Walk on the Wild Side
You have been part of a great biological experiment. You did not sign up for it. Yet it has changed the way you walk, the way you sleep, how you talk and socialize.
Pretty much everything you do, in fact.
In laboratories scientists make a major distinction between species born and living in the wild, and those developing and maturing in “captivity.” They call animals born in the wild “wild-type” and know they have experienced completely different biological and evolutionary pressures than those grown under “civilized” conditions. Wild type organisms possess different genetics and epigenetics – and experience different diseases.
We humans are no longer wild type – at least most of us reading this sentence.
Wild type humans are different. They move differently, socialize differently, eat different foods in different ways and different times.
Over the last few centuries – particularly the last few decades – most of traditional human activity has changed. So have our diseases.
The Way We Live Now
Americans have cut off 90 minutes of sleep in the last forty years. We sit at work. When not at work we slouch observing TVs, computer monitors, tablets, cell phones and highway billboards – often munching as we do.
Here are just a few contrasts between “wild type” humans and the more recent “industrial” type:
Sleep – wild types sleep nine to ten hours in three separate periods – which they call first and second sleep at night, naps in the daytime.
Industrial types – one leveraged, continual sleep period of seven hours or less – at night.
Food – wild types eat variably, sometimes once a day, more often several times during the day a shifting diet of grubs, nuts, fruits, game, and grains.
Industrial types prefer calorically dense processed confections with heavy additional levels of sugars, fats, salt; the main ingredients of this processed material monoculture are corn, soy and wheat.
Activity – wild types move almost continually through the day, with intermittent walking of about 12 miles on average. This includes strolling, standing, squatting, pulling and occasional running.
Industrial types – sit much or most of the day, walking on average a good deal less than a mile; a few engage high spurts of activity of between ten minutes and two hours running, jumping, or climbing on machines as they watch computer monitors and personal biological gadgets graphically depicting their heart rate, blood pressure – and minutes of activity.
So what happens to our industrial types? Lots. Let’s look at one simple measure – activity.
Sitting Is To Die For
Are couch potatoes real potatoes?
They certainly get gnarly – just like the real ones.
What’s become obvious in recent years is sitting – our preferred waking activity – is not good for survival.
Australian studies have argued every hour in front of the TV equals twenty minutes less life. Reality TV has all too real biological effects.
But a recent “meta-analysis” by Emma Wilmot, reported on in The Economist, tries to put some real moxie on the numbers.
Comparing the “least active” with the “most active” adults the rates of disease increase are:
Diabetes – two to one
Dying of a heart attack – two to one
Major cardiovascular disease – two and a half to one.
The big kicker – intense exercise does not change the results. They’re the same for marathoners as ordinary humans. Sitting kills even them more quickly.
And people who sit more eat more.
So why is sitting harmful? Lipid metabolism changes utterly – including where fats go (not so much into muscle, allowing them to clog arteries.) So does glucose metabolism – which may help explain the higher diabetes rates for even marathon running couch lovers. Arteries may also clot differently – just ask frequent fliers.
Of course, that’s what’s known now. What is unknown is this field is much larger than what is known. But what seems to help survival – and probably pleasure – is relatively minimal activity – like walking or standing – spaced around the day.
So what is to be done?
Suggestions for the Industrial Age
If sitting is a risk factor for death, you can do something else:
1. Stand while you talk on the phone or have a conversation. Consider a standing desk – especially if you do a lot of computer monitoring and writing. Standing takes a lot more energy than sitting.
2. Have some walking meetings. Moving outside can change people’s thinking – and get their mental processes moving (this may not work in Minneapolis winters, but there are many ways to obtain adventure.)
3.Walk after meals. Timing counts – and walking after meals should prevent diabetes and weight gain more efficiently than walking at other times. Still, walk whenever you can. It’s good for brain and body.
4. If stuck at a desk, try to walk or at least stand for a minute out of every 30. This includes airplanes, cars, trains and buses – even if the pilot on your intercontinental flight is more comfortable with you flattened under a seatbelt. After all, pilots don’t get to move much – but you should move when you can.
What are the advantages of such an approach? Less death, less illness, happier, more social people.
Plus less weight. And we have not gotten to the many advantages of more vigorous activity, either.
Your wild type body is built to keep moving. So is your body.
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