What is Health? What is fitness?
I strongly believe our idea of health & fitness has got a severe battering in the last 10 years in particular. Social Media and a huge increase of Fitness images has really been distorted significantly. What we think we should look like has been thoroughly turned on its head. The emergence of saturated sports coverage as well as such fitness pursuits like Crossfit and the Weekend Warrior has changed the image of what being healthy and fit is. The irony of it is, and I can talk about this based on personal experience and what I have seen over years of training people and meeting people burned out from things like Crossfit, is a lot of these people are actually not healthy at all. Internally, mentally and physically, they are often put to the pin of their collar to maintain their image. A lack of real top knowledge in a lot of the coaching in these pursuits often means that things like recovery and breaks and balanced nutritional approaches are not the norm. The fitness Industry (at least some of it is not) is not aimed at the 28+, married, kids, busy job, 60+ minutes a day in cars, sitting in an office all day type of people. Yet these, and the 55+ aging adult, are 2 of the most important demographics and are very often ignored or thrown in with the free of commitment 18-28’s. These people, the 28+ people with life commitments generally, are my PT clients on the whole. I train Athletes as well, and it’s a very different ball game with these. The more people I train these people the more I realise they are being woefully mis-informed.
Firstly i'm going to set a setting for the guide line for what health & fitness is. Then I will give 12 reasons you are not reaching you goals and how you can reach them. Here are the 12 headings I want you to think about first as to why you may not be reaching your Health & Fitness Goals....
What is Health & Fitness?
Many, many people are not happy with where they are with their health and fitness. This differs for everybody and people have all sorts of ideas on what health & fitness exactly is. While they are definitely intertwined they are still somewhat separate. Health is harder to measure than fitness. I give an example below in the "Finding your own fitness barometers" . I have learned not to obsess about them, but they give me an indication of where I am at.
Something we can have a look at is the Biopsychosocial Model. This is in relation to Health & Fitness and even Athletic Performance, but also how it relates to Health, Sickness and Disease. While some "Experts" are fond of reductionism and finding (or getting huge grants to pretend to find) magic bullets for serious diseases like Cancers, Diabetes, Heart Disease etc. For my money if there was magic bullets they would have been found long ago. Essentially what helps performance on the field or at work or helps prevent horrible disease is a nice balance of Biological luck?!? (your genetics), Mental Health and Social Wellbeing. I think anyone when they think about this would think that this makes sense to a large degree. Environmental issues and other bits of luck may also be an issue like living near a Pharmaceutical Plant, but for the sake of this article I will ignore those sorts of reasons. So just for the sake of argument lets use this model as a guide (nothing else, just a guide).
So Health & Fitness is not One-Dimensional. The person you see on Instagram with the 6-Pack may not really be as happy as you may think. Now maybe, and hopefully, they are very happy and I am not saying that all sculpted people are not happy. For many these are important goals for them, define them as people and that's 100% cool and some great goals to have once done in a healthy manner.
But its just that there are so many other factors at play. We all know many people who do not fit the modern image of perfection physically who are extremely happy and content, and importantly generally healthy too. Not entirely, but these people seem to have a good Biopsychosocial balance. And of course these things are not linear, things go up and down somewhat as we go, but staying somewhere near the middle is generally good for you.
Here is what the WHO (World Health Organisation) describes Health as;
"Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity"
Jesus. Do they mean we have to be like that ALL THE TIME, to be considered "Healthy"? I hope not. Of course we want to be like that most of the time. We need to be realistic about life's up's and downs. Many of the downs or the stresses are often outside our control (although learning to cope is within). Someone makes your life difficult at work, your baby gets sick, the car breaks down, the baby sitter doesn't show. And on and on. How we work around them will determine how "Happy" we will be though. I believe there are a number of things that help us deal with these things, physical, social & mental activity and downtime being the most important. Our ability to cope though will be somewhat reliant on our physical fitness as we know that once we physically get tired then our cognition starts to deteriorate.
Lofty goals in the modern world. But all 3 main areas there (physical, mental & social) are very much part of one another.
Biological Factors in Health & Fitness - The Role of Genetics
There is not much you can do about your genetics only try to find out who you are biologically as early in life as possible. A lot of people intuitively know what's good and not so good for them, what they enjoy and what they don't. This Is generally a mix of nature and nurture. We will gravitate to things we enjoy and/or find easier. In a lot of cases we may enjoy something because of social benefits but may not actually be genetically physically suited to it, team sports for instance. But the positives far outweigh the negatives here.
Other genetic factors to take into consideration are Family Health History. There is much study and debate on this subject, but here is an interesting if hard reading synopsis from the American Institute of Medicine;
"How that genetic variation is associated with particular disease risk is the focus of much current research. For common diseases such as CVD, hypertension, cancer, diabetes, and many mental illnesses, there is a growing appreciation that different genes and different genetic variations can be involved in different aspects of their natural history. For example, there are likely to be genes whose variations are associated with a predisposition toward the initiation of disease and other genes or gene variations that are involved in the progression of a disease to a clinically defined endpoint. Furthermore, an entirely different set of genes may be involved in how an individual responds to pharmaceutical treatments for that disease. There also are likely to be genes whose variability controls how much or how little a person is likely to be responsive to the environmental risk factors that are associated with disease risk. Finally, there are thought to be genes that affect a person’s overall longevity that may counteract or interact with genes that may otherwise predispose that person to a particular disease outcome and thus may have an additional impact on survivorship."
Here is a link to the book where it goes more into Cardiovascular disease and the different reactions to Pharmaceutical use as treatments and the role that genetics play.
The more you know the better, but I don't believe it should be something to overly worry about. Apart from the counter-productive nature of worry. The basics remain the same, you should exercise, eat well most of the time, find time for yourself, hang out with friends and family, travel to places etc.
However if you have a family history of certain diseases then some small sensible precautions may be prudent.
Social Factors - What surrounds you?
There are many aspects to the social factors, but to make it easy we'll pick 3, Peers, friends and family.
Peers - This can be people you work with in various forms, people you share hobbies or interests in, people in your age bracket, social standing (I hate that this is a "thing", but it is), your background, qualifications etc. How you interact with these people is important for your own well being. How much you value these peoples encouragement or views on you depends, but the more you value it the more important it is to have a good feeling around these relationships. In the Strength & Conditioning, Sports Science, Medical Support and Personal Training world it is a sad fact that this is actually a real weakness within the industry. Far too many people spend a lot of time running down others. I can give personal experience of hearing back things said about me, by other practioners. In other cases I have contacted people to see if on some level they wanted to connect or to share info, no response. I find this disappointing and even a bit sad in some cases. This for me is unhealthy for both people, but especially the people too worried about what others do. This is a perfect example of an unhealthy peer situation. I am sure many people can understand through their own experiences within their own worlds.
Friends - Friends are obviously critical to our lives. Our friends play different roles and people have different types of friends. Some people love big groups and having loads of friends and loads of contact. This is important for them. Then there are people who are a bit more introverted and have less friends and often spend less time with them. However this is no less important. Whatever your needs the time is obviously beneficial.
One of the most common issues I have seen within relationships and as a barrier to health and fitness is when people get questioned on their health choices or encouraged not to follow their goals by others who are either jealous of their friends commitment or simply have not seen the benefits yet. In extreme cases these can be very toxic relationships. If someone does not accept your approach to health and fitness and discourages you from it, then maybe you should question that relationship, or at least tell them this is the way you are and they either accept it, encourage you or ignore it. In Ireland it manifests itself in someone being ridiculed for going drinking, heavily. That's a pretty sad state of affairs. That's not to say you should not go out and enjoy yourself with friends, but the balance and timing should be determined by you. If the person continues to stand in front of your goals or lifestyle they may need the flick, as hard as that may be.
Family - Fair enough, they can be a pain in the ass, we all know that. but that's just simple (in my opinion) because they 1) know you better and you can't fool them whatsoever and 2) you have spent a ridiculous amount of time in their company your whole life. If you are anything like me spending too much time with the one person or group gets very tedious. But having said that any disagreements or fall outs with family are definitely the most debilitating and the ones outside of maybe partner relationships that will hang on you the most. Dealing with these issues quickly will help you move on and get on with your day to day stuff free of stress and usually totally unnecessary.
A Healthy Mind
Now its true the 3 main factors really come altogether as a package, but in reality the most important benefit of exercise is a healthier mind. Exercise improves all of the following;
The WHO says "Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community."
So are you doing all those things? Everyone is different obviously, but we all know many people who clearly are not reaching these definitions, in fact we all probably flitter in and out of not reaching these definitions. I'm not saying the WHO is the defining standard and everyone has their own expectations of what is needed to be mentally healthy. However if you are someone who would like to contribute to their community (join a club, coach a team etc) but can't due to work, does that by definition mean you lack a balance that will lead to mental well-being? I think it might. Are you working so much you miss a kids game or play? Are you not able to exercise because of work? Then you have an issue. We are never too busy for anything, we just prioritize one thing over another. Working yourself to the bone for "The Man" or in pursuit of material things never ends well from a health point of view.
Finding your own Fitness BarometersThis is very personal, and I believe these things should be a mix of achievable, realistic goals that won't hurt you (but will challenge you, which is key) and also that involve pursuits that you enjoy. For some people that may be being able to walk up a stairs every day at work without getting out of breath, or playing Golf every Saturday without pain in the knees. Where you are now to where you want to be is a start. In 6 months time those goals may shift. And that's fun, the same goals cannot last forever and for many people variety is crucial, especially in terms of physical fitness.
For me as an example this is pretty easy really in terms of targets. This is not what I am suggesting for anyone or everyone. These things are based around pursuits I enjoy and what my working life allows and the access I have to fitness and fitness equipment.
Social well-being - The value of relaxed Human Interaction
Dealing with people at work is not social interaction. That is often something I hear "oh I deal with enough people at work". Going home from work and completely shutting off from the rest of the world is not good for you (can talk from experience), but its a very common thing in the Western World. Interaction with people in a relaxed setting is so important for our well-being and development. If you are only dealing with people in a stressed environment then people become stressful to you. You can zone out. We need to discuss "stuff" with people. And that may not always be a partner, in fact you may need to discuss your partner or you may not have one.
One thing that jumps out that can help all these aspects is sport, and in particular team sport or group based pursuits like being in a band or an art group or a society with like-minded people. Or indeed Fitness Classes or group activities of any sort. They provide an outlet for all 3 main areas of health. But they are not for everybody either. So what can we do, and what maybe what should not doing as I strongly believe many thousands of Irish people think they are doing the right things for their health but are actually doing more damage than good.
.....Go running on the roads without any preparation. In fact I would say unless you are training for a race on actual concrete then avoid it completely. I am always trying to convince people NOT to run marathons or any other middle to long distance races. They are not good for the majority of people and are not a safe way to lose weight. In fact the training needed for running a marathon could indeed be taking years off your life. Its not that these are un-doable, but a huge majority of people do them with completely inadequate preparation.
People love the feeling of completing runs, the endorphin release and sense of achievement is notable. However if we put our practical "Risk-Reward" hats on what are we getting from it? Ok, you may get "fitter". But what damage are you doing to your back and your hips if you have weak glutes, tight hammys, tight hip-flexors, tight thorasic area? Because in modern life its entirely likely you have all these issues. I don't have a client that doesn't have one if not all of these. If you go out running while bent out of shape you are doing more unknown damage to yourself. You may be shearing your lower vertebrae (low back lumbar region) which will lead to pain, bulging discs etc.
This is the process I see all the time.
Here though are the top 13 reasons you are not reaching your fitness goals, in my opinion.
Of course this list is not exhaustive, but its a good indication of what most people go through and is also based on my 22 years experience in various coaching roles.
Here is what I see all the time and the science supports in terms of "making progress";
2-3 weeks of consistent exercise intervention leads to you "feeling better"
4-6 weeks of consistent exercise leads to feeling even better and some physiological and biological changes. Sleep should have significantly improved and clothes will have loosened.
6-10 weeks of consistent exercise and an added few adjustments to diet and you will start to see more significant differences
10-16 weeks of consistency and you will slow in some areas but will be getting significantly "healthier" and "fitter" now. Depending on where you are coming from you may need more focus on nutrition or other Psychological and Social factors. But at this stage you will have built exercise as a habit. Also at this stage, generally, people will be able to do more "athletic" and maybe higher intensity training. Again this depends on your starting point, but exercise can become more and more fun.