The human body is an incredible machine, capable of both monumental feats of strength and delicate maneuvers of finesse. However, it needs fuel and regular maintenance to function at its highest capacity.
A high level of physical fitness can make all the difference from outrunning an assailant, increasing clarity of mind while under duress, and general survival in rough terrain. As a biology pre-med student, and as an anatomy and physiology tutor, I’ve had to learn a degree of familiarity with the processes of digestion and cellular respiration (the chemical process of how the body derives energy from food matter) and how they apply to the body’s overall level of fitness. As a student, I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned about how diet and exercise impact overall health.
A friend of my family’s once had some trouble in his neighborhood. It was during the holiday season, and some foolish youths were pilfering some of the seasonal ornaments from lawns throughout the neighborhood. With this in mind, our friend had his eye out for the mischief makers. Early one morning, while readying for work, he spied one of the teens snagging a pair of Christmas decorations from his lawn. Shoes already on, he dashed out the door and began pursuit. The young thief started to sprint, still clutching the ornaments.
He was faster than our friend, not surprising considering that he’s nearly twenty years younger. After a quarter of a mile, though, the kid is still being chased, trying to make away with the stolen property. Our friend, barely breaking a sweat, called out, “You’re never going to outrun me. Just give me my stuff back.” A quarter of a mile stretched into three quarters of a mile. Now tiring, the delinquent started to zig zag through the neighborhood streets, still trying to lose his pursuer.
By now, he had caught up. While maintaining his pace, he cooly informed the teen, “I run marathons. I can keep this up all day.” At hearing this, the punk finally dropped his loot and made one last ditch effort to evade being caught. The marathoner collected his things and headed home as the kid scrambled away, embarrassed and winded.
Our friend kept himself at a high level of physical fitness, eating right and exercising regularly. It allowed him outmatch a younger “runner,” and reclaim his stolen belongings. Having a high level of physical fitness, however, has a much greater application than chasing after local lawn-ornament-stealing hoodlums; it could even save your life.
Guns, ammo, knives, first aid, all of these may have representations in your loadout. Having the right gear, and the knowledge of knowing how and when to use it when the need arises comprise a large part of protecting yourself. But, one of the most integral and basic means of self-preservation is your body itself.
There are two components to maintaining a healthy diet: nutrition and hydration. For this segment of the series, I’m focusing just on how nutrition impacts the body.
If you have a high performance vehicle, to optimize its efficiency, you fill it with premium fuel. This concept also applies to the human engine, as well. On a molecular level, what your body needs to consume can be simplified into four categories:
- Carbohydrates (most foods contain carbs, but starchy foods, like breads, are especially laden with them)
- Lipids (fats and oils, like bacon fat or fish oil)
- Proteins (found in eggs and meat)
- Vitamins and Minerals (like the vitamin D in milk, or vitamin C in orange juice)
On a basic level, carbs are bundles of easy-to-use energy. On the macroscopic level, you need food to fuel your body. But at a microscopic level, what happens in order for your body to utilize the energy food has to offer is a little more complicated. A number of chemical interactions break down food into ATP (adenosine triphosphate) in a process called cellular respiration. ATP is the universal “fuel” molecule cells need for energy-consuming operations. Carbs (long chains of sugars) and sugars are the foods most quickly broken down into ATP, so they’re the body’s go-to source of short-term energy. The nitty gritty of this means that if you don’t get any carbs into your system, you don’t have the fuel for operation. That translates to hunger, fatigue, confusion, and lethargy – not exactly the best frame of mind for combat readiness.
On the other side of the spectrum are lipids (fats and oils). Some lipids, like omega 3 fatty acids, help in brain function. But, fat, specifically, is a gold mine of potential energy, stored in a wealth of chemical bonds. However, for the body to tap into that fuel source, it must break down the adipose (fat) material into glucose (the body’s key simple sugar). “Unpacking” all of the potential energy locked up in fat tissue, though, takes more time because of the complexity of the molecules. This makes fat good for storage of energy the body doesn’t immediately need. Your body draws from long term energy sources like fats during times of decreased nutrient intake. Fats are the main reason why you can function for days without eating.
Proteins can be used as an “emergency” fuel source, but their regular functions include, transporting materials, catalyzing reactions, and small protein units (amino acids) are combined as structures in building and repairing tissues – like your muscles. Their importance as “building block” units are what make high-protein intake an important part of body builder’s diets. Ideally, proteins are used in the body to build up muscle and increase strength. As you increase demand on your muscles, your body responds by increasing its demands for proteins in order to build up those muscles. So, to continue strength development, and to improve healing of injured tissues, protein becomes an especially important component of a healthy diet.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals do not aid in fueling the body’s processes, but they help with its overall functionality. For example, vitamin C plays a role in strengthening the immune system, vitamin D aids in the synthesis of calcium (a large part of bone structure), and iron is an important component of red blood cells. Neglecting vitamin intake can decrease your immunity as well as bone strength. Without enough iron in your diet, you can become anemic. This would make you feel faint and weakened even if you’re getting enough energy from the carbs in your diet.
Each component of nutrition serves a significant role in allowing your body to function optimally. Carbs provide the body with easily accessible energy. Proteins perform several important bodily functions, from providing structure for tissue building, to cellular communication. Many vitamins and minerals cannot be synthesized (or are not synthesized in significant amount) within the body, but are integral to body function. While each element of nutrition aids the body in specific ways, overall, proper nourishment provides the body the fuel it needs, and increases overall health. Conversely, neglecting any of these parts of nutrition can have significant consequences. Being hungry is only the start. Diseases like scurvy (caused by a deficiency in vitamin C), rickets (caused by a deficiency in vitamin D) are some of the possibilities. But, simple dietary shock (from not eating enough) can cause confusion, fatigue, and dizziness. Long-term malnutrition, however, can cause muscle degradation, permanent weakening of bone, and diminished organ function. But, if you balance your intake of carbs, proteins, vitamins, and minerals every day, your body will have access to the nutrients it needs to function, and will process what is consumed efficiently. Eat right, and you’ll have the energy to meet the day’s demands, from chasing down neighborhood punks, to increasing your ability to survive on the battlefield.
Destinee is also a vlogger. She publishes videos on weapons, gear, and fitness on her YouTube channel every Tuesday and Thursday.
*Photo courtesy of AP Images