Monday, July 10, 2017

Is running a natural exercise?

I’ve long been a proponent of the saying “you need to get fit to run, not run to get fit.”

I understand why many people gravitate towards long-distance, steady-state cardio.  There’s no equipment involved.  All you need is a place to run, a pair of shoes (shirt and pants optional) and the time.

The thing is, running – especially long-distance, repetitive running – can be a joint killer if one is not properly prepared for the additional stress.  In addition, many people are programmed into thinking that jogging (and “cardio” in general) is the key to a lean, healthy body.  While it can most certainly enter the equation – I do feel it’s an often overprescribed and over-rated mode of exercise outside of actually being an endurance athlete.  More to the point:  it should be a component of one’s overall fitness plan, not the sole approach.  Nevertheless I like to think of myself as a middle-of-the-road kind of guy and hate using monikers such as everyone, never, and always.

Everything has a time and place  – running included.  That said, I do lean more towards the camp which favors either walking or short bursts of sprinting.  And, of course, strength-building exercises.

Is running a natural exercise?

Depends what you consider running; the one for speed or the one for distance.  Based on the prevalence of marathons and triathlons, and the number of visible joggers in most neighborhoods, you’re likely thinking distance.  Moderate intensity running appears to be the most common form of exercise, but does that mean its natural?

The reason most of us start jogging is because that’s what we think is necessary to burn calories and lose weight.  They do it in the military after all, and in any form of sports team training and practice.  Sadly, our sedentary, inactive, technologically driven jobs and lifestyles, and tendency to select high-carb, sugar-loaded foods, has given us the false impression that we need to eat less and exercise more.

Apparently our fatness is because of a lack of fitness (and an abundance of foodness!)

Don’t get me wrong, we all need to move more; but the question of ‘how’ is critical.  Instead of getting scientific, lets look at two simple questions that provide considerable insight into how we should be moving:

*What was our daily activity like in the past?  When we were hunter-gatherers.
*How did we move before we were taught how to move?  When we were kids.
Prior to the agricultural revolution, we actually had to go out and get our food.  The cows weren’t in the barn, they were roaming the countryside.  The berries weren’t at the grocery store, they were out in the wild.  And you didn’t drive somewhere to eat, you gathered fruits and vegetables on your walk…as you looked for animals to hunt!  The biggest difference between then and now is that they moved frequently at a slow pace, and we don’t.  Many are surprised to learn that most hunter-gatherers walked more than six miles per day.  Any exercise outside of that was infrequent, and usually consisted of acute bouts of highly intense movement in order to survive.

Hunter-gatherers didn’t run for 20 miles at 70% intensity to escape a hungry wolf, they ran for 20 seconds at 110% intensity to escape a hungry wolf.

There was obviously some lifting, climbing, carrying, and building involved as well, but (generally speaking) their daily walking combined with a diet composed of animal protein, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruit is what produced the physique in the fellow pictured above.

Our ancestors would probably laugh watching us run for hours to ‘burn calories', or participate in a 'fun run'.  Back then, energy was conserved, and you either walked to get somewhere, or you ran really fast to get away from something.  Even when organized hunting developed, hunter-gatherers relied on their brains and other resources to track and trap animals (not chase them around for 3hrs!). 

The same conclusion is reached when looking at early childhood movement prior to instruction from parents and coaches.  If you take a look at children playing in a park with no constraints, you’ll notice that they run and play with intensity for short bursts, and follow it up with ample recovery before running again.  If you don’t feel like observing it yourself (or you don’t want to look like a creep), science did it for you in a 1995 study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.  Researchers found that children playing didn’t move consistently at a constant speed, they unknowingly exercised in intervals.

Most kids have to be taught how to jog – instinctively they feel more comfortable walking or running fast.

Ask any rehabilitation specialist (physio, chiro, masseuse) and they’ll tell you how detrimental chronic repetitive movements can be on muscles, joints, bone, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons.
During the time of writing this article, there’s a Dr. Scholls commercial with celebrity trainer, Dolvett Quince.  The commercial is about ‘clients missing workouts because of injuries.’  Interestingly, all three problems he mentions are related to running:

 Shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and runner's knee.

Moreover, no one is saying that jogging doesn’t have any health benefits – it most certainly does!  And honestly, if jogging is something you like to do and enjoy… by all means, jog to your heart's content.  But please don’t continue to espouse on all it’s “benefits” when you’re the one always hurt and paying for your physical therapists or chiro’s Porsche.

Looking at the medical records of most Cardio Kings, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re consistently nursing injuries.  All of these conditions are because of the stress and impact from chronic cardio sessions.  And it’s the reason running shoe companies, like Nike, bring in millions of dollars selling you pillows and cushions for your feet.

Other than musculoskeletal damage, continuous and prolonged exercise conflicts with our natural fight or flight response to stress.  Usually when there’s a threat to homeostasis (stress), our heart beat accelerates, blood vessels constrict, and we secrete adrenal hormones (corticosteroids), so that our brain and muscles have the necessary energy and blood flow to ensure we survive.

A beneficial adaptation for short periods of time, but when experienced chronically the body produces excess stress hormones (cortisol), and other important functions and systems must take a backseat (like digestion, reproduction, and immune function) as our muscles and brain take priority.
Excess corticosteroids are linked to heart disease,  poor reproductive health, and decreased immunity.

The irony in the term ‘stress fracture’ is almost laughable, when you understand the excess cortisol and oxidative stress attributable to chronic cardio.

Unfortunately, many that select running (the long duration kind) as their predominant form of exercise tend to seek more miles and higher speeds, which further damages muscle and bone, increases stress, and raises one’s risk of degenerative disease and early death.

So What is Natural?

Obviously, we can’t mimic the exact daily regimen of the hunter-gatherer, but we can all take 30min or more per day to go for a walk.

It may not be 5+ miles/day, but it drastically lowers our risk of the common diseases affecting North Americans.  Walking lowers cortisol, decreases inflammation, lowers blood pressure and triglycerides, improves cognitive function, and increases lifespan; with no muscle loss, hormone disruption, or potential for injury.

Aside from daily walking, the exercise regimen that’s most in line with our genetics is functional strength training.  We can match the physical labor of our forefathers by lifting, pressing, pulling, carrying, and squatting a few times per week.  Sprinkling in the occasional ‘run for your life’ sprint every once in a while doesn’t hurt either.

The problem with most North Americans is that they attempt to make up for crappy eating habits and an inactive day with lengthy moderate intensity cardio sessions.  All these 3-hour bike rides and 10 mile jogs lead to is an increased appetite (for sugar!), elevated stress levels, muscle mass loss, free radical accumulation, decreased immunity, and chronic inflammation.

The time and effort wasted is not the sad part, it’s that this weight management strategy shows little improvement in body composition (muscle-to-fat), and the additional stress and over-consumption of sugar to ‘fuel workouts’ actually increases belly fat.

Ironically, losing belly fat is the reason most start jogging or doing cardio to begin with.

We shouldn’t be running marathons, or taking part in the high-mileage, high-frequency training that goes with it, because we’re not designed to consistently handle that kind of stress.

Although it’s common for endurance fanatics to cite examples of long distance running in some of the earliest-known hunter-gatherer tribes that we descended from, this was not frequent.

Just because we have the hamstrings and Achilles tendon to run, and are equipped with the unique ability to sweat and release heat so we can go far, doesn’t mean we should.  When it comes to survival, we’re capable of staying awake for days, going without food for weeks, and running for extremely long distances until an animal tires, but that doesn’t mean we should turn these practices into habits.

I believe this quote from Dr. Mark J. Smith sums it up quite well:

“While the endurance athlete has a need to maintain a high sub-maximal intensity for long periods to be successful, the vast majority of athletes, and certainly humans in general, have no need for this type of activity.”

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