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  • Writer's pictureDr. Doug Pooley

Survival in the 21st Century

“In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.” Charles Darwin: “On the Origin of Species”

A question that I hear almost every day in practice is: Doc I am now middle aged, have a few aches and pains I didn’t have five years ago, how do I stay healthy and avoid getting sick?

Let me give you the short answer first: get up off your butt and move! The links between movement, health and longevity have been irrefutably established but sadly remain largely ignored. It is akin to having the answer to a problem perched right in front of you but because it is not the solution that suits us, we continue to search for a more convenient answer elsewhere.  For everything that we call health, there is little or no attention paid to the evolutionary path that brought us to where we are today.  History repeatedly demonstrates that often, the solution to today’s problem is rooted in the activities, circumstances and events that preceded it. The same holds true for our health. We are a magnificently engineered thinking machine that evolved with one over-arching purpose…to move. Historically all facets of our existence and evolution have depended upon our ability to creatively fabricate a game plan for survival and then execute it.

The pace of 21st century life, explosion of stress related syndromes, general increases in inflammatory disease and astronomical rises in use of medications, are impacting our bodies in ways never before imagined.   In turn, this has served to seriously impact health and vitality. Combine the above, with changes in agriculture, prevalence of processed foods and our overwhelmingly sedentary lifestyles and it is not difficult to conceive how our bodies are being forced to radically adapt to what in many ways is a new and challenging environment.  Unfortunately adaptation is not without consequences…  

Mankind is now officially the sickest species on the planet with rising levels of degenerative and environmentally related disease never before experienced in human history.  As a race we are showing all the signs of extinction as we continue to ignore the lessons of evolution in favor of more seemingly agreeable pretenders.

Survival in the new millennium will in many ways again become survival of the fittest. Rather than fighting the historical threats to our existence such as famine, pestilence, war and violence, we are now facing new and more insidious threats. The unrelenting advancement of degenerative/inflammatory diseases, auto-immune disorders, obesity, diabetes, asthma and autism are the new enemy.  All with overwhelming evidence incriminating our current North American diet and lifestyle as the root cause. Add to this, an astronomical rise in stress related emotional disease also with strong ties to diet and lifestyle choices and the conclusion becomes self-evident. Even though you may think that you eat a well balanced diet, exercise and rest adequately, experience is showing that thriving in the 21st century is far more taxing on our health resources and wellbeing than was the case 50 years ago.

According to the World Health Organization-“The burden of chronic diseases is rapidly increasing worldwide. It has been calculated that, in 2001, chronic diseases contributed approximately 60% of the 56.5 million total reported deaths in the world and approximately 46% of the global burden of disease. The proportion of the burden of chronic disease is expected to increase to 57% by 2020. Almost half of the total chronic disease deaths are attributable to cardiovascular diseases; obesity and diabetes are also showing worrying trends, not only because they already affect a large proportion of the population, but also because they have started to appear earlier in life.” The report goes on further to make the following observation:

“Chronic diseases are largely preventable diseases. Although more basic research may be needed on some aspects of the mechanisms that link diet to health, the currently available scientific evidence provides a sufficiently strong and plausible basis to justify taking action now.”

Even with the strength of recommendations from the planet’s most prestigious health organization the “WHO”, no one in organized health or government appears to be listening. You will notice in the above recommendation that there is no mention of medications as being part of the solution. Survival will only occur by making a quantum shift in focus from attempts at short term fixes to a strategy designed to again maximize genetic expression and vitality through a sound diet, purposeful movement and lifestyle harmonization designed to foster a sense of community and societal purpose. In a paper published in the British Medical Journal entitled:”How Should We Define Health”, the author Machteld Huber and colleagues propose a new definition of health as---“ability to adapt and self-manage”.  Interestingly, history of human development shows this to have always been the hallmark of our evolution as a race. Both adaptation and self-management are a reflection of a core principle of being human…efficient and purposeful movement away from danger and towards that which sustains life and enhances vitality.

What the WHO fails to mention in its observations is the importance of purposeful movement to the health of the human biome. What I mean by “purposeful movement” is purpose driven physical activity designed to consistently activate a cascade of neuro-physiological processes critical to life and health.  According to a 2017 article by Dr. John Mercola titled:”A body in motion stays healthier longer” …you want to stay in more or less continuous motion during waking hours.”He goes on to reference  NASA scientist Dr. Joan Vernikos’ work on the impact of sitting on health … “ Vernikos believes one of the oversights in the field has been the emphasis on total hours seated instead of the uninterrupted hours seated. In other words, if you interrupt sitting reasonably frequently, you're less likely to experience the adverse effects of prolonged sitting, which include a heightened risk of cardiovascular problems, stroke and cancer, especially colorectal, gastrointestinal, ovarian and prostate cancers.” Purposeful movement stimulates a flood of biological processes in the body which are critical to the maintenance of health. For example, lipoprotein lipase is dramatically reduced during inactivity, and increases with activity, the most effective activity being, you guessed it, standing up from a seated position. Lipoprotein lipase is an enzyme that attaches to fat in your bloodstream and transports it into your muscles to be used as fuel. So essentially, simply by standing up, you are actively helping your body to burn fat for fuel. An article published in the March 2006 edition of the CMAJ by Warburton, Nicol and Bredin titled:” Health Benefits of Physical Activity: the evidence”, the authors conclude: “We confirm that there is irrefutable evidence of the effectiveness of regular physical activity in the primary and secondary prevention of several chronic diseases (e.g., cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, obesity, depression and osteoporosis) and premature death. “

From a purely evolutionary perspective we are a machine with essentially three purposes…to think, survive and reproduce, with all critically impacted by movement…full stop. All other bodily functions are designed to support those three core purposes of existence. Health and vitality are also essentially a reflection of the body’s efficiency in these three areas, this is just logical. So, accepting this for the truth that it is, what would be the best supportive strategy for maintaining maximum efficiency in these three areas? What would statistically provide the greatest supportive benefits, enhance genetic expression, protect the organism from untimely breakdown and disease while maximizing neural and biochemical efficiency? The answer is found in movement.

Let’s change gears: The first century Roman poet, Juvenal understood the key to health when he wrote, “Mens sana in corpore sano”--- “a sound mind in a sound body”. In the 21st century, the relationship between movement and health is well documented, but the surprising impact upon the quality of brain function is a relatively new discovery.  Ratey JJ, Loehr JE. in their article: “The positive impact of physical activity on cognition during adulthood: a review of underlying mechanisms, evidence and recommendations.” Rev Neurosci (2011) --  found…”Brain plasticity and cognitive function are significantly improved by physical activity” In an article published in “Scientific Reports” volume 6, by Perini, Bortoletto, entitled “Acute effects of aerobic exercise promote learning”, the authors remark: “The benefits to physical health that arise with aerobic exercise are many and well-documented and include cardio-respiratory fitness, muscle oxidative capacity, decreased adiposity and associated body-mass index, glucose and lipid homeostasis, metabolic health, inflammatory burden, muscle mass and strength increase and reduction in mortality risk. These aspects are important in a society in which the social and economic costs of caring for “unhealthy adults” are enormous. Importantly, we have shown that the benefits of physical activity can be extended also to “cerebral health” and can thus be exploited in the neuro-pathological ageing (e.g., cognitive impairment and dementia) and other brain disorders. “

There is no minimizing the importance of diet; but this pales to the importance of movement as the real keystone of health and vitality.  For most of our 200,000 years on this planet, man has been a scavenger capable of surviving on among the broadest variety of food choices in order to survive. The one thing that primitive man did not have was processed carbohydrates and genetically modified food sources. It was not until the advent of’ manufactured foods’ in the 1960’s that this phenomenon and its associated consequences such as obesity and Type2 diabetes started to  emerge into the catastrophic health  concerns of today. Coincidentally, this was also the period when general levels of physical activity especially in the workplace started to decline. Mechanization led to computerization which spawned an increasingly sedentary work environment. Add to this the lifestyle changes associated with the advent of television and the subsequent impact upon the physicality of leisure activity and the circle is complete.

Medications will never provide a sustainable resolve to the deep-rooted challenges facing mankind. For all of the technological advances and investment into sourcing a chemical solution to disease prevention and health maintenance, the answer is neither complex nor magical. It is rooted in our evolution. Movement is medicine and motion is lotion.

The solution does not have to be difficult. Something as simple as mandating movement breaks in every organized environment, whether it is work, educational or commercial would start the process. The creation of government incentives for sit-stand work stations for employees currently in seated work environments. Development of government sponsored public information programs demonstrating the benefits to quality of life at any age of regular physical activity coupled with taxable benefits for belonging to and attending a bona fide health/fitness facility. Increase the frequency and sophistication of physical education classes and options in our schools. Development of a functional analysis system to detect postural changes and emerging biomechanical dysfunction coupled with a strategy for treatment and correction. Dedicate research grants to investigating activity options that will produce the greatest health benefits. Statistical research investigating morbidity and the actual impact that true activity based programs have upon medication usage, frequency of attendance to medical facilities and the real cost savings to the system.  This really is not complicated, nor should it be. It is just common sense. But, as the saying goes:

“There is nothing common about common sense.”
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