity prevent weight gain--a systematic review. Obes Rev 2000, 1: 95-111.

5. Lee IM, Djousse L, Sesso HD, Wang L, Buring JE: Physical activity and weight gain prevention. JAMA 2010, 303: 1173-1179.

6. Boutcher SH, Dunn SL: Factors that may impede the weight loss response to exercise-based interventions. Obes Rev 2009, 10: 671-680.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Play

Let’s face it, we are social animals. Being forced to solitary living is considered a punishment and rightly so. As social animals we play, both as young and as adults. Play builds social skills, it makes sure our neurons are properly connected and it builds and protects our body. 

With ever growing focus on lifestyle and health comes ever new approaches to living healthy. Health is not just diet or exercise, it’s a lifestyle. The Paleo diet, which focuses on a natural human diet based on evolutionary and anthropologic data, seems to be here for good. And with paleo dieting came paleo living. Paleo living seem to fill a void, a longing for something less urban, something real.

Erwan Le Corre at MovNat writes: “The 'zoo' is a modern, global and growing phenomenon generated by the powerful combination of social conventions, technological environment and commercial pressures. Increasingly disconnected from the natural world and their true nature, zoo humans are suffering physically, mentally and spiritually.

I believe he is correct and I believe that all around us we can see the results of people fighting it.

Many new exercise trends focus on natural movements or movement patterns. The appeal to our primordial needs sell. Not only do natural movements sell and appeal, but so does natural surroundings to move in. No doubt our urban surroundings can be depressing and alienating. The walls are hard and unforgiving if met with force, the ground we walk upon equally so.

Undoubtedly, the human animal is not well adapted to asphalt and steel living. We can smash our skulls open simply by falling from an upright position, and in an urban surrounding we often place our heads far higher than our bodies’ height. In other words, we brake easily and surrounding ourselves with metal and concrete might not be the best of ideas. We all like things soft. Of course we don’t feel good.

An innate urge to move, suppressed 
That, to the right is me, teaching local kids how to do a so called wall flip. I teach them Parkour, or at least I am there supervising while they run around.

When a group of human youngsters, like those in my group, are given space to play in, equipment to play with and a few examples to follow, their behavior is strikingly similar to most other large group living mammals. It is a natural movement pattern utilizing all the movements of the body. They’re rolling, vaulting, climbing, jumping, crawling, falling, running, sliding and so on. Play will cause such diverse movement patterns because it is not stylized. The movements become natural because they’re dictated by biomechanical efficiency or the acute pleasure of doing that move.

Those advocating exercise in the nature tells us to throw away our shoes, leap into the forest, find a log and toss it about. There is nothing natural about running on a rubber clad stationary treadmill followed by sitting in various contraptions pushing and pulling on metal and plastic. And the repetitiveness of it all might damage both our motivation and bodies.

Because going to the gym does not appeal much to our more primitive needs or our mammalian instincts (except perhaps that it serves as a location for mating rituals where males swill strut like a Blue Bird of Paradise and the females assess the potential, or vice versa), it will easily make us bored. For many, it will feel meaningless and unfulfilling and the risk is high that any joy of exercising will be replaced by the joy of getting positive results at the expense of any personal pleasure of moving. 

Getting results is an external (extrinsic) motivation often directed at body weight, size, shape or function. These goals are to be reached in time and exercise is only a means to reach that goal. This motivation differs a lot from an internal (intrinsic) motivation, one that comes from the joy of exercising in itself and which is thus instantly rewarding. 


It does not require a very large step back and a bigger perspective gained for the tragicomic situation of fitness studio exercise to become apparent.

Most social animals will to my knowledge play mostly as younglings, and play will gradually constitute smaller part of the day. It is the same with us humans. When we are young we are allowed to play, encouraged even to move with no apparent meaning or goals other than the share joy of moving. As we age, physical activity is gradually stylized, systematized and organized. We join sports, often competition sports where the main goal is performance. And we no longer call it play – it is far too serious to be called play.

So when we are young we play, but when we grow up we have to call is exercise and we often do it even when we don’t want to.

This lack of play in modern forms of physical activity goes very well with our mechanistic view of the human body. Focus should be on fat burning, muscle growth, body sculpting, VO2max, lactate threshold and all the rest. We no longer exercise the body, we exercise tissues.

The countermeasures 
When our Parkour training starts, in no way do I have to tell the kids to start exercising or to motivate them to start. I have to hold them back. I have to hold them back so I don’t suddenly find one of them hanging under the roof without something soft to land on. There is an inherent drive to play in us, so strong it is hard to control and it is most obvious in the young. And why should we control it? In these sessions no one lies down doing sit-ups to get six pack abs. They roll, run, climb, hang, crawl and within minutes have activated most of the skeletal muscles in the body.

It’s like letting your dog run and play with other dogs – when it is play time there is no stopping the playful instinct. Mark Sisson knows the importance of play and advises us to go on imaginary hunts for joggers. I’m sure it’s good advise although I am somewhat afraid that one can easily get carried away and suddenly find oneself sitting on top of a panic-stricken jogger, heart racing with pure adrenaline joy.

No motivation for exercise is all intrinsic or extrinsic. Even if we really enjoy the exercise in itself we most often have external goals driving us. The problems occur when the scale gradually tips in favour of external rewards.

In no way am I suggesting that we are not playing. There is lots of play out there and all is not stylized and boring.

I believe that many of the smaller physical activity trends have emerged because of a lack of play in traditional sports. Skateboarding is a prime example. In the beginning of skateboarding it was all just for fun. No rules, no competitions, just the board, the wheels, your shoes and your body.

Snowboard is an equal example from winter sports. Unlike most forms of skiing it was all for fun. No rules. Just play. In the water the board to play with can be a surfboard, wakeboard or any other floating device.

Play does not, however, exclude competition. One of the fastest growing sports in the US is Ultimate Frisbee. It is a playful activity indeed. Frisbee golf is also great fun and even more fun with some competition (even better with a cold beer halfway in).

Many such exercise trends have emerged and seems to me to be emerging in increasing numbers. The trend is great and YouTube is overflowing with examples of skilled people exercising for the fun of it. 

An interesting aspect with some of these new play-based exercise trends, is that they have in them something other than the activity itself and something other than results and play. It is not about our bodies, but our surroundings. When the traceur (Parkour performer) (or a skateboarder for that matter) is running around in the city he is taking back his alienating surroundings. He is making the concrete jungle* his jungle. We are being estranged by our very homes, we don’t feel good and we don’t much want to move when everything is so bloody hard. But where the average person sees a wall and a blocked path the traceur sees a challenge. If our surroundings are hard then we’ll be soft.

There is no need to take of your shoes and look for the nearest forest. It is not our surroundings that that make us behave naturally. Although it may help, we do not need trees or grass to stimulate play and natural behavior. An alien watching chimps play in the forest and kids playing in the urban jungle would have a hard time differentiating the species. One covered in hair, the other by fabric.

You can take the human out of nature, but you cannot take nature out of the human. Any ground is our playground. 




*Urban jungle is perhaps not a good term. A city is nothing like a jungle. Humans evolved living in small groups, small enough for an individual to properly know all other individuals of that very group. A city may be comprised of hundreds of thousands and even millions of people. The only way for an individual to retain his mental health is to form small subgroups (tribes) and to consider everybody else part of the background. So one major reason to seek forest exercise is to avoid the social overkill of city living. To take a break – to be distracted. And distraction is indeed one of the most important reasons why physical exercise makes us feel good.


Friday, 3 December 2010

The Human Animal

When I grew up I loved watching nature shows on TV (and I still do). My dad is a science teacher and used to tape all the good shows. I especially remember David Attenborough coming closer to animal life than anyone I had ever seen. The Velvet Claw made a big impression as did The Living Planet.

I also remember well another show hosted by Desmond Morris, called The Human Animal. I remember how his most famous book, The naked ape was always part of the bookshelf at home and I watched the show over and over.

For some reason I started thinking about this great TV show and found it’s available online. One episode in particular is very interesting. Morris looks at feeding behavior and the evolution of it. How the fruit eating forest ape became the meat eating plains ape, the nutritional value of insects, earth eating and much, much more. He also argues that humans are not very well adapted to savannah living and that human ancestors might have gone from forest living to becoming an “aquatic ape”.

Great show and recommended viewing here.