We live in an age of fragmentation. Our knowledge of health and the body has been broken down into shards, units and bits, each one cut off from the other, each one independent and isolated from its natural, unifying origins. We live in a world of free-floating facts, images and ideas, completely fluid and accessible, but completely divorced from history and habitat.
This is what makes our modern study of health so perplexing. There’s just so much to learn now: biochemistry, biomechanics, human history, psychology and all the rest. Health, formerly an accessible art of living, has become a minefield of complexity, cognitive overload and stress. What we need right now is a sense of integration, a way to wrap up all of our knowledge about health and training into a single form that we can rely on to create our lives.
As it turns out, there is a powerful way to do this, one that’s right in front of us, one that builds on what we already know about how the body adapts to the world. To put it simply, it’s all about training. Genetics play a role of course, but for practical purposes, training is what really creates the trajectories of our experience in the world. Everything that we do with our bodies and in our lives is the result of challenge, experience and repetition. In other words, it’s all muscle.
Let’s begin with the familiar. Most of us have trained our bodies to one degree or another and we know what happens when we challenge a muscle with weights or endurance training; it gets stronger. The gravitational and kinetic challenge stimulates a “super-compensation.” In other words, growth. This is a wonderful thing, of course and many of us have enjoyed the payoff. But what’s really fascinating about this process of challenge and growth is that it takes place, not just in muscle tissue, but throughout every tissue in the body. In other words, all tissue behaves like muscle; stress it repeatedly over time and it will adapt to meet the challenge. This is how animal bodies work.
We know, for example that bone is a living tissue and that it too adapts with precision to meet the demands of how it is used. Load up the long bones of your legs with robust physical challenges and your bone density will increase, exactly in the places where its most needed. In effect then, “bone is muscle.”
And it doesn’t stop there. Every system in the body has the ability to adapt and will do so when challenged. We see it everywhere: Endurance training increases our ability to absorb and deliver oxygen, sensory training stimulates changes to acuity of sensory organs, balance training stimulates proprioception; our ability to feel our body’s position and momentum.
Adaptation is obvious in muscle and bone, but the truly spectacular changes take place in the nervous system. We now know the process in great detail. Far from being a static system, the nervous system is constantly remodeling itself in response to experience. The fancy name for this process is “use-dependent plasticity.” When we repeatedly fire a neural circuit, that circuit becomes faster and more sensitive. Cells that fire together begin to literally wire together. The challenge, in other words, stimulates actual tissues changes: membranes, genes and protein synthesis are all transformed in the process. With this in mind, it now makes sense to say that “neural circuits are muscles,” and “the nervous system is a muscle.”
This is plenty interesting in its own right, but what really fascinates is the realization that our muscular nervous system is driving everything that we care about in health and living. Not only does it drive our physical movement, it also drives our emotions, our cognition, our behavior and in turn, our relationships with other people and the world.
And this leads us to an expanded idea. That is, if the entire body is “muscular” then our emotion, behavior and cognition must also be “muscular.” Body, mind and spirit are massively interconnected. And because our bodies are “muscular,” everything that we do in the world is the result of training, everything that we do is consequential. In other words, everything that we do with our bodies and our lives matters.
Given the tight interconnections between mind, body, spirit and behavior, it makes sense to extend the metaphor still further. In this respect, just about everything we with our bodies, our minds and our lives can be described as “muscular.” And so, it now makes sense to say that fear is a muscle, anger is a muscle. Cynicism, isolation, defensiveness and blame are muscles. Self-control and discipline are muscles. Patience and kindness are muscles. Trust is a muscle. Compassion, gratitude and forgiveness are muscles. Engagement, flow, attention and mindfulness are muscles. Honesty, resilience and good humor are muscles. Joy, exuberance and love are muscles. Relaxation in the face of crushing stress is a muscle.
Even more fascinating, we can also say that health itself is a muscle. That is, we become healthier by actually exercising our health. We become healthier by practicing our exuberance in the world, by actively engaging with our bodies, our people, our work and our habitats. This will come as a surprise to many, of course. Modern medical culture encourages passivity; health and disease are simply things that happen to us. If we’re lucky, we remain healthy in life, but if not, the doctors will patch us up. But when we view health as a muscle, it becomes something done by us, an active practice and a doing.