By Alicia Fortinberry, MS
For most women and men the push for 'fitness' has caused at least as much confusion, injury and guilt as it has physical health and enjoyment.
The word itself has come to mean to many people more about the flatness of a stomach (think of Princess Di and her bulemia, Ali McBeal and her skeletal appearance) or the bulges of the pectorals than about function, health and vitality. With all the marketing hype about what you must buy/eat/drink/not eat/not drink/wear/not wear, 'fitness' has probably done more for certain peoples' pockets than for anybody's wellbeing.
So how do we arrive at a true definition of fitness, one that takes into account the optimal goals for our bodies and our selves, and how do we achieve these?
To find the answers we need to look at how we evolved to live. What conditions did early humans live under and how was our genetic nature shaped to make the most of them?
In essence we are still hunter-gatherers. Our bodies and our social organization were geared over millions of years to carrying out the tasks necessary to hunting and gathering. Over the last five millennia a 'mismatch' has developed and widened between the way we live and the way we were meant to live. This has led to a whole range of assumptions about our bodies, our relationships, our work and our society that modern research is showing to be wrong and harmful.
Let's first examine the realities and myths about what a fit body is. Both men and women evolved to walk , the men in search of game and the women looking for berries, herbs, roots and so forth. Walking is, in fact, the best exercise a human can take, a
fact supported by all recent studies. It has even been shown that this act of gentle weight-bearing prevents osteoporosis and stimulates the brain to think better.
Most experts also agree that jogging and extended running are not good for most of us, often harming knees, pelvis and spine. Jogging can be particularly bad for women, whose pelvises are broad to accommodate the passage of an infant through the birth canal. Since the hip joints are further apart, the legs do not go straight down, in fact they tend to form an inverted V. This slanted alignment puts an even greater strain on the knees.
Lifting very heavy weights is also counter our genetics. If a heavy stone needed to be moved, or a slain wooly mammoth to be carried back to camp, there were always a number of hunters around to help. The same was true for women. There were many hands
to carry what was gathered, and loving arms to take turns holding children.
When are most men happiest? Usually, when they are doing "guy" things like playing or supporting team sport or participating on a focused team activity at work (hunting) mapping out holidays (visuospatial skills), and throwing something on the barbeque (as they used to cook their catch of the day). Men tend to be more silent, unemotional and single-minded-all essential qualities in hunting.
When are men least happy? When expelled from the hunter band (unemployed or retired), they are far more likely to commit suicide, according to a recent English study. Most men have difficulty with or even resent being expected to help bring up toddlers,
although grandfathers often enjoy being around youngsters. In hunter-gatherer societies, men, particularly under the age of 35, have hardly any contact with children under the age of six. (This lack of contact between very young children and men serves also to
protect the children until they know how to interact with elders without inciting their anger, and of course makes early abuse from men less likely).
As the gatherers and early child-rearers, women tend to be more voluble, (children's brains need to hear constant speech by significant adults and television does not do it), more emotionally aware and mindful of their surroundings (from needing to keep a constant eye on the children and look out for the best herbs and roots). What are many women happiest doing? For many, it is shopping (gathering), expressing emotions and gossiping (i.e. bonding with other women) and being with their children without being isolated with them. Favored professions tend to be teaching and nurturing. Women who live in isolation are far more prone to physical and mental problems.
Women are under enormous pressure to look perfect and to avoid any signs of age. Many women see their physical safety as based on being thin, perhaps then they won't be passed over by a suitable mate or abandoned for a younger woman. Hence the enormous
rise in cosmetic surgery, despite its risks. Hence also the percentage of income spent on exotic face creams (none of which do any good at all, according to a study by Harvard University).
In a hunter-gatherer society a woman is prized for her knowledge and experience, not so much her youth and beauty. Her wisdom concerning herbs, her ability to find the best roots, her way with children and her ability to teach younger wives to do
these things set her apart. She becomes more valuable as she gets older.
The fear of isolation, not to mention isolation itself, is prevalent and rapidly growing amongst both men and women. Email and chat rooms are no substitution for face-to-face contact. A study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that
people who spend a lot of time online felt isolated and lonely. "People ae substituting weaker social ties for stronger ones," according to psychology professor Robert Kraut.
Social isolation creates a very real physical danger in any society, since our income and healthcare depend on interacting with other people. The power of that fear also goes back to our hunter-gatherer days and is encoded in our genes. All work, including the getting of food and protecting the group, was done as a social activity. Therefore, separation from the tribe meant almost certain death. No wonder the lack of social connectedness, or the fear of its loss, creates more stress, injury and illness than any other factor in our lives.
The lack of communal support plays a large role in the difficulties suffered by couples and the skyrocketing divorce rate. Problems between partners are a significant source of ill health. A University of Ohio study found that unhappy couples had poorer
immune control over latent herpes viruses and a lower ratio of helper to suppressor T-lymphocytes. Couples who displayed hostility towards each other had significantly lower scores on several measures of immune function including the ability to ward off various viruses and bacteria.
Couples' problems obviously affect the health and wellbeing of their children. A child from a dysfunctional household will suffer low self-esteem, leading to a lowering of the immune system. According to the British Medical Research Council's Common Cold
Unit, adults who had been abused as children were six times more likely to develop more frequent and more severe colds than those who had not been abused.
A household in which there is fear, conflict or lack of physical affection will also lead to a child's loss of connection with his or her body. This loss of connection is at the core of physical, not to mention emotional and spiritual, fitness.
The child's loss of connection to his or her body also comes from the growing lack of safe and supervised places to play outside, especially in urban areas. A child who can play safely outside is statistically less likely to suffer from serious accidents
in later life and to search out functional ways to stay fit. This may be because the brain has had the opportunity to learn how to balance, how to move functionally and in a pleasurable way and to avoid danger through play, as most young mammals do.
What is the solution to our lack of connection to our bodies and to our selves, to our increasing lack of fitness as true human beings? Can it be found in our present dysfunctional society?
The answer involves creating a mini-society around yourself that is functional and supportive.
The first thing to bear in mind is that your physical wellness as well as your emotional wellbeing depend on the health of your relationships. This means all your relationships, including those with your "significant other", your best mates, your
colleagues, your customers your boss and your children.
Good, functional relationships are those which allow for clear boundaries. We call them basic needs that must be met. Indeed, a human relationship can be defined as the mutual satisfaction of needs.
Secondly, understand what your body was meant to do in terms of your genetic heritage. You still have the body and brain of a hunter-gatherer, even if you spend your day dysfunctionally sitting in front of a sophisticated computer. Don't go against your
body by running, lifting heavy weights, eating in a hurry or in a stressful environment. Maintain a regular exercise regime which involves walking or hiking, and perhaps swimming. If you are a woman, do these activities with other women and have a good gossip as you go. If you are a man, include hunting-like team sports such as soccer.
RPM exercises that stimulate the brain to regain function, grace and vitality are excellent for both your body and your mental acuity and ability to learn.
According to Dr. Joseph Loizzo of the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, such movements can help people with even severe mental illnesses . This kind of exercise, he says, "helps people with schizophrenia realize that they have control over what their bodies are doing. It allows them to experience a more motor, less verbal mode."
Thirdly, choose activities that are congruent with your hunter-gatherer nature and avoid all those which are not. For example, do not try to force your husband to accompany you on long shopping expeditions. His blood pressure can actually rise dangerously when faced with crowded stores, check-out lines and loud music. Go instead with your women friends. All of your immune systems will appreciate the boost!
If you are a man, find time to be with other men in focused team activities. Remember, this does not include computer chat.
In short, remember who you are as a human being. Do not allow a society gone wrong to dictate how you should be with your body or your relationships, or what fitness should mean to you!
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About the Author
Alicia Fortinberry is an award-winning health writer, and expert on emotional health and optimal relationships. Together with her husband and long-term collaborator Dr Bob Murray, she is founder of the highly successful Uplift Program, and author of Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2004).
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