Health, Happiness, and Exercise

I’m unsurprised that 10,000 steps was a random number selected for marketing reasons. Like so much else, it never was backed by any scientific evidence. I agree that it doesn’t take that much physical activity to promote health. The basic thing is to simply not sit on your butt all day. Anything that gets you up and moving throughout the day will probably be a vast improvement over a sedentary lifestyle. By the way, I think it goes without saying (or should) that mental health is closely linked to physical health, far from being limited to exercise. It seems common sense that physical health is the causal factor. But even assuming this, what would be the exact line of causation?

Then again, this entire approach of explanation is based on an assumption. All we know is that healthier people move more than unhealthy people. But we haven’t yet proven that merely getting up and going for a walk or whatever is the direct cause in this equation. It’s possible that it’s simply part of the healthy user effect or maybe the happy user effect (just made up that last one). People seeking better health or those already feeling good from better health are going to exercise more, whether or not movement by itself is the main factor to get credit.

From personal experience, improving health (lowing weight, increasing energy, and eliminating severe depression) by way of low-carb/keto diet was a major contributing factor to feeling more motivated to push my exercise to the next level. I can exercise while in poor physical and mental health, but it’s easier to first eliminate the basic level of problems. I always feel bad when I see overweight people jogging, presumably with the hope of losing weight (exercise didn’t help me lose weight and seems of limited benefit to most people in this regard). I’d suggest starting with dietary and other lifestyle changes. Exercise is great in a healthy state, although in an unhealthy state one might end up doing more harm than good, from spraining an ankle to having a heart attack.

It’s highly context-dependent. For simplicity’s sake, diet will probably have a greater impact on mood than exercise, despite how awesome exercise can be. After feeling better, exercise will be less of a struggle and so require less force of willpower to overcome the apathy and discomfort. I’m all about going the route of what is easiest. Life is hard enough as is. There is no point in trying to punish ourselves into good health, as if we are fallen sinners requiring bodily mortification. If one is just starting out an exercise program, I’d say go easy with it. Less is better. Push yourself over time, but there is no reason to rush it. Exercise should be enjoyable. If it is causing you pain and stress, you’re doing it wrong. A stroll through the woods will do your health far more good than sprinting on a treadmill until you collapse.

Don’t worry about counting steps, in my humble opinion, as you shouldn’t worry about counting calories, carbs, ketones, or Weight Watcher points (yes, I realize Westerners are obsessed with numbers and love the feeling of counting anything and everything; who am I to deny anyone this pleasure?). It easily becomes an unhealthy moralistic mindset of constant self-control and self-denial that can undermine a natural good feeling of health and well-being. That is unless you’re dealing with a specific health protocol for a serious medical condition (e.g., keto diet for epileptic seizures) or maybe, in extreme cases, you need the structure to achieve a particular goal. I’m just saying be careful to not go overboard with the endless counting of one thing or another. If counting is helpful, great! Just maybe think of it as a transitional stage, not a permanent state of struggle.

Sometimes rules initially help people when their health has gotten so bad that they’ve lost an intuitive sense of what it feels like to do what is healthy. I get that. But regaining that intuitive, not just intuitive but visceral, sense of feeling good in one’s body should be the ultimate goal — just being healthy and happy as one’s natural birthright (I know, a crazy radical idea; I spent too much time in the positive-and-abundance-thinking of practical Christianity). Experiment for yourself (N=1) and find out works for you. If nothing else, start off with a short walk every once in a while or heck just stand up from your desk and get the blood flowing. Keep it simple. Maybe it isn’t as hard as it first seems. Don’t overthink it. Relearn that childlike sense of enjoying the world around you, immersed in the experience of your own body. Don’t just exercise. Go play. Run around a field with a child. Have a chat while walking. Simply appreciate the state of being alive.

* * *

by Amanda Mull, The Atlantic

“It turns out the original basis for this 10,000-step guideline was really a marketing strategy,” she explains. “In 1965, a Japanese company was selling pedometers and they gave it a name that, in Japanese, means the 10,000-step meter.”

Based on conversations she’s had with Japanese researchers, Lee believes that name was chosen for the product because the character for “10,000” looks sort of like a man walking. As far as she knows, the actual health merits of that number have never been validated by research. […]

“The basic finding was that at 4,400 steps per day, these women had significantly lower mortality rates compared to the least active women,” Lee explains. If they did more, their mortality rates continued to drop, until they reached about 7,500 steps, at which point the rates leveled out. Ultimately, increasing daily physical activity by as little as 2,000 steps — less than a mile of walking — was associated with positive health outcomes for the elderly women.” […]

Because her study was observational, it’s impossible to assert causality: The women could have been healthier because they stepped more, or they could have stepped more because they were already healthier. Either way, Lee says, it’s clear that regular, moderate physical activity is a key element of a healthy life, no matter what that looks like on an individual level.

“I’m not saying don’t get 10,000 steps. If you can get 10,000 steps, more power to you,” explains Lee. “But, if you’re someone who’s sedentary, even a very modest increase brings you significant health benefits.”

But since happiness can be incredibly difficult to define, I’d call these odds very interesting but not necessarily conclusive. Chen and colleagues acknowledge that more research is needed to prove whether exercise causeshappiness, or if other factors are involved. As just one example, it could be that exercise makes us healthier (which is well established by science) and being healthier is what makes us happy. […]

Not as much research has been done whether happiness is a key to motivating people to exercise. But one 2017 study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine certainly suggests as much.

Over 11 years, nearly 10,000 people over age 50 were asked about their frequency and intensity of physical activity, at work and otherwise. Those with higher psychological well-being (a proxy for happiness and optimism) at the start of the study had higher levels of physical activity over the next decade. Also, those who started out happy and active were more likely to stay active.

“Results from this study suggest that higher levels of psychological well-being may precede increased physical activity,” said Julia Boehm, a researcher at Chapman University and lead author of the study.

In very preliminary results of my Happiness Survey for The Happiness Quest,regular exercise is emerging as a theme among those who self-report as being the happiest. However, the survey is self-selecting, the numbers are as-yet small, and the happiest respondents also associate strongly with other traits and habits, so at best the responses are just another possible indicator of an association between exercise and happiness, not a cause-and-effect relationship, and no indication in which direction any effect may flow. […]

I can only conclude, despite the years-on, years-off nature of my exercise routine, that exercise puts me in a good mood. And when I’m in a good mood, I tend to exercise more. In many ways, it matters little which is the cause and which is the effect. And I’ll bet it’s simply a virtuous circle (and, in those off years, a vicious spiral).

12 thoughts on “Health, Happiness, and Exercise

  1. I don’t remember if you may have addressed the lymphatic system. It is as important as any other identified system, such as circulatory, nervous, etc. It runs parallel to the blood circulatory system which relies on the heart to circulate throughout the body, carrying oxygen and nutrients to, and waste products away from our tissues. Where do these waste products end up? In the lymphatic system which has no heart to pump it through the vessels and organs that manage our wastes. It is muscular action, especially in the lower legs, that provides the pumping power. This is why walking is so important, etc. I may have offered this previously, but here it is (again?)…
    Your Body’s Wonderful Sewer System:

    • Nah. I doubt I’ve ever mentioned the lymphatic system. I’m generally familiar with it, but I’ve never looked into the details. I just understand the basic concept of what it is and how it operates. By the way, I went to Shiatsu massage school, although I don’t practice.

      As a related issue, Mike Mutzel said that, “Scientists in Europe say diabetes starts in the muscle tissue of the legs.” If as you say, “It is muscular action, especially in the lower legs, that provides the pumping power,” then that would surely relate to many areas of health, maybe including metabolic health in relation to diabetes.

        • Why did your father say that. It sounds odd. How did your father know what the gastrocnemius muscle was? Did he work in massage therapy or healthcare?

          It is an interesting thought. It reminds me of calling the gut the second brain, although technically in terms of evolution it’s the first brain.

          So, what do you think your father meant? Was he referring to pumping of the lymphatic system?

          • I was a kid then, and didn’t ask him his sources. It could be part of the teachings of Gurdjieff/Ouspensky, or other turn-of-the-century/early 1900s expositors of health and fitness, as part of much larger philosophical schools influenced mostly from the East. Think also of Krishnamurti, Theosophy, Mary Baker Eddy, Madame Blavatsky, etc. Some of the latter may not be in the realm we are discussing.

          • I retrieved your comment. Out of historical curiosity, it would be interesting to know the background of that idea. There was a lot of health ideas circulating in the late 1800s to early 1900s. It was a fascinating era. My post on the crisis of identity covers some of that material. But I didn’t discuss any of the specific names you mention. For other reasons, I am familiar with all of those people. It’s part of my own New Age/New Thought upbringing.

            I was reading Krishnamurti back in high school, but I don’t recall him talking about physical health. That kind of idea sounds more like it could come out of something like Theosophy, as they published all kinds of works, including translations of Eastern texts. I’m sort of familiar with that area of alternative health thinking, although I didn’t give it much thought when I was a kid. It came up recently when I was reading about how the Unity Church was one of the early advocates of vegetarianism.

            I was just now looking up about the so-called second heart (apparently, also sometimes called peripheral heart). It seems to be a common name for the general set of muscles in the calf, ankle and foot, specifically the soleus (used to maintain standing posture) but also the gastrocnemius (used to stand on toes) and plantaris, but also involving a system of veins and valves. It helps pump blood and lymph back up to the heart and so keeps it from pooling. I couldn’t find out what was the origin of calling it the second heart.

            Interesting stuff. It seems to relate to why sitting for long periods is so unhealthy. Having small, weak, or atrophied soleus muscle is related to numerous health conditions, including heart disease. It also shows up in symptoms like lower back pain and chronic fatigue. By the way, the soleus is what allows humans to stand for long periods of time without being tired. The legs seem so important to human health.

            Some argue that the unique ability at ketosis found among humans evolved as part of long-distance running, such as in running down prey (humans aren’t the fastest species, but we do have one of the best abilities at endurance, especially in the heat of day with our ability to sweat). Among hunter-gatherers, ability to run typically peaks out in 20s and is maintained at high levels into old age.

        • It’s interesting that the leg muscles would be involved in both the lymphatic system and diabetes. A connection is indicated in how diabetes affects the lymphatic system. This make sense since diabetes is part of metabolic syndrome that involves so much. A common feature is inflammation. The thing about inflammation is that it indicates damage and chronic inflammation means the body can never fully heal. Inflammation can contribute to leaky gut and leaky brain. Or in other cases, inflammation is simply a symptom and sign of something gone wrong. Whatever the connection, the legs seem to play an important role or rather is a major part of systems that are involved.

          ““We now know for the first time that when individuals have type 2 diabetes, the walls of their lymphatic vessels are defective and become increasingly permeable, or leaky,” Scallan said. His team further hypothesized that since low levels of nitric oxide lead to dysfunction in the blood vasculature of type 2 diabetics; nitric oxide may play a role in lymphatic vasculature dysfunction as well. Supplementing the lymphatic tissue with L-arginine, the substrate for nitric oxide, resulted in improved vascular integrity in the lymph of the diabetic mice, but caused leakage in the lymph vessels of the healthy mice.

          ““Whether NO increases or decreases vascular permeability has been the subject of intense debate,” Scallan and his colleagues write. “Surprisingly, the idea that NO performs both roles in a context-dependent manner has never been tested. Here, we demonstrate that NO can increase the permeability of healthy lymphatic vessels and, using the same experimental preparation, can reduce lymphatic permeability once it is already elevated by disease.”

          “The researchers propose that the mechanism of vascular damage caused by reduced levels of NO is from its role in the inhibition of PDE3. PDE3 hydrolyzes cAMP, the molecule responsible for maintaining endothelial integrity. Low levels of NO fail to inhibit PDE3, and PDE3 is then activated by phosphorylation that occurs in high levels of insulin or leptin. “It is very likely that PDE3 not only requires release from inhibition, but also needs phosphorylation to be activated,” the researchers say. “High insulin or leptin levels, as occur in type 2 diabetes, are likely to be additional signals, and insulin has been reported to phosphorylate and activate PDE3 in multiple tissue types.”

          “The findings have significant meaning for those with type 2 diabetes, who are already at risk for the trappings of metabolic disease. “Based on an emerging body of literature, we expect that the degree of lymphatic barrier dysfunction in diabetic mice is sufficient to reduce lymph flow, thereby trapping lipids and cholesterol in the tissue,” the authors state. “This effect is likely significant, because inhibiting lymphatic transport of cholesterol bound to high-density lipoprotein from the tissues to the liver exacerbates atherosclerosis. Further, these findings link lymphatic endothelial dysfunction to lymph leakage, which leads to tissue adipose deposition, obesity, fibrosis, and inflammation.””

        • It’s considered the go-to treatment for damaged lymphatic systems, but appears to be catching on in the alternative or holistic fields as part of a healthy regimen.

          I’m not sure about that last as normal muscle movement during exercise, etc. is apparently enough stimulation for an undamaged lymphatic system to operate normally. More research in this area, however, is both required and underway. (It also makes for very interesting reading.)

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