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21 April 2017

Environmental Conditioning - The Third Pillar of Human Health?

It has long been known that if we are to maintain good health, exercise and diet are highly important. However, journalist and anthropologist Scott Carney has suggested in his recent book, “What Doesn't Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude, and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength”, that these two factors, important as they undoubtedly are, may not be enough on their own.

His assertion, as you may have guessed from the rather elongated title, is that environmental conditioning, including increased exposure to extreme temperatures, high altitudes and a wide variety of other natural challenges, may be required by the body in order to operate at its peak potential.

The theory states that as we of course evolved for a more natural way of life, stripped bare of modern luxuries and technologies, that such amenities are hindering our health by promoting an overly-sedentary lifestyle free of any real physical challenge.

It has already been proven that a sedentary lifestyle leads to higher incidences of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, granting the theory some credibility. In principle I suppose it’s similar to how our immune system works, using exposure to build up tolerance.

Carney describes his theory in his own words as follows:

“Anatomically modern humans have lived on the planet for almost 200,000 years. That means your office-mate who sits on a rolling chair behind fluorescent lights all day has pretty much the same basic body as the prehistoric caveman who made spear points out of flint to hunt antelope. To get from there to here humans faced countless challenges as we fled predators, froze in snowstorms, sought shelter from the rain, hunted and gathered our food, and continued breathing despite suffocating heat. Until very recently there was never time a when comfort could be taken for granted — there was always a balance between the effort we expended and the downtime we earned. For the bulk of that time we managed these feats without even a shred of what anyone today would consider modern technology. Instead, we had to be strong to survive.

“With no challenge to overcome, frontier to press, or threat to flee from, the humans of this millennium are overstuffed, overheated, and understimulated.”

The theory may also extend beyond the physical and into mental health, with some researchers now arguing that anxiety, an increasingly common struggle in modern times, may actually be a result of evolutionary adaptations, namely the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, getting somewhat out of control, replacing the genuine dangers experienced by our species in the past with more mundane modern counterparts such as public speaking. Whilst the trigger may be altogether different, the response remains constant.

Over the course of his book, Carney endeavours to ascertain whether environmental conditioning can actually help to heighten fitness to unprecedented levels. He is joined on his journey by Wim Hof, more widely recognised by his nickname - Iceman. Hof has long been an advocate of extreme training regimes in challenging environments, using conscious breathing techniques in an effort to gain more control over naturally involuntary physical reactions. As his nickname would suggest, Hof focuses more heavily on the cold.

The practice does seem to have some observed health benefits; for example, Carney relates a series of anecdotes in which students of Hof's method experience relief from injuries or symptoms of Parkinson's disease and Crohn's disease, whilst scientific studies have independently verified Hof’s claim that a method of cold immersion and conscious breathing can give some people the ability to voluntarily activate or suppress their immune system.

Having said all that, nobody has yet been able to rule out the Placebo effect as the true cause of such responses, a fact which Carney himself does recognise.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.