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.

Mind-Body Split
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.

The Factory
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.

Training
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.

Survive!
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 are no banners, no pop-ups, and you will never be asked for your email address.

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