While commonly taken to be the same, "health" and "fitness" are not synonymous, and there are diminishing returns to your health, the more effort you put into your fitness.
Above a certain very moderate level of activity, everything else is competition.
In reality, the term "healthy" refers to our ability to optimize a huge number of variables, including diet, different kinds of exercise, stress management, sleep, and more - and it's not something that we can just "force" by focusing on any one variable.
The overall goal of the health and fitness industry is to make people healthier. At least, this is what we tell people. However, it is often very hard to make any sense of exactly what people think of as “healthy”.
Many people tend to conflate “health” and “fitness”. Health can be defined as our ability to live longer, resist disease and injury, and maintain a high quality of life while doing so. Fitness can be defined as our ability to perform in athletic settings - the ability to move our body quickly enough, to be able to generate enough force to move a weight, to have the endurance to repeatedly perform a task, to react quickly to changing conditions on a field, and so on.
While the two are closely related, they aren’t the same. In many cases, becoming more physically fit provides greater health. Training improves our body’s ability to manage energy, and improves our strength, muscle mass, endurance, flexibility, and injury resistance - all of which are useful if the goal is living longer.
However, if the goal is to be as strong as possible, as durable as possible, as muscular as possible, this doesn’t necessarily mean you will be much healthier. The principle of diminishing returns ensures that we need to work harder and harder for more and more results. As a result, the level of stress we place on the body continually rises out of proportions with the results we get out of exercise, and so does the possibility of serious risk.
Being able to squat 600lbs is great, but what happens if you get crushed under the bar on a bad day and break a leg? Being more muscular is great, but what happens when you’re taking a cocktail of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, all of which carry significant risks, in order to be able to do so? Being able to run for longer is great, but what happens when you run so much that you permanently damage your heart? The number of serious athletes who die young is - probably quite higher than you think.
The fact of the matter is that you get MOST of the health benefits of exercise with a very minimal amount of training, and everything above that is just about competition.
Industry types also tend to overlook the commitment that fitness requires, from the perspective of a serious athlete. Carefully managing your diet, dedicating almost all of your time to training, and spending a great deal of time learning how to train and diet optimally; all of this requires a great deal of time, effort, and potential stress. For some people, this can all be intensely psychologically stressful, particularly for beginners and those who don’t feel comfortable in their bodies to begin with. Gyms can sometimes be very hostile environments for beginners, which doesn’t help.
Moderate amounts of weight loss can be healthy, and empowering. Extreme amounts of weight loss probably aren’t - because they require starvation diets and extreme approaches, and tend to involve negative social stigma around our perception of fatness. Many who lose large amounts of weight regain that weight. At the same time, we live in a society which conflates health, fitness, and skinniness - and the industry tends to do the same, often implying that the most important health and fitness goal worth following is losing weight, as opposed to building a little bit of muscle, growing stronger, and moving more freely in our bodies.
I personally believe that the health and fitness industry has grown out of what used to be a more niche industry - an industry focused around athletic performance in various sports, with their various training methods and dietary needs. At some point we became more worried about our health, and the industry massively expanded - but I don’t think that the mindset has really caught up.
Instead of focusing on making clients healthier, trainers are often concerned with training their clients as if they were just the seeds of athletes, and not people who just want to optimize their lifespan a bit and feel better. Trainers force their pet “best” training methods on their clients, and sell them all kinds of pills, powders, and pipe dreams about living longer and instantly solving all their problems.
A while back, Dick Talens wrote about how the word “healthy” sucks.
We tend to think of health as a purely binary thing: X is healthy, and Y is unhealthy. Apples are healthy, pizza is unhealthy. Working out is healthy, sitting on the couch is unhealthy.
But as Talens argues (and I agree), it’s not at all about that: healthy is a holistic term - meaning, that everything is interconnected, and we can’t just think in black and white.
Everything is context dependent. If you’re starving, you’d prefer to have a calorie rich pizza over a nutrient-dense but calorie-empty piece of kale. If you’ve been working out and are still intensely sore from a previous workout, or you’ve been having a long day, it’s probably more important to sleep and destress more than it is to show up at the gym exhausted and compromise the rest of your life.
Sure, it would be great if we all had all the time in the world to train, and we could all achieve our goals and be just as strong/muscular/durable/agile as we want, but the reality is that we have to make tradeoffs. Health is not about pushing super hard on one variable - it’s about balancing a little bit of everything to focus on the things that we need.
On a recent trip to San Francisco, I woke up one morning to take my stepdaughters to the continental breakfast. The kids picked standard kid food: sugary cereal, bagels, waffles, orange juice. Carbs on carbs. I picked some eggs, some sausage, a bit of coffee, a bit of yogurt.
My youngest stepdaughter asked me authoritatively “you picked the healthiest breakfast, didn’t you?”
“Why do you think that?” I asked.
She thought about it for a second.
“Because you got the most protein,” she replied proudly, vaguely understanding from my protein powder, my general daily intake, and more, that protein was a thing that I needed and that was good for me.
“That’s not really how it works,” I told her. “I just need protein because I’m so big.”
And it’s true. No food is really “healthy” or “unhealthy”. There are just optimal macronutrient ratios (which vary based on a number of factors from person to person), and foods which make it more or less easy to hit those macros regularly. Foods we tend to call “healthy” just also tend to make it easier for us to hit those macros, and vice versa, but you can still eat a lot of “healthy” foods and mess it up, just like you can still eat a lot of “unhealthy” foods without much of any negative impact on your health. Can of soda a day, anyone?
Health is about finding moderation, balance, and an optimal approach that suits your lifestyle. It’s about managing consistent resistance training, cardiovascular training, and diet in a way that is minimally stressful, maximally empowering, and which still enables you to get in good sleep. It's about finding ways to manage your entire lifestyle, and not just what you do in the gym or what you put on your plate.
Squatting 600lbs? Sorry, but not really anywhere on that list.
Looking for a bit of help figuring out a plan on your own? Luckily, I’ve opened up a few new online coaching slots since I’ve been away for a while. If you’re interested, let me know, and I'll fit you in as soon as possible. If that’s too much of a commitment, I recommend my Healthier book, which covers a lot more of the basics of… health.
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