July 13, 2012

Is Exercise Unhealthy? ~ Rocco Marinelli

Fallacious scientific reports and unquestioning media are damaging our health.

In Stephen King’s futuristic novel The Running Man, there is a game show called, “Treadmill to Bucks.” Contestants with heart disease earn money the longer they can survive on a treadmill that slowly increases in speed.

His vision of a future where the poor are subjected to abject humiliation for the entertainment of the people wasn’t exactly prophetic; after all, only the medium has changed since the time of Rome’s circuses. The reality of today, however, is a more subtle form of sadism where pernicious reports vindicate the couch bound masses from taking responsibility for their own health.

Researchers recently analyzed seven separate studies on the effects of exercise and found that there is an increased risk of heart disease for a small percentage of the population. For around 10 percent of people they say, exercise led to greater heart risk factors.

Putting aside Darwinism and survival of the fittest for the moment, concepts of health, fitness and exercise are mind numbingly simplified and reduced to empirical nonsense. In some studies, participants weren’t required to make any lifestyle changes while on the exercise regime. Diet or smoking weren’t taken in to consideration while participants were allowed to continue taking prescription medication (indicating a pre-existing condition).

Give this report any credence and you’d believe that there is no relationship between health and fitness and that you need only exert yourself physically to be fit. But being healthy requires a discipline of the mind beyond simply throwing the body through its daily paces.

Dr. Michael Lauer, director of the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, epitomizes this separation of body and mind and personal responsibility with his comments on the recent study: “We do not know whether implementing exercise programs for unfit people assures better outcomes.”

What about analyzing what made them unfit in the first place?

By far, the most glaring omission by all media outlets on this report is that a definition isn’t even given for the term “exercise.” Is that because most people implicitly understand exercise to be some form of cardio vascular training in the form of a walk, or a jog, or because the sensationalism of the headline eclipsed any need for further information?

Exercise is reduced to a one-dimensional perfunctory community message. But it is far more encompassing than the idea of hooking someone up to a treadmill and raising their heart beat. Just like “Treadmill to Bucks,” it’s a rigged game when an unfit person is forced to perform exercise.

What is exercise anyway? And what is its relationship to health and fitness? We exercise to stay healthy, but what if you are not healthy, what kind of exercise do you start with?

At the core of this study, the fact that participants weren’t required to change their lifestyle highlights a problem in this modern age where we rest on science for a panacea. We have come to expect that solutions will come without having to alter our lifestyles; that there should be a pill for every problem, not that the problem is really just a symptom of our lifestyles.

As long as studies like these reinforce the illusion of a duality between mind and body, the issues of obesity and heart disease will only get worse.

The study plants a false idea that we are not by nature active—that physical activity is not advisable for some. How can that be when the very principles of evolution that helped us get to this stage have been based upon survival of the fittest?

Hunter Gatherers didn’t operate by socialistic principles. If you reacted adversely to exercise, they probably wouldn’t have waited around until your LDL’s returned to a stable level. It’s only in our lifetimes that the genes of the lazy are being passed on.

Just as exercise is so much more than the duration and intensity of aerobic conditioning, fitness is more than the health indicators of the heart alone.

The beating heart may be the most palpable symbol of life, and sure, many of us love to work up a sweat and feel the engine thumping. But that engine is one part of a wider system. It feeds the body, the brain and other organs, muscles, ligaments and tendons. How is the rest of the body being treated through diet, stretching, breathing and thinking? These are the equally, if not more important elements of exercise.

Before I developed a consistent yoga practice, I spent years cycling competitively, measuring my fitness by how much I could lower my heart rate and how high I could raise my lactate threshold. Food as fuel was a predetermined number of calories made up by a mixture of proteins, fats and carbohydrates, simple as that.

These days I haven’t ridden a bike in over a year and I certainly don’t adhere to any government prescribed recommendations for exercise. I’ve never been fitter.

Yoga led me to reconsider those notions of fitness and helped to dissolve that dualism which keeps us living and thinking from the neck up, keeps us striving against our bodies.

It’s hard to overstate the effects of these reports when they reinforce such a lack of responsibility for one’s own health. On one level it’s quasi science, simplified white coat data crunching. On another level, it’s the kind of “made you click” journalism that media outlets can’t ignore because the paradoxical headline gets easy page views (“Exercise is unhealthy?!”).

But the most pernicious effect is that this kind of report is presented as science and taken at face value by those who needed only the slightest reason to continue not taking care of themselves. In an era of pandemic obesity and inactivity those who ought to be taking responsibility for their health have been provided with another excuse to wait on the couch for the pill that will solve their problems.

Rocco Marinelli is a former Corporate from Melbourne, Australia. When his jerry built stand-up workstation was dismantled by Occupational Health & Safety for the sake of aesthetics over ergonomics he got the sense that the office was no longer for him. Quitting his job at the end of 2011, he travelled to India to study Ashtanga Vinyasa. He now lives in Istanbul where he teaches Ashtanga Vinyasa and is subbing the Mysore program at YogaŞala. Connect with Rocco on YogaŞala.

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Editor: ShaMecha Simms


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