How Does Physical Activity and Muscle Mass Impact our Health?

Over the past 4,000 years, our species has undergone a severe lifestyle transformation. Although the Agricultural Revolution enabled us to feed more people and settle down, we made a series of really bad trade-offs in the process. One of the worst ones was, by far, our physical fitness.

Back in the day of hunting and gathering, the average person had the strength and endurance of modern day athletes [1]. Our bodies used to be the reflection of an active, healthy lifestyle. Now, they’re the image of an organism whose overall vigour is in a pitiful state.

Human biology did not (yet) adapt to the sedentary existence of the past two centuries. The result is more than demoralizing: we’ve compromised our health and wellbeing, all for comfort.

The Law of Least Effort

Aside from being a Buddhist spiritual imperative, the law of least effort is to be found all throughout nature. The problem is that, unlike any other animals, we are too smart for our own good. As soon as we found ourselves in the midst of an Agricultural society, we came up with better ways to farm and protect our yield, all the while subjecting our bodies to a life that is both nutritionally and physically unsuitable. For example, rather than preparing home cooked whole-food meals, society largely depends on pre-packaged ultra-processed foods.

These types of foods are undeniably lacking in proper nutrition, essential vitamins, minerals and other important antioxidants. Add this to a sedentary lifestyle and as you can imagine, the effects of both are compounded.

It’s not just an ancestral potential that we’re giving up every time we wake up and give in to the conduct of the majority. It’s also our physical and mental health, now and in old age. The more active we are, the stronger our muscles and the higher our endurance becomes. In turn, this enables us to do even more complex or difficult activities, which have greater potential to increase our functional ability and endurance. It’s a beautiful virtuous circle.

It might be trite, but it’s true of both our bodies and our minds: we need to use them or we’re going to lose them. Of course, they are both subjected to slight decline in old age, but this doesn’t mean we can’t help slow the degeneration down. We know, for instance, that physical activity modifies a host of health-related risk factors including CVDs, diabetes mellitus, obesity, hypertension, breast and colon cancer, depression, but also bone and joint diseases [2]. It seems counter-intuitive that the singular, best thing we can do to improve our health is also the one we’re most negligent of, but the law of least effort is how we got here. We need to overcome it for our own sake.

Set time aside for yourself. And when you do, make sure there’s plenty of physical activity to be had. It will take some time to get used to, but the benefits far outweigh the risks (of which there are none, if you’re careful not to push ourselves too much). Moving must be as natural and ingrained of a habit as breathing or blinking. We need to be able to do it with the same comfort we perform any other automatic tasks – like scrolling through our feed, driving, or sitting down to a hearty meal.

Gain Your Ancestral Muscle

 

Muscle, in particular, is a bulwark of our good health. Because of the role that muscle fibres play in the body-wide processes of protein-metabolism, supply of nutrients, and hormonal regulation, this tissue was found to be fundamental to our whole-body health and homeostasis [3]. We’ve been looking at each and every one of our other organs with an obsessive compulsion, all the while ignoring one of the most important tissues that keep us strong and healthy.

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For instance, when we lack essential amino-acids in our diet, our muscles step in to pick up the slack and make sure we have everything we need. Individuals with adequate amounts of muscle mass are able to maintain normal concentrations of all essential amino acids after more than 60 days of fasting [4]. Our muscles feed us when we fail to feed ourselves. If that’s not amazing enough for you, be prepared for what’s about to follow.

The same publication by Wolfe also quotes the crucial role that muscle plays in our body-wide response to critical illnesses and/or injuries. When we’re injured, our bodies require a temporary surge in amino-acids, which can be as high as 3g/kg of bodyweight (and, sometimes, a lot more). That’s three to four times our average daily amount of protein in-take. Even if we eat and supplement as much as we can, it seems that it’s not enough to account for what the missing muscle can do. We cannot possibly process and make available vital AAs as soon as we get injured, which is why our muscles also function as short-term deposits for them.

When in a stressed state, muscle helps us stabilize our body from a nutritional and hormonal perspective. For example, the odds of burn victims and patients struggling with cancer are much higher the more muscle they have [4]. In addition, lean tissue is absolutely necessary for a speedy and full recovery. Without enough brawn to pick up the slack from a hip fracture, for instance, many elderly individuals never recover full function, which is not the case when there’s enough mass to help achieve a timely convalescence.

Last, but certainly not least, the REE (resting energy expenditure) of muscle tissue is much higher than that of fat, which helps us maintain a lean, healthy physique by regularly consuming the calories we ingest, rather than storing them on our hips. For those dealing with diabetes, we know that as little as a single exercise session is enough to temporarily offset insulin resistance [5]. Imagine what regular physical activity can do for a metabolism that has issues in processing blood sugar.

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Conclusion: Moving Beyond Comfort

We are clearly out of our depth here. Modern day living traps us in a daily behaviour that is undoubtedly detrimental to both our short- and long-term health. Unfortunately, the only way to reverse this is through education and the nurturing of healthy habits. This time, it’s the opposite of least effort that will save use. Sure, it’s nice to have a picnic or outdoor barbeque every odd week-end, but try to couple it with a half-day hike or a full afternoon of playing team sports. Nothing tastes better than a meal after an arduous bout of exercise in a fasting state. I guarantee it.

Our ancestors were hunters and gatherers who used to trek an excess of 10 km every day, all the while carrying heavy loads. If we were to regain even half of their strength, we’d be on the right track. A musculature that is wholly and proportionately developed isn’t only a boon to our health and wellbeing, but also to our mood and quality of life in old age.

List of references:

[1] From athletes to couch potatoes: humans through 6,000 years of farming: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/from-athletes-to-couch-potatoes-humans-through-6000-years-of-farming

[2] Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1402378/

[3] Emerging Impact of Skeletal Muscle in Health and Disease: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00223-015-9964-x

[4] The underappreciated role of muscle in health and disease: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/84/3/475/4648841

[5] Insulin resistance of muscle protein metabolism in aging: https://www.fasebj.org/doi/abs/10.1096/fj.05-4607fje

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