Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Problem with Simplicity

"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

These words penned by Leonardo Davinci are the impetus for modern biology. By breaking down complex phenomena, like fat metabolism, we can more easily explain and share this information with others. Scientists call this reductionism.
Reductionism can help us understand something as complex as biochemistry and genetics, though reductionism ignores an element's relationship with the whole.

What does this have to do with fitness, health, or performance? Well, we have learned a lot about nutrition and exercise physiology over the last several decades. We have reduced and simplified this information down to nuggets of knowledge that can be easily found on the internet and in the media. The problem is that the human body is not that simple. We cannot expect our bodies to behave like a simple input-output devices. Our bodies are extremely complex, and function sometimes in an unpredictable manner. This can be confusing and frustrating for the beginner.

There are a lot of nuggets of knowledge out there about fat loss. A common recommendation is to "reduce your calorie intake by 500 calories per day, and you will lose a pound per week."

It is not uncommon for one person to lose three pounds in a week, and another person to lose no weight at all following this advice. The over-simplified message originally intended to help, can now be a source of frustration. It is not that it is bad advice, but it needs to be put in context.

You are only in control of some the variables that determine your body composition (or strength, endurance, etc). You cannot expect a straight-forward response when you manipulate a sophisticated machine, like the human body. For this reason, I emphasize behavior modification as opposed to calorie budgeting. Becoming process-oriented, that is focusing on the process of fat loss, is more effective and longer lasting, than being outcome-oriented. As I mentioned earlier, focusing on the results (or comparing predicted results to realized results) can be frustrating, especially for beginners. Therefore, measures (outcomes) should not be taken too frequently (no more than once per week).

The human body is very complex, and reducing it to smaller pieces can be helpful to understand how it works. But, we can't forgot the relationships between those pieces and how they interact. Over-simplifying the body should be done with caution. Expecting simple cause-and-effect relationships can be frustrating, and discouraging for some. It is important to take a step back and focus on the process of changing your body because, as Cosmo Kramer said, "mother nature is a mad scientist!"

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