Fit to Play with Jim Johnson: Our Bodies At Risk

Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson

Published: 03-05-2024 5:23 PM

I have studied the human body for around 60 years and I am still in awe. Evolution has given us awesome bodies that move with fluidity and grace, withstand heat, cold, and altitude, and possess the ability to adapt to almost any environment. Our “Fight or Flight” response is well tuned to respond to our exercise needs by sending enormous amounts of blood immediately where needed. Enzymes release stored energy, and nerves increase heart rate and breathing. We adapt to exercise stress by getting stronger, better.

I am impressed with children’s natural ability to move. They don’t have to be taught to run, jump, kick, and throw. They do these things naturally. Want to teach a child to throw? Just give them some rocks and park them next to a lake or river. I occasionally read an article about someone professing the need to change how athletes breathe. There’s only one sport where athletes need to learn to breathe — swimming. We naturally breathe at the perfect rate and depth for the demand. This is just an example of how we naturally do tasks in the most economical way.

I think our awesome bodies are at risk after 300,000 years of evolution. About 12,000 years ago humans began cultivating their own food, displacing the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. As years went by humans slowly improved their ability to grow crops and livestock. That changed drastically in the 20th Century with the mechanization of farming. Mechanized farming requires about 200 times less labor, requiring few to physically work for food. Mechanization also reduced labor to build things.

The day I graduated from high school in 1960 I started a job working construction building a gasoline plant. I graduated in the morning and reported to work at 1 p.m. The foreman gave me a shovel, pointed at a long line on the ground and said, “dig.” Five hours later I completed the ditch, totally exhausted.

We worked 10 hours a day, 30 minutes for lunch, no coffee breaks, no water bottles. Eventually I could keep up with the other men. All the men were older than I and could work nonstop. They ate huge lunches but none were overweight — no diet drinks for these men.

Fortunately, this kind of work is mostly unnecessary. In fact, too much hard physical, repetitive labor results in overuse, deconditioning. Meanwhile, our bodies evolved to do this; for many, physical labor is a thing of the past. We evolved these big strong bodies and now have nothing to do. Well, there’s football, basketball and other sports, but what about after that? I don’t need to be 6 feet tall and 200 pounds; how much strength does it take to type on the keyboard, push the TV remote?

Many have forgotten how to work. Lawn care businesses are booming. Americans spend $114 billion/year on lawn care. We didn’t have weight rooms years ago because we didn’t need them. Today, exercise is our attempt to fill the gap, to make up for this need. But many let their magnificent bodies go to waste, choosing to sit instead. Unfortunately, the end result of this are diseases of a sedentary lifestyle: obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. We also lose our functionality.

I suspect my feeling of awe started by watching my dad. He went to a tiny rural high school, too small for a football team. He went to college on a basketball scholarship; three years later he was listed on Knute Rockne’s All American football team. My dad had a wonderful body, huge chest, arms and back. His body was honed in the Louisiana oil fields, laying pipe, digging ditches. He maintained that body throughout life, always moving, always physical.

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Some years ago I was home visiting my dad. He was over 80 years old. I watched him pull his lawnmower out of the garage, started it, and pushed it around his big yard in the hot summer sun. Afterward I sat with him on the patio, watched him with his feet up, drinking a cold beer. His shirt was soaked with sweat. He stared out over the lawn. I suspect he was thinking — job well done.

I’m impressed by great athletes; their achievements are admirable. To me, however, my admiration goes to those individuals who dare to live to the best of their ability, to those who have not chosen the path of least resistance. There’s a choice to make – the sofa or the trail.

Jim Johnson is a retired professor of exercise and sport science after teaching 52 years at Smith College and Washington University in St. Louis. He comments about sport, exercise, and sports medicine. He can be reached at