While it’s normal for us to think of stuff like “exercise” and “good eating” being the reasons that we live longer, the reality is that numerous environmental factors are also impacting how long we live.
Genetics and wealth are not something we can immediately change - and are often overlooked when it comes to health and fitness.
Real health, often, doesn’t have much to do with your diet or your exercise.
This is a blind spot that the fitness industry, in general, wants to overlook. After all, diet and exercise are the things that are most easily controlled (and even then, it’s like pulling teeth a lot of the time), so it makes sense to focus on what we can change versus worrying about what we can’t. This also fits in quite nicely with the modern conservative ethos of individual work ethic, which may help to explain why (at least in my experience) the industry tends to lean a bit to the right.
In a general sense, I would agree with this assessment - my work as a coach involves helping people achieve their fitness goals via careful manipulation of training and dietary variables, mixed in with a good heaping dose of working around human imperfection and other Murphy’s Law type scenarios. Why worry about the things you can’t change, when you could be putting your energy into the things that you can?
However, you can’t just exercise and eat your way to immortality. No matter how well you eat, or how hard you train, you’re going to die some day. You may be able to optimize your lifespan, but you can’t prolong it indefinitely, at least not yet.
There are numerous things that, no matter how good your health is, can kill you all the same. No matter how jacked you are, if you stepped in front of a speeding train by accident, there’s a good chance that you wouldn’t make it. You can have all the desire to train and eat well in the world, but what happens if you’re dealing with a preexisting condition that makes exercise difficult or impossible? What happens when your country has poor healthcare, forcing you to overlook life-saving treatment because you can’t afford the cost? What happens when you have a labor-heavy job requiring lots of lifting, and you get crushed by a falling object? What happens when you get injured on the job, but can’t afford to take unpaid time off of work to let it heal?
These are all scenarios, and you may say, well, they’re just that: scenarios. But the reality is that they’re scenarios that some people deal with every day. Maybe not you, but somebody. If someone is living through a scenario that significantly impacts their health, and they have little or no power to change it no matter how strong their willpower, would you tell that person to eat less and move more? If you think these scenarios are implausible, congratulations - you’re privileged with the ability not to have to worry about those sorts of things.
People who know me well may know that this last scenario is one that literally happened to me. I used to work a delivery job carrying heavy fitness equipment up and down people’s stairs. One day, I tweaked a knee on the job. Due to constant stress and the need to keep being able to haul stuff up and down stairs all day, it continued to get worse, and I had to stop squatting heavy for about a year and a half afterwards while it healed. Luckily, I was able to find a new job before the injury could get overwhelmingly bad.
There are a lot of interesting things that impact your health that have nothing to do with how much you lift or how well you eat, and you need to admit that they have an impact.
Money to spend on medical care, psychological health, preventative medicine, good food, etc.
Whether you have access to good housing which is located in a crime-free area and is free of mold or other health hazards.
Having a well-paying, minimally stressful job and access to protections against unemployment and financial destitution (money, family support, etc.)
Freedom from discrimination in the medical sector or the general public.
How much of a support group you have in old age.
Free time to follow your psychological interests, deal with unexpected problems, and relax from your work.
The dawn of modern sanitation occurred after the industrial revolution. The sudden boom in the growth of cities led to cities which were overpopulated and poorly sanitized - one of my favorite tidbits is that for a long time, Paris used to just toss all of its dead bodies into a few large open pits. This caused massive spread of disease, not to mention the smell - yet it persisted well into the 18th century before they eventually exhumed the bodies and used them as the basis for the modern catacombs today.
There was a great series of initiatives to modernize sewer systems, clear streets of waste, and care about public health in a general sense. These initiatives greatly reduced the spread of illness and increased lifespan, and are some of the biggest changes in the history of public health. Imagine telling a child mine worker in an industrial-era, smog-covered city that they should have done more squats.
We have a term for this kind of thing: they’re called the social determinants of health.
Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list:
The social gradient
It’s also well known that poverty is a big predictor of health. We have the specific term, diseases of poverty, to describe ill health conditions which tend to affect the poor more frequently than anyone else. In contrast, diseases of affluence are diseases which become more prevalent in the wealthy - but at the same time, this isn’t in any way an equal comparison, since the wealthy have both more resources to expend on their health and their diseases tend to be “default” diseases which are more likely to kill simply because they have no cures and because other things didn’t kill you first.
These social determinants are not necessarily something that you have the power to change. Yes, via some combination of hard work, luck, and the right genetics, some people can successfully climb the ladder and end off more wealthy than their parents, which would have a huge impact on their health. But unless you’re also a lawmaker, you can only save yourself. Social mobility in the US is lower than in other developed countries, and has worsened in recent years due to increasing income inequality and wealth disparity.
Health is a holistic concept, meaning that it’s something whose meaning can only be taken in context. Yes, with exercise and diet, you can optimize your health and put yourself a bit ahead of your cohort. But fitness isn’t magic, and there’s a lot of other factors out there which will be working either for or against you from the get-go. You will only be as healthy or unhealthy as your circumstances.
I’ve argued before that if you truly cared about health - truly cared, not just wanted to feel superior to others for your good habits while hoarding health to yourself in the form of wealth - you should support a world with relative wealth equality.
You should believe in strong health care initiatives and a strong safety net to support and aid the poor and underprivileged. You should be actively engaged in your family and community, and be willing to share what you have to make the lives of others easier. Imagine a fleet of honest personal trainers who quit their jobs to become socialist advocates, and you can understand how bizarre our current set of priorities is.
Recently, the New York Times ran an excellent piece about what happens to the poor when we raise the minimum wage:
If you want to make people healthier, telling them to lift weights, go for a run, or eat more veggies is an “easy” answer, but it’s not the right one. Each person is different, and knowing what is “optimal” for any individual is not something that any person can do from the outside.
About Adam Fisher
Adam is an experienced fitness coach and blogger who's been blogging for 5+ years, coaching for 6+ years, and lifting for 12+ years. He's written for numerous major health publications, including Personal Trainer Development Center, T-Nation, Bodybuilding.com, Fitocracy, and Juggernaut Training Systems.
During that time he has coached hundreds of individuals of all levels of fitness, including competitive powerlifters and older exercisers regaining the strength to walk up a flight of stairs. His own training revolves around powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Adam writes about fitness, health, science, philosophy, personal finance, self-improvement, productivity, the good life, and everything else that interests him. When he's not writing or lifting, he's usually hanging out with his cat or feeding his video game addiction.
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