"Specificity works, but at a price." - John Jerome "Staying With It: On Becoming an Athlete"
The 'beauty and the beast' of the human organism is that we have a high capacity for adaptation. Whatever it is we do, we adapt, more or less (dependent on context) to becoming better at whatever 'it' is.
It seems though, as far as I can see, that a large key to overall health and wellness is variety. It's something that I have to be careful to monitor with the athletes I train; balancing specificity with variety. Simply, variety keeps an individual adaptable but not adapted. Variation in the body revolves around the concept of homeostasis, the body's ability to try to regulate itself around a basal level of physiological functioning. More variety increases the fluctuations around this ever-changing, homeostatic "set-point" (some researchers say it should be, more accurately, called allostasis-an ever changing "point") which keeps the organism capable of handling these "stressors", increasing the likelihood for survival.
What are some of the costs from too much specificity and not enough variation? Here are some cases and thoughts (I could be wrong, so please call me out if I am);
- Tendon-itis, -osis: too much repetition of a specific movement pattern. (Yeah somethings gonna give if you keep beating your head against the wall)
- Training "plateaus": doing the same training over and over with lead to results but eventually the principle of "Diminishing Returns" takes hold and the only option to further improvement is adding variation.
- Flat (painful) feet: This is simply a symptom of our flat surfaces in the Western world with shoes that does all the "work" for our feet.
- Pain: Any type of pain may be from lack of variation, whether it be from thoughts (conscious/subconscious), environment/context, movement, diet, etc...
- Myopia: Children, during prime development stages, are required to do "near work" in school (reading, writing and now computers). Near-sightedness is simply an adaptation of the visual system.
- Immune Dysfunctions: children not exposed to a different variety in environments with exposure to dirt and germs weakens the immune system. Variety of exposure to pathogens keeps the immune system strong.
- Diet: Variety in diet (within reason; healthy whole foods) keeps the digestive system strong and functioning optimally. I think people are finding out variation is important in not only what they eat but when; hence the increase in "diet programs" pushing intermittent fasting.
- Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders: not enough variation between moments of stillness and moments of motion. Most children with ADHD respond pretty well with added movement in their lives. It's just another symptom of an F-ed up environment.
- Cardiovascular health: my thoughts here are, anything steady-state is asking for just that, STEADY. With the mounting research showing the importance of having high heart rate variability (HRV) it seems that something of steadiness is just not the answer. Add to this the coinciding accumulation of research supporting the benefits of high-intensity interval training over steady-state cardio, it seems that variety, once again, is the answer to improved health and function. Everything from telomere length to arterial stiffness, it seems that variety and randomness do the job of keeping things 'young'. (Huh!?... those damn kids have the answer AGAIN)
- Coordination: Every good coach knows that general movement skills are a prerequisite to specific sporting skills. The richer an athlete's amount of basic movement skills, the more easily that athlete can learn new skills. A good 'generalist' has the capacity to build more specific skills and the ability to peak those skills much higher. (Once again children develop a lot of these general skills on their own if given the free time in nature)
Along these same lines...
- Motor learning: Randomness in motor learning enhances retention and improvement in skill development. Further, variety and/or randomness in environment stimulate the brain, encouraging dendritic growth and more synaptic connections.
-Depression: this could be very arguable, and I am going to stick my neck out on this one... but depression is just another symptom to an information, sensory overloaded (usually of only visual and auditory) environment; and/or lack of variation in normal circadian light, and/or many more... but right down to the physiological mechanisms of an overload of stress responses with hormones being "squeezed dry". My thought is because the individual is not getting any variation on the 'recovery' end, the person's entire system just shuts down or 'hibernates' into a state of slowing everything down (depression). Just thoughts, so please, go ahead and chop my head off if anyone disagrees.
This list could go on and on, but the basic idea is that variation is the key to one's health. The important thing to remember here is that randomness is a good thing, but... a huge BUT, within boundaries of what constitutes health and wellness; good whole food, frequent quality movement, a 'well' community, lots of nature, good and enjoyable music, and a sense of purpose in this life.
However, within this healthy amount of variety or randomness there needs to be coherent rhythm of all things, which I think comes with living easily natural... what this is and how this is done, I do not know, this is for you and your community of close individuals to figure out for yourselves, but it comes within the boundaries listed above. All of this is what leads to the optimal or peak function of all things human and living.
I just thought I would share these ideas, because I am afraid we are in a society and time in which no one knows what the hell to do with their physical selves, with the vast amount of diet, health and fitness information floating about in this vast sea of media. As I tell the students of one of the classes I teach, "These first two class sessions are really the only two you need to attend. After that, if you completely understand the principles presented, you no longer need to attend." What we cover are, what I feel, the most important principles when it comes to health and fitness. Principles are the filter... once you "own" these, now go searching for gold!
Please feel free to share more examples of the variation principle in application or even disagreements. Would love to hear your thoughts.