Author: Fritz Stafford
Published: June 29, 2015
“Use it or lose it” has long been recognized tenet of physical fitness (including sexual fitness). More recently this has become recognized tenet of mental fitness, and not only for the elderly. It is more controversial, but some advocate this tenet for immune system fitness.
Physical fitness is achieved with physical activity. The physical activity can range from elevation of heart rate to 60% of heart rate maximum, HRM, (i.e., HRM = 208 bpm – 0.7 * age) for 20 – 30 minutes/day 3-4 days/week (~300-500 calories/week) to elevating heart rate to 95% of HRM 60+ minutes/day 5 – 6 days/week (~5000+ calories/week). The current “consensus” of medical professionals is there are no benefits of physical activity beyond 80% of HRM for 40 minutes/day 4 – 5 days/week (~1500-2000 calories/week), and it is generally recommended to not increase physical activity beyond this level due to increased risks of injury and illness.
It is important to be mindful of the medical professional’s audience. The majority of the public is overweight and does not engage in regular physical activity, and less than 10% of the public engages in physical activity beyond the general recommendation. The majority of the public also has other issues due to indulgence (e.g., smoking, alcohol / drugs) and / or mental conditions. The focus of the medical profession has to be on moving the majority of the public to a fitter (healthier) physical condition.
Competitive athletes recognize they push to the limits of physical and mental burn-out, and that it is only possible to achieve peak performance for a few weeks at a time a few times per year. However, competitive athletes realize significant improvements from pushing beyond the general recommendation, increased heart rate maximum, increased power output, increased hormone levels – sexuality, improved competitive performance.
Medical professionals warn that competitive athletes risk long term break down of soft skeletal tissues (cartilage and meniscus). This is certainly a greater concern for high impact sports, running, jumping, pivoting. However, this needs to be balanced with the quality of life that is achieved through the camaraderie of being part of a competitive sport culture / lifestyle / family.
Many mental activities are recognized as contributing to mental fitness, but participatory activities (e.g., puzzling, programming, designing, learning / speaking other language, creating art / music / literature, mindful reading) may provide more mental stimulation than passive activities (e.g., observing art, listening to music, mindless reading).
The social aspects of mental activity are also extremely important. One must love, be loved, and belong and contribute to a “family” on a daily basis; One must be satisfied with their level of self reliance / responsibility / sufficiency in their life situation.
Mental activity is more difficult to assess than physical activity, and self imposed stresses that seem reasonable initially can build over time resulting in unbalanced mental fitness, sleeplessness, anxiety, worry, depression. Modern societal norms push us to reach our “maximum potential”, but the older perspective “simplicity has its virtues” may promote improved mental fitness.
For the case of mental fitness, “Pushing the Limit” corresponds to pushing beyond the blockages of mental (and physical) activity.
The idea is that pushing for simplicity reduces stress, allowing time / enthusiasm for mental activity, allowing time / enthusiasm for physical activity, and together, replacing stress-related over indulgence.
Immune system fitness enables the body to respond to / recover from infections (bacterial, viral), irritation (arthritic inflammation), allergens, cancer (out of control cell reproduction), injuries and etcetera.
One example of the “use it or lose it” tenet regarding immune system fitness is the sharp rise in allergies and asthma in those born in the USA since World War II. This is now being attributed to children being confined to overly sanitary environments, and simply not being exposed to allergens while their immune systems were developing. Recommendations are now emerging to encourage children to play outside frequently and have inside pets. Severe allergies are being treated with exposure to the allergens to improve immune system response.
Improving physical fitness also improves immune system fitness and provides many other health benefits.
However, when competitive athletes push to the limit of physical and mental burn-out, they occasionally push their immune system beyond the limit, as evidenced by susceptibility to sickness and allergies. It is doubly important for competitive athletes to monitor “resting” and “exercise interval” heart rates, and to back-off the exercise level as soon as heart rate elevation above their norms is detected.
Avoidance of activities / behaviors / agents that weaken the immune system is a key component of improving immune system fitness, but these are not always easy to recognize.
Over the last ~150 years, modern society has become increasingly reliant on artificial immune system aids. These include wide ranges of vaccines, anti-bacterial drugs, anti-viral drugs, hormones, anti-inflammatory drugs, decongestant drugs, anti-histamine drugs, cell reproduction inhibitors.
These immune system aids are justified by disease elimination, lives saved, lives lengthened, lives made more comfortable, but these immune system aids are expensive and may weaken or compromise the immune system and / or otherwise damage the body.
It is often possible to treat a “condition” with an immune system aid, and it may help overcome the current “condition” more quickly, but it may weaken the individual’s immune system’s ability to respond to a future condition, as it was not exercised fully with the current “condition”.
One case in point of compromising the immune system is the emergence of anti-bacterial drug resistant “superbugs” that have mutated from less troublesome bacteria due to the over prescription of anti-bacterial drugs.
Another example of widely prescribing immune system aids without comprehension of the consequences is the treatment of arthritis with “Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs”, NSAIDs, (e.g., COX-2 inhibitors such as Vioxx, Bextra, Celebrex) that caused many heart attacks / deaths.
The point here is that while immune system aids can effectively treat a condition, they are often over used, perhaps to the detriment of the individual’s immune system or general health.
For the case of immune system fitness, “Pushing the Limit” corresponds to pushing to limit the usage of immune system aids to the lowest level possible (i.e., a certain number of humans are required to maintain viable gene pool – Ha ha, just kidding).
It may seem overwhelming to attempt to tackle all these physical, mental, immune system fitness aspects simultaneously, but they feed off each other. For example, a physical fitness regime often leads to short term stress relief and improved sleep, and this leads to interest in mental fitness activity. Enthusiasm for higher level physical fitness follows, and then it is realized that the daily arthritis medications are no longer required and the immune system is healthier (e.g., fewer days of sickness / pain, quicker recovery from sickness / injury).