Let me give you two grand statements about the way in which complex biological organisms operate:

  1. Complex biological organisms, like humans, maintain internal balance by relying on the interworking of complex systems of organs.

  2. The health of any system requires that all it’s parts are able to adapt to each others’ needs. When that doesn’t happen, the system cannot be healthy.

Both of these statements successfully capture what they set out to describe. Which one is better? You might, and not without a reason, say that it is of course the first one. After all, it is the only one of the two that has the words “biological”, “internal balance” and “organs”. And indeed, as far as descriptive statements go, it earns full credit for what it set out to accomplish.

But which one (if any) left you with a want to know more? I would hope that is the second one. By not specifically mentioning anything about how complex biological organisms work, but still accurately describing it, it was able to do ­something bigger – to extend itself beyond what it was responding to.

That second statement is what is often referred to as a “Big Idea”, the anchoring point that gives us reason to learn and teach any particular topic. By broadening this anchoring point beyond the limits of the topic that it is coming from, we can increase the chances that what we learn could be used to think about issues and questions that have nothing at all to do with that topic.

Few things are as universal as the importance of balance, and few things require the complex sets of interactions that the maintenance of balance does.

How then could we talk about all the important pieces of how a complex biological system operates, while keeping the scope of our conversation wider than it’s topic? One word: Exercise. All complex system have to actively work to maintain balance, and exercise offers a perfect example of how this maintenance can be challenged. Here is a just a short list of the kind of changes exercise can cause in our bodies:

  • Increased Oxygen Consumption
  • Increased Body Temperature
  • Increased Adrenalin Levels
  • Decreased Blood Glucose Levels

Without intervention, each of of these disruption to what our body considers normal is enough to threaten our health, and cause significant and lasting damage. Yet many of us successfully exercise without any such effects, which necessarily means that other changes, caused by our body’s response, work to restore balance. But how does our body accomplish this? Or indeed, how does any system maintain balance? This will be the question that I will be uncovering together with my students in the following few weeks.

An important things about big ideas is that they can only take us so far. To address the questions that they inspire, we have to go deeper, more focused. The only way to understand how a balance in maintained in any specific system, we must first spend time and effort uncovering how each part of the system works, and then figure out further how they interact with each other. In the case of exercise, the relevant parts are the body’s system, each made of organs that themselves function in complex ways.

The more evidence we acquire about the different parts of a system, the better we can understand how it works, the better decisions we can make decisions about how to keep it healthy, and the less likely we are to believe claims that don’t correspond with our evidence.

But even as we go deep and focused, our motivating big ideas remains in sight, and learning how it applies in one setting empowers to consider how it might apply in other settings. From biology to whatever else we might feel passionate about, everything is ultimately subjected to the same rules of inquiry, and can benefit from the same models of understanding.