“The evidence is overwhelming that within your DNA are powerful adaptive mechanisms that constantly push you to your normal state which is one of fitness. All you have to do is respond naturally and let your body do its own thing.”
Hardwired for Fitness, p. 205
Hardwired for Fitness by Drs. Robert Portman & John Ivy amounts to nothing less than a revolutionary work concerning fitness and wellness: it all but announces the death of ‘diet & exercise’. Both authors are world renown in a specialized field of physiology. Not the sort of physiology sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry through huge grants to medical schools concerned with disease. Their research aimed at fine tuning use of nutrients and other key elements to optimize athletic development for ‘peak performance.’ As their work grew, they found the same methods bringing about peak performance for athletes equally apply to the rest of us for optimizing wellness and fitness. A down to earth accounting of the latest science, Hardwired for Fitness is a powerful, practical guidebook of fitness for living.
In proper perspective, exercise and diet are a multi-billion dollar per annum business. Their success is built on your momentary success while counting on your longer term failure: if exercise and diet have a common identity, then it’s through repeat sales, not one time permanently abiding solutions. Yet the regular on and off approach to diets and exercise conditions us to think of them as short term solutions demanding frequent repetition. That’s where Portman & Ivy’s book is revolutionary — yet may also pose difficulty for understanding and successfully applying it. For that and some other important considerations, before getting into discussion of their work we’re going to consider the place of their work in a wealth of new, exciting scientific discoveries — discoveries the diet, fitness, and healthcare industries don’t want you knowing about.
In Plain Sight
The work of scientists including Portman & Ivy amounts to a sort of ‘silent revolution’ going on in our times, yet one not reported in news media. It’s been growing steadily since the 1970s, hidden away in colleges of education, in departments known as physical education, health education, kinesiology, exercise physiology and by other names. Physicians will tell you such work ‘isn’t medicine.’ Ironically, such work threatens to profoundly alter our understanding of health, fitness, and even how we develop or prevent disease. That’s due to an escalating development of new sciences with roots going back only to the 1980s. Let’s catch up on what’s unreported despite going on right under our noses.
From the 1980s, serious work began in earnest to sequence the human genome — to unravel the complex chemical and biological information guiding our lives’ development from the moment of conception through maturation, then sustaining us until death. By the end of the 1990s, genomics and bio-informationics had unraveled the genetic code. From the beginning of our 21st century, research took a new direction toward understanding the complex genetic and molecular biological processes along with metabolic pathways sustaining life and engendering slow disease onset — once the make up the genome was identified, research in our century has focused on how it all works for sustaining life, or when disregarded brings on debilitating illness leading to slow, inevitable death.
While that work was going on, S. Boyd Eaton, MD and Melvin Konner, PhD, MD, published a landmark paper in the New England Journal of Medicine followed by their 1988 masterpiece The Paleolithic Prescription. Their work brought together medicine and anthropology, a synthesis shaking the very foundations of our generally accepted “health” standard — that is, our unquestioningly taken for granted beliefs rooted in cultural conditioning — concerning health and disease. Their work hinges on recognition that we today are 99.7% genetically the same as our remote Paleolithic ancestors of 100,000 years ago. What’s more, remaining Paleolithic hunter/gathers found around the world bear the same genes we do AND do not become ill, suffer erosive decline and disability, then die from diseases prevalent only among ‘civilized’ people. The 35 major non-infectious, non-communicable diseases we currently take for granted as ‘normal sicknesses’ do not exist among hunter/gatherers genetically identical to us! That revelation forced a radical reconsideration of the nature of fitness, disease, and health care. Or, should have! National discussions of health care indicate the discipline of evolutionary medicine is remote to business and political agendas.
More recent publications reveal generally accepted standards of ‘normal health’ are severely flawed. Our 100,000 year old genome is hardwired for survival in life, and passes on those life skills through reproduction of healthy offspring. Each generation born into life in our world is ripe and ready for gaining healthy, survival based maturity and subsequent sustainability. Frank Booth reveals through most all of human history, matured humans best resembled lifelong athletes of our times — that’s our normal condition, our normal genetic expression of health and fitness. And that’s a far cry from the standard we take for granted as ‘normal’ today, a standard that is so remote from genetic based normality it can only be called ‘abnormal.’ Abnormal pseudo-normality is the gold standard of medical diagnosis!
Exercise physiologists and evolutionary medical researchers come in contact with an elite group of experts absent in orthodox medicine: athletic coaches, the front line masters of promoting activity based genomic expression. Both evolutionary medicine and genetic exercise physiology enjoy input from coaches, and in turn contribute to coaching success. Practical application of evolutionary medicine and exercise physiology keep breaking records — in sports, and in clinical applications preventing, stopping, even reversing life threatening and unnecessary disease.
For those populating the marginal sub-culture broadly known as Physical Culture, the late breaking news from the new sciences is fascinating in an “I told you so” manner. More than a century of modern Physical Culture has emphasized regular intense activity, renewing restful deep sleep, eschewing unnatural stress, and consuming nutrient dense, natural whole foods with a healthy appetite. Simply put, Physical Culturists march to a different drummer, voluntarily choosing wellness and fitness as a way of life.
Traditional Physical Culture included advocacy of mastering the so-called “mind-muscle” connection. From the 1960s onward researchers began in earnest conducting studies to determine the nature of dormant capacities and functions bridging what were regarded as two separate and distinct realms: body and mind. With the advent of bio-feedback, certainty was established concerning development of voluntary control of what was for long held to be the independent autonomic nervous system. Research in fields such as hypnosis, bio-feedback, meditation and contemplation, and psychoneuromimmunology conducted with new tools and technologies of neuroscience demonstrates body/mind to be irreducibly integrated and available to development of skills in voluntary control — with applications to stress management, quality sleep and recuperation. The search for a mind-muscle connection is over: we are an embodied mind which is the chief beneficiary of fitness.
Thanks to the life work of Drs. Jan & Terry Todd, Austin, Texas has become the iconic capital of Physical Culture. The Todds’ visionary decades of collection development has resulted in their 300,000+ item Todd-McLean Physical Culture Archives of the Stark Center, University of Texas. On July 21, 2011, gala private ceremonies were held in dedication of the Stark Center’s Joe & Betty Weider Physical Culture Museum. Roughly 150 persons gathered for the event, a veritable “who’s who” of the last sixty years of the Physical Culture movement — most all incredibly fit, many exhibiting age defying fitness well distinguishing them from ‘normal is abnormal.’
With the foregoing considerations in mind, Portman and Ivy’s work is a master template for expressing the innate fitness we’re all hardwired to enjoy. The book is deceptively simple: each chapter’s endnotes of referred reading points to an amazing depth of research review, analysis, and application. The purpose of Hardwired is not one of re-iteration of a plethora of rich scientific writings, but, instead, is a refreshingly popular, pragmatic summarization written to put the facts in your hands and mind so you can gainfully employ new science to your benefit. For those wanting in-depth material, follow the trail of references to your delight!
The authors give recognition to our metabolism resting on a genetic basis established at least 100,000 years ago among our ancestors of the Paleolithic period. That says our metabolism is an estimated 99.7% the same as remote human ancestors. What separates us from our ancestors is not genetic: we’ve become sedentary and accustomed to eating too much of the wrong things at the wrong times. They show how the body clock best regulates which foods at which times during the day, and how to coordinate that with activity to optimize metabolism.
It’s estimated that less than 2% of today’s diseases rest on faulty genes, while more than 66% of today’s diseases originate by living in ignorance or contempt of our genetic inheritance. Following Ivy and Portmann’s recommendations, learning and acting on the principles they reveal, should bode well for preventing, arresting, even reversing chronic degenerative diseases – diseases constituting a pandemic in civilization.
On a personal note, I wish I’d had this book several years ago: it would have saved that much time conducting my own research! And even with the depth of research conducted, the authors’ use of metabolic circuits is a brilliant device for what elsewhere are presented as complicated, difficult to master metabolic pathways. Even this late in the game, the work has provided me with a master template for my work. For persons desperate to know the facts for successful personal health application, everything you need to master is found in this delightful book. What’s more it’s written with a passion rendering it as much an adventure – like an engaging ‘who done it’ detective story.
Circadian Rhythms — Your Body Clock
Gay Gaer Luce’s Body Time (1971) brought about public attention to circadian rhythms, enjoying considerable popularity in the 1970’s. Circadian rhythms were first noted thousands of years ago, only gaining a name in the very late 19th century. More recent research unraveling the wonders of the human genome finds a specific genetic basis for circadian rhythms.
Our circadian clock is a molecular and cellular oscillator that regulates rhythmic physiology and behavior, and the contribution of circadian rhythmicity to cellular, organ, and organismal physiology.
Common sense claims the keys to fitness and wellness are diet and exercise: such common sense takes modern living conditions for granted. Those conditions of life very efficiently throw you out of synch with your body clock’s optimal rhythms: those rhythms establish the optimal daily time zones for activity and for rest, for eating proper foods at proper times, and much more. Optimization of fitness and well being occur far more naturally and effectively by getting in synch with the natural rhythms your genes are hardwired for successfully living and thriving withinn — otherwise, hardwired quickly degenerates into haywired!
Fitness, Circuits and Switches
Hardwired’s markers of fitness count Body Mass Index (BMI), percentage of bodyfat, and Activity Level as the three primary components of fitness.
Body Mass Index remains the standard measurement in health assessment: it’s based on statistics relating your height to your bodyweight to determine if you’re healthy, relatively overweight, or obese. Medical and insurance organizations make use of it regularly. And it’s exceptionally flawed insofar as it rests on the assumption that ‘normal’ means a random sampling of the population — it fails to distinguish between individuals who are overweight due to obesity versus healthy athletic persons whose ‘overweight’ condition means they’re relatively lean including a lot of lean muscle mass. Lean muscle mass is not a health risk: it’s a fitness marker.
Adding percentage of body fat to assessment offsets the otherwise flawed BMI measurement by taking into account the composition of a given person’s body mass. Adding Activity level is even more precise telling indicating how the person is using their bodily resources for energy expenditure.
Science today doesn’t talk about metabolism as a singular noun — only simplistic diet and health experts do so, and that’s a good signal to avoid them! Broadly defined, metabolism consists of the tearing down of cells (catabolism) and the repair or building up of cells (anabolism), the processes that maintain our fitness. Scientists today, however, recognize a complex of metabolic or regulatory processes based on genes and biological molecules in a dance of complex, step by step processes. What’s more, within the complex wonder of our bodies, those processes may work together well or dysfunctional interrupt and thwart one another.
Portman and Ivy distinguish between four master fitness circuits and the switches that turn them on, off, or on stand by, bringing orderly accessibility to what we need to know. The four circuits are:
- Energy, with insulin and AMP kinase switches;
- Stress, with the cortisol switch;
- Appetite, with appetite peptides, CCK leptin, and ghrelin switches;
- Protein turnover, with mTOR and insulin switches.
Noteworthy is how some switches work in opposition to others. Each circuit, in turn, properly occurs within its period of the daily circadian cycle. As is said, timing is everything.
Early chapters not only introduce circuits, switches, and diagrams showing within a given circuit which switches are on, off, or on standby, but apply those basics to showing why diets don’t work. Diets tend to be short term metabolically disruptive extreme interventions leading to longer term metabolic damage. We know the extreme cases from men’s and women’s bodybuilding in which extreme caloric restriction combined with equally extreme aerobic activity succeeds in getting a competitor down as low as an abnormal yet ‘ripped’ 3% body fat for several competitions. Then traumatic effects set in with contestants gaining 30 or more pounds of fat post-competition, finding themselves unable to shed it — sometimes for several years. Thermogenic adaptation has been shot. Persons who engage in quick fat loss diets equally down regulate thermogenic adaptation, with effects lasting up to six months post-diet — coupled with returning to an acceptable maintenance caloric intake for their height/weight, they nevertheless quickly put on fat. That’s due to their thermogenic adaptation being downwardly regulated by as much as 25%. Bottom line is episodic dieting is disruptive to the cycles of life we embody.
Much the same can be said of ‘exercise’ programs. Exercise itself is a creation of post-industrial revolution society. Hardwired proposes activity rather than exercise as a standard, inviting readers to complete a telling inventory of their NEAT nature. NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Instead of making infrequent exercise the standard of caloric expenditure, over all activity is taken into account — everything you do from awakening in the morning until retiring at night. Suggestions are made regarding how to become more energy inefficient — how to burn more calories while doing the same activities: for example, standing at your desk, climbing stairs instead of taking elevators, etc. The net effect is keeping caloric intake close to caloric expenditure by means of overall lifestyle, not through an artifical focus on gaining periodic, disruptive temporary salvation through ‘diet and exercise.’ After all, the human genome did not evolve around sedentary lifestyles punctuated with sporadic episodes of cosmetic enhancement through short lived programs of ‘diet and exercise.’ In that regard, the standard for measuring caloric expense is not ‘exercise’ but instead is ‘activity’ — which includes exercise.
Portman & Ivy’s fourfold model of fitness includes two categories normally omitted: stress and energy. Discussion of stress necessarily includes consideration of recuperation through sleep. Our genome is certainly hardwired for dealing with stress, but contemporary stress deviates from traditional episodic and acute moments of stress triggering fight or flight responses. Contemporary living is saturated with environmental stresses with such intensity, magnitude, and frequency of occurrence as to be chronic — leading to metabolic erosion due to stress overload. The antidote to stress is deep, relaxing sleep. Research shows in recent decades people have migrated to 90 minutes less restorative sleep nightly. Due to metabolic, including hormonal, systems, overly stressed persons become physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually enervated, depressed, and depleted. Simply put, they report ‘having no energy, no enthusiasm’ for much of anything.
Drs. Portman & Ivy have written a breakthrough book, one revealing the basic principles anyone can put into practice for enjoying life long fitness and health. The book is a breakthrough in several important ways: for the first time, scientific discovery arcane to the layman is presented in easily read, easily understood terms. Finally, the significant research in genetics, molecular biology, exercise physiology, and longitudinal studies showing how to successfully win the battle of the bulge are brought before a public in search of real, enduring, sustainable answers. Interpreting difficult scientific information in a manner both entertaining and empowering sets this book well above others.
Hardwired for Fitness is NOT another diet or fitness book – it does not support fad diets, fitness crazes, or the yoyo pattern of gaining/losing weight cycles so many fall prey to. Where diets don’t work lies in their formulation: most are commercial theories aimed at fame and profit for their authors — the same holds true for most fitness programs. Both Ivy and Portman are world reknown scientists in their respective fields. From time to time such scientists produce works amounting to a turning point or paradigm shift. For diet and fitness, their work is such an achievement – akin to Jonas Salk’s development of polio vaccine. I simply cannot underscore the significance of this book to a growingly obese population. Hardwired is neither a diet or exercise approach to fitness: by laying out the findings of contemporary science, amplified by their successful laboratory and winning stadium applications, fitness is revealed to be a genomic endowment expressible as a fulfilling human life. Rooted in a fitness way of living results in choices favoring wellness and stability while willfully decreasing internal and external stresses.
For those interested in learning more of Portman & Ivy’s earlier work in Nutrient Timing, my August 2005 Iron Man Magazine interview with Dr. Ivy is now online.
©,2012, Ken O’Neill. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.