The modern ‘S’ word…Stress, exercise and obesity

The evolutionary logic is debatable (evolution relies on selection) but there seems evidence that if a person/animal feels valuable to its herd it lives longer. A sense of being a ‘winner’ seems to epigenetically switch on the repair mechanism. While I’ve seen this earlier in other research on ageing, its worth reflecting on the common strand of respect for, and connection with, the elderly in the Blue Zones (Dan Buettner’s book).

And the converse is also true; a sense of being useless, using up scarce herd resources, seems to turn off your repair mechanism (anabolic) and up-regulates your ‘tear down’ catabolic processes. Feeling stressed and unsuccessful turns on all sorts of ‘kill me’ signals. So it’s important to have a state of mind of the successful hunter and provider, source of wisdom to the tribe, or grandparent-nurturer of the tribe’s future.

In the ‘70s when I was a kid the premise of Alvin Toffler’s book “Future Shock” was that change was happening so fast that the human mind could not keep up. From the perspective of 2016 that just seems so hilarious. Every year the rate of human knowledge grows exponentially, with discoveries coming so thick and fast that it ceases to be possible to write science books, because the content is outdated before it can be published.

Our lives are inundated, swamped, with tidal waves of information; we try to swallow the torrent from the fire hose of the ubiquitous intelligent internet. We went to see James Acaster’s comedy show; he said we occupy a unique place in history, the only generation to know life both before, and after, the internet. (In the 70s of course I was naïve enough to think the same thing about television, and moon landings).

Able to peek into other people’s lives we suffer status anxiety, comparison, and envy; we stumble into vast unfillable gaps in our knowledge and skills and know we will always fall short; we place huge expectations on ourselves, our lives and our relationships. Meta-data is now currency – knowing which websites are best at ranking the best websites.

Yet even in 1854 Henry D Thoreau wrote in Walden “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. Stress is easier to come by, but part of the human condition. And stress, my friend, damages your health in oh so many, let me count the ways.

The late Seth Roberts (the Shangri-La Diet) was a brilliant original thinker (and an early adopter of n=1 self-experiments) but I can’t recommend the Shangri-La Diet; it looks like it contributed to Seth’s untimely death at 60 from heart disease. But his distinction of two types of stress, famine and tigers, rings very true.

He tells a story about his fat cat, mercilessly teasing the chained dog next door, until one fateful day, the dog got loose. After three worrying days, the cat slunk home, very much worse for wear. Ever after, the fat cat became a skinny cat. Seth’s thesis was that we evolved to survive two types of stress –famine vs the threat of a saber-tooth tiger. Famine demands fat storage and energy reduction. The cat’s system switched permanently to skinny, when surviving the tiger required agility and fleetness.

Life for our ancestors was hard; whole tribes endured extended food shortages, covering long distances out in the elements, more often than not during an ice age. Our species was nearly wiped out at several points. When your body senses famine, it is a survival trait to store fat and turn down your base energy needs. And you guessed it, one effect of stress is higher cortisol and hence, our old adversary insulin.

So when you’re exercising, think fun thoughts, like “I’m dancing with my tribe celebrating bringing down this huge mastodon and in anticipation of days of feasting”, or think “I’m in immediate terror, running away from tiger”. Don’t think “I am loping a long slow distance searching for scarce food, and I am hungry”. Even “I’m anxious about how much I’ve got to do, or that awkward conversation I have to have”. Thoughts of scarcity or anxiety translate into famine signals for your body – store fat, turn metabolism down!

So next time you break out those running shoes, or lift those weights, think…winner! Put on the pumping music, get happy and think “Here I am, the successful hunter-gatherer, carrying kill, or a huge sack of tubers, back to the tribe”. And then paint yourself in various mud colours and do a happy celebratory tribal dance around the fire to stomping drum music under the stars!

Even when not exercising, make stress management a top priority. Another reason why 12 step programmes are good for weight loss, as outlined in my post on Cravings (by Manejwala) ; social connection, usefulness and service, handing stress over to a higher power, meditative practices (prayer, reflection), and reducing conflict by making amends. Bingo! Lower cortisol throughout the day, lower insulin, less hunger.



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