While it’s true that most of us pursue our chosen fitness path because we (rightly) assume that doing so will make us healthier, happier, and (as coach Mark Rippetoe once famously quipped) “harder to kill,” I’ve got news for you:
You can live a very long, healthy, and happy life (and many people have done so, trust me) without ever stepping foot into a gym.
Crazy, huh? Who wudda thought?
Now, in contrast to fitness, most markers of health have “rules:” your temperature should be 98.6, your blood pressure should be 120 over 80, give or take. In other words, no one brags about having set a “new PR” temperature of 105, because when it comes to body temperature, more isn’t better, and less isn’t better either.
In this respect, fitness isn’t like your vital stats — there isn’t a “perfect” level of strength that you should strive to attain, or an ideal amount of mobility, or endurance, or agility, or an optimal level of any fitness characteristic that you should be shooting for.
Instead, when it comes to fitness, it’s up to you to make your own rules.
Toward A Personal Philosophy Of Fitness
This means that you’ll need to develop a personalized approach to fitness. And a great starting point is to recognize that all choices and decisions have both costs and benefits. For starters, it’s not possible to reach your genetic potential for all fitness characteristics simultaneously. Sure, you can reach fairly high levels of most fitness attributes at the same time, but if your goal is to run the fastest marathon you’re genetically capable of, working toward a similarly high standard in squatting strength at the same time isn’t a great idea. And vice versa.
A second reality we’ll need to grapple with is that our resources aren’t unlimited. We only have so much time, energy, money, and meniscus thickness (among other things) to go around. This means that a choice in one direction has implications for choices in other directions. In other words, you’ve gotta pick your battles. You’ve gotta decide what’s important, and be able to justify why it’s important.
In my experience, when it comes to fitness, the choices we make tend to stem from two different (and equally valid) sources: pride and intellect: some of the passions we pursue simply make us feel better about ourselves — they make us feel more accomplished, more worthy. And many of our other habits — eating enough fiber for example, are done for very different reasons — we do them because intellectually, we know that we’re better off for doing so. No one feels pride in the fact that they wear their seatbelt or because they get regular checkups — but we do these things anyway because we know that ultimately, we’ll benefit by doing them.
Now of course, no one operates purely from their rational, intellectual side, nor should they. That being said, it’s a crucial mistake to operate purely from ego. We need to find a balance. The way I like to put it is that we need to reconcile our “needs” with our “wants.” We need to pursue the things that we’re good at and the things we enjoy, because that’s what keeps us in the game. And, at the same time, we need to attend to the more mundane tasks that serve our long-term interests, such as being able to live a long life without spending a large portion of our latter years in pain and/or in poor health.
Maximum Health & Longevity Versus Enjoying The Ride
Another way to conceptualize this philosophy-building process is to imagine a spectrum where on one end, you have maximum health and longevity, and on the other, maximum “fun.” Now “fun” in this context basically refers to the enjoyment you derive from life, and while “fun” isn’t completely at odds with health and longevity, some types of fun may in fact dish out consequences later on down the road. Here are a few examples:
Example #1: You love lifting heavy weights, partly because you’re pretty good at it. Along the way, in your passion to become as strong as you possibly can, you start taking what you deem to be calculated risks: you bench press hard twice a week even though your shoulders haven’t been pain-free for months, and you keep pushing heavy squats, even though your back feels like you’re 95 years old when you get out of bed in the morning. Maybe a bit of mobility work and some better decision-making in the gym would be a good idea, but you hate stretching and can’t resist the possibility of hitting a new PR, even if it hurts.
Example #2: You’re an ultra distance athlete, and what once was a healthy hobby is now an all-consuming addiction that over time, has resulted in a number of persistent injuries. Somewhere along the line, what used to make you feel great, well, not so much anymore. While it might help to spend some time in the weight room or to do some stretching, your passion is running and you just can’t seem to find the time or energy to do those “ancillary” chores that might make all the difference.
Example #3: You’ve always been super-flexible and now it’s become a life-long passion. You take 5 yoga classes a week, and your classmates are inspired by your seemingly super-human flexibility. You get a charge out of being recognized for your talent, and that adds richness to your life. Problem is, your body composition isn’t particularly great and adding to that, you were recently diagnosed with mild osteoporosis, and you haven’t even reached your 40th birthday yet.
All three of these scenarios are examples of people who have followed their passions but with minimal regard for the long-term consequences of an unbalanced fitness philosophy. They all developed a particular ability to a high level, but the consequences are beginning to show themselves.
All Work And No Play…
On the other end of the spectrum, living your life according to the motto “all things in moderation” has some significant downsides as well. Working to achieve moderate levels of the various fitness characteristics is certainly a smart way to ensure great health and longevity, but it’s not necessarily the best way to enjoy your life either. Having a well-developed skill or ability can add significant meaning to our lives, and for many people, the “unbalanced” approach required to develop such a talent is worth the price you might pay later on.
In my former life as a martial arts instructor, I once attended a seminar by “superfoot” Bill Wallace. Wallace, a retired full-contact karate champion, was known and loved in martial arts circles for his literally super-human level of flexibility and kicking skills — one of Wallace’s seminar tricks was to find the tallest guy in the room, and then, reaching up with his foot, he’d spend a minute or so rearranging the guy’s hair with his big toe. Wallace has indeed paid a price for pursuing his passions however: he’s had two hip replacements, and I think it’s not crazy to assume that his hip degeneration might have something to do with the many thousands of hours he’s spent in full splits. But (and here’s the point of this story) when asked if he had any regrets, Wallace winked and boasted “Better to be a ‘has been’ than a “never was!’”
Can You Have Your Cake And Eat It Too?
Yes, I believe you can, and we’re going to invoke the well-known, but poorly-appreciated 80-20 rule in our efforts to strike the right balance in our fitness endeavors.
What I’m proposing is that we nurture our passion to the utmost while at the same time, doing just enough remedial work to give us the protection that a balanced fitness approach can offer. And while again, there aren’t any hard and fast rules for how much of that “balancing” you should be doing, we can, I believe, apply a few principles to the problem:
1) When seeking to develop a fitness characteristic to a high level, make sure it’s consistent with your physical attributes. If you’re really big and tight, taking up Tae Kwon do or gymnastics might not do you any immediate favors. If you’ve got congenital knee problems, distance running and powerlifting are probably both bad ideas.
Incidentally, it’s instructive to think about causation versus correlation when it comes to the assumptions you have about what a particular fitness activity might do for you. Overweight women for example often notice thin women who seem to run a lot, and (understandably) assume that running = thinness, when the more likely equation is that thinness = ability to run without problems. In related news, playing basketball doesn’t make people taller.
One way to sync body-type with activity is to look at the activity in question, and then look at the bodies of the majority of people who are successful at it. Another is to think back to the sports and activities you were good at in school. And lastly, there’s trial and error. My take: use a combination of all 3 to find things you can be successful at for a lifetime.
2) Don’t allow any single fitness characteristic to drop to unacceptably low levels. If you’re into distance running, you don’t need to be really strong, but you shouldn’t let yourself get really weak either. If you’re into strength and muscle, you won’t need outstanding mobility or cardiovascular capacity, but be wary of becoming a “one trick pony” as well. What does “unacceptably low levels” mean? This is where your personal philosophy comes into play. Draw a personal line that you’re not willing to cross. And then, enforce it.
That Time I Went For A Jog
I’ll give you a personal anecdote to help clarify what I’m taking about: About a year ago, I gradually became increasingly concerned that it might take me a ridiculously long time to run a mile. Just for context, I’m mostly into lifting, and pretty much hate any form of jogging, which is why I probably haven’t ran more than 26.2 miles in my entire life. So in any event, after pondering it for a few weeks, one night (strategy: “run” under the cover of nightfall to minimize public embarrassment) I went out and bit the bullet. I’d already pre-measured a one-mile course in my neighborhood, so I set my stopwatch and got down to business.
After the first 50 yards, I was feeling a bit of relief that I could actually jog according to the technical definition (only one foot touches the ground at any given time) — whew! After perhaps 800 yards however, reality began to set in — every step sent a jolting shock up my spine (I’m 57 and weigh 200 pounds just for a bit more context), and I quickly reaffirmed my disdain for jogging, while at the same time being grateful for the anonymity afforded by darkness.
Long story short, it wasn’t such a long story after all — after completing the course, I looked at my watch, which indicated 10:45. While this isn’t a great or even a good time for a “real” runner, for a 200-pound senior citizen with virtually no running experience, I was more than happy. Convinced that my normal fitness activities are sufficient to maintain at least a minimally-reasonable level of cardiovascular capacity (my other indicators, such as resting pulse, blood pressure, etc., are also at good levels), I haven’t ran since. But I’ll revisit the one-mile test yearly to keep tabs on it.
As I suggest in the opening of this article, there is no one who can tell you with authority how strong, or mobile, or enduring you “should” be. YOU need to make that call.
3) Listen to pain. As corrective exercise guru Kelly Starrett likes to remind us, “pain isn’t normal.” Forget about no pain, no gain. While discomfort and the pain of effort are an acceptable and even required part of the game, “real” pain (look, we’re all adults here — you know what I’m talking about) is a sign that you need to recalibrate your plan. When something starts hurting, stop doing whatever hurts and wait a few days to a week — if you haven’t had a significant lessening of your symptoms, see your doctor, who, in addition to diagnosing and treating your issue, will also tell you to stop doing whatever it is that you’re doing too much of, which is why you’re in pain in the first place.
One more note about pain, in case you didn’t pick up the subtle message in that last sentence: athletes and exercisers usually develop pain during the thing(s) they do the most, not the what they do the least. Powerlifters have sore shoulders from benching all the time. Runners have pissed off knees, Jiu-jitsu grapplers have jacked up necks, and wherever you always hurt is a clue about what you do too much of. It’s called pattern-overuse, and the solution is more balance.
Keep Your Options Open
While it’s not productive to constantly second-guess your approach, it IS worthwhile to remain open to activities, approaches, and philosophies that you may not have considered thus far. Don’t become a fitness “luddite:” always keep an eye open for unexplored possibilities. I started martial arts at age 11, took up the discus at age 31, competitive weightlifting at age 46, and powerlifting at age 50. Currently I’m focused on improving my body composition and overall fitness levels. And, recently, a client suggested that I have the “perfect body type” for indoor rowing competitions. Hmmm, really? I gotta look into that.
Creating a personal philosophy is a pathless land — there are no signposts, no GPS, no obvious landmarks in the distance. You’ve gotta figure this out on your own, but from my experience, that’s half the fun. Now go out there and make your mark on the World — there are lots of us out there who could use the inspiration.