What If We Got Exercise All Wrong?

Biomechanist Katy Bowman argues that our fitness mindset has environmental consequences in her new book, Movement Matters.

Participant jumps from a four meter high platform into water during the Tough Mudder endurance race in Henley on Thames, West of London, on April 26, 2014. The course is set out over 10-12 miles (18-20 km) with 20 obstacles. (Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP/Gett

It started with a chair. Biomechanist Katy Bowman asked followers of her Nutritious Movement Facebook page what would happen if someone suddenly removed the back of your seat. The most common answer: I’d fall backwards.


Exactly. The outsourcing of postural muscles, designed to hold our bodies upright in a variety of positions, would for many be so weak and untrained that the entire structure would collapse. Sitting tall takes work, the type of work too many humans are unequipped to handle. We recognize good posture, so prevalent and acceptable has trademark slouching become.

Another light bulb went on while at her laptop, an unexpected epiphany. Where did that chair come from? Which workers delivered it to their house? Were they the same workers that stocked the warehouse? What about the workers that built the chair, those who sourced the materials? A lot of movement happened to honor sedentary sitting.

This is one of the main ideas in Bowman’s latest book, Movement Matters: Essays on Movement Science, Movement Ecology, and the Nature of Movement. Regarding the chain of movement that led to the chair, she recently told me,

You’ve outsourced the work it takes to hold you in place to an inanimate object. That was work that, were that object not there, you would have had to have done for yourself.

This phenomenon extends beyond furniture. What we eat, how we connect, what we wear, how we travel—all sources of movement that we have removed ourselves from. Our economic system relies on movement, yet profoundly unequal contributions make for a skewed relationship to the environment.

For example, Bowman began researching conflict minerals about seven years ago, realizing materials used to construct the device you’re reading this article on most likely involved non-voluntary laborers partaking in natural human movements: crawling, climbing, digging, and gathering.

Our cultural relationship to movement is backwards: we champion (and financially reward) sedentary occupations at banks and think tanks while scowling at physical labor. The basic message is that if you have to use your body to earn your daily bread, you’re not worth much bread.

Yet we have a biological requirement for movement that’s starving due to these sedentary positions. The movements of the labor class are sadly frowned upon. In fact, as much as anti-immigration policies make headlines, a few years ago the state of North Carolina needed 6,500 farm workers. A call to Americans for help yielded a total of seven. Fellow citizens were unable to handle movements needed for picking and sorting. As Bowman says,

The things that you depend on every day come from raw materials that are found by people squatting and crawling and digging. It’s one group of people’s perspective that these are archaic movements.

Bowman doesn’t believe our fitness solution helps. Like the false notion that you can burn off holiday calories with an influx of cardio, it’s impossible to undo ten hours falling backwards onto a chair by rushing to the gym. She compares this trend to the minerals, herbs, and supplements that are the cash cow of many grocers:

We don’t move at all for anything we need, then we walk into a gym and see all of these movement supplements that we can take. But they don’t really produce anything. They are simply producing within us good health, which is fine for us, but there’s a lot of other people around the world doing those movements on our behalf. If we can convert some of the extra time we spend on exercise that benefits only us and maybe start using that movement to accomplish something more than just the movement, you would be extracting more nutrition, if you will, from your bout of movement.

Coders partake in Spartan Races to chase after a physical reality that should be more gently and regularly woven into the fabric of daily life. Yet as technology advances we become enthralled with the prospect of uploading consciousness into the cloud. Like Gilgamesh seeking everlasting life, the fallacy is that consciousness is extractable from biology.

At least the King of Uruk planned to dominate his domain in his half-divine body. Only a sedentary culture could produce fantasies of disembodied ideas floating through the ether. Like early ascetics that viewed the body as a disposable meat wagon, futurists down gallons of Soylent in hopes of transcending the bloody reality of chemistry.

Alas, animals we are. As Thomas Friedman recently stated, earth does not care for our desires; it relies on physics, biology, and chemistry, not hopes, dreams, and prayers. Humans evolved over millions of years thanks to movement. An emphasis on sedentarism in the wake of the Industrial Revolution has resulted in an entire industry of mismatch diseases. Humans have not defeated the elements, as we often believe. We have surrendered.

Thus we treat exercise as medicine for poor habits. We construct chairs for weak spines and bulging middles, we drive a few blocks instead of walking—and since we barely walk, we pad our feet in sneakers that produce anatomical nightmares up the posterior chain to our neck—and then we hope four or five hours a week on a treadmill will even the playing field.

In Movement Matters Bowman offers numerous tips for rethinking your relationship to how and why you move. Just as we would not need anti-inflammatory drugs, statins, and surgeries if not for poor diets, our bodies would dramatically change if we moved more naturally and put that movement to constructive use. Our relationship to our bodies would change, as would how we understand and treat nature.

Movement should be something that you’re doing all of the time for yourself. That is the natural relationship of a human to movement. It’s like saying that breakfast is medicine for starvation. It’s not medicine; it’s just food. You’re supposed to be eating; it’s a biological requirement. The same holds true for movement.

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Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

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Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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