The Ultimate Fitness Formula

Note: This essay was originally published on PTontheNet  

I know, I know. You've heard it all before. You've heard a thousand health and fitness formulas from every expert, pundit, publication, and website on earth. And they all sound pretty much the same.

But this one is different. I promise.

the formula

If you really want to get fit and healthy, take the following course of action:

Start by choosing the right grandparents. This is a crucial choice, so be sure to do your homework. Genes are powerful players in your health and fitness profile and you'll want to have the best possible code in every cell in your body. Make certain that your parents are similarly well-endowed and that they're well nourished prior to your conception. If they're malnourished, they may pass on a tendency for metabolic abnormalities such as obesity and diabetes.

Next, make sure that your moment of conception coincides with the optimal season so that Mom will be well-nourished with fresh fruits and vegetables in your last trimester and your first few months of life. If you blow the timing on this, you'll be suffering through the winter on a low-quality diet of preserved food or food products. This will have a drastic downstream effect on your development, health and performance.

During the course of pregnancy, make sure that your Mom is well-nurtured and stress free. If she's under stress, you'll be stewing in a prenatal cortisol bath, which will lead to epigenetic changes in your DNA and increase your stress reactivity throughout your adult life. Adverse gene expression may actually be permanent, which will put you at greater risk for lifestyle diseases and compromised performance down the road.

When you're finally born, make sure that the event takes place in a nurturing, natural environment, not a hospital. Make sure that you are liberally touched and stroked early in life; this tactile experience will have a calming and restorative effect on your tissue.

As an infant, make sure that you're encouraged to play in mud puddles, go barefoot and rub your body up against natural surfaces. This will seed your skin and body with beneficial bacteria and give your immune system something to practice on. This microbial priming will have beneficial effects that will last for decades.

During your childhood, make sure that your parents expose you to natural light and circadian cycles. Avoid artificial light, especially TV and computer screens. Exposure to natural light will synchronize and entrain your physiological rhythms for most efficient function.

Be sure that your parents give you a safe, supporting and protective environment in your childhood. You'll want a stable home with lots of protection from the dangers of the wider world. This protection will allow your brain and your stress response to develop normally; a fully functional prefrontal cortex will inhibit impulsivity, leading to better health behaviors later in life.

Whatever you do, be sure to be born into the right social class, which is to say, the upper level of society. Research has shown conclusively that individuals of higher rank enjoy better health. (See Michael Marmot's The Status Syndrome.) Similarly, make sure that your parents are affluent. A solid financial surplus will not only decrease stress in your family, it will also open up vast opportunities for physical movement and engagement.

Likewise, make sure that you're born into a body-friendly neighborhood, one with lots of bike paths, walking trails and farmer's markets. If you're on the wrong side of town, you'll be stuck with poor opportunities for healthy living.

And of course, make sure that you've got solid health and fitness role models around you: in your family, your school and your community. Your parents, teachers, coaches and relatives should all display vitality, curiosity, creativity and optimism.

When you finally begin your career, make sure that your employer understands the importance of regular movement, organic food and sensible stress management practices. Be sure that he or she gives you plenty of time off to devote to exercise and personal enrichment.

Next, make absolutely certain that your extended social network is practicing good health behavior. Your friend's friend's friends should be affluent and active, eating right and exercising often. This will have a potent ripple effect on your body, your life and your health.  (See Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives - How Your Friends' Friends' Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler.)

Finally, make sure that you're born at the right time in history, into a culture of creativity and optimism. The ethos and values of your culture will have a profound influence what you think, how you behave and ultimately, how your body performs.

the trajectory of health and fitness

Perhaps you think this formula is satire, and maybe it is. My recommendations sound absurd because they all involve circumstances that are utterly beyond personal control. No one gets to choose their parents, the conditions of their prenatal environment, their friends friend's friends, or their culture. And yet, all of these influences have profound downstream effects on the health and functioning of our bodies. New research in public health, epigenetics and interpersonal neurobiology prove without question that health and fitness are shaped in large measure by "extra-personal" forces and circumstances.

Consequently, I believe that it's time to re-think what health and fitness is all about. Too many of us believe that training is all about personal will, personal choice and personal effort. Just do the right exercises and eat the right food and you'll get the desired results. Fit people are fit because they do the right workouts in the right gym and take the right supplements and train with the right trainers. Unhealthy people are unhealthy because they're lazy or just don't have the right information. In fact, these common assumptions are simply wrong.

Our profession is now being undermined by a highly disruptive findings in the world of neurobiology: that is, health and fitness is often the product of unchangeable circumstance. In large measure, fit people are simply lucky. Unhealthy people are, in many cases, simply unlucky. Yes, there is plenty of room for volition, choice, will, and determination, but in large measure, the conditions of our bodies are shaped by forces far larger than ourselves.

This is why our myopic focus on biomechanics (exercise) and biochemistry (nutrition) so often fails. We deploy our professional expertise and the latest information, but our epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and depression continue to deepen. Obviously, if our current methods were truly effective, people would be getting healthier in droves. They are not.

The inconvenient truth is that the health and fitness trajectories of our bodies are established far earlier than previously believed, even going back to the time before we were born. As trainers, we have very little control over what we can do with these trajectories. In most cases, it takes enormous amounts of time, energy and resources to bend the long-term arc of human health. Yes, there are transformational and inspirational turn-around stories, but in most cases, there is simply not much that we can do. Even a strict program of diet and exercise will not reverse epigenetic effects that have been decades, even generations in the making.

If we really want people to become healthier and fitter, we need to broaden our attention beyond biomechanics and biochemistry, beyond diet and exercise, and especially beyond appearance and athletic performance. It's time to start talking about the really difficult stuff: social justice, equality, culture, social neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology. When it comes to the larger social and environmental forces that shape the body, we can no longer get away with saying "that's not my job."

In fact, it is our job.