Diet and Exercise Evolution: Adaptation (part I) -- Theory
Adaptation is the most important concept I teach. The human body adapts to the
pressures it is put under with the goal of prolonging life. Your body wants to
survive as long as possible, and it will adjust its internal workings quickly if it is
presented with changes. So, everything that happens to you - especially things that
happen regularly, like eating habits, sleep cycles and general activity - will have
two effects on your body. 1) An immediate effect in the short
term, then 2) for the long term, your body will adapt to it to better
perform the next time. It is this adaptation that most people forget about.
Your mind perceives changes to your environment through your eyes and other
senses, that's how you understand the world around you. But your organs and
cells can only perceive changes in the demands made on them and the kinds of
nutrients they get in your blood. Whether the stimulus comes from the world
(a virus enters your body) or from you (you decide to take the stairs instead of the
elevator), the cells in your body will react so that the next time that event
happens, the cells can handle the situation better. In the case of the virus, your
body creates antibodies. In the case of taking the stairs, your body ups the
endurance of your leg muscles.
Your thoughts have little effect on what happens in your body at the level of your
organs, and even less at the level of your cells. You are always in mental control of
your muscles except for built-in reactions, and you can consciously take control of
your breathing. However, none of your other systems can be consciously
controlled. That's why you can't will yourself thin. So, never mistake
by doing something that you "intend" to lose weight, but instead think of how your
body will adapt to your performing the action.
You can think of your body as a factory: The boss (your brain) can see where the
finished product is going, and how much profit to make. But the workers can't see
all the accounting papers or the costs of materials or even the customers. The
workers (your cells) only see that they're being asked to work on a certain task, at a
certain rate of pay, for a certain number of hours, and so on. That's what makes a
difference to them. The factors that directly affect them and their job are the
only things that will affect how they do their job.
If the boss of this company needs more production or more profits, he can't just
tell the workers to work harder. That never works! He could raise
their pay, or give them more breaks, or just put some music over the intercom.
There are many ways to communicate to your workers, but you have to send the
message that has the right effect. What about giving the workers fewer breaks so
that they'll have a better output? They're not wasting time, after all! But we all
know that workers need breaks or else they slow down, get tired, get angry, and
maybe quit from the stress. The same applies to lowering wages. The bad boss
thinks that he can make more money if he pays his workers less. As the boss of the
cells in your body, you shouldn't just eat less, because that's like lowering the
salary of your working cells. You have to get your cells to adapt in the
direction you want, and the tactics to do that may not be obvious. You have to do
the cellular equivalent of improving morale and increasing worker satisfaction.
Weight training uses the principle of adaptation. By lifting a heavy weight, your
body needs to expend some calories by burning blood-sugar and also uses up
some nutrients. But that's trivial. More importantly, the main effect of weight
training is that in the days afterward, the muscle will slightly increase in size and
strength. Why does this happen? Adaptation. Because the message you're
giving your worker muscle cells is that their job is to lift a massive weight, and your
survival may depend on it. Your muscle worker thinks: "I could just barely do that
today, so tomorrow I'll need to be a bit bigger, just in case it happens again." The
muscle is adapting to the stimulus of a heavy load by making it a little easier for you
to lift that load in the future.
To your body, everything is a matter of survival, and the most important
element that your cells try to maintain is your energy. If you don't have the
energy to chase down your food, you will starve, and if you don't have the energy to
run away from a predator, you will be their food. If you burn though energy too
quickly, there won't be enough left over to live on. That's why your body loves to
keep fat: it's good for survival if the food runs out.
The key to understanding adaptation is to think of yourself living in the African
savanna, and what your activities would mean if they were applied only to your
survival. When you run, your cells think, "We must be running to catch food, or to
escape death!" That's all that cells know: survival.
To the bodybuilder, the question becomes, "Will lifting a heavy weight make me
stronger?" The answer is No! The immediate effect is that it will make you
weaker. If you lift 100 lbs 10 times, does that mean that you can then lift
120 lbs right away? No, you're weaker and tired from your previous work. But your
body will think that it needs to lift 100 lbs 10 times in order to survive, so it will
adapt to make that a little easier for you next time. Taking a week off and
allowing time for your muscle to grow a little bit will mean that you are stronger.
So, the next week you lift 120 lbs, and your body needs to adapt AGAIN, thinking
that you now need to lift 120 lbs to survive. This makes you stronger week by
week. "Will lifting a light weight 50 times make me stronger?" No! Your muscle will
be exhausted, but you're asking for it to be able to last longer, not grow
stronger. How will your body last longer? By adapting your energy stores (fat) to
release more slowly and gradually. This is great for your endurance, but
BAD NEWS if you want to look "ripped" with little body fat.
But adaptation does not only apply in this case. Your body adapts to
everything. Everything you do and eat. So, you have to ask yourself, "Am I
sending my cells the right message in the things I do and the food I eat?"
Look for the sequel to this article, Adaptation II, for tons of examples and practical
advice based on the principle of Adaptation.
David McCormick is the founder of Weightless Products. His Mr. Weightless site is
dedicated to free weight loss articles and advice, primarily targeted to men. There
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