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Pilates vs. Evolution

April 16, 2014 — 3 Comments

What should I call it?

What should I call it?

I imagine that the great majority of teachers and/or practitioners of Pilates would agree, that it is alive – that Pilates is a living thing. All living organisms must be able to adapt to changes to their environment (or move to a different environment) to avoid extinction. Thus, I would contend that, Pilates has to be capable of adapting to environmental shifts in order to avoid eventual extinction.
Yes, here we are once again, musing on what Pilates really is/should be etc. It’s a subject that seems ‘to have legs’, very long legs perhaps (and how appropriate).

A recent post on a Pilates related forum invited discussion on “innovation in Pilates”, with fairly predictable results. Some comments endorse the idea of everything that one does informing everything else that one does, others decry the lack of respect shown to the originator, or worry that the public may be confused. The latter idea is particularly fascinating for me, in part because I think that ‘the public’ may not be that interested anyway. If I think of my job as teaching people to position and move themselves as well as possible (on another forum thread Sean Gallagher recently wrote: “…Pilates is a way of living in your body” which feels similar, if not better), then I do not see it as my job to teach people about Joseph Pilates, to make sure that ‘they’ know exactly what was devised by him, and what was not. The subject may well come up, but I’m more interested in honouring the marvellous tool that nature has given us (our moving body) than I am in honouring the man, much as I believe he was a genius.

Back to evolution (apologies to anyone who is troubled by this concept – I believe that its acceptance in the US is particularly limited). There’s no doubt that the environment in which Pilates resides, that’s to say our understanding of biomechanics, neuroscience and so on, has changed substantially in the last 46 years. It may be that you believe that Joseph was indeed 50 years ahead of his time, so still ahead of the evolutionary curve. In which case there may be no reason to look elsewhere for inspiration or more thorough understanding. For some of us, exposure to other modalities, or information that helps to refine our understanding of what’s important, may mean that we begin to incorporate into our teaching things that do not look exactly Pilates, as taught by Joseph. As an example, there have been a couple of instances recently when, within the first few classes, I have taught a deadlift pattern to clients (both of whom had young children, and back problems). This is because I believe that understanding this movement pattern is essential to their well-being, so that they do not have to choose between back pain or picking up their children. I may have mentioned that the deadlift is not strictly a Pilates exercise, I don’t remember. I don’t think it really matters, again, because of how I see my professional responsibility, and because I don’t think my clients are helped by making those differentiations.

I can see that this point of view may not sit well with some teachers, those that we might consider to be devoted to authenticity. They may feel that different disciplines should not be mixed together. As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, I have always been most interested in that area in-between. As an art student I was excited by the blurring of boundaries, between sculpture and furniture, say, or sculpture and architecture. At the moment I believe that it’s appropriate to refer to what I teach as Pilates, because the great majority of it is recognisably Pilates, and because I use the equipment a lot. It’s possible that at some point in the future less of what I’m teaching will be recognisably Pilates, and that may lead me to eventually try to find a different name for what I do. When I was training as a Pilates teacher one of my teachers was known for having his own versions of exercises, and we were encouraged to pin him down about which was original, and which was not of what he was teaching us. His mat classes were called Pilates classes, and whilst the original repertoire was in there, there were flavours of yoga, contemporary dance, and other systems too (and, importantly, in relation to the ‘confusing the public’ issue – they were busy classes, people came and moved, breathed, were challenged, and had fun). That was 12 years ago, and at some point it clearly made sense to give his teaching a new name, so that we now have Garuda. If James were still calling his work Pilates it would probably be totally inappropriate, and the creation of Garuda seems like a natural evolution of his teaching.

The person who posted about ‘innovation in Pilates’ is at the point of making his own equipment, that looks significantly different from Pilates equipment. I would agree that you can apply the principles of Pilates to other modalities, but would suggest that once you need to manufacture your own equipment to best express your work, it may be time to practice under a different banner. The question for me is where one draws the line, between teaching something that looks substantially like Pilates (as I write this I can picture the Pilates fundamentalists gnashing their teeth – sorry), and something which has strayed far enough from the original material that it no longer qualifies. I suspect that the answer may be (aside from needing to create your own equipment) that if you need to ask if you should still call what you teach Pilates, then you’ve probably strayed over that line.

(Image courtesy of http://www.dailymail.co.uk)

 

 

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When I was very young there was a radio programme called “Listen with Mother”. We didn’t have a television, and I listened to this nearly every day (with my Mum, of course). Without fail, the show began with “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” (I’m not sure whether it’s a positive or a negative that this is etched in some recess of my brain).

These days, with the increasing number of studies suggesting that sitting is bad for us, it seems to be a particularly interesting question. The answer may well be “Hell, yes!” (“I’ve got this fantastic well stuffed, reclining, cocooning, i-pod docking super-sofa and I’m as comfortable as anyone ever has been.”) Of course sitting is comfortable, or certainly can be. And, it turns out, it shortens your life, makes you fat, possibly metabolically deranged, possibly pre-diabetic – never mind the possible reduction in range of hip movement.

However, I’d like to leave the bulk of the anti-sitting stuff aside, valid as it is. It seems to be getting a reasonable amount of attention. Instead, I’d like to concentrate on the “comfort” part of the equation. A little while ago I saw a Tweet from @NocturnalOutpos: “Our lust for comfort is the biggest thief in our lives…”, which resonated for me. I think there can be no doubt that the technological advances that have given us easier access to greater comfort have also weakened us as a species, or at the very least made us less resilient (Nassem Nicholas Taleb would say ‘more fragile’).  (Back to) sitting =  more hip dysfunction & back/knee problems, for example. Controlling every aspect of our living environment makes us less well able to cope with the unpredictable. Can we survive without electricity and telecommunications. Most end-of-the-world disaster movies that I’ve seen assume that we can’t (at the same population level).

Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa writes: “All living organisms in nature, including humans, are evolutionarily designed to reproduce. Reproductive success is the ultimate end [goal] of all biological existence.” So, yes, having children is pretty much our reason for existing as a species. The hunter-gatherer existence of our pre-agricultural ancestors would have had its own pragmatic population controls. It is simply not practical to live that semi-nomadic life with lots of children tagging along, and the food supply would have been a limiting factor.

When the agricultural revolution came along things became more comfortable, in that it was possible to stay in the same place, procuring food was no longer everyone’s task, and food became more abundant (though less nutritious). Consequently it was possible for the human population to explode – all the natural population constraints of the HG existence were lifted. Terrific. As a result we now enjoy all the fruits of civilisation, both positive and negative. Negative in that our numbers, ingenuity and technology have allowed us to overcome or resist many of (what I perceive to be) Nature’s attempts to maintain some balance by keeping our numbers in check.

I’m writing this sitting in a cafe on a Saturday morning, as it fills up with people, especially families. It’s noticeable how many couples have several children, clearly born in relatively quick succession, and the part of me that is certain that there are already far too many of us on the planet can’t help inwardly asking ‘Why?’ Why are you having all these children? (In this instance ‘all these’ denoting more than two). And the answer that I come back to is, we are too comfortable. It’s too easy to procure food, shelter, water and energy, so we trick ourselves into thinking that what may be sustainable in at a local, insular level is equally sustainable for humanity as a whole.

where-the-magic-happensOn a less ‘end-of-the-world’ note, it’s common to talk of one’s ‘comfort zone’ these days. It’s not an unusual idea that we need to leave our comfort zone to make changes, or to achieve more. Being uncomfortable thus is the route to progress, perhaps success, or becoming stronger. And the inverse is true. Comfort makes us weaker. Comfort encourages stasis. Comfort anaesthetises.

I’ll still be sitting comfortably on the sofa for a while this evening, but more fool me if I do so for long.

What does fit weigh?

September 28, 2013 — Leave a comment

3_seca-760_ecru_white_detailMy urge to write often seems related to the me coming across two colliding ideas, or if not colliding, at least divergent ideas. In this case, I’ve recently started reading the excellent “The Paleo Coach” by Jason Seib, and also seen snippets/chunks of the series “The Men Who Made Us Thin” on the BBC, written and presented by Jacques Peretti.

Peretti’s TV series offers up some extraordinary insight, my favourite moment being when the former CFO of Weight Watchers in the United States almost gleefully pronounces that the company he spent 20 years working for was a good business model because their product didn’t work, but kept people coming back and paying for more. It was if, instead of being interviewed by a journalist, he was making a secret presentation to potential investors.

Overall, the series seems to be a sincere attempt to uncover why so many people are becoming obese, and what solutions, if any, are effective. Peretti points out a number of misleading generalisations, but makes plenty of his own in the process. The most striking thing for me in all that I saw was this comment: “Personally I think people should stop worrying about their weight and focus on being healthy and happy, at any size.” This seems to me to highlight the degree to which our thinking about health has been torn away from any grounding in evolutionary biology, and outright bizarre. If your brain and body are under the impression that your situation is so stressful, or that a time of famine is imminent, and that you need ample stores of fat, is there any possibility that you are healthy?

It’s widely accepted that being fat is unhealthy, yet it seems that the opposite extreme has become the definition of healthy. There is no middle ground – Fat is bad, ergo skinny is good. When skinny is patently unattainable (not to mention ‘unhealthy’) the response is to celebrate being too fat, as in “I’m happy the way I am.” There may be a case to say that, in some sections of the UK media, the pressure to be happy the way you are is nearly as great as the pressure to look like someone else a good deal smaller than you. The idea of being fat and fit is bound up somewhere in all of this. For Peretti, the fact that two obese women, who had some previous experience, could keep going in an aerobics class longer than he could was a sign that fat and fit are not mutually exclusive. Overall, the message seemed to be that nothing is truly effective in combating obesity long term – dieting doesn’t work, exercising doesn’t work, surgical intervention doesn’t work etc. Not great news for the concerned viewer who really wants to change themselves.

Then I picked up Jason Seib’s book, and was delighted. Having ‘Paleo’ in the title means I know he’s going to be talking about an ‘ancestral’ model for living now. In other words, taking the physical activity and nutrition of our ancestors as a template for how to live now. This is another way of saying that he uses evolutionary biology as the basis for his assertions about health and fitness (more of ‘health and fitness’ anon).

It fits that our concerns about our size and weight are related to how other people perceive us, or how attractive we are. Using that evolutionary model, we are wired to propagate our own genes, and mix them with other genes that are going to be resilient, robust etc. From that perspective, what attracts us to others is their appearance of health – “Does this person have what it takes to survive and flourish, and produce children that will do the same, in this adversarial world?” Just as excessive body fat won’t signal a promising mate, nor will being very skinny. In other words, as life has become easier and easier, we have developed some twisted ideas about what the roots of attraction are.

Seib argues that people who begin a diet, or programme of exercise, with aesthetic goals are largely bound to fail. That said, it’s not unreasonable to have a goal of fitting into clothes that you wore a couple of years back, or to want a smaller waist circumference, BUT weight per se is a red herring. You might change your body composition significantly, effectively exchanging stored fat for muscle mass, and not lose much weight. The whole notion of ‘losing weight’ is misguided in fact. Bathroom scales tell us next to nothing about how healthy we are. I know someone who has recently succeeded in losing weight, and I’m certain that, as well as shedding some body fat, she has also lost muscle mass. Did anyone’s health ever improve as they got weaker?

As an aside, Seib refers to research that indicates that yo-yo dieters become more efficient at storing body fat. In other words, if you get into a cycle of dieting to lose weight, and then regaining that weight, then you are likely to become progressively fatter. I can’t articulate how or why, but this is surely a natural response of the human body to the stress of deprivation and signalling the need for storing greater energy reserves.

The solution of “The Paleo Coach” is to have a goal of health, rather than a number that you read on the scale. If you take the necessary steps to be as healthy as possible then aesthetic goals will be achieved as a by-product – again, we’ve evolved to find the appearance of robust health desirable. This brings me back to the ‘health and fitness’ point. Under the heading of “What is fitness?” the CrossFit Training Guide (yes, CrossFit, again) contains this line: “We have observed that nearly every measurable value of health can be placed on a continuum that ranges from sickness to wellness to fitness.” This is to say, health and fitness are not separate – fitness is the optimum state of health. If we accept this idea then the notion of “happy and healthy at any size” is exposed as a nonsense.

Bathroom scales can tell you how heavy you are, they cannot tell you how healthy you are (I know there are some that purport to measure body fat but since one such scale told me that I was borderline morbidly obese I doubt their accuracy). Unless you’re wanting to go on, say, a theme park ride with a weight limitation, or wondering if the lift can cope with one more body in it, what you weigh is of minimal significance – your fitness will take care of your weight.

Oh, and don’t settle for wellness (“How are you?” “Oh, fair to middling.”) – is that really going to be good enough for you?

Better Than God?

June 5, 2013 — Leave a comment

Most people, if you stopped them in the street to talk about nutrition, would probably know that butter and saturated fat are bad for you. They may well also know that those fats will raise your cholesterol level, and that high cholesterol can kill people. They may well also have some ideas about what constitute healthy fats. After all, this information has been very well disseminated by governments, medical professionals, news media, and producers of healthy fat and cholesterol lowering products.

I know how easy it is to make butter. I made some once when I was overzealous in my cream-whipping, trying to impress someone. Margarine, or Benecol (“Benecol is a range of foods that contain a unique patented ingredient, Plant Stanol Ester, that is proven to lower cholesterol. Benecol is available in a variety of delicious products including yogurts, yogurt drinks and spreads.”) is a different story – I’ve no idea where to start, so I looked it up, and apparently making margarine goes something like this:

It appears that olive oil is also relatively simple to extract from an olive. Certainly the process is mechanised these days, but it’s easy to find instructions for the home enthusiast, requiring nothing more complicated than millstones… It’s also pretty easy to render lard – animal fat, heat, a pan, a jar and some cheesecloth are all that’s required.

Vegetable oil, or seed oil is, like margarine, a different story, as this video shows. In the US they call it ‘canola’, in the UK we call it ‘rapeseed’. (You may not fancy watching the whole thing. If you do, listen out for key words such as: ‘solvent’, ‘chemical extraction process’, ‘wash with sodium hydroxide’*, ‘bleach’. You’ll be glad too to hear that they deodorise the final product…)

It’s pretty much the same process that’s outlined in the flow chart. (Clearly not instructions for making Benecol, because there’s no mention of adding those plant stanol esters….)

What, might you ask, has this got to do with God? You can say God, if you like, or you might choose Mother Nature, for the sake of this particular argument. I’m inclined to simply call her Nature. And here’s my point: someone who is very dear to me is a regular consumer of industrial food products like Benecol margarine, and also happens to be a practicing Catholic. He eats Benecol on his bread (there’s a whole other problem) because medical professionals, and advertising have told him this is what’s best for him, and because I’ve got no credentials for getting into an argument with his doctor.

I don’t practice any religion, so I’m guessing how the thinking might go. At the same time I believe that human evolution has been intimately entwined with us making use of the things that nature provides us with, just as is the case for most living things. Predatory carnivores pick their food from herds of herbivores, antelope graze, killer whales eat seals, seals eat fish (some of the really mean ones eat penguins!), many fish graze on algae etc. Technology changes many things for us – it’s very much easier for us to control fire the it used to be, we don’t need to hunt wild animals any more because we’ve learned how to corral and domesticate them. That list can go on and on. The thing is that technology tends to make life easier for us, and tends to generate revenue for the inventor and/or manufacturer. It doesn’t necessarily make us better (Yes, this was last week’s subject.) And when we’re talking about fat, we’re talking about nutrition. Say it out loud: ‘NUTRITION’ – that which nourishes us. There’s hardly anything more important than this in our lives. If we make changes to how we nourish ourselves, surely they should be based on making us better – not based on making life easier, or generating huge profits for industrial food corporations? (By the way, isn’t it weird that the same company that makes Cornetto, also makes Comfort fabric softener?)

Back to my Bencol eating, Catholic friend. Because it feels cruel, I’ve resisted saying to him: ‘God has given us all this bounty with which we can nourish ourselves. Do you really think that we can manufacture better nourishment in a factory, using enormous resources of energy, chemicals and precious water, than God has seen fit to make easily available to us?’ Again, I’d rather be talking about ‘Nature’ than ‘God’, but that’s largely irrelevant. What kind of arrogance leads us to believe that we are somehow different from any other lifeforms on the planet, and that despite millennia of successful nourishment, garnered with the assistance of  some simple hand tools, and fire, we can ‘create’ food that will do a better job of nourishing us?

Of course the real truth is that it’s probably a combination of greed and fear that leads us to the point where we believe that readily-derived-from-nature is bad, and chemically/industrially manufactured is better. However, if we can strip that away (tough, because fear is what drives capitalism so well) then perhaps we can see that it is vanity and arrogance that tricks into thinking that we (or our doctor) may know better…

Special bonus video (reward for perseverance)

*Yes, it’s caustic soda, but don’t worry, it’s of a higher grade than the oven cleaning or sink unblocking kind.

Older is not better

May 31, 2013 — 2 Comments

There was a report in the news last week relating to research into the safest place for a baby to sleep. According to the researcher I heard interviewed, the conclusion of the study was that the safest place for a baby to sleep is ‘in it’s own environment’. This struck me as rather curious, since I’d also read recently about the almost constant contact that babies in indigenous cultures enjoy with one or other of their parents.

A couple of days later I was talking to a pregnant woman, and mentioned this, at which point she said “Older is not necessarily better”, and went on to point out that in the past many more babies died than currently do. (This is a favourite theme for anyone rejecting an ancestral model for lifestyle choices. That or, ‘no-one lived past 40’…) It wasn’t the time to be pursuing that debate, but I cycled home musing on it that night.

It’s certainly true that because humans have done something for a long time it does not follow that it’s true. There are many examples of horrific practices that, happily, we have left behind us. I’m also aware that it’s rather easy to romanticise a, perhaps, simpler time, or a simpler life. (Years ago I was on holiday with friends, one of whom was from a farming background, and with far more working class sensibilities than I can pretend to have. We were on the island of Tobago, and I was very taken with the lifestyle of the fishermen in the village that we were staying in. They positively glowed with health, and whilst they obviously had to work hard, they seemed to be quite well rewarded. I was attracted to what seemed to be a very ‘natural’ and healthy life, with a straightforward effort/reward equation, and incurred the disgust of my friend for my privileged ignorance of the realities of hard work/hand-to-mouth existence.)

So, acknowledging that I may be wearing my rose tinted specs, I’m still fascinated by the idea that populations with less of the trappings of western civilization might enjoy a closer connection to their environment than we generally do. And this connection imparts a kind of wisdom that we turned our backs on many decades ago. This is a subject that many writers seem to be delving into at the moment – Mark Sisson’s “Primal Connection” is directly related to this, and it’s a theme that Frank Forencich regularly writes about. Doubtless there are many more. Perhaps people that live in closer contact with their environment make choices for the health of their environment, rather than ease of living, as ‘civilisation’ and the industrial revolution have allowed us to do for the last century and a bit. If you know that your food and shelter is dependent on maintaining something of a symbiotic relationship between yourself and your surroundings then you are highly likely to behave in a way that preserves that relationship. The chances are that this way of living has been ingrained for centuries, so that it is interwoven with your learning, play and life in general as you grow. In other words, perhaps it’s unconscious – you know what’s important without knowing that you know. Again, this is my rose-tinted perception, reinforced by wonderful books like ‘Wild‘ by Jay Griffiths.

In contrast, industrialisation and technology have allowed us to disconnect from the natural world more and more. (Aside from the practical implications, there is a rich vein of research into how this impacts our mental/emotional state). I’m certainly not about to give up a home with central heating, but I can believe that some time amongst trees and plants nourishes me in ways that food cannot.

Perhaps as the basis of postmodern theory (which I understand, highly simplistically, to be something like; ‘reality has been replaced by symbols and simulations of reality’ – apologies to Baudrillard if I’m way off the mark) we seem to have become very good at identifying problems that we have created for ourselves through technological advances, and remedied them with more ‘technology’. MBT shoes seem to be the perfect illustration of this idea – We recognise that there’s a problem with shoes, and pavements, flat ground etc. So instead of removing our shoes, and trying to spend more time with our feet on a more natural surface, we develop shoes that move us further away from true connection to the ground, whilst trying to represent that connection. Duh.

How about ‘ergonomic’ chairs? We recognise that sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen, controlling a mouse, and typing isn’t working out to well for us. No surprises there – we’re not ‘built’ for sitting for long periods, the load on our spines increases two-fold when we go from standing to sitting. The solution is, of course, to design a chair that makes us ‘better’ at sitting. One that actually requires less muscular connection in order to remain in the same dysfuntional position.

We no longer have the innate sense that should tell us that sitting for hours at a time is a bad idea. It reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with a martial arts enthusiast (and osteopath). His theory was that Pilates is essentially the same practice as yoga, tai chi, karate, kung-fu, kendo etc., but modified for a Western sensibility. One of the crucial differences is that, in the countries from which those other movement practices originate, children would be practicing them form a young age – repeating movements over and over again. By the time that they were old enough to question why they were going through these movement patterns, they had no need to ask the question because their body had learned the answer through the action. His argument went on that people doing Pilates often need to ask, or understand intellectually why they are doing particular exercises because they have not had the opportunity to develop that innate ‘body intelligence’.

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Could this be the perfect squat?
Sorry, can’t find who to credit for this image….

A brief search on YouTube will quickly elicit plenty of video clips of toddlers doing ‘perfect’ squats, deadlifts etc. – the evidence seems fairly clear that we ‘know’ how to move well at a very young age, or at least that moving well is woven into our early development. Things seem to go wrong around the time that we start to put children in shoes, and make them sit for prolonged periods of time. Shoes and chairs are simple examples of technological advances that are creating problems for us, far beyond what surely could have been imagined when they were first conceived. Just as ‘older isn’t better’, newer is not better either. More importantly, increasing the disconnect between ourselves and our environment is a recipe for newer, perhaps more complicated problems (I’m envisioning later scenes in the excellent Pixar animated film ‘Wall-E” – if you don’t know what I’m referring to, please put this blog post down immediately and remedy the situation – I guarantee it’s way more entertaining).

So older is not necessarily better, but wisdom might trump technology. Returning to the subject that I started with, of baby’s safest sleeping place, isn’t it strange to think that a baby should have its own environment, that is separate from that of its parents? Does that occur in any other species of mammal? Is this perhaps a sign of our fundamental loss of sensitivity to our surroundings, that an adult’s sleeping space is inherently dangerous to a baby? Or have we truly figured everything out better than any of our ancestors did?

Fitness

February 18, 2012 — 3 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from the person who handles marketing for a yoga centre at which I teach a (Pilates) class. All the centre’s teachers were being approached for their input in an idea to tie the London Olympics into the centre’s publicity, with an ‘Olympic challenge’: “The idea is to get who ever does the challenge [as] fit as an Olympic athlete through Cycling, Yoga , Pilates, Nutrition and treatments.”
I was fascinated by this idea on a number of levels.

The first to get out of the way is incredulity at the idea that a combination of the above would produce similar results to the training regime of an Olympic athlete, unless we’re considering pistol marksmen/women, or some similar sports person. I think most people conjuring the idea of an Olympic athlete will come up with someone like Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis, Chris Hoy, Tom Daly etc. I know that Usain Bolt is notoriously lackadaisical about his training but I cannot believe that a similar physical condition could be achieved through yoga, pilates and nutrition, with some treatments thrown in.

I specifically referred to Usain Bolt’s physical condition to avoid using the word fitness. This is the part of the ‘fit as an Olympic athlete’ concept that I find really interesting. How are we to define fitness? And will Olympic athletes fit into that definition?

I asked a friend of mine, Pilates teacher Suzanne Scott, “an anatomist with physiology leanings”,  to define fitness for me recently, and this is what she came up with: “greater tolerance to shifts in environmental parameters and biologically mediated challenges”, which, aside from being marvellously worded in a very science-y way, captures an evolutionary notion of fitness rather well, and I shall return to this. Biology online says: “In biology, Darwinian fitness or simply fitness of a biological trait describes how successful an organism has been at passing on its genes. The more likely that an individual is able to survive and live longer to reproduce, the higher is the fitness of that individual.” Hence ‘ survival of the fittest’ – those that are best adapted to be able to successfully pass their genes on to successive generations. (This perhaps calls for a separate post on how our species has nearly circumvented this simple evolutionary rule by inventing agriculture, with its attendant advantages and disadvantages).

So what has evolutionary theory got to do with Olympic athletes? If we were to define fitness as the ability to perform a narrow range of specific tasks repeatedly and, perhaps, particularly fast, then an Olympic athlete may well be the model of fitness. However, in keeping with my primal/paleo bias, I have an imaginary prehistoric framework in which an individual’s fitness is tested – a wild place, untouched by ‘civilisation’, in which there are a variety of hazards to be negotiated or avoided, and great skill at a narrow range of tasks will not do. Survival, or better yet, flourishing (for that’s what I hope we all strive for), in this environment requires many attributes: keen senses, agility, speed, strength, endurance, ingenuity and so on. All of these attributes may well be possessed by a number of Olympic athletes, so why not call them fit? It isn’t a new idea that the most successful Tour de France cyclists are those that can tolerate the most pain. Similarly, it is well established that competing in endurance events (Ironman Triathlons, for example) causes more cell damage than it’s possible for our bodies to fully recover from, chronic inflammation, and has a corresponding impact on our immune systems. (A brief trawl of Google will proffer plenty of articles linking prolonged training for, and participation in, endurance sports to increased risk of various conditions from heart disease to cancer.)

As sports science and our understanding of human physiology and biomechanics  has developed the level of performance has risen to a staggering degree (world best marathon time teetering on the brink of the 2 hour barrier being broken!). To be ‘elite’ means monitoring the minutiae of an athlete’s life and training, and competing at the very edge of one’s potential. Pushing to that ‘edge’ inevitably means that many athletes seem to be, even when performing very well, on the verge of injury and/or illness. To be really successful as an athlete means maximising your adaptation to your chosen activity. This adaptation ultimately means that an athlete’s body starts to dispense with any tissue that doesn’t help perform the relevant specialisation, whether it be muscle, bone or brain! If you need to be as light as possible to be really good at your chosen sport then your ability to store energy is going to be compromised. This is fine if you have a ready supply of food, but could lead to catabolism (something like your body ‘eating’ your muscle tissue) if not. However impressive a lot of sporting achievements are, and how much I enjoy watching them, this doesn’t feel like a model of fitness to me. While some elite athletes might do very well within the prehistoric framework mentioned above, I suspect that many would have trained the necessary versatility out of themselves, in order to be highly skilled at their specific event.

An honourable mention is due the Olympic decathletes, like Brian Clay (pictured), whose multi-sport discipline of running, jumping, throwing and vaulting (an amazing combination of movements) requires them to have a truly impressive combinbation of strength, speed, stamina and agility.

Okay, so I’ve succeeded in arguing that actually some Olympians do qualify as really fit – not my original intention. I still stand by the argument that, very often, the requirements of elite sporting performance are incompatible with a Darwinian interpretation of fitness. Given that, let’s return to what does qualify as fitness, or what does “greater tolerance to shifts in environmental parameters and biologically mediated challenges” really mean? Can you cope with unexpected challenges to necessary or normal activity? (I wrote about how Pilates relates to this here).

If you’re a slight framed woman driving an Audi Q7 around London’s streets (yes, I’m a cyclist), and an electronic malfunction means that your power steering is disabled, can you control your vehicle? If you live on the 6th floor, and the lift is out of order, can you get your 20 kilos of groceries upstairs to your home? If you’re a 70 year old out for a stroll and some lunatic on a bike appears from nowhere heading straight for you, do you have the speed and agility (and balance) to get out of harm’s way? I’m sure we could come up with infinite examples of such scenarios. An answer of “yes” would suggest that, having a greater tolerance to …, you are more fit than some. Let’s not say that a ”no” answer means that you are unfit, rather that you could be fitter. The truth is that many, many people will get by, and quite possibly even thrive, without the skills to make it within the prehistoric framework. I would suggest that this only serves to show that our species is weaker than it once was.