How Our Modern Lifestyles Affect Fitness

By on October 8, 2020

It’s a popular notion that our modern lifestyles are not compatible with optimal health. That the routines we go through every single day are actually harming our wellbeing – with an hour spent in the gym being inadequate to reverse that damage.

Modern lifetyles vs primal fitness

This is something I agree with and have communicated in the past: our bodies adapt to the lifestyle we present them with. Our capacity to adapt is intended to ensure we are able to thrive in the environment we find ourselves in. This is the main “stimulus” for adaptation, not three hours a week spent lifting weights or running on treadmills. Of course, training this way can help to mitigate some of the damage caused by a lethargic lifestyle, but it’s just a small splash in the ocean. And because we’re often trying to “make up” for our bad lifestyle habits in just a couple of hours, we often push ourselves too hard and end up getting injured.

Nor is the hyper specialization of sport a suitable antidote.

This is one reason for the sudden, pronounced trend toward “primal health.” The idea is that we should move more like our ancestors and avoid many of the modern trappings that encourage poor movement and nutrition. Get out of the office and out of the gym, and start crawling around the woods in the cold!

Bear crawling in woods

While I think this type of training has a lot of merit, I also think it slightly misses the point. After all, there is no single environment that shaped our entire evolution. While it’s true that our environments have changed faster than our biological evolution in the last few centuries – leading to many of the issues we’re talking about – it’s also true that we are capable of adapting.

We have changed our environment to be as comfortable as possible.

As I’ve said many times on this channel, kyphosis isn’t really maladaptive if it means you can sit and type for longer! You’ve simply adapted to your lifestyle. The same with tight hip flexors and weak glutes. If you never use them, why should your body maintain them?

The problem is that our lifestyle is so rote in many cases and so static, that this becomes ALL we are capable of. The issue is that we have changed our environment to be as comfortable as possible. To the point where we rarely even need to bend over. But when everything is comfortable and predictable, we never have to get outside our comfort zone and never have to adapt.

There is a co-evolution between environment and organism. And this is what we missed in designing the modern lifestyle.

So the answer may not be to “return to a more natural way of living” but rather just to find ways to challenge ourselves throughout the day. Potentially, we could create environments that lead to even more performance and useful adaptation than even those natural ones. Natural doesn’t automatically mean better. But we need to be smart about introducing new ideas. This is how we will design the shape of humanity to come, I believe. Even before “Transhuman” technologies.

To do this, we must start by fully understanding and addressing the shortcomings of our current routines. Here are just some of the ways that modern life harm our health and performance.

The Trials of Modern Life

It’s 6am. You’ve been asleep for 5.5 hours, when the alarm starts blaring loudly in your ear. You are startled out of deep sleep.

Sleeping

The reason alarms are designed to sound like they do, is that there is no natural sound like a beep or a buzz. This therefore triggers a fight or flight response that pulls you out of sleep.

That’s right: your heart is now beating fast and your blood is circulating cortisol and adrenaline. And because you were pulled out of such deep sleep, you may well be experiencing “sleep inertia.” That’s the grogginess that comes from not being able to wake up gradually.

Your back may be weak and soft from sleeping on your back – especially if your mattress is soft and your lower back has been allowed to sag into the mattress. Your internal body-clock is probably entirely confused seeing as it’s likely dark in your room. Likewise, the temperature – another external cue used to set our biological clocks – is probably artificially controlled.

Your heart is beating fast and your blood is circulating cortisol and adrenaline.

Now in a state of physiological stress, you may head to the kitchen for a mug off coffee. Caffeine molecules bind to the adenosine receptors in your brain, waking you up by “blocking” some of the substance that causes tiredness. This doesn’t get rid of it, it only causes it to build-up like a damn. And if this is a regular habit, then you will actually increase your adenosine receptors. Another cause of morning grogginess is actually caffeine withdrawal. Super healthy.

And that coffee also causes even more of a sympathetic response, increasing cortisol and adrenaline levels even more. Coffee is, unfortunately, stress in a cup.

Not judging – I LOVE coffee like Kel loves Orange Soda.

You pour yourself a bowl of cereal. That cereal may well be high in sugar and low in nutrients. It is a bowl of empty calories, meaning that you aren’t getting the vitamins, minerals, and amino acids you need to sustain healthy bone and muscle. The sugar, not buffered by any complex carbohydrates or fats, hits your blood like a freight train. That causes a sudden spike in sugar and insulin that overtime will could to insulin resistance. It also means that once you burn through that sugar – at around 10.30am – you’ll have a crash and become extremely sluggish.

You take a hot shower, then head out into the busy streets.

Did you know that one of the only “universal stressors” is people moving toward you? People from every single culture show a stress response when another person walks at us. So yeah, pushing your way down a crowded street during rush hour is no good for you. Even before Covid-19.

Walking through city

You may then sit in a dull, grey cubical and start typing away. You are bombarded by constant mild stresses: the light from the screen even slightly increasing your heartrate! The big ones though are all those phone calls (more buzzing) and emails from your boss/clients/customers. Each one of these triggers yet more of a fight or flight response.

This is a problem. Stress is not bad for us. The acute stress response is, in fact, a healthy response that prepares us for an ensuing challenge. Blood rushes to the brain and muscles so we can think faster, run quicker, and punch harder. Meanwhile, less pressing concerns like digestion and immunity are put on the back-burner as blood is rerouted away from those things. Blood vessels constrict, pupils dilate to let in more light, and blood viscosity increases to prevent bleeding out in case of injury. Your muscles contract slightly, increasing strength. Heart rate increases, and so does breathing.

Sprinting uphill
Exercising similarly increases physiological arousal – but in a much healthier context

This is useful when it lasts for 20 minutes to let you escape a predator. It is NOT useful when it continues for 5 days. When stress becomes chronic. When your muscles tense up while you’re at work causing neck and head pain, and when you go for days at a time with lowered immunity and an increased blood pressure. It’s no wonder we get sick. Or develop mood disorders. Or obesity (especially as cortisol encourages the storage of fat in all the wrong places).

You are ready to fight, and yet all you’re doing is sitting in your chair. Tense and anxious.

And it’s not like many of us are challenged by our work. Maybe we were to start with, when we learned new skills. But for many of us, work has become rote and easy. This is a problem because it means our brains become less plastic.

Challenging stimulating work

Learning new things increases the production of BDNF and other plasticity-supporting hormones. The more we learn, the more we are able to learn. That’s why the infant brain is so HIGHLY plastic. Why they are so infinitely capable of learning and adapting. Because everything is new: from learning to stand and walk, to learning to speak.

As we age, we continue learning new things: whether it’s dating, driving, new careers, or the layouts of new cities.

Eventually though, we settle down. We settle into routine. Barely ever are we challenged to learn something new. Our body cements the patterns it needs to maintain our current skill but loses the ability to pick up new skills. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Why? Because that old dog hasn’t had to learn a new trick in 30 years.

Sitting and using phone

The brain is designed to learn. It loves to learn. And so, eventually, cognitive decline sets in. Not helped by our tendency – due to confirmation bias – to continually read things that reinforce our current world views.

This cognitive decline is worsened by deteriorating senses: a loss of vision, hearing, and smell. This reduces the amount of information coming in to your brain, meaning there is less to process.

That’s made worse by the fact we wear shoes with thick soles, which deaden the sense of proprioception that we should be getting from our feet. It’s accelerated by the fact we spend all day focusing on something inches from our face.

Vivobarefoot shoes
Minimal shoes from Vivobarefoot and similar companies help to address this issue!

Of course, there’s little natural light getting into the room, so vitamin D is depleted and bone density is weakened. The air is recycled and stifled.

See also: Vivobarefoot Primus Trail FG Runner Review

And as we sit there, stressed but not learning, we’re also barely moving. For hours on end. Our hearts hardly have to work to get blood around our bodies therefore, and many of our muscles grow weak. The hours of pour posture cause that forward hunch called kyphosis, tight hip flexors that place additional stress on an already-awkwardly-under-tension lumbar spine.

When we do get up to move and get the pen, the most we can hope for is a ten-minute walk across the office. As I alluded to at the start of this essay, everything is designed to be at standing height. You never have to bend down, never have to jump or climb.

You never have to bend down, never have to jump or climb.

When we get home, we’re often so tired from the commute and from spending the entire day slightly stressed, that we collapse onto the sofa and watch junk TV. Junk TV that nevertheless stimulates us even more thanks to those bright screens, right before we go to bed too late on a stomach too full.

And then repeat the cycle.

Nope: 3 hours in the gym doing curls and a few heavy lifts entirely in the frontal plane, when exhausted from a busy week, is not enough to undo all this damage.

Disclaimer

This all may sound dramatic. Keep in mind I’m just trying to make a point. There are actually many aspects of modern life that are fantastic for us. Activities like driving and even computer games stimulate the brain in amazing ways. We are living longer than ever before, and we have access to huge amounts of information. I made a whole video on it! I’m not trying to be a negative ninny, I’m just point out some of the drawbacks of our current lifetyles.

And if you are a stay-at-home Mum or Dad. If you are retired. If you are a teenager… chances are that your lifestyle may not resemble the one I just outlined. But I bet everyone can relate to at least something on this list!

So, What’s the Solution?

So the point is that we need to consider training in the broader context of our lifestyles. THIS is where the real, substantial change will occur.

Healthy Lifestyle Meditation

So, just how do we do that? Here are some methods you can use to mitigate the issues I addressed here, and some fixes that will make your lifestyle more conducive to high performance adaptations.

  • Try using a daylight alarm – this creates a faux sunrise to gently wake you out of deep sleep
  • Sleep with the window open so that your body can use temperature as a cue for setting the biological clock
  • Avoid caffeine after 4pm
  • Have half an hour downtime before bed
  • Get outside first thing in morning – ideally for a quick meditation
  • Eat nutrient dense foods
  • Avoid foods that are overly processed
  • Wear minimal footwear
  • Take regular breaks from work to get up and stretch
  • Learn to manage stress (again, meditation works wonders as does CBT)
  • Learn a new skill and consider this crucial training
  • Play computer games (no really)
  • Consider a cold shower to train cold exposure
  • Cycle to work
  • Go for thought-provoking walks
  • Get a lumbar support cushion for your desk chair

You can also employ methods to integrate training into your daily routine – so that you are constantly moving and regularly challenging your body. I’m going to make a whole video on this soon, but some examples:

  • Keep a grip trainer by the kettle and use it while the kettle boils
  • Brush your teeth with your left hand
  • Enjoy more physical play with your kids
  • If you need to go anywhere under a mile away, jog!
  • Ideally work from home – I keep dip bars by my desk chair and do regular dips, planche training, L-sit, and more
  • Install a pull-up bar in your door and perform pull ups each time you pass under it
  • I personally like to stretch in the shower – as a Dad it’s one of the few opportunities I get during the morning routine!
  • Do things on the floor instead of at a table and use a resting squat – that might mean talking on the phone, or reading
  • Perform mental math when waiting
  • Perform overcoming isometrics against your own body or against a wall while waiting
  • Train outside when you can
  • Visit new places

I’d love to hear yours in the comments below!

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. J says:

    Kegels. Do them while brushing your teeth. It doesn’t matter if you are male or female. They are life changing!

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