Adaption: Your Brain’s Program for Survival

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Fast or slow, uphill or downhill, your body and mind will adapt — always.(Stock Photos)

 “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.” ~Leon C. Megginson, Professor of Management and Marketing at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge.

Your first mile run in high school probably felt like a muggy marathon toward the end. Your thighs and lungs felt like they were on fire, and your hair matted to your forehead like a grunge rocker. Your P.E. teacher held a stopwatch that clocked everyone’s time.

When you heard your time was 10:34 and one of your classmates, Megan, who finished first, had 7:21, you wonder if you could ever catch up to her. In fact, she wasn’t even sweating much. She just stood there with her hands on her hips, talking with her other friends while waiting for the remaining laggers to finish.

So you run the mile-run every week throughout the school year. As the weeks progressed and faded in and out like your current memory of your middle school years, you notice that the mile-run doesn’t feel so difficult anymore. Your time is getting shorter, and you don’t look like a sweaty Kurt Cobain afterwards. Eventually, your mile-run time comes pretty close to Megan’s, who still barely breaks a sweat after the run.

What’s going on here? Why did the mile-run get easier?

Adaptation: One of the reasons why certain species proliferate while others died out.

What’s interesting about your mind and body is that they will adapt to whatever stress you place upon it. Your muscles may get stronger and bigger, your brain creates motor programs that improve muscle sequencing (the order in which muscles fire when you move), your bones get denser, and your reflexes require less conscious effort.

So is it good?

Of course! You will use less energy than when you started as you move more efficiently and use less mental effort. This is a necessary for survival if you’re going to outrun a predator or chase after prey when you hunt. If you haven’t run since high school, and you attempt your first mile run today, the experience might bring back some fun memories from your first mile run in ninth grade. After you do it several times a week for a month, your running time improves and you won’t feel as tired as when you first started.

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When you become familiar with running mechanics and your environment, you focus less on those and more on other things, like escaping the angry bear behind you. (Photo courtesy of Tim Sinnett, own of Integral Evolution Health/Fitness/Performance)

The same can be said with any exercise or activity. The more you practice, the less effort you use. This is why many aerobic dance instructors are able to scream out instructions while moving continuously. Keep in mind that just because you can do an activity or movement well doesn’t mean that the skill you acquired will transfer to other activities and movement. We’ll save that discussion on adaptation and skills transference on another section.

Is there a down side?

Yes, if you are looking to reduce body fat. The more efficient you move, the less energy you use. Your body is constantly seeking to maintain balance, or homeostasis. If you expend more energy than you take in, then that causes energy imbalance, and your body doesn’t like that. This phenomenon is called adaptive thermogenesis.

In a 2009 study made at Laval University in Quebec City, Quebec, eight obese men were put on a weight-loss program that included a reduced-caloric diet and an exercise program. The resting metabolic rate (RMR), which is the amount of calories you burn when you’re at rest, was measured at four intervals: Baseline, 5-kg loss, 10-kg loss, and at the resistance point when the body doesn’t lose any more weight (also called a plateau).

Although everyone had lost a significant amount of fat mass and weight at the end of the study, the RMR gradually decreased at each measurement interval. Thus, the less calories burned, the less fat mass is burned.

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The better you become, the less energy you spend. (Photo by Nick Ng)

No one really fully understands yet exactly how or why this happens. The International Journal of Obesity suggests that adaptive thermogenesis is a natural response to a negative energy balance when the amount of energy your intake is less than the amount of energy you expend. Perhaps your mind perceives the condition as a prelude to starvation and will gradually horde as much energy as possible to survive.

I’m stuck! What can I do?

So what you can do to overcome this plateau? Change your workout routine. Do something different. Try a new activity. Challenge your brain a little bit. Take a short break from working out and do something active and recreational where you don’t have to count sets and reps or get obsessed about how many calories you burn. Change once every four to six weeks, and you can always cycle your activities back to the original one.

The benefits of adaptation far exceeds any setbacks. It is better to move well and efficiently than to move poorly with a greater risk of injury. Your mind and body is very self-preserving. It will do whatever is necessary to keep you alive and well.

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