Protecting us from our modern lifestyle
Joseph Pilates (1883-1967), the founder of Pilates, believed that modern lifestyle was the root cause of chronic health issues1 – and it turns out he might have been right. An increasing amount of scientific research is being published on the topics of “diseases of civilization”2,3,4, “lifestyle diseases”5,6, “diseases of affluence”7,8, “hypokinetic (sedentary) diseases”9,10, and “western diseases”11,12,13.
The opening paragraph of a 2019 scientific paper4 published in the journal Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy provides a great summary of this unfolding perspective:
“Westernized populations are plagued by a plethora of chronic non-infectious degenerative diseases, termed as “civilization diseases”, like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s disease and many more, diseases which are rare or virtually absent in hunter-gatherers and other non-westernized populations. There is a growing awareness that the cause of this amazing discrepancy lies in the profound changes in diet and lifestyle during recent human history.” (Kopp, 2019)
So, there seems to be something about our modern lifestyle that is causing poor health. But what is it?
I think part of the answer lies in the (im)balance between physical and psychological activity. The modern lifestyle is essentially a sedentary lifestyle, at least compared to prior generations of humans. We sit in the car, at home, and many of us spend eight hours or more sitting at work. This results in poor posture, inefficient breathing and circulation, and a whole host of other issues.
The problem is, our bodies are built to move, and as Eugene Sandow (a contemporary of Joseph Pilates) put it, “life is movement”14. Yet, while our bodies are underactive, our minds are overactive. We live in an age of distraction, constant connectivity, and increasing complexity and uncertainty, and this is taking its toll on our psychological well-being.
For example, the World Health Organization has labeled stress as the “health epidemic of the 21st century”15, and has reported that, between 1990 and 2013, the number of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety increased by nearly 50% worldwide16. Taking all this into consideration, we begin to see that the modern lifestyle is one which trades physical activity (for which we are well designed) for a psychological burden (for which we are poorly designed17). The figure below shows this state of imbalance between our physical and psychological activity.
Recall that Joseph Pilates was aware of the negative impact of modern life on an individual’s health – and this was back in the early 1900s! To counteract the health consequences of physical inactivity, Joseph developed a system of physical exercise designed to return the human body to a more natural state. This idea of a return is encapsulated in the titles of his published books, which include the phrases “return to life”18 and “a corrective system of exercising”19, and is also evident in the name of the most iconic piece of Pilates equipment … the “Reformer”. To return, correct, and reform – the Pilates method was born out of an acknowledgement of the negative effect that modern society was having on people’s health, and a desire to restore the body to a more natural state.
Therefore, by analogy, we can think of the Pilates method as returning the weight back onto the physical activity side of the scale (see figure below). Pilates provides the body with the right amount and type of physical activity to return it to a state of good posture, stability, flexibility, and strength. Mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, removes the additional weight on the psychological activity side of the scale.
By practicing mindfulness, an individual will experience a reduction in the constant, repetitive, and seemingly-urgent streams of thought which are associated with stress and psychological strain, and will thereby return to a more natural and pleasant psychological state. Therefore, combining Pilates and mindfulness practice helps to restore a state of physiological and psychological balance. This state of balance lowers our risk of experiencing poor health.
But how does mindfulness practice do this? How does it lower the psychological burden of modern life?
Well, it has something to do with keeping us “present” and “in the moment” – but what do these admittedly vague terms actually mean? Perhaps a better way to describe mindfulness is to say what it is not – for example, mindfulness is the absence of mind wandering. Mind wandering occurs when someone is “thinking about what is not going on around them, contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all”20, and is associated with unhappiness – as the authors of a highly-regarded 2010 study conclude … “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind”20. Fortunately, mindfulness practice has been shown to reduce mind wandering21, and, experiencing moments where the mind is not wandering can be surprisingly pleasant.
But why do our minds wander so much in the first place? Well, I believe that it is again due (in part) to our modern lifestyle. There is a fascinating area of research showing that mindfulness meditation changes the physical structure of the brain, increasing its ability to be more mindful in the future22,23. Well, what is less often discussed is that the opposite is then also true – mind wandering, constant distraction, and habitual thinking and problem solving, driven by the increased demands and pace of modern life, also change the structure of the brain, decreasing its ability to be mindful in the future while increasing its propensity for mind wandering. Therefore, like Pilates, mindfulness meditation is a response to the negative effects of modern life, and a tool for returning to a more natural state of awareness in which we experience less mind wandering.
While doing some reading to prepare for this post, I came across something that I thought was quite interesting – did you know that the Reformer was originally called the “Universal Reformer”? The premise being that it was capable of “universally reforming the body”24? I like this idea of a universal reform – reform meaning “to improve by change of form or removal of faults”25, and universal meaning “occurring everywhere”26. So, to universally reform means to remove all faults, and therefore make improvements, in every area that this is necessary. I see the combination of Pilates and mindfulness meditation as being a Universal Reforming System, as in combination they return both the body and the mind to their natural, original, state.
Thanks for reading 🙂
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- Hefner, P., Pedersen, A. M., & Baretto, S. (2015). Our bodies are selves. The Lutterworth Press.
- Clatici, V. G., Voicu, C., Voaides, C., Roseanu, A., Icriverzi, M., & Jurcoane, S. (2018). Diseases of Civilization–Cancer, Diabetes, Obesity and Acne–the Implication of Milk, IGF-1 and mTORC1. Maedica, 13(4), 273.
- Dubos, R. (1969). The diseases of civilization. The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly, 47(3), 327-339.
- Kopp, W. (2019). How Western Diet And Lifestyle Drive The Pandemic Of Obesity And Civilization Diseases. Diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity: targets and therapy, 12, 2221.
- Grant, W. B., & Riise, T. (2016). Multiple sclerosis: A lifestyle disease?.
- Halle, M., & Haykowsky, M. (2018). Atrial fibrillation: A preventable lifestyle disease!. European journal of preventative cardiology.
- Sacco, P. L. (2017). Obesity as self-regulation failure: A” disease of affluence” that selectively hits the less affluent?. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 40.
- Marmot, M. G., & Mustard, J. F. (2017). Coronary heart disease from a population perspective. In Why are some people healthy and others not? (pp. 189-214). Routledge.
- Cardinal, B. J. (2016). Toward a greater understanding of the syndemic nature of hypokinetic diseases. Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness, 14(2), 54-59.
- Kraus, H., Raab, W. (1961). Hypokinetic disease—diseases caused by lack of exercise. Charles. C Thomas, Springfield, 111.
- Trowell, H. C., & Burkitt, D. P. (Eds.). (1981). Western diseases, their emergence and prevention. Harvard University Press.
- Temple, N. J., & Burkitt, D. P. (Eds.). (2012). Western diseases: their dietary prevention and reversibility. Springer Science & Business Media.
- Forrester, T., Cooper, R. S., & Weatherall, D. (1998). Emergence of Western diseases in the tropical world: the experience with chronic cardiovascular diseases. British medical bulletin, 54(2), 463-473.
- Sandow, E., & Doyle, A. C. (2010). Life is Movement: The Physical Reconstruction and Regeneration of the People (a Diseaseless world). Kessinger Publishing.
- Fink, G. (2016). Stress: concepts, definition and history. Change.
- Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers: The acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping-now revised and updated. Holt paperbacks.
- Pilates, J. H., & Miller, W. J. (1945). Return to life through contrology. Ravenio Books.
- Pilates, J. H., & Robbins, J. (1998). Your Health: a corrective system of exercising that revolutionizes the entire field of physical education. Presentation Dynamics.
- Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932.
- Rahl, H. A., Lindsay, E. K., Pacilio, L. E., Brown, K. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2017). Brief mindfulness meditation training reduces mind wandering: the critical role of acceptance. Emotion, 17(2), 224.
- Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., … & Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic medicine, 65(4), 564-570.
- Brewer, J. A., Worhunsky, P. D., Gray, J. R., Tang, Y. Y., Weber, J., & Kober, H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(50), 20254-20259.