Since we're entering a new year, it seemed appropriate to talk a little about health, fitness, and nutrition.
As people get ready to make their New Year's resolutions, the most common resolutions revolve around "getting healthy". The problem is that there are huge misconceptions around what exactly it means to get healthy. Most people think they need to spend hours at the gym or starving themselves on some liquid cleanse. Those misconceptions are only reinforced by the marketing of all sorts of exercise equipment, shakes & supplements, or their favorite Instagram celebrities. (In their defense, if you think you're carrying the world's best hammer in your pocket, everything looks like a nail. And as an aside, if you want to know what it's really like to be an Instagram fitness celebrity, read this enlightening and honest post.)
So since everyone wants to get healthy, we should make sure we know what that means. Most people instantly equate getting healthy with having six-pack abs; but that's not the case. In the preamble to their constitution, the World Health Organization gave us this definition:
This means good health requires more than just physical fitness. We have to address emotional and social fitness as well. I believe the fact that we as a society focus so much attention on physical well-being contributes to why we have so many emotionally unstable individuals regularly in the news.
The WHO also added that health is:
Health is a tool that allows us to live our lives. If we spend our entire lives focused on being healthy, we're going to miss out on living. I've known too many people who cannot miss a day at the gym or who get ridiculously upset when they screw up their macros at a meal. This is an unhealthy and unbalanced emotional state and it could be symptomatic of other problems. Too much of a good thing isn't necessarily better; it can be just as unhealthy as choosing a bad thing.
Let's focus on physical, because when most people try to get healthy at this time of year, they're really thinking about improving physical fitness. Here again, society has people thinking that physical fitness is about having washboard abs and muscles popping. But that's not the case.
Merriam-Webster defines "fit" as:
Being fit means that we can do the things that we need to do, without illness or infirmity.
So, being fit has nothing to do with how you look; it has more to do with your environment and your body's ability to do everything it has to do.
An offensive lineman in the NFL may be 300+ pounds and look like he has a huge gut, but he is fit for the role that he plays. He needs mass to be able to push the line of scrimmage forward and/or block the opponent. His environment dictates that he needs to be big AND strong.
So in order to improve our fitness, we first need to know what our environment requires of us.
If our environment involves climbing stairs all day and we don't want to be out of breath, we should work on improving our cardiovascular endurance and leg strength.
If our environment involves carrying heavy loads for short distances and we don't want to tire out, we should work on improving our upper body strength.
But a professional marathon runner doesn't spend a lot of time power-lifting because the excess muscle will only add more load that they have to carry as they run! Power-lifting is not necessarily going to help them achieve their goals.
This is called the theory of specificity. You need to train for the specific environment you'll be in or tasks which you'll be performing.
General (non-specific) training, or functional training, can be good if you're just looking to improve general fitness. But, if, for instance, your environment doesn't require you to throw a 20 lb ball at a wall every day, you should talk to a professional to find out whether it's worth doing that particular exercise. Will it help you move in the direction of your goals or will it create obstacles for you? And if your trainer doesn't talk to you about your particular needs, find another trainer!
But what about losing weight? A lot of people resolve to lose weight. Well, the dirty little secret is that, by far, the biggest factor in losing weight is nutrition. You may have heard people say "abs are made in the kitchen" or "you can't out-exercise a bad diet". It's well-known and proven that this is the case. You can spend hours at the gym every day but it will make no difference if you're eating a diet that stores fat.
Ever notice that more people are hitting the gym than ever before? There are people going to big box gyms; they're going to boutique studios; they go to athletic/sports-based gyms; they go to yoga studios; they even use workouts at home on YouTube and other platforms. Yet for all the hours of daily exercise people are doing, we are told that the obesity rate continues to rise undeterred. Physical activity is, therefore, more than likely not the root cause; nutrition is the culprit.
Exercise can help accelerate fat loss, but the key is what you ingest, so in many cases, it's better to get the nutrition under control before stepping foot in a gym. When trying to solve a problem, the best strategy is approaching it one factor at a time so you understand how each factor contributes to the problem. The thing no one will tell you is that it's even possible to reach all your weight loss goals without ever lifting a dumbbell or jumping on a treadmill.
So if your goals revolve around weight loss and you want to make the biggest impact on your resolutions this year, consider skipping the gym. Use the time you would be at the gym developing some better habits regarding meals. Talk to a nutritionist/dietitian. Invest the time into meal planning. And once the numbers are consistently heading in the right direction, layer in some exercise to help accelerate the process.
Agree? Agree to disagree? Questioning the status quo is necessary to advancing a better understanding of things. Find your unsteady state and join the conversation.
(1) - Constitution of WHO: principles, World Health Organization, 1946, http://www.who.int/about/mission/en/
(2) - Health Promotion Glossary, World Health Organization, 1998, http://www.who.int/healthpromotion/about/HPR%20Glossary%201998.pdf