Exercise Should Nourish You!

This is a little op-ed piece that I’ve been wanting to get out for a while. The topic has been on my mind practically forever but I don’t think I’ve ever stated my position quite this way.

The care and feeding of the optimized human requires more than just nutrition, although that is very important. The model I’ve developed, which is The Lifetime Athlete 5-3-1 System, starts with the 5 Foundational Components of Lifelong Health which are food, movement, sleep, ergonomics, and awareness. Movement in that sense is primarily focused around general daily activity (GDA). Then we add the 3 Essential Elements of Peak Performance which are training, recovery, and mindset. Training is the term I prefer for purposeful, meaningful, directed, and results-oriented exercise. When you train (for both sport and LIFE) you get more (actually, the most) out of your exercise. All this allows you to be the 1 Athlete for Life that you deserve to be and for which your genes are programmed.

I’ve stated that often but it’s good to clarify and simplify. In this discussion, I’ll mainly use the word exercise because it’s perhaps the more popular term. Unlike GDA such as mopping the floor, walking to the mailbox, or performing certain work tasks – exercise is the “official” stuff for which we usually get “dressed out” (in exercise clothing). We generally exercise in pursuit of some capacity or outcome such as strength, aerobic fitness, fat loss, muscle gain, stress reduction, etc. That’s all good.

The concept of nourishment comes into focus when we begin to think more deeply about exactly what our exercise behaviors should be doing for us. By definition, to nourish is to supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth, and this goes far beyond food alone. Exercise needs to – and absolutely can when applied appropriately – foster the idealized state of the human condition. When you look at the weight, or significant impact, of any intervention…few experts would disagree that exercise is by far the most influential practice available for both health and performance. Of course there is some nuance in there, but statistically speaking…that’s not a bullcrap statement.

How does one make exercise maximally nourishing? I think a series of bullet points is the best way to answer that question and to fully illustrate my opinion.

  • Exercise can and should be fun. Play should be a part of exercise, whether you are training for a sport, or just occasionally adding a bit of gamification to your workout. Of course you should challenge and test yourself, compete with others, and work hard sometimes. It’s gratifying to do hard things. Ultimately though, we all need to find ways to make exercise a joyous experience that we look forward to, and share this perspective with others. Fun is contagious.
  • Working out is neither a pill nor is it food in a literal sense. But it is of extremely high “nutrient density.” It raises your VO2max and builds muscle and strength. These are very strong correlates to both quality and length of life and I’ve been lauding those points for decades. Exercise “fills you up” with insulin sensitivity, offsetting the potential for insulin resistance which is now universally recognized as the root cause of many major diseases and degenerative conditions.
  • Exercise should be a celebration of physicality. Honestly, I’ve never been in agreement with the negative talk that working out is sheer agony and drudgery. That perspective comes from people who have not had good exercise experiences, don’t hire me as their coach, and are either oblivious or ignorant. Delusion and denial die hard. Don’t exercise because you have to…be glad that you get to. Move like a natural animal and be true to your genes.
  • It should build you up more than it breaks you down. This is all about inflammation. We need a moderate amount not only for adaptation, but for simple maintenance of our tissues and systems (or just view the organism as a whole). What I’m saying here is that, like most things in biology, inflammation exists (or should) on a bell-shaped curve. Or an inverted “J” or “U” depending on your perspective. The point is twofold. The understimulated organism (no or inadequate exercise) atrophies and withers. The overstimulated one breaks down. Fatigue is natural. But don’t seek absolute exhaustion very often. Keep your workload absorbable and recoverable and appreciate that it will fluctuate throughout the year. A little is decent. A bit more is better. Even more is best. Too much is no bueno. It definitely takes some experience and experimentation to figure this one out.
  • It should support a baseline in the 5 Capacities of Athleticism. Strength, speed, power, agility, and endurance are all necessary at minimum levels. Due to genetics and sports/fitness goals, some folks will take a category or three to moderate or maximum levels. All good. Just make sure your exercise keeps you vital, vibrant and viable. Don’t let a capacity slip away entirely because I guarantee it will eventually bite you in the ass. Be robust, resilient, durable, and versatile. Weak, slow, stiff, and fragile is not the way of The Lifetime Athlete.
  • But sometimes you gotta “Feed the BEAST!” By this I’m referring to relatively heavy, fast, and high-intensity exercise (always done safely and scaled appropriately). Occasionally drive the sympathetic nervous system. It’s natural and you can’t get the benefits of beastly training by always doing easy, gentle, calming recovery stuff. That is important but it’s not the whole enchilada. If you only and always prefer slow walks and yoga, your life is out of balance. Those endeavors are great for restoring the parasympathetic baseline, but they are not enough in a comprehensive program. Fix your sleep, stress, and nutrition so you occasionally crave and crush going hard. Be a little more primal and question some of the modern patterns and trends.
  • You have to be consistent (enough). This is so variable in terms of person to person and over a year or years. But, generally, exercising almost every day is the best. Total off days really only need to happen when you are sick or broken down – which often is related to not getting the training right as we have been discussing. Make 80% of what you do easy to moderate in terms of its workload, or impact on your system. Push the other 20% harder. Keep it regular. I had a decade or so when I entertained the concept of minimum effective dosage. Kind of a Tim Ferris 4-hour work week applied to exercise. I studied the literature and responded to many clients who asked “what’s the least I can get away with doing to get reasonable results.” I’m largely uninterested in that thinking anymore. Sure, sometimes when you are in busy periods and don’t have a lot of time you can benefit from compressed exercise. But I’m invested in maxing out my health, performance, and life experiences. And so are my clients these days. We find each other. We do as much as we can and need to in order to achieve the results we desire. Totally worth it and there really ain’t [grammar intended] no shortcuts or hacks.
  • Generalized is good, but personalized is better. Yeah, hitting the major capacities and categories and just doing exercise is a starting point. But figuring out how to work with your body, its unique genetic traits and characteristics as well as the injuries you accumulate over life…is money. I wrote AnimalFIT to help others understand some of these principles and apply them to their exercise with more success. It’s just one of the methods I use in program design, coaching, and training. Know yourself. Work with someone who can help you do this to the highest degree. Then make your exercise design maximally effective.
  • Exercise IS for (just about) everyone. Man, I used to bristle when I heard someone say “Exercise isn’t my thing…it’s not for me.” The truth is, exercise is for everybody. We need it. A lot of people desperately need help in understanding this and then approaching it so that it is a positive, successful experience. I used to exhaust myself arguing with and trying to convince the doubters and haters. I don’t do that anymore. I figure that now that I’m entering the 4th quarter of life, my best contribution is working with those who are already convinced. I guess that’s you if you are still with me. Thanks.
  • It should be a basic part of life for practically every modern human. This is related to the last point for sure. That word “modern” has significance because with few exceptions, we have modern conveniences and comforts that can ironically make us more sedentary and less active than ideal. Don’t get me wrong. I love this life and I don’t want to revert to a primitive one. But we all benefit richly by offsetting some of these effects with directed exercise. Making exercise “just something you do,” not unlike brushing your teeth, is the secret. Take out all the need for motivation, and the newly popular “decision-making fatigue,” and simply go through life (optimally) with exercise as one of your core habits.
  • Take it one step further, to the next level. Turn your exercise into training. Create an annual training plan that progresses from a vision to a goal. Give your workouts purpose and meaning. Think in terms of seasons, cycles, and periods, and play the long game with a horizon view of what kind of asskicker you want to be in your later decades.

I believe there are more points that I can make about the nourishing nature of exercise. It goes beyond mere sustenance. It’s rich and satisfying. Exercise helps you to feel great, look great, do great, and BE GREAT. It’s delicious. My friends…feast and be nourished!

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