Exercise, Health and The Aging Process
Everyone concedes that there are significant health benefits associated with exercise. The medical establishment consistently recommends lifestyle adjustments, including improved “diet and exercise.” But the medical establishment doesn’t bother to press the exercise issue generally, and intense exercise in particular, because very few people will actually do it. It takes up too much time. You’re likely to hurt yourself if you go too hard. You’ll damage your knees. Even if it were the Fountain of Youth, baby boomers are not going to engage in intense physical activity four or five times per week for years on end.
But the behavioral choices of modern humans is not the logical point that’s at issue here. The point I’d like to examine from a philosophical standpoint is what occurs in the wild. What is normal from an evolutionary perspective? Or, more specifically, when the original mammals were evolving, did they engage in intense physical activity on a frequent basis?
For animals subject to the forces of nature, there was no option, and there is no option. Modern humans have to make a conscious behavioral choice to engage in intense physical activity on a regular basis, and the vast majority choose not to. In the natural world, there is no choice to be made. The very essence of the natural world is to compete for energy and reproductive opportunities. A lazy animal is a dead animal. It will starve unless the predators kill it first. Every mammal in the wild (including the precursors to humans) engages in an exercise program that includes frequent intensive physical activity, or dies very quickly after discontinuing it.
From an evolutionary perspective, frequently engaging in intense physical activity is a given. People like me are who frequently engage in intense physical activity are not the exception; we are the evolutionary default mode.
Why do we care about the evolutionary default mode, or what is normal? Scientists believe that the aging process and loss of function are the same thing, and that we are genetically designed for that result. The Hypothesis posits that we are genetically designed to function perfectly throughout our lifespans and that functional declines are the result of phenotype (what we are) not matching genotype (what we are genetically designed to be). It is universally accepted that the variation between phenotype and genotype is the result of environmental factors. Intense exercise is such a critical aspect of life in the wild that frequent intense exercise must be considered a part of our normal evolutionary environment.
The concept of "normal" is significant for another reason. Studies have shown that many people are opposed to scientists upsetting the natural order of things by pursuing interventions that will "artificially" extend life or reverse aging. That is not what the Institute proposes to do. The interventions prescribed by the Institute will have the effect of extending life for many. But there is nothing artificial about our mission. We aren't trying to interfere with the natural order. We are trying to restore it.
So what do I mean by exercise? That may seem like a strange question. We all know what it is. It’s anything that involves movement. It’s what differentiates animals from plants. It’s the most fundamental thing that we do. In the natural world it is no less common or essential than food or air or sunlight.
But why does exercise exert so many positive health benefits? What is the mechanism?
For centuries, we’ve been aware of the concept of “use it or lose it.” Muscles that are exercised get stronger. Those that are not used get weaker. For at least the last 50 years, we’ve been aware that certain types of exercise provide benefits to the cardiovascular system. That benefit has generally been considered an aspect of use it or lose it – jogging and other “cardio” exercises work the heart and the circulatory system so they get stronger and work better.
These aspects of exercise are the ones that have received the most attention both in the medical establishment and in the fitness community. I’ll sometimes refer to these effects as the “training effect.” With training, an athlete’s muscles get bigger and stronger, lung capacity increases, bones get stronger, the circulatory system changes as capillaries are added and the heart gets stronger and mitochondria increase in numbers and activity.
These benefits are real, and they are significant. But they are not the only health benefits conferred by exercise. The presumption by the medical establishment that all of the health benefits of exercise boil down to improved cardiovascular health (and possible obesity control) resulting from steady state exercise has obscured other, even more substantial, benefits of exercise.
Exercise is an environmental factor that helps determine how close our phenotype approaches to our genotype. The training effect is an important aspect of this. But exercise has also been shown to improve the functioning of the brain, kidneys, reproductive system, etc., etc. It also reduces the risk of all chronic degenerative diseases. Many of these “tangential effects” have no connection to the training effect. Why should physical training have a measure e beneficial effect on the health of the brain?
What’s really going on is that our phenotype is conforming to our genotype. By activating the Growth Process, intense exercise allows us to approach our genetic potential across all modalities, not just the ones that are obviously linked to physical performance. Understanding how intense exercise, but not steady state exercise, brings about these tangential health benefits is one of the most critical concepts contained in the Hypothesis.
The closest analogy is sunlight. From an evolutionary standpoint, there are compelling similarities between sunlight and intense exercise. Both are essential for survival. Both are significant aspects of the normal evolutionary environment. And so both are critical in determining how closely phenotype conforms to genotype.
Suppose we all lived in caves and never came out into the sunlight. In the absence of light, we cannot see. We cannot function. We get depressed. Building a fire in the cave would provide some light and allow us to function somewhat. Adding electric lights would improve the situation. We would be able to see and function better. If intense enough, artificial light helps with depression. But no matter how intense the artificial light is, it won’t be enough to create the normal evolutionary environment and allow us to function perfectly. There is a qualitative difference between most artificial light and sunlight. Only light that has ultraviolet B radiation causes the body to synthesize Vitamin D. Sunlight has ultraviolet B radiation. Most artificial light does not. In the absence of sunlight or some other source of Vitamin D, humans suffer from Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D deficiency causes rickets, exacerbates osteoporosis and other bone disorders and is associated with numerous other disorders.
Similarly, any exercise is better than no exercise from a health standpoint. Long bouts of steady state exercise do improve cardiovascular health and assist with certain other health issues. But even extraordinary amounts of steady state exercise (such as running marathons) won’t recreate the normal evolutionary environment and allow us to function as we were designed. There is a qualitative difference between steady state exercise and intense exercise. Only intense exercise causes the body to synthesize lactate and its related primary metabolites (Complex X). Complex X is what activates, regulates and provides the fuel source for the Growth Process. In the absence of intense exercise or some other source of Complex X, humans suffer from Complex X deficiency.
The loss of function that is associated with aging – what scientists call the aging process itself – is nothing more than an easily correctable deficiency disorder. It’s no different from rickets or scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency). People who choose not to expose themselves to the sun can prevent Vitamin D deficiency by obtaining Vitamin D from a variety of alternative sources. Similarly, someday soon, people who cannot or will not engage in intense exercise with sufficient regularity will be able to obtain Complex X from alternative sources.