When you feel sick, you prefer to sit still. This behavior pattern is not only well known, it even has a name: “inflammatory-induced sickness behavior.”

In the modern world this easily leads to a particularly pernicious vicious cycle. Modern lifestyles lead to metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome produces systemic inflammation, which makes you feel like sitting still. Wanting to sit still makes what would otherwise be the most potent tool for reducing systemic inflammation—exercise—tough to bring to bear.

This rather dense article from back in 2010 describes the problem: Inflammatory modulation of exercise salience: using hormesis to return to a healthy lifestyle. It also proposes a category of solutions: hormesis. That is to say, any of a set of mild metabolic stresses that prompt a response greater than “just enough” to stave off the damage produced by the stress itself.

The result is less systemic inflammation, and therefore less inflammatory-induced sickness behavior, hence an increased inclination to move.

Or, as they say:

We therefore propose that exercise salience, the motivation to undertake physical activity, is modulated by the inflammatory status of an animal, decreasing in an inflammatory phenotype, including the metabolic syndrome and increasing in an anti-inflammatory “healthy” phenotype. The type of phenotype may well be determined by the degree of hormesis, as metabolic stressors, such as exercise, plant polyphenols and calorie restriction tend to induce an anti-inflammatory phenotype.

Besides exercise, the article suggests two other broad categories of available hormetins.

One is related to food, and consists of the obvious stuff that everybody knows: Avoid industrially produced edible substances. Consider such modalities as time-restricted eating, calorie restriction, or fasting. Include foods rich in plant polyphenols. (In other words, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”)

The other is related to temperature: Expose yourself to mild cold and/or heat stress. (Spend time outdoors in the winter. Take a cold shower. Spend time outdoors in the summer. Take a sauna.)

Each of these things will produce some mild metabolic stress. As long as you don’t overdo it, that mild stress will produce a stress response greater than necessary to handle the stress itself, with the side-effect of bringing down systemic inflammation. With the systemic inflammation eased, you’ll start feeling like moving again. That puts the potent tool of exercise back on the table.

Nature has a more recent article on all this stuff, which is sadly behind a paywall.

I have always found “deconstructionist” models appealing. For example, I liked the idea that you could “figure out” all the nutrients that you need and then build up a diet that provides the right mix of carbs, proteins, fats (with proper mix between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids), the right amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and so on.

Then Michael Pollan came along and (in his book In Defense of Food) completely destroyed that idea. First of all, it’s an impossible problem to solve—the different nutrients interact in the body (and biome) in ways that are intractably complex, plus there are so many micro-nutrients as to make it computationally infeasible (even if we knew what all of them were, which we don’t). More to the point, though, it’s a completely unnecessary problem to solve: our bodies solve it for us, as long as we eat a diet of diverse foods and minimize our consumption of manufactured food-like substances.

I’m not saying this is new news. In fact, this is common knowledge—everybody said this, right from the start. What I’m saying is that, for reasons no doubt having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, I liked the deconstructionist model for analyzing and then constructing a plan for what to eat, despite what everybody said. For some reason, again having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, Michael Pollan’s explanation of how the whole deconstructionist model of designing a plan for eating was fundamentally flawed suddenly made it clear to me (in a way that any number of people—including my third grade health teacher and both my parents—had not managed to do).

All that seems relevant because—I recently realized—for years now I’ve been making the exact same mistake with movement. I’ve been trying to “figure out” an exercise regime that would keep me fit. If you click on the Fitness category over in the sidebar, or the “exercise” tag on this post, you’ll be linked to a long list of my posts on the topic, many of which describe my latest attempt to find the right mix of walking, running, bicycling, lifting, stretching, and taiji to build and maintain optimal levels of aerobic capacity, strength, and flexibility.

Then I ran into the work of Katy Bowman, whose explanations of why exercise is no substitute for movement clicked for me in just the same way, and for roughly the same reason: The problem is intractably complex, and anyway our bodies solve the problem for us—as long as we engage in an ample amount of diverse movement and minimize things like sitting in chairs and wearing bad shoes. (See her book Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement.)

Again, this is not really new news; I’m just late to the party because I like the idea of designing an exercise regime that covers all the necessary categories.

However, I think I have come around. Appealing as it is to me to design the perfect exercise regime and then tick off each box as I reach my target for the week, I pretty much have to admit that the whole thing is a fool’s errand. I’d be much better off spending that time walking, stretching, hanging, squatting, climbing, balancing, jumping, throwing, catching, and so on.

I’ll still run (because I enjoy it, probably due to the endocannabinoids, and because being able to run is useful), but I’ll spend a lot less time on things like figuring out how much I can safely add to my weekly mileage. I’ll just run as much as I feel like—while being careful to do so mindfully, and to pay attention to my body, so that enjoying running doesn’t entice me to run more than should.

Still not new news.