Take a box filled with puzzle pieces, shake it up for a while, and then empty the pieces on to a table. What are the chances that all that shaking happened to connect all the pieces, and out pops the puzzle, fully completed?
You intuitively know this seems so unlikely as to be impossible. The reason is that there’s a near-infinite number of ways the puzzle can not be completed, and only one where it can. You could spend a million years shaking and emptying that box and still not encounter the one-in-near-infinity chance of a complete puzzle popping out.
This game of impossible odds is happening everywhere, all the time, from the atomic level all the way to universes dispersing through spacetime. Without having outside energy pumped in, (such as painstakingly putting a puzzle together) the tendency of stuff is to tumble out into random disorder. We call this quality of the universe entropy, and it’s codified in the second law of thermodynamics — "in a closed system, disorder will always increase."
The most relatable, human example of entropy is the tidiness of your living space. During a busy week, you’ve got a lot of things to do and start making entropic decisions. Instead of hanging up your jacket you toss it on the back of your chair. Instead of washing the dishes after dinner you leave them in the sink. Instead of folding the laundry you leave it in a pile on the bed. As these choices (non-choices really) add up, the house starts to become really messy. It’s all the same stuff you always had, it’s just fallen into a lower, less organized energy state.
Finally, when you have some time, you say enough is enough, and commit a few solid hours to cleaning up. You expend energy to organize, wash, and fold, and through that energy return the items to their higher-energy, more-ordered state.
But entropy is a law of nature, and without continuing to have tidy-up sessions, the house will soon fall into disorder again. This is the bummer about entropy. Like gravity, it never, ever lets the pressure off. It’s always there, steadily pushing things into lower energy states, 24 hours a day. Without some work entering the other side of the equation, entropy will always win.
Now, extend this same thinking of your house’s tidiness to your body. You're a collection of mostly oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen, with a sprinkle of more exotic elements like phosphorus and sulfur. Left to their own devices, these atoms have no interest in glomming together to make you — they’d much rather fall into lower energy states and drift out into the environment.
But fortunately for you, and all life on Earth, we’re not in a closed system. There’s a gigantic sphere of plasma just 8 light-minutes away, constantly bathing us in energy. The sun provides the power that pushes atoms into higher and more complex structures. Evolution takes the ball from there, and here we sit, 3.7 billion years later, in mind-blowingly complex bodies that seamlessly perform thousands of survival functions per minute without ever missing a beat.
In terms of entropy, you lead a very privileged life. Imagine if you had to spend a few hours every morning extracting nutrients from food with a pair of tweezers, or putting your limbs back together after they fell apart overnight. Your physiology and autonomic nervous system take care of all of that for you without complaint.
In our messy-house analogy, this is the equivalent of the support beams, sheet-rock, plumbing, and electricity all being relatively stable. You don’t have to wake up each morning and glue your kitchen counter back together — physics takes care of that for you. That only leaves the surface level stuff, the jackets and dishes to worry about.
In your body, the jackets and dishes are equivalent to your body-composition and fitness level. These are the things you have direct control over through the choices you make in your day to day life.
Take a look at these two cross sections of human tissue.
The image on the left is adipose tissue. Those balls are fat cells, each one containing an oil droplet (hence the yellow color). When you pile up a lot of these cells they become a blob of fatty tissue that hangs around on your body. Aside from being uncomfortable and tiring to carry, excess adipose tissue messes with your hormone levels and creates strain across all of your physical systems.
The tissue on the right is skeletal muscle tissue. You can see that it’s in a much more ordered state. Muscle cells line up neatly into striations, which are in turn laid out in long fibers, which are then lined up into bundles called fascicles (the blue ovals are nuclei of the long muscle cells). All this structure allows the muscle to do useful work, pulling and pushing on things to move your body around and manipulate its environment.
In this sense, a body that’s at a healthy, low body fat, with a good amount of muscle mass, is in a more ordered state than a body with excess body fat and subpar muscle mass. This is useful because a body working at a higher degree of internal order can do things more efficiently, with systems working together instead of at cross-purposes. Just as a tidy home is easier to live in, and gets in your way less, a well-ordered body lets you get on with life with less distraction and frustration.
This is a pretty different way to think about your health and fitness, isn't it? It's a useful mindset too! Why?
The benefit of thinking in terms of entropy is that it defuses the hot emotions of guilt, shame, and self-reproach that comes with trying to get in shape.
When your house is a mess, do you get mad at the building? Do you sit around and glare at the unfolded clothes and dirty dishes? That seems like a strange way to spend your time. When your home is in a state of disorder, you know that underneath all the stuff is a good place to live, and that all it takes is some time and energy to get back to that place.
Extend the same courtesy to the body in which you live every day of your life. An unfit body is still a very good body — it’s just entered a period of increased entropy at the moment. It’s not so hard to add in some new, outside energy, in the forms of exercise and sticking to a healthy diet, and ratchet things back up to a better place. Less clumps of chaotic fat cells, and more lines of streamlined muscle. Less muddled, guilty thoughts, more focus and confidence. Less fatigue, more vitality!
Thinking in terms of fitness as an entropy-problem (not a personal failing) helps get you in the right mindset in all sorts of ways:
You get used to the idea that you’ll never be “done”.
Everyone who’s out of shape imagines that if they just got their act together, lost a bunch of fat and put on some good muscle, they’d be standing in front of the mirror saying “Look at me! I did it!” In reality that never happens. Even the fittest people look in the mirror and feel like there’s more to do. Everyone feels the effects of getting a bit too loose with diet and exercise, with the body soon dropping into more disorder in just a few weeks. No one ever says, “I’m done.”
This feels demotivating and unfair, until you remember that all life, indeed, all structures in the universe are in a state of decay. You’ll never be “done”. There will always be the need for maintenance and additional efforts. So you might as well get onboard with the idea of fitness as a constant background effort that comes with the territory of being a living being, just like cleaning is part of the deal of having a place to live. Once you swallow this bitter pill you’ll find discipline comes much more easily.
You learn to find an equilibrium with entropy that you can live with.
If someone tidies up their house, we see it as a sign of good mental health. But if someone is constantly over-cleaning, scrubbing every surface, swabbing every crevice with a Q-tip, bleaching and scouring for hours a day, you would worry about their soundness of mind. We recognize that there are diminishing returns in the fight against entropy. At a certain point, the house is clean enough to live happily in, and it’s time to turn your attention to other parts of life.
When fitness is working well, you should feel exactly the same way about your body. You may look in the mirror and say “Yes, that area could be tighter, this area could have more muscle, but all in all, I’m ok with where I am.” The nature of entropy is that there will always be more work to work on, and more maintenance to maintain. Being comfortable living with entropy is an important part of sustainable wellness.
Given the fact of entropy, you can work on staying within striking distance of being in peak condition.
Imagine a VIP has decided to have dinner at your house. Would you just pick up the dirty clothes and call it good? Likely, you’d put in a little extra effort such as dusting the bookshelves, or vacuuming under the sofa. If your house is already in good order, doing this bit of extra polish isn’t a big deal.
The same is true for your body. If you’re doing a reasonably good job of maintaining healthy equilibrium with entropy, then you know whenever you feel like it, you can put in some extra effort and go from good shape to great shape. Maybe you want to feel confident at the pool over summer, or have to give a presentation where you want to look your best, or maybe you’re just in the mood to be super fit — whatever the reason, with just a few weeks of good nutrition and exercise you can raise your game.
Get comfortable with the fact that, given ever-present entropy, it’s not possible to always be at peak fitness. But it’s definitely possible to maintain enough so that you’re within striking distance of peak condition with a few hard weeks of entropy-busting discipline.
Finally, awareness of entropy helps you age gracefully, handle setbacks, and appreciate the moment.
Every single thing you see right now is in the process of decaying into lower energy states. Some things will last longer, some will dissipate quickly, but even the planet you stand upon will one day be a nebula of space dust in a cold and empty void. No one wants to think about the process of their body gradually losing molecular fidelity and returning to its base elements, but the idea is actually quite beautiful. For this brief moment in time, these kilograms of oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen have stacked up to become you — the only you in this entire universe! And you not only get to be “you”, you get the sapience to appreciate how rare and fleeting you really are.
Keeping the existence of entropy in mind helps you appreciate how wonderful it is to be alive. Yes, things are falling apart, including you, but like a melody in the night air, the scent of fresh bread wafting by, or the fleeting colors of a sunset, the fact that you are temporary makes it all the sweeter.
If you have this perspective, you can deal with setbacks, aging, and loss with grace and dignity. Raging against entropy is a hard way to spend your days!
Entropy is going to get us all, but putting up a cheerful fight against it is, in many ways, the meaning of life. To struggle, succeed, slip, and try again (with a smile on our faces) is what makes us human. Have a good struggle this week, make some dents in entropy, and savor each day of living in the highest energy state you can!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder