Scientifically Intuitive Exercise
From science-led to science-informed exercise (trust your gut).
Lying on the grass staring up at the baby blue Buenos Aires spring sky, I asked my brother, “How fit is fit enough?”
He responded, dryly, “For people like you, fit enough doesn’t exist.”
Touché. I have some digging to do.
If you asked Peter Attia this question, I suppose his answer would be “Based on the data, there’s no such thing as fit enough. The fitter, the better.”
(Apolgies if I’m mistaken, Dr. Attia).
Attia aggressively optimizes his exercise based on the results of scientific studies.
Science-backed strategies are a great starting place.
But science is clinical. Sterile. Done in a lab.
While Attia might be right in telling you to aim for the highest possible VO2 max and grip strength in order to maximize your lifespan, I believe there’s more to this problem.
Science doesn’t account for three details which makes following studies without individualization nonsensical:
We’re humans, not study subjects. We live uniquely complex, busy, messy lives.
Science points to unattainable goals. If a study concludes “more is better” or “the fitter the better,” you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to achieve goals with no upper limit.
Science can drown your gut instinct. Studies don’t leave space for us to listen to our intuitive sense of what’s good for us.
Let’s break these down into actionable takeaways.
1) We’re humans, not study subjects.
You live a life that is indescribably different from mine.
You work a different job, think different thoughts, and have different hobbies. So why should we follow the same exercise protocols?
Should the nurse who’s on her feet the entire day, racking up 15,000 steps per shift, follow the same protocol as the office worker who sits all day?
What about the person whose hobby is gardening, the other who plays soccer, and the third who prefers guitar?
Science-backed strategies derived from studies do not account for the vast differences between our lives.
Your exercise program should be based on your job, hobbies, and lifestyle which is different than everyone else’s. The lifelong cyclist should emphasize strength training while the person who loves lifting weights or has a physical job needs to prioritize cardio.
While science is a great place to start, your approach to anything should be tailored to you. Your preferences, your lifestyle, your limitations, your goals.
Studies, in general, observe changes in a bunch of people following the same intervention (exercise, diet, drug, etc.).
If enough study subjects experience the same outcome from that intervention, they make a claim that intervention X achieves outcome Y. But there are outliers. Not everyone in the study who followed intervention X got to outcome Y.
You should make decisions at the individual level (you), not the population level (the average of everyone in the study).
Rather than unquestioningly following the science, it’s your responsibility to think critically and experiment to find the strategy that works for you.
2) Science can lead to unattainable goals.
You will drive yourself crazy trying to achieve goals with no upper limit.
If a study says that the higher your VO2 max, the lower your risk of morbidity, your goal should NOT be to obtain the highest VO2 max possible.
We’ve heard the SMART goal-setting framework a thousand times.
What part of “achieve the highest VO2 max possible” is specific or attainable?
If that is truly your goal, the following action would be to quit your day job and adopt the daily routine of a Tour de France cyclist.
If you’re trying to achieve the highest VO2 max and the highest grip strength possible, you now have two superbly unspecific, unattainable goals and have to figure out how to simultaneously live the life of a powerlifter and elite cyclist.
When we ask “What’s fit enough?” the answer cannot be “More fit.”
If it is, you’ll drive yourself crazy in the process of never achieving anything.
3) Science can drown your gut instinct.
We’ve fallen out of touch with our bodies.
When was the last time you trusted your internal compass? Tapped into your intuition?
It’s not the only source of information we should use to make decisions, but there’s profound truth in our human ability to interpret and use the signals our bodies send us.
Science-backed strategies are true until the next study says they’re not. We’ve been misled by science before and will undoubtedly be led wrong by science again.
Just look at how Attia changed his mind on fasting after losing a ton of muscle from extended multi-day fasts.
If Attia checked with his gut before following fasting studies, it would have been obvious that not eating for a cumulative 60+ days per year would have resulted in muscle loss.
After looking at the science, you must ask: Does this make sense? How does my gut, my intuition, feel about this?
Does it make sense to only eat red meat? No.
Does it make sense to go on a juice only diet? No.
Does it make sense to put a stick of butter in your coffee? No.
Does it make sense to only lift weights and ignore cardio (or vice versa)? No.
Science should be our starting place, but we shouldn’t rely solely on papers and studies.
Start by tuning into trusted scientific authorities. People like Peter Attia, Andrew Huberman, and Rhonda Patrick do a great service by breaking down the research.
But don’t blindly follow what they say.
Listen to your gut and think for yourself. You have to feel good about the decisions you make. The only way to do that is by listening to your intuition and thinking for yourself.
So, what does fit enough mean to you?
If your definition of fit is based on someone else's or, even worse, a fusion of those you look up to, your expectations will be unrealistic and unachievable and your exercise protocol will change weekly based on what Attia or Huberman said on their latest podcast.
I’ve been there and still fall into the comparison trap more frequently than I’m proud of.
Your lifestyle, limitations, preferences, goals, and thoughts are different than mine or Attia’s or anyone else's. Measure yourself against your own yardstick.
Use information from trusted sources then listen to your gut to make decisions that you feel good with.
Our protocols should be science-informed, not science-led.
And if your reason is “because person X does it” there’s a good chance you’ll come to regret your decision if the science is proven wrong or person X walks back previously made claims.
With an intuitive understanding of how fit you want to be and what it takes to get there, the opinions, strategies, and objectives of others will not overshadow your own.
You will adjust as needed but will be confident in the path you’re walking.
For me, being fit enough means having energy all day long. Feeling strong yet supple, powerful yet stable. Having the endurance to hike up a mountain with 40lbs on my back. Feeling good in my skin. Being a role model for my friends and family. Not putting myself in harm’s way of an early death via one of the Four Horsemen diseases. And being able to do the things I love without pain.
So, what does fit enough look like to you?
Let me know in the comments. I would love to hear from you!
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Thanks tofor your insightful consultations and invaluable feedback in the process of writing this piece.
Lots of love,