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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Our athletic birthright


DISCLAIMER: If you find typos or a need for proofing, keep it to yourself. I only have time to write, not proof.
As a biology student and then grad student, I was accustomed to the concept that humans had no distinct advantage on any other animal in terms of specialized abilities. That is, except for our capacity to learn and associate events and concepts, and communicate with abstract symbols and language. Physically, we are not remarkable. This viewpoint changed for me when I read the books of Bernd Heinrich, professor emeritus, physiologist and naturalist (film recently made about him ). 
He looked closely at physiological adaptations from varying specifies of animals that allowed them physical feats and abilities that we would envy. His conclusion was that Humans actually are perfectly adapted for one unique physical skill and that is endurance running.
            Most predators are short burst animals that chase and then give up and lie down to rest. Humans (especially prehistoric) often needed to pursue their prey for days. This shows up in many interesting physiological and morphological adaptations. For example, Humans are profuse sweaters. You are not shocked by our ability to produce so much sweat, but do you know of any other animal that sweats in the volumes we do? Certainly not any other predators. For something near and dear, look at your dog. It does not have the efficiency of cooling that we do. No doubt about it, humans were built to hunt even in the heat of the day. The hair that is on our heads (shoulders and backs in some of us unlucky enough to have that trait) protects those areas because we run and stand upright in the full sunlight.
            If you combine this information with other research on exercise physiology you will see that our long Shaolin workouts (up to an exceeding one hour) are right up our evolutionary alley so to speak. There are lots of physiological changes that take place in our metabolism. More importantly the level of internal breakdown starts the process of re-building that turns on growth hormone and other re-building processes. Evolution gave us a big bonus here as well. If you were on the long hunt, you couldn’t see it through if you were depressed. Successful hunters have to be optimists, of this there is no doubt. So when you work out for a long enough period of time, you feel better mentally.
            This leads to my favorite idea from Bernd is that one of our psychological adaptations is even more unique. Our ability to sustain effort over time to reach a goal. He argues that as an endurance predators we needed to ability to visualize the end of the hunt and focus on reaching the goal in order to stay with the plan. In modern times this ability has turned in to entrepreneurship and ambition to achieve in any are of life. It is our birth-right and it is the most marvelous of all our qualities. To tirelessly chase a dream. My next blog will tie this trait into our martial art journey. Whether we study karate, kung fu or tai chi, we are embarking on the long hunt and bringing out the best in our human heritage. (this was the shameless link to our website section, forgive me).

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