What does it mean to be “fit” in the modern world?
Evolutionarily speaking, “fitness” is defined by how well an organism is adapted to its environment. For example, as funny as it sounds, in the ocean a walrus is more fit than a cheetah. In other words, “fitness” is defined by context.
So, what makes a modern human being “fit?” What challenges and environmental stressors do we now need to overcome? The answer: psychological stressors. At least in the developed world, we are no longer plagued by predators or famine, but by the hustle and bustle of our busy lives, and it is how we cope with our psychological stressors that determines our fitness.
The statement that our mental coping skills, and attitudes towards life in general, rather than our physical capabilities, determine our fitness is more than a semantic argument; it is a conclusion supported by rigorous scientific research. In fact, practices that cultivate healthy mental coping techniques and positive attitudes dramatically affect our health at the cellular level. For example, experiments have shown that meditation and yoga can prevent our telomeres, the DNA caps that protect our chromosomes, from shortening as we age. Since telomere length is a primary marker of cellular age, these studies suggest that meditation and yoga may be able to slow biological aging! Meditation and yoga have also been shown to decrease the levels of certain cellular toxins, increase the levels of a hormone that supports the growth and survival of brain cells, and decrease age-related DNA damage.
But don’t take my word for it. Instead, I encourage you to read some of the literature for yourself! Here is a link to an accessible peer-reviewed study showing that 10 hours of mediation and yoga per week improved cellular and metabolic markers of aging:
Or, if you have a bit more time on your hands, I strongly recommend the following two books: (1) The Healing Self by Rudolph Tanzi, one of the world’s most famous and influential neuroscientists, and (2) the Telomere Effect by Elizabeth Blackburn, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.