Today’s post is written by Dr. Lon Kilgore, research leader and senior lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland and co-author of FIT, a no-nonsense book on effective fitness that we wrote with Dr. Michael Hartman.
Risk Managed out of Health & Fitness
by Dr. Lon Kilgore
I was recently told by a university administrator that I wasn’t allowed to move classroom desks (weighing in at a whopping 5kg) as it was a health and safety issue. Apparently, as a faculty member, I’m not trained or qualified to safely move physical objects of any mass greater than a dry erase marker. If I was to be injured moving something as simple schoolroom chair, I would not be eligible for sick leave benefits.
The basic principle this illustrates is that we live in an aggressively and progressively risk averse world. The fear is upon us. The fear of risk exposure, the fear of litigation, the fear of failure, the fear of injury, the fear of disease, and the fear of pain. I should say that the fear is thrust upon us by those who believe they know what is best for us; politicians, lobbyists, law enforcement, professional organizations, lawyers, clinicians, insurance companies, the press, and even our neighbors.
So how does fear and risk management relate to compromised health and fitness?
Let’s look first at one well known example of health & safety measures inducing an unintended health result. We’ve all been told since we were kids don’t put that in your mouth, keep out of that mud puddle, don’t get dirty, you touched that so go wash your hands, and more. We have become an overwhelmingly clean society, afraid to touch anything resembling dirt or to be dirty in order to not be infected by the reportedly rampant germs present everywhere. But that is supposed to be good isn’t it? Cleanliness, that is. Yes, it assists in reducing disease transmission. Keeping equipment, mats, and floors clean absolutely helps prevent gym outbreaks of staphylococcus aureus and other contact transmissible pathogen infections. BUT an unintended effect of clean is that our kids, well, all of us are no longer exposed to environmental allergens, the things that were in the dirt (but weren’t germs), the dirt we were supposed to avoid or clean away to keep healthy. We all know the concept of biological adaptation elucidated by Selye or more famously recognized in Neitsche’s “that which does not destroy me makes me stronger” quote. To become more survivable we have to be exposed to a homeostatic disruption (that’s how vaccinations work). In the case of a super clean society, the absent exposure to allergens has resulted in a maladaptation, asthma. The being too clean or hygiene hypothesis has been around for a while and hasn’t really been broadly accepted as it doesn’t seem to fit with our concept that sterile environments are safe and healthy, preventing infection and allergy (think of all the hygiene signs and regulations of which you are aware). But very new data just published in Science suggests that childhood exposure to pathogens and allergens reduce the life-long inventory of invariant natural killer cells in the body, having many of these cells is linked to asthma and inflammatory bowel disease. We have developed as a culture to assume that we are managing the risk of infection in our children’s health by bringing them up with virtually no exposure to “dirt”, but when we are never required to adapt physiologically to our environment, we are setting up conditions prime for development of auto-immune pathologies … unless we want to be the boy in the bubble.
Getting back to the fitness aspect, this same principle of lack of exposure exists in the fitness arena as well. I can’t move a 5kg chair at work by regulation. Skateboarding, BMX biking, and Parkour are illegal by most urban codes as they pose a risk to health and safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics, while acknowledging the large benefits of children training with weights, and while acknowledging that data suggests that it is healthy and much safer than average exercise, recommends against powerlifting, weightlifting, bodybuilding, high intensity, and progressive training for those same children as they may be at increased risk of injury (even though they acknowledge there is no data to support this position).
Everywhere we turn, someone or some group with incomplete information and who is very short sighted has placed a limitation, regulation, or practical barrier to being physically active as part of our work and play. Ostensibly, this is because they believe they are protecting us from ourselves, who apparently want to act irresponsibly by being physically active or by just doing our jobs. In the context of preventing us from being physically active, they have done the opposite. No physical activity means that we cannot adapt to the stress of our occupation, of daily life, or towards supporting a health recreational life. In a very practical sense, risk management and safety policies, operations, and conventions seem to be functioning counter to their intent in respect to what a prohibitive approach does to the physiology of the human body.
What’s the solution? Anarchy? Civil disobedience? Occupy? Protest? Political Action?
Probably the best solution is to simply get to the gym … planned and progressive exercise is much better and more efficient at reaping the physiological and health benefits we want than randomly placed physical activity within a workday.