Exercise is good for you. Not because it helps you maintain weight, lose weight, burn calories or look ‘fit’ (because there’s no guarantee that it can or will do any of that), but because it has a fantastic effect on human physiology – improving every facet of health from metabolism to biochemistry, immune health and even psychological wellbeing.
And yet exercise is also associated with inflammation, immunosuppression, gastrointestinal permeability (even bleeding), massive energetic drain and cellular damage, along with hormonal dysregulation, appetite alteration and sleep disturbance. So which is it: exercise is good or bad?
Well, as with so much in medicine and healthcare: the answer to the ‘good or bad’ question lies in the dose.
And yet, as with sleep the “dose” in question is entirely individual and dependent on so many factors, including genetics, habituation, age, experience, rested-ness and the levels or quantities of other stressors in your life.
Exercise is an example of what we call an ‘hormetic stressor’. This means, in simple terms, that it is a stress to the body which creates a certain degree of damage from which the body will heal and recover, stronger than before. Every hormetic stress is designed to slightly tax the system and, in so doing, allow for improved resilience, tolerance, strength, stamina, mass or capacity.
When you exercise you push your body towards, and sometimes over, a ‘limit’ of tolerance. Whether you are strength training and pushing muscles to their limit, or cardiovascular training and pushing your endurance and oxygenation capacity to the limit, you are supposed to (when done properly) tax and challenge your body beyond its comfort zone.
Providing this is done within reasonable parameters the body will respond to this challenge by improving and adapting to the strain, creating a new ‘limit’ which is a little further/higher/bigger/faster/stronger/longer (etc.) than the previous one.
The secret is that the real improvements that come from this type of exercise come after the intensity and demand of exertion is over (i.e. in rest and recovery).
Muscles can either be built by placing excess strain upon them through heavy loads which causes micro-tears, or by frequently activating them to send a signal to the brain that we require more strength in that area. If you overload the muscle, the micro-tears heal stronger and thicker than before – this is the process of building muscle mass. If you use a continual activation method through relaxing/contracting muscles ‘triggering’ them to ‘fatigue’ then you send a message to the body that this muscle is used a lot and therefore could do with strengthening to cope with the repeated demand. The body responds by sending blood flow and amino acids to the area to build up the muscle mass.
Cardiovascular strength is built on the same principle but instead of working on e.g. leg or bicep muscles in isolation, the strain and stress during cardio is placed on the lungs and heart. Capacity and endurance can be built either by focusing on high intensity – very fast, burst training in which demand for blood and oxygen to muscles skyrockets for a short duration – or through low intensity, long duration, sustained demands which entrain endurance and improve the capacity to exert bursts of energy when required.
All of this sounds utterly horrific and damaging – as if you are putting your body through torture in order to gain ‘mass’ or ‘strength’ or ‘power’. But it is actually advantageous…
As in so many walks of life: we become stronger and thrive through the adversity and challenges we face. Exercise can be a prime example of this – with our body becoming tougher through the trials of being worked.
The problem with dose-dependent practices is judging when enough is enough. As with any ‘beneficial practice’ there is a time when excessive exercise, or more specifically excessive exercise without sufficient rest and recovery time (to do the rebuilding processes mentioned above), has the net effect of being damaging to the body.
The ‘work’ of exercise isn’t where all the achievements are made. Instead we improve as we repair.
Judging the dose, therefore, is very much founded on your ability to repair from the exertion or stress of the exercise you do, and there are factors which make this healing much more challenging.
If you are fighting illness, if you are not nourishing yourself with the nutrients required to build strength and endurance, if you are under multiple other stresses so your body literally cannot focus on physical repair: all of these circumstances will mean that the inflammation and immunosuppressive effects of exercise will not be recovered from quickly or fully.
Your exercise requirement will absolutely depend upon your health at the time – not your ‘goals’, your physique aspirations or your view of how you ‘should’ look, but the way your body is, how it feels and therefore what it truly needs as a result of where it currently is.
The most important word we would like you to take away from this section, therefore is not actually ‘exercise’.
Instead, it is “Movement”.
We have formalised ‘exercise’ by building houses for working out (gyms) and filling them with equipment that is supposed to benefit wellness. In reality, there is little worth in sitting for 12 hours a day, followed by flogging yourself to death for 1 hour on machines which are instilling movement patterns that are actually completely alien to human structures.
Studies show that health gains from exercise are not achieved in the “sedentary juxtaposed with frenetic” movement style. Instead, the most health gains were achieved with constant, low-level movement – so-called non-exercise-activitiy-thermogenesis (NEAT).
And most health improvements are found when people engage in the practice of walking. This is not for weight loss, nor muscle gains – but health gains, which should be the entire point of doing exercise in the first place.
Walking is a wonderful movement practice which suits absolutely everyone and has a host of rewards – especially if you walk outdoors. Clinically proven to have myriad health benefits, everything from regulating blood pressure, regulating immune responses, lowering blood sugars, increasing resilience – it is actually moderate amounts of walking (not a gym membership or a CrossFit WOD) that tips the balance from unhealthy to healthy.
“Movement practice” is probably the best way to think of your exercise regime. Variety seems to be, once again, the key to the body’s health when it comes to movement. Adaptation to specific movements (endless squats and deadlifts, or repetitive pavement running for example) can create both habituation (therefore minimising the limit-pushing, adaptation responses we’re looking for) and increase the propensity for injury. It’s also boring as hell.
More Than Movement
Beyond walking, you will hear the term “Functional Fitness” thrown around within Paleo-spheres. This has come to be associated with the CrossFit box phenomenon, which is gaining popularity in the UK (though in nowhere near the numbers of the US).
As with everything ‘health’ though, CrossFit has its criticisms, all of which revolve around the above-mentioned ‘overtraining and under-recovery’ issues.
At Paleo in the UK we see that there can be enormous value to CrossFit for those who are relatively healthy with good metabolic and nutritional foundations, who aren’t under much excess stress in their lives and who use exercise as an energetic release and a community-centred, competitive sporting pursuit – providing the Box is well staffed and appropriately run.
However, we are also sure that the population which fits into the description above is actually fairly small, mostly male and they are often focused only on CrossFit, meaning they are not pursuing an optimal variety of exercise that would be ideal.
As with everything ‘health’ though, CrossFit has its criticisms. It mostly grew too fast, with too many inexperienced trainers, combined too many high-functional movements without prioritising form over output. Injuries happened.
At Paleo in the UK we listen to all the criticisms and the endorsements and have concluded that there is an enormous value to CrossFit for those who are relatively healthy with good metabolic and nutritional foundations, who aren’t under much excess stress in their lives and who use exercise as an energetic release and a community-centred, competitive sporting pursuit – providing that the Box is well staffed and appropriately run. However, we are also sure that the population which fits into the description above is actually fairly small, mostly male and they are often focused only on CrossFit, rather than the variety that would be ideal.
CrossFit, like Paleo, has fallen victim to commercialisation. Whether it was in the original mission statements, or due to some of the franchisees attempting to gain customers for their gyms, CrossFit has been guilty of promising miraculous, weight-loss related results.
This attracts many devotees who are actually damaging their health and their metabolisms by forcing their body through regimens that may have begun as Functional Fitness but have since become over-exertion competitions which stress maximum effort, real force and a pushing of the body with the promise of exceptional body composition results.
As with everything that promises such results, the amount of people who can thrive and achieve those results in this setting is vanishingly small.
A Rounded Fitness Practice
“Movement” is also becoming a bit of a buzzword – but it starts with simply walking every day. Then Yoga, Pilates and even dance can be experimented with, swimming is phenomenal and bolting on the odd sprint up a hill and lifting a heavy thing every now and again (yes, small children count as heavy things) and – wouldn’t you know – you’ve created your own ‘Fitness Practice’.
The trick is to experiment, don’t be afraid of anything (especially lifting heavy) and work out what suits you in the spectrum of movement potentials… and do some of it. Every day. For life.
If you’re not sure of form, technique or muscle recruitment – book a session with trainers and experts to help you. A few initial consultations will prove worth their money countless times over because they’ll ensure that you’re embarking on a healthy fitness practice for you.
Movement, oxygenation, mobility and connection to your body are foundational to a Paleo approach, both for health reasons and for psychological reasons.
Building a physical practice ties back to a fundamental piece missing in modern society: actually connecting to and experiencing our full physicality and the potential of the human form.
Therefore, anything that you can do in order to work movement into your day is fundamentally important: standing desks, taking a break every hour to stand/stretch/squat/pull-up, walking during your lunch-break, walking to work or school. On the weekend you can do long walks or hikes with family and friends – and if you need an excuse, get a dog! There’s literally countless social, emotional and physical benefits to that too!
All of this said, we know that the above can be a little too vague and unstructured for some people. If you can’t trust that just moving your body is enough and need more detail, your Movement Resources are below…
Gurus of movement in our world can be found below… You don’t have to like them all – and predominantly good exercising is about ENJOYING IT. Exercise should not be another stress. In fact, it should be one of your sources of joy…
Mind Pump – OK, literally our favourite guys for all things ‘sensible fitness’. No crazy regimes, no ludicrous expectations, just down-to-earth, practical advice and great senses of humour. Myth busting, MAPS programming (brilliant, utterly brilliant), a daily podcast and more insights into how to move your body than you will ever need… Nothing to do with Paleo. Everything to do with common sense and treating the human body in the way it was evolved to move.
Darryl Edwards – known as the Fitness Explorer and pioneer of Primal Play, Darryl has contributed a lot to the Paleo/Primal scene – simplifying all the data in Paleo From A to Z and then breaking down Exercise (or “Movement”) components in Paleo Fitness – well worth following on Instagram and doing some of his programs if you’re interested in moving more primally…
Ben Greenfield Fitness – not strictly Paleo, but very ‘variety’-driven, and also rooted in ultra marathon and obstacle racing, using the body for functional movements etc. Recently taken on a more spiritual vibe where he’s less about pushing the limits of physical capacity and all about Gratitude, energy, life force and nurturing all elements of wellbeing. He’s releasing more updates on this as we write – so there’ll be more holistic stuff coming from Ben in the near future.
Align Therapy – again, not all about Paleo but very into movements and using your body as an expression of your needs, connecting to your physicality and exploring your entire physiology whilst balancing that with massage/Rolfing and manipulations to liberate toxicity or held traumas.