Tight Fittin’ Genes — Metabolic Fitness
The irony is what we wish for most is what we once were. – Lane Sebring, M.D.
Academically oriented evolutionary medicine and its popularized expression in the Paleo movement have called penetrating attention to our ancestral genome informed by environmentally prevalent, nutrient dense foods sustaining human life from at least a 100,000 years ago; furthermore, those disciplines demonstrate contemporary civilizations’ wealth of industrial foods are at variance with basic genomic requirements for health and longevity. Early contributors to both disciplines stressed the dynamic interplay of diet and exercise as an indivisible requirement for healthy genomic metabolic expression. Today’s popular Paleo movement has increasingly evidenced danger of unwittingly slipping into another ‘dietary sliver bullet’ movement by underplaying and over simplifying genomic requirements for exercise. Physical Culture 2.0 offers an integrated, whole systems approach incorporating nutritional and activity requirements triggering genetic signaling resulting in metabolic fitness. While industrial & toxic foods mightily contribute to inflammation, loss of insulin sensitivity, and myriad other potentially life threatening conditions, no amount of proper fueling of the human organism without robust activity sustains overall metabolic requirements for health.
Physical Culture 2.0 bears far reaching implications extending from ensuring fullest personal metabolic fitness to spurning a grassroots revolution in health education hopefully promoting a major paradigm shift in preventative self-care. Shifting medical attention from secondary and tertiary symptoms commonly diagnosed and treated, instead to upstream, functional origins provides an orientation to preventing, arresting, and reversing at least thirty-five major conditions misdiagnosed as ‘stand alone’ diseases today. Transition from expensive medical and pharmaceutical treatment combined with costly medical insurance to lower cost, life long investment in prevention putting people in charge of their lives results in redistribution of health responsibility to individual persons.
Physical Culture 2.0 rests upon extremely simple evolutionary genetic principles combined with recognition of the human story revealed by various anthropological discoveries. With an evolutionary based exercise biology brought into the discussion, a new and powerful practical paradigm emerges. Simply put, our culture’s collective ignorance has misled us all — nobody’s to blame and we’re all equally at fault and victims. With this article, you gain empowerment to change the course of your history — and perhaps a significant number of histories of persons you’re in contact with. Physical Culture 2.0 is not about sports, fitness, health, and the struggle to become motivated for exercise we all know through the melodramas of everyday life. Physical Culture 2.0 is as simple as Paleo diet, and the missing ingredient of the popular Paleo movement. The the Paleo diet will work somewhat without Physical Culture 2.0; with PC 2.0 and Paleo diet, you can supercharge yourself for ultimate genomic expression of metabolic fitness — that’s about as fit as anyone can become.
Before getting to the meat of the matter, let’s review the glorious past of Physical Culture 1.0, even its predecessors. Physical Culture is known to have been part of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, India and China, and likely among other great civilizations of the past. Modern Physical Culture — let’s call it Physical Culture 1.0 — emerges from the mid 19th century when the reign of religion tumbled in favor of newly emerging science. Darwin’s work was pivotal in that transition, as were the triumphs of the Industrial Revolution in radically changing life from labor to leisure.
Physical Culture 1.0 remains for most the standard, popular operating system of exercise, fitness, physical therapy, sports medicine, and looking good naked. What a rich and varied tradition it is, with a cast of characters ranging from superb athletes, marketing geniuses, and snake oil salesmen! In a scant 160 years Physical Culture empires arose and collapsed, most long forgotten. By and large we have no popular sense of its history, leaving us without the protective armor of knowledge for assessing the latest fads and claims inundating us on the internet, print media, and regular reruns of lengthy infomercials. Physical culture 1.0 is also the fitness industry, a huge, complex, frequently contradictory web of products, claims, and marketing disguised as ‘science.’ Many trends in Physical Culture are kept alive by equipment manufacturers despite being scientifically proven of little to no value: huge profits require perpetuation of untrue myths to create consumer expectations and comfort.
On the bright side, Physical Culture 1.0 remains the bastion of perennial training wisdom. Contending training ideas were and remain rampant in PC 1.0. All too often training systems go overboard with enthusiasm or marketing, or both, claiming to be the ultimate system. The truth be told, virtually any training system will bring results to a neophyte. Changing training routines most often brings new results — for upwards of six weeks! Much of Physical Culture 1.0 coaching wisdom rests on decades of observation and experimentation. Nineteenth and twentieth century Physical Culture 1.0 may well be short on robust scientific explanations but that is more than offset by a rich diversity of coaching know-how, a wealth of protocols. With roots in contemporary science, PC 2.0 benefits everyone by resolving some ancient feuds, most often finding them to be complimentary rather than opposites. PC 2.0 is a major upgrade to PC 1.0, a revised, more user friendly operating system!
Physical Culture 2.0 has been brewing for at least forty years. Only in the late 60s did exercise physiology begin in earnest to ferment. Throughout the later 1980s movement in evolutionary medicine and evolutionary biology bore important impact for exercise physiology. Yet the full significance of findings of exercise physiology have yet to impact bio-medical research in general, and in particular seem to have successfully avoided detection within the popular neo Paleo movement.
Evolutionary medicine recognized the contemporary genome to be nearly identical to that of our hunter/gatherer forebears of 50,000 – 100,000 years ago. The anthropological record, however, demonstrates despite being nearly genetically identical to our ancestors, we’ve nevertheless become shrunken versions of them. We’re not as tall as they were, our bones are smaller, and hence our muscles are far under developed. What’s more, extant hunter/gathers do not suffer from the pandemic of chronic degenerative diseases sweeping contemporary civilization. Anthropological reports of hunter/gatherers the world over testify to natural levels of fitness at least rivaling those of peak athletic performance in Western civilization.
At this point the singular salient question has to be posed: what’s normal human genomic expression?
Our 100,000 year old genome has bode well despite several major environmental disruptions impeding and inhibiting its natural expression. With dawning of the Neolithic period some 10,000 years ago domestication of animals and development of agriculture arose, lessening survival mandated activity demands. What’s more, humans banded together in villages, then cities, in turn becoming those fortified, large congregations of humans known as city-states. Cities afforded new opportunities for development of communicable disease, in part facilitated by development of unsanitary conditions. Domestication of humans, like other species, allowed for tribal stragglers of weak genetic disposition to survive into adulthood and multiply: for most of our history, weak stragglers were easy game for predators, thereby maintaining a more robust genetic pool due to reproductive fitness.
A major tipping point occurred less than a mere two centuries ago. Prior to then farmers of ancient Egypt shared a lifestyle far more in common to that of George Washington, and radically different from that of Charles Darwin. The Industrial Revolution’s far reaching changes resulted in decreased hard labor, invention of a culture of prolonged childhood due to need fewer workers, development of steam power, electrical power, mass production in factories, locomotives, later internal combustion engine vehicles, electrical turbines, distribution of electricity and natural gas via pipelines to homes, widespread food distribution networks, and processing, preservation, and canning of food. Most of our selection of fresh fruits is hybrids developed in that period. Results included greater prosperity, resulting in better housing extending life expectancy.
Current Paleo discourse puts greatest emphasis on the Fall of Mankind occurring 10,000 years ago with the domestication of livestock and development of agriculture. Note the emphasis: diet is the culprit. The work of Eaton, Konner, and Cordain is half ignored with that approach — or half understood. Dietary change accounts for introduction of toxic foods while failing to account for the dramatic shift in activity demand arising nearly 200 years ago. The dramatic impact on transition from activity to leisurely sedentariness was initiated with the Industrial Revolution and exponentially deepened ever since.
While the Neolithic revolution may have shaped a first downfall in healthy, natural genomic expression, the Industrial Revolution and what followed with High Technology have borne far more wide reaching environmental impact. Those impacts begin with our culturally sponsored expectations and beliefs about the nature of reality — maintenance of which constitutes unquestioning membership in society. A once robust, active species, in two short centuries our way of life grew incredibly sedentary. We have come to view normal as a sedentary condition of living, along with also accepting as normal roughly 35 disease conditions stemming from ‘normal living.’
Physical Culture 2.0 & the Contemporary Pandemic
Many researchers in the fields of evolutionary medicine (S. Boyd Eaton, Mel Konner, & Loren Cordain), evolutionary biology, and exercise physiology (Dr. Fred Hatfield, Dr. Joseph Signorile, & Brad Schoenfeld) as well as several in the popular neo Paleo movement (Art de Vany, Robb Wolf and Dr Kurt Harris) have contributed to my current understanding. Most of all, however, the utterly brilliant work of Dr. Frank W. Booth remains tops. An integrative, whole systems thinker and researcher, his work emphasizes the primacy of activity or exercise as the standard for discussion of genomic health, SeDS (Sedentary Death Syndrome) as the root of our current condition of unacceptable, needless suffering and expense, and an ongoing campaign to wake up current research to a standard of scientific/epistemological sanity and sobriety based on recognition of fit persons as the standard of healthy genetic expression. The sheer volume of Booth’s publications is staggering; even more so is his coordination of resources: frequently contributing invited reviews of the state of knowledge, his coordination of resources easily runs into several hundred references. Definitely a polymath, his call for reform of research based on establishing a standard of normality closest to the human genome for control groups is the basis of an immense grassroots and scientific paradigm shift in primary preventative care based on rich genomic expression.
My tipping point occurred with a second reading of his coauthored 2002 “Exercise and gene expression: physiological regulation of the human genome through physical activity”. Booth’s articles are so comprehensively dense that missing the significance of a single sentence in his tightly woven discourse can be a catastrophic mistake. Second time around I read:
“Neel…wrote that although trained athletes retain the relative muscle mass of early humans (at least until competitions are over), modern humans are characterized by a ‘striking sarcopenia’. Thus, one can infer based on these statements that the relative size of human muscle mass from the Late Paleolithic era was larger than today. Consequently what is called the mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy from sedentary levels today would probably be the maintenance muscle mass in the Late Paleolithic era.”(p. 401). [emphasis mine].
Booth’s arguments include evidence from physical anthropology. However, more salient are his presentations of how physical inactivity constitutes failure to maintain homeostatic signaling of gene level expression of the Paleolithic period innate within us. Those genes requiring physical activity are also disease-susceptible. That results in signals inhibiting health promoting processes of protein sequencing while activating disease promoting proteins. In turn, altering of intercellular homeostasis comes about, altering metabolic set points. Once we move from acute to chronic thresholds of physiological significance, you can count on pathophysiological manifestations embodying our contemporary pandemic of chronic degenerative diseases, resulting in debilitating erosion of vital reserves ending in predictable death. Many of us sadly observe friends, family members, middle aged and elders slipping into degenerative demise.
Professor Booth proposes a wake up call for health research: include as the control group those who are athletically fit best case representatives of genomic expression. Dr Joseph Signorile’s recent Bending the Aging Curve (Human Kinetics, 2011) does exactly that, with noteworthy differences amplifying the essential survival role of life long fitness training rooted in surfing the curve of strength types.
Too often for my comfort, research citations are reported without drilling down to examination of the actual research design. A good case in point came my way just last week. An author for whom I have the highest regard referred in passing to a fairly recent research publication “Strength, But Not Muscle Mass, Is Associated with Mortality in Health, Aging, and Body Composition Cohort” (Newman et. al., Journal of Gerontology, 2006). Nearly 2,300 subjects ranging in age from 70-79 years of age participated. Considerable robust testing of various factors was performed. Conclusions were based on mortality rates among a senior population within normal end of life ranges (unnoted in the study). While testing included activity, the study was randomized without a control group. The study’s conclusions appear specious in abstentia of controls evidencing life long fitness or sedentary habits. At best, it can be said older people exhibiting several types of strength live longer than others: but, we want to know were those who lived longer physically active?
In approaching PC 2.0, please bear in mind that the current view of civilization holds that the genetically abnormal is normal. The single biggest step for gaining self-mastery lies in systematic application of knowing “normal is abnormal.”
Transition from PC 1.0 to Physical Culture 2.0 hinges on a basic understanding of genetic expression.
Here’s an easy to remember schema giving visual representation for understanding conditions that kill and conditions empowering rich genomic healthy expression. Environmental interactions include sedentariness, alcohol, tobacco, stress, and pharmaceuticals.
Genotype + environment (E) + genotype & environmental interactions (GE) -> phenotype (P)
In very simple terms, your genotype is the range of survival potentialities you bring to the world, while the phenotype is your conditioned expression of them. Phenotypes are not mutations. Genotype refers to an organism’s full range of hereditary information, even if not expressed. Phenotype is an individual organism’s actual properties and characteristics alive in the world.
Today’s E condition includes toxic industrial foods, sedentary life styles, tobacco, alcohol, recreational drugs, electromagnetic pollution, and other factors.
GE is where things become dicey and systemic. Inappropriate diet sets off a cascade of immunological reactions while down grading greatly taxed metabolism. Sedentary lack of exercise signals sequencing of unhealthy metabolic effects, inducing unhealthy metabolic chaos. Synergy is explained as that condition in which one plus one is greater than two. The constellation of just an inappropriately toxic diet and lack of exercise is sufficient to put your metabolism into a nose dive. What kind of nose dive? One of acute yet persistent episodes operating in the background until they reach critical mass — critical mass perturbs crossing thresholds resulting in noticeable degeneration, even diagnostic degeneration. That’s how we do ourselves in as a culture!
PC 1.0 isn’t much help here. It stalls due to being based on symptoms of fitness rather than the deeper genetic, cellular, metabolic, biochemical levels of understanding of what’s really going on. PC 1.0 straps us with theories so limiting they result in anomalies. Anomalies don’t exist in nature: instead, they evidence shortcomings of incomplete theories. Anomalies easily become poorly formulated theoretical dismissals aimed at keeping incomplete models on life support. PC 2.0 cuts to the chase — train for genomic stimulation of metabolic fitness. Further blogs will deal with ranges and kinds of metabolic demands in relation to activity demands.
PC 2.0 aims at optimizing metabolic fitness. Metabolism is not a single item, rather a complex web of processes. PC 1.0 gives us a wealth of training systems, each of which address some specific metabolic processes but not all. In that sense, PC 1.0 training systems work well for what they do while usually remaining incomplete in terms of comprehension of overall metabolic conditioning. In practical terms, physical training must orchestrate various protocols into one strategic plan ensuring best genomic stimulation of cascading metabolic events.
Those following Keith Norris’ excellent Theory to Practice blog learned in his recent “In an Evolutionary Sense, Why Hypertrophy “ of our ongoing discussion of the matter over the past month. I published my introductory “Physical Culture 2.0” the same day. Only later that day did I reread Frank Booth’s comment cited above. His comment reframed the discussion for me. Keith and I were both dealing with an evolutionary question within context of PC 1.0. No big surprise to that: we share a collective 80+ years of formative experience in PC 1.0!
Hypertrophy or gaining muscular size and strength isn’t primary to Physical Culture 2.0. Absence of large, strong muscles developed by natural, robust upbringing speaks of arrested, incomplete development. Normal means immature, under developed genomic expression. Healthy genomic expression in an athletic-like physical condition frames conditioning, training, and movement as the way of life long maintenance of a healthy condition. Hypertrophy oriented training is a therapeutic intervention treating a deficiency condition. Physical Culture 2.0 rests on one foundational idea: gaining then maintaining fullest genomic expression of health. With that muscle is gained as an expression of attaining metabolic health. For PC 2.0, deficiency of healthy genomic stimulation results in adverse metabolic chaos: PC 2.0 aims to restore healthy genomic stimulation resulting in metabolic fitness, health, longevity, and a passion for life. In that regard, PC 2.0 training is therapeutic intervention aimed not at a cure but, instead, restoration of natural, innate genomic expression as metabolic fitness. Depending how late in life one begins that journey of self-mastery, some years of consistently passionate training will eventually result moving to the stage of life long maintenance. The enduring feature you’ll achieve is autonomy and independence, pride in performance, a sense of genuine character development as a wise individual directing your healthy life.
Physical Culture 2.0 emphasizes training your genes: the genes that make you look good in tight fitting jeans! Gym work triggers healthy genetic expression; what’s more, such activity is how your genetic intelligence embodies healthy metabolism. Taking in nutrient dense whole foods provides the raw fuel as a necessary but not sufficient condition. Physical Culture 2.0 concentrates training as metabolic conditioning.
Much is at stake with fitness in the context of Physical Culture 2.0. In his “Lack of adequate appreciation of physical exercise’s complexities can pre-empt appropriate design and interpretation of scientific discovery” (J. Physiol 587.23 (2009), p. 5531) Booth enumerates 35 adverse disease conditions stemming from metabolic catastrophe. He recommends research focus on primary causes. Orthodox medicine focuses on disease conditions at their secondary and tertiary resulting stages of development as pathologies stemming from ignored primary causes. The ranking primary causes stem from inactivity signaling production of metabolic chaos. The role of Physical Culture 2.0 extends well beyond PC 1.0 considerations of getting buff and in shape toward supporting a grassroots revolution in preventative self-care and healthiness education. Our health care system is in a state of utter chaos stemming for systematic ignoring of primary causes. PC 2.0 promotes natural, healthy genomic expression as metabolic fitness.
Several popular theories of exercise have rooted in the popular Paleo movement, all artifacts of Physical Culture 1.0. In fairness, all theories of exercise and training methods have roots in PC 1.0. We would do well to hold all popular theories on advisement until coming to grips with training in context of gaining fullest possible healthy genomic expression as metabolic fitness. Discussions of training type, training frequency, recuperation become subordinate to facilitating healthy metabolic fitness. Genetic signaling results in stimulation of healthy metabolic processes — necessitating a program including various types of training methods. As such, there’s no quick fix nor one system that covers all bases. Metabolic training mandates training variety on a regular basis.
A few training methods promise maximum quick fixes with as little as one or two training sessions per week. In my book, that’s a rest week! But it may be the case that some of the population retrains strangler genes rendering them more prone to long term recuperation due to a predisposition toward sedentariness. Before typecasting yourself as a hard-gainer of strangler genetic heritage, first experiment with varying training methods. Reasonable training should facilitate innate genomic recuperative expression along with other markers of restoration. As such, some of the population is likely disposed to a slower beginning vis-à-vis a long term strategy ensuring success. Merely sticking with a beginning conditioning program is a sure fire way for ensuring less than optimal development.
In fullest application, PC 2.0 based training programs should be implemented either at home or in preschools, and physical education should be re-established in grades K-12. The younger healthy genomic expression is cultivated, the more easily children grow into fully matured manifestations of 100,000 year old genetic maturity and wisdom.
What might that look like? Dr. Sebring and I would argue the richest athletic embodiment we know of are decathlon athletes whose sport demands speed, agility, explosive power, endurance, and other important fitness markers. We know from anthropological and historical reporting humans possess prodigious abilities rarely tapped. With PC 2.0 we’ll discover who we are. There are clues. Lake Placid Winter Olympic games speed and endurance skating events were swept by one amazing athlete, now Eric Haeden, MD. Haeden possessed leg development the envy of bodybuilders with 28+” thighs. His training broke all the rules of PC 1.0. A normal leg workout might involve laps around a track doing duck walks, or sets of 100 repetitions with over 500 pounds on the much harder to use old fashion vertical leg press machines. On one occasion, Haeden used a 205 pound barbell for one set of full squats, racking up an unimaginable 300 nonstop repetitions. Tom Platz is legendary for doing 26 nonstop repetition squats with 525 pounds. Modern mankind’s major obstacle to such performance lies in being convinced only the genetically gifted can make such achievements. An implication of Physical Culture 2.0 holds that most all of us are genetically gifted but lack sufficient curiosity to open the gift package: we have not been educated to know our life depends on doing so. We under-live. Our civilization has excelled in creating lasting amnesia to our nature, our freedom, our passion for the possible. We simply don’t know who we are.
Physical Culture 2.0 is a new paradigm. As such, it should stir healthy controversy inherent in gaining mastery of a new way of thinking and doing. Please join that discussion.
Copyrighted © by Ken O’Neill. All rights reserved.
Fantastic work, Ken. The philosopher Ken Wilber – who I’ve been devouring ever since being introduced to his work via Skyler Tanner – speaks of evolution as a process of transcendence *and* inclusion; exactly the process by which PC 2.0 will “evolve” from the current state of affairs. The healthy, lasting process is not so much anarchistic revolution as it is building upon (“transcending” in every sense of the word) that which has come before; even that which we might label “malicious” at best — for example, the doings of the AMA, or Big Pharma. Take beyond what is good and helpful, leave behind what is not, with no emotional attachment. This is the way of true progress.
I’ve never met Ken Wilber. Like him, I was associated with Michael Murphy some decades ago when Mike was compiling what became his masterpiece: The Future of the Body, 800 pages, three thousand references, what Charlie Tart noted: “the only way to adequately describe this book is to state that it is the most important work on the relationship between mind and body ever written.” Mike’s position through the work he calls Evolutionary Transformationalism. No doubt ‘the two Ken’s’ – Wilber and myself, enjoyed considerable influence in that direction.
A dimension of PC 2.0 coming soon is the Noetic side. Mike’s quarter trips to the Soviet Union in the 70s, along with involvement in the private Washington Street Research center in San Francisco, put him in touch with the science of the USSR’s Hidden Human Reserves movement. We used to say the reason Soviet athletes were setting all the records and winning all the events was due to they’re having better drugs – and state provided access to them. Charles Garfield in his long out of print Peak Performance recounts his experience with some Soviet mind coaching in 1979. Six hours of mind coaching at a time when his all time record bench press had been 315 under Bill Pearl’s coaching – and he wasn’t in that kind of shape in Milan – the Soviets put him on a bench for him to cleanly rack a 385 bench press. Without instrumentation for testing ligament strength they kept him below the 425 they were sure he could do. 315 to 385 usually takes some years of slow incremental progress in PC 1.0. We’ve not begun to tap our genomic potential. Wilber’s sense of evolution, along with Jonas Salk and Murphy’s, is what’s implied in Trans-Evolutionary Fitness for an endangered human species needing to wake up to its majesty.
This is great work Ken. I would just like to add the following: As part of our evolution, we walked this sphere that we call earth. Locomotion is what makes us human and I think it should be a very important part of anyone’s healthy routine in daily life. Walking is what made us what we are today. Walking the earth was not a coincidence, nor a journey of mere horizon grabbing (albeit, it may have started out that way). Walking, or locomotion, is the most essential movement of all to Homo sapiens. You know how much I love to train with weights and I believe that certain musculoskeletal structures are better for certain lifts and certain sports, more than are others. Having said this, one of the two most important things a “modern” human can do is to walk (I think the second one(s), at least for Westerners, beyond resistance training and athletic training, are, Tai Chi, Yoga, and/or swimming). Sounds too simple about walking I know, but I believe, through my studies, that walking the sphere was perhaps the greatest contributor to human life than any other factor, with the exceptions of the gathering/hunting for food and water. I am a huge supporter of resistance training, strength training, athletic training, etc. Having said that, in my studies of evolution, especially those indigenous populations of North America, I found, or discovered, that often a tribe (or the chief of a tribe) would pick and choose who was the best at running; who was the best at hunting; who was the best at almost anything that was physical (and obviously, psychological, for most “shamans” were literally close to schizophrenia). I think early on, people understood the fact that each of us is born with some unique physical talents via musculoskeletal design and psyche-makeup. With that in mind, running may not be for everyone, nor power-lifting, nor decathlon training. Walking, however, everyone who has two moving legs and feet, can do. This is some of the reason for our physical decline over the millennia, since our great Paleolithic ancestors. The decline of physicality, on this continent, can go back as far as the Spanish bringing horses to North America, all the way to the automobile and sitting behind a computer. One can only train with weights for 2 hours a day, at best. One can only train for athletic events, especially if they are over 50 years old, for so many hours out of the day. Walking is something that can be done all day. I think that what you are asking for by the way you have written your blog is not only to contribute to each of our knowledge base, but to make each of us think about evolution and what might be missing today that was part of everyday life many thousands of years ago. Walking is something everyone can do; and I believe should do, at least 3-4 miles a day. As always I am in awe of your writing and thought process about “Physical Culture, now 2.0. I think that your background of Eastern philosophy and religion, combined with your modern western, scientific mind are the perfect mix to spur a new field of thought. Well done Ken.
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