I have discussed the concept of punctuated growth in previous posts, but in this article I want to spend some time examining the concepts of stasis and change. The specific context within which I have been considering these two concept is my ongoing intent to improve my physique, but these concepts have much broader applications. Indeed, these twin “forces” are woven into the very fabric of the universe, our biology, and even our psychology, so it behooves us to understand the workings of these forces and how they impact our lives.
The theme of this blog is Personal and Spiritual Growth, and the concept of growth obviously implies change – moving from one state to another, with an implied directionality of increase or towards integration/maturation. The opposite of growth is decay, which also implies change, but in the case of decay the implied directionality is one of decrease or disintegration. But in addition to growth and decay there is a third state – that of stasis: the absence of change, the maintenance of the existing state without growth or decay.
I should note that stasis does not imply an absence of activity. Indeed, the maintenance of a pre-existing state typically requires a considerable level of activity in order to prevent the state from decaying – this the case for physical and mechanical systems, biological systems, and even psychological and emotional systems. The human body is a marvelous example of this property of homeostasis, as it has a number of systems that regulate various parameters such as body temperature, blood pH and glucose levels, hydration and blood pressure within a narrow range in order to preserve optimum functioning.
Perhaps the best know example of homeostasis the regulation of a constant body temperature, in which the hypothalamus acts as a biological thermostat that monitors the internal body temperature within vary narrow tolerances. If the body temperature is too high, a number of physiological responses ensue – the most notable being the stimulation of sweat glands to reduce body temperature through evaporative cooling. Conversely, if the body temperature is too low, various muscle groups will be stimulated to shiver, thereby increasing body temperature. Both of these corrective actions are involuntary requiring no conscious intervention whatsoever.
Understanding homeostatic processes related to metabolism rate are very important to understand when you are consciously trying to change your physique, as in my case. For example, when the human body is deprived of food the brain will reset the metabolic set point to a lower than normal value. This is a simple self-preservation mechanism that is built into our biological functioning in order to improve our chances for survival during periods when is not enough fuel (i.e., food) to maintain our normal metabolic rate. This resetting of the metabolic level to a lower value allows the body to continue to function, at a slower rate, even though the body is starving. This explains why calorie deprivation or prolonged fasting results in an initial period of rapid weight loss, but is then followed by a period of much slower weight loss as the body resets the metabolic set point in an attempt to preserve healthy functioning despite the reduction in metabolic fuel.
Once you gain some knowledge of the various homeostatic physiological systems you can use these to your advantage in your efforts to improve your physique. For example, I have a very sedentary job (office-based) that has the added benefit that it often involves client entertainment (lots of “free” food and drinks), so it is very important to me to have an effective exercise routine for weight maintenance. My method of choice is high intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves short intervals of very intense activity alternating with short recovery intervals. The purpose of these intervals is to temporarily reset the body’s metabolic set point a higher than normal level.
Before I describe how HIIT work, please note that I am not a doctor or a personal trainer or any other sort of health professional for that matter, so you will want to consult with a professional – as I did – to help design a personalized HIIT program. Also note that I am 55 years old; the target heart rates for both the high intensity intervals and the recovery periods are related to both age and physical condition so your target values almost certainly will vary!
With that caveat out of the way, here is my current HIIT program. I typically begin with a 5 minute warm up period of moderate activity (brisk walking or moderate intensity elliptical, for example), where I get my heart rate elevated to around 100 beats per minute (bpm) just to get the blood circulating to my major muscle groups and then follow this with anywhere from 5 to 10 short duration interval sessions. One interval looks something like this:
- 30 to 60 seconds of very intense activity – typically around 90 to 95% of my maximum effort – that gets my heart rate into the 155-170 bpm range. The activity can be sprinting, stair stepping, high resistance elliptical sprints, or whatever gets your heart rate into a range that is 90%+ of your maximum.
- 30 to 90 seconds recovery period, typically at the same pace / effort level of my initial warm up period. The key here is that during the recovery period you need to reduce your effort level sufficiently so that your heart rate decreases significantly – in my case, my target is to get my heart rate down to around 125 – 130 bpm during the recovery phase. This is relatively easy to achieve during the first few interval sets, but becomes increasing difficult with later sets, so you may need longer recovery periods for those sets. Do not be tempted into starting another high intensity round until you heart rate has dropped into its target level
Once I have completed my intervals, I try to do about 20 to 30 minutes of moderate to low level activity (keeping my heart rate in the 125 – 135 bpm range), and then complete my session with a 5 minute progressive cool down.
This type of workout session has a number of benefits, the most obvious being that it doesn’t take a lot of time (40 to 60 minutes for a great cardio workout). The real beauty of this training method, however, is that it really leverages the amazing capabilities of the human body by working with them to temporarily reset your metabolism set point to a higher than normal level. As my personal trainer explained it to me, each high intensity interval essentially places your physiology in “fight or flight” mode – emergency battle stations – with all body functions operating at much higher than normal levels. The recovery intervals, on the other hand, signal the body that “the coast is clear”, so it can relax, chill out, get back to the status quo. But as soon as the body thinks the coast is clear – bam! Another emergency! Once again it’s “fight or flight” mode and all of your physiological systems go into overdrive. By repeating this cycle 5 to 10 times, your body starts to freak out and quite reasonably does not place as much credence in “the coast is clear” signals from the recovery period, and voila: your metabolism is temporarily set at a higher than normal level – sort of a heightened state of alert. Within a matter of hours, of course, the body does readjust back down to its normal metabolic set point, but in the intervening time you are burning more calories than normal even when you are sedentary or resting!
Understanding metabolic homeostasis is also important if you intend to do any form of calorie restriction or fasting in an effort to metabolize fat stores, and thereby reduce your body fat. As I noted previously, the body responds to prolonged periods of reduced food intake by resetting the metabolic set point to a much lower than normal level in order to conserve resources and thereby prolong life. However, it does take some time for the body to respond to reduced caloric intake, so brief periods of caloric restriction within a background of normal food intake can be an effective means of consuming fat stores without impacting your metabolic set point. How long it takes for the body to go into “starvation mode” and reset to a lower than normal metabolic level undoubtedly varies from person to person, but my experience is that any fast lasting more that 24 to 36 hours results in a noticeable reduction in my energy level, which I take as indicative that my metabolism is slowing down. For this reason, if I am restricting caloric intake for the purposes of metabolizing stored fat, I limit the restriction period to no more than 24 hours. Again, your experience will probably be different in terms of the specific duration, but the same principle should apply.
Emotional Homeostasis and the Dynamics of Pleasure
As interesting and relevant as physiological homeostasis is to improving your physique and level of fitness, to my mind emotional homeostasis is even more fascinating and vital to understand, not only for physical fitness and health but also for your overall sense of satisfaction and fulfillment – which impact virtually every aspect of your life. And just as I prefaced my discussion of physiological homeostasis with a disclaimer than I am not a health professional, I must also affirm that I am not a professional psychologist or psychiatrist either! By this point you are probably wondering whether there is anything that I am a professional at. Well, there is – I am a professional geophysicist – but unfortunately geophysics does not have a lot of relevance to the topic at hand!
Back to emotional homeostasis: not surprisingly, the homeostatic characteristics of our emotional life have their roots in our physiology, which powerfully influences our emotional life. One of the key concepts in physiological psychology is the concept of arousal, which can loosely be thought of as your nervous system’s overall level of activity. Arousal can be measured in terms of the frequency, amplitude, and synchrony of electroencephalograph (EEG) waves in combination with indicies related to the sympathetic nervous system, such as muscle tension, galvanic conductance of the skin, blood pressure, heart rate, and pupil dilation. More importantly, this level of nervous system activity can be felt – a very low arousal level corresponds to lethargy and sleepiness (and if low enough, unconsciousness) and a very high arousal level corresponds to extreme vigilance and agitation, with intermediate levels of arousal corresponding to the wide range of “energy levels” we are capable of feeling.
The graph at the beginning of this post shows a plot of arousal level over time that I want to use to illustrate an important point concerning how arousal relates to both our emotional life and our ability to both make and enjoy lasting change. To begin with, it is probably no surprise that for any given set of circumstances there is a more or less “optimum” arousal level that will allow us to effectively respond to those circumstances. For example, if the circumstances are physically threatening a higher level of arousal is much more effective that a low arousal level, particularly when the threat demands rapid responses to the circumstances. There is a caveat, however: too high an arousal level, regardless of the level of threat, can actually degrade our performance – our ability to respond to the circumstances – as our nervous system essentially becomes overwhelmed and immobilized (as in the paralysis of terror that can occur during extreme physical threats).
Given what we know about a number of our other physiological systems, it is not at all surprising that we have a built-in tendency to seek out an optimum arousal level – that is a level of nervous system activation that allows us to perform effectively in responding to our circumstances. That optimum level of arousal is what corresponds to the feeling of comfort, and the range of arousal within which that level can vary without significantly degrading our performance is literally our “comfort zone.”
So what happens when we reach this optimum level of nervous system activity, of comfort? For a relatively brief period of time, our emotional homeostatic systems behave similarly to other physiological systems in trying to preserve the status quo. Surprisingly, however, this tendency to preserve stasis is short lived, and the more prolonged the period of optimum comfort the greater the tendency to move the arousal level away from its optimum level. How are we to understand this?
It turns out that our brains (and bodies) are quite a bit more complex than a simple thermostat. Neurophysiologists mapping brain functions using electrical stimulation discovered localized areas of the brain related to pain and pleasure. In fact they discovered one area of the brain whose stimulation is painful, referred to as the aversion or punishment system, and two distinct areas of the brain whose stimulation is pleasant, referred to as the primary and secondary pleasure or reward systems. The existence of separate areas for pleasure and pain confirms our intuitive knowledge that pleasure is something different from and more than the simple absence of pain or discomfort. It also explains why we can sometimes feel both pleasure and pain at the same time, which would obviously not be the case for a simple continuum of arousal levels referred to in our discussion of comfort.
While the functioning and interaction of these three systems is in itself both fascinating and instructive in understanding why we behave as we do, a complete description of this interaction is way beyond the scope of this post. For our purposes, the most important finding the neurophysiologists made was that the pleasure systems responded not to the absolute level of arousal, but rather to the rate of change of arousal level. In mathematical terms, pleasure is related to the derivative of arousal graph at the beginning of this post, while comfort is simply a function of the magnitude of arousal or activation at any point in time. For those of you that are mathematically challenged I have plotted arrows at various points along the curve that show the derivative or rate of change at various points in time. The pleasure centers are activated only when arousal is increasing from a less than optimal level or when arousal is decreasing from a higher than optimal level. When arousal remains constant (i.e., when the arrows are horizontal) the pleasure centers are not activated. This means that comfort and pleasure cannot be simultaneously optimized – pleasure requires a movement away from the optimum comfort zone, whereas comfort requires a more or less constant level of arousal at the optimum level. High levels of pleasure are uncomfortable and prolonged periods of comfort are not pleasant – they are boring.
How can you use this knowledge to your advantage when you goal is to improve your fitness and physique? While there are undoubtedly a number of strategies that support the goal of improving our fitness and physique, the key to enjoying the process is to work with, rather than against, this dynamic of our emotional systems. Dieting, in the sense of prolonged, sustained calorie deprivation is obviously not one of those strategies. It clearly is not compatible with the dynamics of our comfort and pleasure responses. Since sustained calorie deprivation leads to an overall lowering of our arousal level (although this can be offset through external stimulation) it is almost always uncomfortable, except when we add external stimulation (such as exercise). Such external stimulation can add pleasure to our lives, but so long as the calorie deprivation is in place there is no opportunity to rest in the comfort zone.
A far better strategy, if one of your goals is to enjoy life during the process of transforming your physique, is one that ensures that we achieve both comfort and pleasure some sort of systematic, sequenced way. One way to that is to cycle through periods of comfort and pleasure throughout the day and throughout the week. For example, if I decide that I am going to fast for day during the week I also program in a “feast” day, where I can pretty much eat whatever I want, regardless of whether it is ideal for weight maintenance (I have a particular weakness for pasta, for example). On fast days, where I know my arousal levels will be low (caloric restriction lowers your arousal level), I make sure that I include at least one high intensity workout session – so that even though that day may be low on the comfort scale it will have periods of pleasure. Conversely, I tend to make feast days rest or “off” days where I do not exercise, but rather give my metabolism and muscles a chance to recover – so the entire day is spent pretty much in the comfort zone.
You can also alternate between comfort and pleasure in a single workout session. In my example above, I begin with a 5 minute warm up (comfort), then move into intervals (intense pain and pleasure), then a steady state fat burn (mild pleasure and comfort), and then a cool down (comfort). I used to do endurance type training, where I would run at pretty much the same, moderate pace for prolonged periods (anywhere from 1 to 4 hours) and I can tell you that from an emotional standpoint that type of training is much less rewarding than interval based training that lets you alternate between comfort and discomfort and pain and pleasure.
It’s also interesting to play with level of intensity and duration during the high intensity intervals, as there is much to learn from our body about what is required for extreme pleasure. For example, during intense exercise you obviously push your body beyond the arousal comfort zone (which is uncomfortable but nonetheless very pleasant), and during the recovery period after the interval you get sort of a double bonus. In addition to the pleasure you feel as your arousal level drops from too high a level towards its optimum, you also experience comfort – a sort of physical release that is easy to recognize but difficult to describe. Perhaps the best I can put it is that in addition to the experience of “whew . . . I did it! (I’m glad that’s over!)” there is also a sort of cozy/yummy feeling of “mmmm . . . this is more like it!” The archetypal activity that illustrates this sequence is the sexual act, which actually demands intense over-stimulation in order to reach climax, which is followed by an extremely pleasant release and recovery period that moves back towards comfort.
Spiritual Stasis and Change
This post has gone on way too long, but I can’t close without at least hinting that these same principles of stasis and change are at work in our spiritual lives as well, and at least from my perspective they seem to bear a striking similarity to the complex emotional landscape we discussed in the previous sections.
When I first got involved within a spiritual community I had a very unusual bias against extreme spiritual growth that was undoubtedly the result of my limited, one dimensional model of spiritual life at the time. Under that model spiritual life was a simple continuum of spiritual achievement and fulfillment, if you will – sort of a linear scale with cruelty, narcissism, and hatred at the bottom and bliss, compassion, and enlightenment at the top. Based on that misconception, I was pretty certain that I wanted to keep my spiritual growth confined within narrow bounds – some growth, but not too much. In particular, I was fairly certain that I did not want to achieve “enlightenment”, which at the time I conceived as a static, perpetual state of mindless union with the Divine. With my limited perspective, that sounded very boring!
As I have persisted along my spiritual path (which has been anything but boring, I can assure you) I have come to realize that my original model of spiritual life was much, much too simplistic. To begin with, our spiritual life is what integrates and illuminates all of the facets of our life, which means that by its very nature it must contain and support the many paradoxes of our physical, emotional, and mental lives. More importantly, I have gradually come to realize that enlightenment, whatever else it may be, is by no means a static condition of eternal bliss and vegging out. Rather it is a very active, living awareness of and commitment to the multifaceted nature of our selves, our universe, and the Divine mystery that contains, impels, and loves all of those facets.