Contrary to popular belief, exercise damages your cells.

When you exert yourself physically, your body creates large amounts of “free radicals,” exposing your cells to what scientists call oxidative stress.

And oxidative stress is bad news, brother.

It is responsible for all sorts of health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, dementia, and may accelerate aging.

Indeed, if you’re wondering why antioxidants are all the rage – it’s because antioxidants neutralize free radicals and prevent oxidative stress – which is why people shell out big bucks for obscure “super” fruits like açai berries that have strong antioxidant properties.

They want to prevent the very thing exercise accelerates!

(though FYI blueberries do the same thing for half the cost, but I digress…)

Strange, isn’t it?

I mean, we know exercise is good for us. It’s so obvious we don’t even need to ask a doctor.

Yet all the same… I’m not lying about the above.

Somehow, exercise damages your body… and is also good for you.

All because of a simple, yet unintuitive concept:


Hormesis: The Approach That Just Might Save Your Life

In the classic, cult movie, The Princess Bride, The Dread Pirate Roberts – in pursuit of the soon-to-be Princess, Buttercup – eventually finds himself in a life-or-death battle of the wits with the clever Sicilian boss, Vizzini.

The challenge is straight-forward yet terrifying: two glasses of wine, one of them poisoned by The Dread Pirate Roberts with deadly iocane powder, and the choice of Vizzini over which one they will each drink.

At first, the results seem clear. They drink, and after finishing The Dread Pirate Roberts solemnly tells Vizzini he has “chosen poorly.” 

But The Dread Pirate Roberts didn’t realize that Vizzini had switched the glasses when he wasn’t looking.

All of a sudden, things start looking bad for The Dread Pirate Roberts. Vizzini is laughing and gloating. Roberts is silent. His fate seems sealed.

Then suddenly, mid-laugh, Vizzini drops dead.

Vizzini was wrong.

Yet Vizzini didn’t choose incorrectly – at least not in the conventional sense.

He died because both cups were poisoned. The Dread Pirate Roberts was immune to iocane. And he had exposed himself to it in small doses over the years deliberately in order to do it.

In other words, the Dread Pirate Roberts underwent hormesis.

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – Friedrich Nietzsche / Kelly Clarkson

Hormesis is ubiquitous in life. It is the philosophy not only behind vaccines, but behind nearly all anti-aging protocols. It is exactly why exercise both damages our cells and makes them healthier in the long term.

Physiologically, it is easy to understand hormesis. Exercise, for instance, damages us in the short term with oxidative stress, in return making us more adept at handling said stress in the future. It may “hurt” at first, but in the longterm we become more physically resilient.

(Indeed, in a certain sense, being “in shape” simply means that your body is able to handle oxidative stress better – one of the many reasons exercise mitigates damage from other bad, free-radical creating habits like smoking and why you have more stamina if you’re active.)

Yet hormesis is not simply a physiological reality.

It is relevant in all areas of our life.

A truth that too many of us – myself included – have unfortunately forgotten.

“The Winter Of Our Content” And The Rise Of Psychological Obesity

When people eat too much food consistently and hardly ever exercise, they will gradually put on more and more weight. Should this continue, at a certain point they will have gained so much fat they will be considered medically obese.

Obese people are extremely unhealthy and are susceptible to a multitude of chronic and fatal health problems. Yet as we have discussed, their problem stems not from stress and wanting of things in their environment, but from a lack of deprivation or hardship.

Their issue is they are not undergoing any sort of hormesis like exercising or fasting (a separate topic all together). Quite the opposite in fact: they are literally gorging themselves to death.

Yet we are doing the same thing today psychologically when it comes to our pursuit of positive feelings.

Let’s face it – most of us are addicted to them.

Comfort and pleasure is no longer a luxury; indeed, it is being reframed as a right. And the more we seek of it, the more weak and psychologically obese we become.

Now – before we go too deep down this rabbit hole, I want to make one thing abundantly clear.

I am not anti-feeling good (far from it); I want you to enjoy your life.

Indeed, many things in life are precious. We don’t get them back or find anything else like them.

So, do not misconstrue me as I go on:

I am not suggesting you abandon the people or things you love most simply because you love them.

Humanity aside, even from a hormesis-inspired viewpoint it wouldn’t make sense: hormesis is about moderate, temporary stress to make you stronger – too extreme and it will do long-term damage.

(Remember: The Dread Pirate Roberts didn’t take a large amount of iocane powder at first or he’d have died; he simply gradually accustomed himself to it).

Rather, my suggestion is simple:

Approach your life with the mindset that struggles not only make you stronger, but that actively seeking them out will improve your life.

In other words:

Get out of your comfort zone.

And I don’t mean this simply in the sense of “I’ve always wanted to go skydiving but I’ve been afraid” (though that’s a good thing too), I mean start doing the things that suck.

Push your limits.

Indulge yourself sparingly.

Mentally exert yourself.

Get in the arena.

Champions in sports are in peak physical fitness; champions in life are in peak mental state.

They are resilient and seek out more challenges (and failures) as this only helps them to only become stronger.

They embrace hormesis as a philosophy of life.

Lessons On Psychological Leanness From “The Greatest Generation”

hormesis obesity
Boneless, skinless life advice.

One of the reasons many of us are physically obese today is that we simply do not need to move. Few of us toil in the fields or in factories or hunt; we sit behind computers with access to calorie-dense food that we can free-feed from at will.

As this is not a natural state of being, we need to induce hormesis via exercise in order to remain healthy. This is why, instead of moving naturally in our day-to-day, we (ideally) head to the gym for some time on a treadmill or on the machines after a day otherwise filled with little to no hormetic stress.

Similarly, back in the day life itself was hard. Disease was common and often fatal at a young age. Food was scarce. Dictators threatened freedom, and wars on an incomprehensible scale were fought. Family members died, and people migrated all over the country – indeed, the world – saying goodbye to those they love, often permanently.

Psychological hormesis did not need to be induced because, like physical activity at that time, it was engrained into life. Mental trials were the norm, and if people wanted to survive they had to rise above them.

The Greatest Generation – a cohort now sadly rapidly passing into history – is the last in the West to have known this sort of reality.

Though they raised families after World War Two in prosperity, they suffered enough during the Depression and the conflict to come out with a resilient fortitude that would carry them through the rest of their life.

Their children, the Boomers, however didn’t. They only knew prosperity. And though some may have had their parents’ culture rub off on them, nothing teaches like experience – and that they sorely lacked.

The result has been that our generation, “The Millennials,” having been raised by these softies in even more prosperity is – surprise, surprise – even worse.

Most of us simply can’t handle the real world.

We are psychologically obese and mentally weak.

Words break us down when others faced bullets. We take vacations and expect to be able to indulge in nice restaurants and receive access to the latest technology. We want to gorge on comfort and don’t know how to deny ourselves.

What will happen to us when adversity strikes?

“My hand-stitched wings itch
to take flight
to test the winds of change
that inevitably blow
at the end
of a cycle.”
― B.G. Bowers, Death and Life

We live in a time our ancestors could only imagine. You can get in a plane and fly across the world, access almost any bit of information available instantly, and receive medical treatment inconceivable a century ago.

I am not telling you not to take advantage of this or be grateful.

But as much as possible, put yourself to work. Make it hard for yourself. Toughen yourself up, physically and mentally. “Go without” just because.

Adopt hormesis as your mantra.

No, you don’t have to.

(yet, at least)

But if you do it will change your life.

(particularly your confidence)

Remember: Everybody hates working out at first. It hurts, and it requires discipline and effort you’re not used to expending.

But no one has ever regretted it later.

It is the same with mental challenges in life.

So if your life is just a bit too easy…

Make it harder.

Life operates in cycles, and periods of feast always yield others of famine.

Mental fortitude will give you a leg up now. And you never know when you’ll need that resiliency later.

– Pat