The Key To Fitness Success Is In Our Genes

January 6, 2012
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By Mark William Lisky

In a play on words, a physician friend of mine stated, “The road to physical ruin is paved with good intentions.” He was using this sentence in reference to how many of his patients made New Year’s resolutions to get more physically fit by exercising. It’s the same resolution he noted they made last year, and the year before that and the year before that. Statistically, his observations are correct.

According to the fitness industry, eighty percent of people who join a gym in January stop going after two weeks. That means if exercising is not already part of your life, you have just a 20 percent chance of success.

Why the attrition? Lack of discipline? Laziness? Intimidation? Indifference? Perhaps a little of each for some folks. Perhaps too, there’s more to it all. The answer may be found in our genetic code, and the messages our genes are sending our bodies.

Several new theories focus on our past, specifically, how our bodies react to physical stress. These theories state that in order for our ancestors to keep alive and carry on the family tree in a dangerous Paleolithic world, nature established some priorities. One was to avoid physical pain and avoid physical risk taking. Pain signals potential injury, which threatened survival. Also if you were severely injured climbing a rock cliff for no actual survival reason, you may not be able to keep up with the clan. Sorry, you and your genes are left behind.

If you consider exercise as painful experience, real or imagined, you’ll come up with avoidance excuses. This also applies to psychological pain. According to the renowned motivational speaker Tom Hopkins, if a person wants to change a habit, they need to go though the pain of change. If that pain of change is too great, they’ll elect to stay where they are, regardless of all good intention or how unhealthy that “where” is.

Another priority for survival was to conserve energy by seeking the path of least resistance. Everything in nature tries to do this. Rivers go around obstacles and animals follow the same worn path to the watering hole. We had to conserve energy, a constant supply of calories and the food sources that provide them was not a sure bet at certain times of the year. One way to conserve energy was to avoid unnecessary physical activity. We also needed to rest more, preserving precious calories.

An additional priority is to seek pleasure. Aside from the obvious amorous pleasures of being a sexual species, if you were going to survive a long winter or cyclic droughts, you would need to increase your stores of body fat when the food was plentiful. If the foods you needed to fatten up were too intolerable to stomach, you would starve to death. So nature came up with a way to make you eat. Simply by making certain foods like seasonal ripened fruit so sugary sweet that they reach the pleasure center of the brain kept you eating and eating (binge eating). Also thrown in for good measure, the majority of taste buds on your tongue are attracted to sugar.

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Understand that avoiding pain, not taking physical risks, conserving energy and binge eating are natural and worked well in the uncertain world of the past. Understand, too, in that world we didn’t exercise. We didn’t need too. Exercise was the 24/7 process of living. No pain, just necessity. We walked to find a meal or get water. We walked up and down hills, which forced our low back, hips and legs to get naturally stretched out. Walking is also a weight bearing exercise. This helped maintain muscle mass. Sprinting to escape a predator’s claws or to catch a meal kept our hearts strong. We both expended energy and conserved it at a higher rate. That world no longer exists.

The benefits of exercise by these natural means are seen today in several regions of the world. These “hot spots” are noted to have the longest and healthiest life spans for humans. One common thread is a lifetime of physical activity. Whether that activity is working the fields or herding animals, these individuals are constantly moving. In one of these spots, the Nicoyan Peninsula in Costa Rica, men live to be over 100 years old, four times as often as American men and by expending only seven percent of American medical costs.

If you find it difficult starting and sticking to a New Year’s resolution to increase your level of physical fitness, remember that it’s natural to feel that way.

If you find it difficult starting and sticking to a New Year’s resolution to increase your level of physical fitness, remember that it’s natural to feel that way. One way around this is to start sending your body new signals and deceive it into exerting energy. You can start by increasing your daily physical activities. Walk as much as you can, when you can. Walk in your street clothes. Walk around the office. Walk up and down stairs. Walk and carry things. Walk when it’s hot, walk when it’s cold. Try to change the gradient. Walk up hill, walk down hill. Take short walks, take long walks. You’ll reap all the benefits of walking like our distant cousins did.

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Next, if you plan to try a formal fitness program by joining a gym, note success will be based on the program designed for your age. This is also genetic. If you’re over 50 and you try using a fitness program designed for a thirty-year-old, the likelihood of getting frustrated and giving up is high. The genetic messages sent to a 20-year-old are very different from those sent to a 55-year-old.

When you are in young adulthood up until about the early 30s, your body is mass-producing circulating hormonal messengers (controlled by the genes) that help you grow, gain lean muscle mass, strengthen bones and deal with psychological stress. The body is on a constant repair cycle. However, after fifty, hormonal output changes. The body slows its repair mode and changes to a longevity mode. The fitness program you choose needs to reflect this change.

To deceive your body into adapting to a new fitness program, be aware that less can actually be more and slow can be better than fast. In the early 1960s, Dr. Victor Vroom noted in his M = A x D theory that the effort someone would expend (motivation) was the product of attainability times desirability. Simple put, goals have to be attainable as well as desirable for motivation to be maintained. Low or zero attainability means that motivation fades rapidly.

If you try to accomplish too much too soon, the desire may be there, but not the attainability. It’s essential for success to start small and add things gradually. Try a little bit, get comfortable with it and add a little more. Finally, starting and sticking to a new physical fitness program requires us to work in cooperation with the way nature hardwired us. A little understanding of our past can provide us with long-lasting successful results.

Mark William Lisky is a consulting fitness expert who designs integrated exercise programs for men and women. Mark is also a professional speaker on the subject using exercise as preventive medicine. To discuss how exercise can improve your life, call Mark at (732) 933-9070 or e-mail: He has offices at the New Shrewsbury Racquet Club, Tinton Falls and Bio-Balance Fitness, Rumson. And as always, the first consultation is free.

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