Figuring Out Exercise

Why do we exercise?  That might seem like a weird question coming from a Personal Trainer, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about seriously of late.  Not necessarily why you exercise (we covered how to determine your individual motivations for exercise in this post), but why we exercise.

Evolutionary Perspective

In our modern culture, exercise has become second nature.  However, when anthropologists visit modern hunter-gatherer societies, many don’t even have a word for “exercise”.  And that makes sense – why would you expend energy needlessly when your life requires constant and adaptive movement?  Do you think a hunter-gatherer would do a CrossFit WOD and risk being unable to walk the next day?  (Something that I often see celebrated in today’s exercise culture.  “Gosh, I could hardly walk down the stairs for 4 days!  It was such a great workout.”) I don’t believe so.  Instead, they would focus on developing the skills necessary for their tribe to survive and thrive.  Whatever conditioning that created, as long as they were useful, would be acceptable.

Hadzabe Hunters practicing archery in Tanzania.

Hadzabe Hunters practicing archery in Tanzania.

This is the same attitude that I take towards fitness.  Focus on the full range of human movement skills.  It is by acquiring those practical skills that we gain (appropriate) conditioning.  In most programs, it is the other way around – i.e. if I can do 20 pull ups, I should be able to get on top a tree branch.   Only the conditioning often doesn’t transfer to the practical skill 1:1.

Maybe it is this loss of perspective on how exercise and conditioning transfers into useful skills that has created the segmentation of exercise over the past 100 years of physical culture.  The appearance of large muscles or skinny bodies has become more important than the abilities those body types are supposed to predict.


In our modern life, we compartmentalize everything.  The gym is the place I go to move.  The couch is the place I go to watch TV.  I have this much time I have to work everyday, this much time to sleep, and so forth.  Movement itself has been compartmentalized into different patterns or muscle groups, and even these only trained in brief windows within our everyday routine.

The lack of demand by our environments for dynamic, adaptive movement has created the need for exercise because we need to imitate what our bodies thrive on, even if it’s condensed into a package that’s dosed 3x/week.  In essence, exercise has become to movement what supplementation is to nutrition.  Useful, yes, but lacking the proper foundation, ultimately falling short of our needs.

Exercise has become to movement what supplementation is to nutrition.

Our daily activity has become so far removed from what movement was originally, a way to survive, that we see people seeking adaptations that are no longer useful in their lives. This extreme specialization is often lauded in our culture – and for the sake of art and entertainment, I would argue is justified.  Who doesn’t want to see Cirque de Sole and the phenomenal feats they perform?

But where does that leave the average human who is trying to live the best life they can, and their understanding of movement and exercise?  When we have become so disconnected from our own needs, it’s hard to see what someone else does and not simply mimic that, even if the goals aren’t the same!  (This is something Jason Seib often talks about in CrossFit – people get so excited to workout or compete that they lose sight of their personal goals and adopt the group mentality.)

The Desire to Distinguish

The modern generation (i.e. my generation) has lost many practical skills in our search for specificity and distinguishing ourselves from the masses.  A simple roll call of how many people feel comfortable baking a chicken breast without looking up a recipe on google gives you some idea of the basics that we have by-passed.

The innate desire to distinguish oneself is naturally human – we want to be wanted.  When we look at exercise, it seems that we’ve followed the same train of thought.  Now, we exercise to become better at exercise, because distinguishing ourself in this arena is another avenue to prove our worth.

Competition has always been a part of the human experience, and again, I don’t discount its usefulness in our lives.  But so is cooperation, and so is community building – things that often get left out of the picture.

Biohacking for Improved Performance

I don’t want to suggest that training doesn’t have its place.  There are obvious advantages to a specific training program and the physical benefits it creates.

The concept of training really took off with the advent of the Greek Olympics.  The Olympics provided a competition with the need for specific adaptations.  For example, in the story of Milo, the Olympian trains by picking up a baby calf everyday and walking with it.  As the calf grew, so did Milo’s strength until he could reportedly lift a full-grown cow!



The story of Milo highlights the usefulness of training – if you have a specific need, then training to bring about those useful adaptations makes complete sense.  (see:  SAID principle).  Heck, what’s not to say that hunter-gatherers couldn’t have been better mammoth slayers if they had Kettlebells and Rogue Racks at their disposal?  AND no other life-threatening stresses in their life.  AND plenty of food to eat at all times.  AND mirrors to admire their muscles in.  Hmm…

Getting back on track, even in the case of Milo, competition and fame would bring him wealth and status – while in a hunter-gatherer society, being able to provide for the tribe or having a useful skill would have been elevated and emulated by others.  This elevation of a single person and their skill set within the tribe was a form of our modern celebrity – only in today’s world, we often don’t elevate for the purpose of learning, but for the purpose of consumption (more on that here.)

In Conclusion

So, does it make sense to train to improve performance?  Yes.  But this is still different from what general “exercise” has become in the modern day.  Do we exercise solely for performance?  At what cost?  What about the “general population” trying to be “generally healthy”? How does that fit in?

I guess my question for you is this:  how much exercise is enough?  What level of specificity within the realm of exercise is worth the amount of time it will take to get there?  For example, would you be happy with 10% body fat, or do you need to be at 8%?  Do you want to be the best at performing a workout (ALA the CrossFit Games), or just good enough to lift heavy things when needed, play with your kids, and be useful in an emergency situation?

For me, the answer is: as little as possible to be the best I can be.  I will spend my life pursuing new movement and play, but that won’t always be “training” or “exercise”.  And I have other areas of my life that deserve my attention and dedication.  Like spending time with my loved ones, learning new skills such as gardening and being handy around the house, giving back to my community, etc.  As Dan John says, to be fit, we have to be in tune with all the aspects of our own health and our community’s health.

What would your answer be?