I saw a video by a mathematician who was asking a very simple question of evolutionary biologists: what is the average rate of mutation which directs evolution? Not only was he met with puzzled faces, he found that they weren’t capable of answering this very fundamental precursor which would predict future biological trends. If one cannot predict outcomes, one cannot take science to its ultimate step of application: engineering. And if we aren’t moving toward applied science, what are we doing? The mathematician found himself increasingly unable to get past his own skepticism of their ability to tell us anything useful, pointing out the many epicycles they used to rationalize various failed predictions and their endless “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” fallacies.
It got me to thinking about how scientific or unscientific most approaches in fitness are. If we can’t predict the rate of long term success, what does any of it matter? In fact, if we don’t have examples of long term success, what are we even modeling? I would argue most anecdotes from most fitness personalities barely contain hypotheses, let alone predictive models. They all end up being circular, saying something like, “success equals listening to me; they didn’t succeed because they didn’t listen,” or some other nonsense about eating less and exercising more.
There are known mechanisms in biology which direct fitness. That much is true. How fat exits an adipocyte is known. The rate that connective tissue is turned over is known. Those averages are defined.
But we also need certain balances in place. Vitamin D directs the conversion of t4 to the active thyroid hormone t3. We can’t well start to engineer fat loss while someone is insufficient on vitamin D. Stress reinforces various receptor downregulation cascades, including those receptors which were responsible for fat leaving the adipocyte. We can’t ADD the stress of endurance exercise to an increased benefit if someone already is glucocorticoid resistant. In fact, over and over again, what we find is that difficulty in life and job (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00420-018-1392-6) and lack of sleep (http://www.uu.se/en/news-media/press-releases/press-release/?id=4418&area=3,8&typ=pm&lang=en) change gene expression such that people gain weight or can’t lose body fat no matter how restricted their eating or how active they are (https://www.uchicagomedicine.org/forefront/news/2010/october/sleep-loss-limits-fat-loss).
How can we use all of that to predict a reasonable rate of progress? That is, where is the applied science or engineering for fitness? For one, I can predict that people who refuses to manage stress appropriately will be incapable of improving body composition no matter how tightly they adhere to the most rigorous and time-tested bodybuilding workout and nutrition programs. The sexy new fitness boutique or trendy nouveaux supplement will not produce a net improvement in fitness and health. You cannot overcome lack of stress management without managing stress. I can predict that a person who is persistently overwhelmed in her workplace cannot end up more muscular and leaner AND healthier year-over-year. She’ll have to pick one or two, but cannot obtain all three. And I can predict that a male who has ample rest and resources can lose about 2lbs of fat weekly even with lax but reasonable adherence to a basic fitness program. I can predict that when someone manages life and work stress well, that person can get as lean or muscular as humanly possible without health detriment. A person whose heart rate variability is high (this is a good thing), resting heart rate is low (when combined with high HRV this is great), and is overall unstressed (as indicated by the prior two), can endure extremely intense training and have 20-50lb body composition changes in just a few months. I’ve known a few people who tried to break the rules here, still forced (via drug use) the body to get leaner or more muscular while they were overstressed, but at a SEVERE health cost to immune, renal, pancreatic and gut function (and permanent damage to the pituitary with risk of irreversible hypogonadism).
People keep working themselves in circles talking about “eat less, move more.” No. No. No.
Repeat this: “Stress less - Enjoy more”. With that in place, we can actually predict with high accuracy your rate of progress off of known biological averages. We can apply science. We can engineer fitness. Without genuine stress management in place, there is no reasonable rate of progress. In fact, even the appearance of progress in this environment isn’t progress. It is faux composition changes which are hiding an eroding underlying health. There are a lot of shredded six packs over top hypertrophic hearts and failing kidneys. Looks CAN be a sign of health. But they usually aren’t. Some of the leanest and skinniest people I’ve known are about ready to drop dead. Some of the most obese people I’ve known should start with philanthropy, charity, meditation, and solid sleep hygiene before they even think about going for a jog or reducing food intake. And that’s not hyperbole. The human body is a stress management system. If it’s already broken, we won’t fix it by starving it and adding more stress. Its remaining broken resources will be called upon to try to survive the reoccurring abuse.
Let us all aim to be more like effective engineers and less like clueless theoreticians. And like a good engineer, manage structural stressors and environmental pressures to your advantage. Seek to reduce them and direct them. If you don’t, don’t take for granted that they’ll just magically bring about your personal evolution.