James May on: health regimes

Posted by James May at 11:10 am on Tuesday July 31, 2012

The human body, I'm told, can occupy one of two states: readiness for the ‘fight or flight' confrontation, and self-healing. And that, according to a homeopath I've been talking to, is that. You're either ready for a scrap, or resting.

We are exactly like the animals, even now, because evolution takes millions and millions of years, so a few thousand of making tools, farming, building pyramids, working out how to make beer and developing society hasn't really made any difference.

This two-state existence could be readily observed in my long-departed cat, God rest his whiskers. He'd either be skulking around, looking out for predators and keeping an eye on escape routes, or boiling his head against a radiator and stealing my gas.

Trouble is, most of us now work in offices and shops, free from the terror of the woolly mammoth and the sabre-toothed tiger. Yet we haven't suppressed our instinctive readiness to deal with them, which is by running away. So we live in a state of almost constant tension, incapable of resting properly and encouraging the body to mend itself.

Meanwhile, the vagus nerve runs from the brain down the spine and is the main conduit of all the information fed to and from the nervous system. So backache is a real issue, and not just because it might reduce you to buying a suitcase with wheels on it. Bad back can mean bad everything, including digestion, apparently.

All of this makes complete sense when you talk to a proper practitioner with an empirical approach. It's just a pity it's so readily hijacked by fluffy-brained new-age chantists. If you're not careful you can end up with a CD of whale noises and a pair of expensive reflexology sandals, the effect of which can be easily simulated by putting some gravel in your normal shoes.

Let's consider neurogenic tremors, or shaking like a leaf to you and me. This is a natural response after a big fright, such as Jeremy Clarkson's face, and is the body's way of discharging unwanted tension from the preparation for fight or flight. Shaking is caused by the rapid contraction and relaxation of the muscles, which uses up adrenalin and returns the body to R 'n' R*.

So you can do shaking exercises to encourage inner calm, but they do make you look as though you've made a terrible mistake with the wiring. So I've come up with a better idea. Motorcycling.

As the sort of person who reads this magazine, you will be aware that some car engines impart pleasant sensations at certain points in their rev ranges: there's a nice thrum from a 911 when it's under load at low engine speeds; the old Alfa Romeo V6 delivered a lovely tingle to the coccyx as it went through its mid-range. But on a motorcycle, it's all much more apparent.

On a motorcycle, you are a significant contributor to the mass of the whole set-up, and your body acts as a vibration damper. The engine is right underneath you or between your knees. Motorcycles are rigid. You absorb the vibes, so they must change you.

My BMW, for example, has a longitudinal flat-twin engine, so the pulses it produces go from side to side. Great for easing stiffness in the lumbar region. The Moto Guzzi is also a longitudinal twin, but it's a Vee, so there is a vertical component to the vibrations as well. That must make a difference. Maybe it improves pelvic articulation.

At the other extreme is an old-fashioned low-revving British single, where the piston is thumping straight up and down beneath you. I imagine it rattles your vertebrae into place rather well. All this is worthy of proper study by someone.

The variables are enough to make the science quite complex: number of cylinders, their arrangement, the size of the pistons, the crank angles and the typical operating speeds. A buzzy Triumph in-line triple is very different from a 90-degree V-twin Ducati, so it must have a different curative effect. It definitely has one of some sort, of that I'm certain.

And this is only the beginning of motorcycling to health. We should also consider the forced induction of fresh air on a fast run, or the way a sportsbike forces you into a yogic stretch. Motorcycling would appear to be, as the poet Langland said, a sovereign salve for soul and for body.

Strange, this. Motorcycles have been called many things, few of them positive: dangerous, exhilarating, subversive, threatening. But now we can add a new word to the lexicon of their discussion. Healing.

TAGS// james may

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