Walking is what your DNA is expecting and there are all kinds of genes switched on and off by walking that bring enormous wellbeing and health benefits.
I used to be a gym monkey. I found bodybuilding when I was 16 and more or less spent the next ten years working out, off and on, getting pretty strong and training to be a personal trainer. But after getting my first degree, that gym attendance became something more of a ‘should’ than something I really enjoyed for its’ own sake. I started turning up, getting my lifting done and getting out. There just wasn’t much there for me anymore. And it turns out that unless you’re pretty young and looking to build your confidence, the gym may not be the best place for you to start.
1. There are things you should fix first.
Chances are, given the way media pimp the abs and svelte forms on magazines etc., that you think a six-pack is going to solve your problems and make your life epic, or better or whatever.
The thing is, none of that is going to happen if you are starting out from a place of a decade or more of inactivity. By inactivity, I mean, you don’t move your ENTIRE body, as in, all your joints, through all humanly appropriate forms and postures on a regular basis.
That includes hanging, climbing, rolling, sitting, squatting (Asian toilets?), carrying things in various ways and covering 20 miles or more a week on foot, without a heel, distributed into unequal distances and paces through the week. Very few modern people do that kind of movement in their adult lives. Living a ‘civilized’ life, holding down a job, driving a car for much of your transport needs, all of that impedes the movement your DNA is expecting.
If you’re not sleeping 7 hours a night like clockwork, that’s where you should start.
If you’ve got that solid, you should look at increasing the nutrient density of your food, reducing inflammatory foods, keeping yourself sufficiently hydrated and generally getting yourself hormonally sorted out.
Part of getting yourself hormonally sorted out is the sleep, another is the food, and another is moving. But that movement needs to start slow, remaining low intensity for a fair bit longer than you’d probably like it to. Not because I think you’re not up to the harder stuff, but because I know you’re not up to it. Unless, of course, you’re related to my wife’s family, they all seem to be pretty bulletproof. You might be surprised to find that…
2. Ligaments and tendons need lots of time to adapt.
…ten times as much time as muscle bellies! If it takes you 1 week to recover from a muscle strain, it’ll take you two and a half months to recover if it’s a ligament or tendon strain. The reasons for that are somewhat complicated and specialist, but basically, ligament and tendon tissues are not infused with a network of blood vessels. So, they are slow to adapt, but fortunately, because they’re relatively metabolically cheap to maintain, the body seems happy to retain their size and thickness even when they’re not being used as much as they used to be.
That’s not true of muscle tissue, which is metabolically expensive and which the body is constantly trying to economize on. Anyone who was relatively muscly in their youth will be able to tell you that their muscles shrank after they stopped playing their sport or working out. If you’re just starting to build muscle, you can easily outstrip your tendons and ligaments’ ability to move the loads your muscles can. The result is injury, and all the psychological and physical fallout that leads from that.
3. Humans need novelty.
This is a pretty interesting idea, and it makes sense, if you think about it.
The ancestral environment of a human ‘in the wild’ would have been extremely varied. You’ve been outside, you know how much sensory input there is out there… well, that’s normal. We are outside animals. Inside is very recent. Mark Sisson, at Mark’s Daily Apple, writes about the change in outside time and movement between our grandparents’ lives and now, and the change is astonishing! We spend more time indoors than any generation in history, and this may not be doing us any favours. I’ve mentioned before about how the air is cleaner, the light is better and things are generally more suitable for a human being, so it makes sense that you might not want to be constrained in a gym.
What I haven’t talked about yet, though, is the sheer novelty that walking along a sidewalk provides in comparison to walking on a treadmill.
It’s not just the scenery, there are cracks, and bits that aren’t flat, chances for you to trip up and you’ve got to navigate all of that. It’s so much more than just simple walking, because the terrain is constantly changing. Go offroad for even more of what Katy Bowman describes as mechanical (or force) nutrients. Things like gradient and texture make a massive difference.
Think about the last time you went for a hike. It’s just a walk in the woods or whatever, but do you honestly feel the same when you spend all day walking in the city? Not likely. The bumps and turns, tilts and levels, the scrabble and squish of a ‘natural path’ recruit stabilizers and tissues you probably never knew you had! It can’t really not be interesting to a human being.
But many people won’t be super interested in just walking nature’s paths, they want excitement, they want action!
Well, if you’re just starting out, and I’m guessing you might be, you need to calm down and just take it easy. Joining a sports team might not be the right thing to do yet, if you value not being injured.
Kicking or throwing a ball around in the park with some friends or family is not team sports though, and it’s unlikely to hurt you. You’ll enjoy it and so will the folks you take with you. You might take a dog to the park for some ball throwing, also lots of fun. Pretty much anything that gets you off your butt and moving, especially with others, is going to be novel enough that you find at least some enjoyment in it.
Overlapping family or friend (or both!) time with movement is a good strategy for getting things done. You get time spent with people in your tribe and you get some good movement happening to keep your body thinking it’s still young and needed. Two birds with one stone for sure!
As a reader of this blog, you know that I love getting outside with my family.
I lug my daughter off to parks and local wild spaces several times a week to walk barefoot, look at stuff and just bumble around. I double up my outside time with my active time with my family time. I don’t have to set specific times to get all the component bits done, so there just isn’t the time pressure and I think my relationships with my wife and daughter are stronger for it.
These three are the ones most people don’t really ‘get’, but there are, obviously, other reasons not to exercise, including injury. If you’re injured, it should be pretty obvious that working out is daft. You won’t heal properly or as quickly and you might even make things worse, but that all goes without saying, right?
So if it’s not Billy’s Bootcamp or Insanity or a gym membership, what should you start with?
Walking. Get a buddy and go for a walk. Work out a way to walk to work. Walk in the evening with your spouse or kids. Walk to the park or beach and kick off your shoes. Stroll a leafy path through your local forest.
Walking is what your DNA is expecting and there are all kinds of genes switched on and off by walking that bring enormous wellbeing and health benefits. It will re-sensitize your cells to insulin, which they could probably do with if you’re older than 30. But it will also bring a real sense of ‘ahhhh….’ relaxation and stress reduction. Not a quick walk mind. Go slow. Moving should feel good. That adage ‘no pain, no gain’ is gym marketing claptrap.
Your DNA is evolved for you to be a walking, moving, athletic animal on the lookout for fitness improving opportunities, not a treadmill running, body building gym monkey. Ever see an animal in the wild fat, stressed and out of shape? No, me neither.