I recently was fortunate enough to chaperone a group of my high school’s Athletic Training students to the Body Worlds: Pulse, exhibit in Los Angeles, CA. Body Worlds is a travelling exhibit that many of you may have seen around the world. It was something that I have wanted to see for some time, and now that I have, I realize that it hit me on deeper levels than I could have anticipated.
In their own words, their mission is: “The primary goal of the exhibition creators, Dr Angelina Whalley and Dr Gunther von Hagens, is preventive healthcare. Their Body Worlds exhibitions were conceived to educate the public about the inner workings of the human body and to show the effects of healthy and unhealthy lifestyles. Targeted mainly at a lay audience, the exhibitions are aimed to inspire visitors to become aware of the fragility of their bodies and to recognize the anatomical individual beauty inside each of us. The exhibition intends to: strengthen one’s sense of health, show the potential and limits of the body, and raise the question of the meaning of life.”
The “Pulse” exhibit focuses on the human body’s potential and vulnerabilities, and the many challenges the human body faces as it navigates the 21st century.
I couldn’t agree more with their purpose. I didn’t really know what to expect ahead of time, other than I knew that I would see real preserved human bodies on display. The reality was that it was fascinating, and even better than I thought.
The moral story told along the way was riveting, as you are continually reminded that these not just were, but are real people as you learn about all of the different systems of the human body. You don’t learn specifics, to protect their privacy, but you are told enough to know that they each have their own individual story.
You see healthy organs, as well as damaged ones. There is the lung stained black from a lifetime of smoking, the liver pickled from alcohol abuse, the stomach with an ulcer from untreated stress. There was the enlarged muscular heart from an athlete, the broad back musculature from a swimmer, the flexibility of a dancer.
You see the miracles of modern medicine, through replacement knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, and all assortments of other metal devices.
And you see organs damaged by our modern diets. Hearts, arteries, kidneys, livers, brains and more, all damaged by food we willingly stuff our faces with.
As fitness practitioner’s we try to educate others on ways to eat healthy, ways to make healthy lifestyle choices, and ways to be physically active in order to live the best quality of life that we possibly can. But it can be difficult to convince someone to do something that changes parts of their body that they cannot see. I can’t see my lungs, but I know that they are damaged from a lifetime of living in a region with some of the worst air quality in the country. I know that I should move elsewhere in order to extend my life, but imagining what my lungs might look like is sometimes more challenging than walking away from a good job that provides for my family and puts a nice roof over our heads. I try to be smart about my own activities, and don’t workout outside when the air is particularly bad, but my internal organs aren’t always the first thing that comes to mind when making life choices.
But the truth is that we only have one body, and it is a miraculous machine, made aware by the conscious abilities of our brain. It almost would be easier if we weren’t so self-aware, and all we had to do was survive, like other animals. We would eat, sleep, and reproduce. We wouldn’t worry about how big our den was, or if we brought in more berries than the human next door. It seems that the more decisions we are capable of making, the more complicated we allow ourselves to make our lives.
The bible says that the body is a temple, and while I am not a very religious individual, I am spiritual, and I feel the most at peace when I am performing physical acts. When I can feel the muscles burn and contract, I can almost visualize the transfer of oxygen from my lungs, to my bloodstream, into the cells, and back through the heart.
Seeing every organ, and understanding how it interacts with everything around it, shows us that we really aren’t much different from a vehicle with an engine. There isn’t an inch of wasted space inside of us, and it is amazing that it all fits together the way it does. I’m a visual learner, and so while I didn’t learn anything new about anatomy or biology that day, it definitely gave me a whole new perspective on the simplicity of our complexities.
I think that at times, people try to overcomplicate things like diet, exercise, supplements, and overall health. It is actually pretty easy to make a statement about the human body that we may not know to be true, because without getting inside ourselves, it can be challenging to prove right or wrong. Just look at the diet trends of the last 50 years as evidence. We’ve watched the pendulum swing from low-fat to low-carb, and demonized all sorts of micro-nutrients along the way. But the reality is, unless a person has an actual diagnosed disease, our best option is to eat real food, from all sources. We don’t have to eat like a caveman to counteract machine processed foods. Humans have been grinding grain with rocks, fermenting crushed grapes, cooking meat over fires, and churning dairy for centuries. It wasn’t until chemical preservatives and food substitutes started replacing real food that we really started seeing problems.
So, the next time you ponder a decision between meal choices, if you have time to work-out or be active, if the environment around you is actually beneficial or harmful, or if that celebratory cigar is worth it, remember: you only have one body, and it is a beautiful machine.
Tim Peterson, Chief FitRanX® Instructor