Health and fitness are absolutely correlated, and physical, mental, and social fitness are of course key components of health. However, I feel it is important to distinguish between training programs designed for athletes, and those in pursuit of extreme fitness, and those designed for health and longevity.
With the advent of extreme fitness being made to appear accessible to the everyman (popularisation of crossfit on the performance side, and those horrendous human versions of crufts on the aesthetic side) we see more and more people following more extreme training regimes and doing more harm to themselves than good.
Health is defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary here as:
‘The condition of the body and the degree to which it is free from illness, or the state of being well’
I would like to extend that definition a little further to say the body, and also the mind.
For our physical bodies to have the best chance of remaining free from illness, they require a balanced hormonal state. Without getting bogged down in the minutiai this requires maintaining body composition within certain ranges, and nutritional support covering all major food groups. Broadly speaking this is a body fat percentage of 15-20% for men and 20-25% for women in order to support hormonal function. (of course we can all think of outliers who can function and function well outside of this range, but we’re talking averages).
For those taking part in physique competitions, putting to one side whatever views you have on these contests, they are no longer in a state where their bodies can maintain hormonal health.
The hormone cortisol has been a bit of a buzzard in the ‘wellness’ world in recent years. A much as I’m generally not a fan of jumping on the bandwagon of industry trends – this one was one that definitely needed some airtime! Cortisol, or the stress hormone as its more commonly known , plays havoc with just about every one of our bodies systems. Whilst we have to be careful to totally demonise the present of cortisol (we need it to perform tasks such as waking up in the morning for example), chronic excessive amounts make just about every life preserving process we have work less efficiently and effectively.
Cortisol is produced in times of stress – in moderate amounts to get up and go to work, in higher amounts to run away from a hungry lion. And somewhere in the middle during a high intensity gym workout.
2-3 high intensity workouts a week will give you the endorphin kick that you’re craving, and enough time to recover and actually experience the benefit of the training. The stress on your bodies systems should look a little like an undulating wave. If you undertake another high intensity workout before you’ve recovered from the last you never really experience the benefit of the ‘up’ slope on the wave, and just layer stress upon stress, benefits go down, wellbeing and risk of injury go up.
Elite athletes are continually tiptoeing the line of overtraining and injury looking for the tiniest of marginal gains. However, if you spend any time at all around elite or professional sport you will see that this can come at a cost to their physical, psychological, and emotional wellbeing. Having trained World Champions in five totally different sports I can comfortably say that the biggest challenge facing athletes at the highest level is not getting injured whilst pushing their body to the absolute limits.
Does the risk outweigh the reward?
In elite sport yes, professional athletes are able to make peace with the fact that what they are doing may not be the ‘best’ thing for their bodies, but in return they’re getting a chance to create a legacy and put a marker down in history.
If you’re not an elite sportsperson, and you aren’t aspiring to become one. Then following a program that was designed for one (along with trying to keep up with normal life activities such as a job!), can be detrimental to your health, without the rewards.
If health and wellbeing is your goal, then make it the goal, train and eat to keep your body composition within healthy ranges. Put your body through sufficient stress to keep it strong, resilient and mobile; whilst recovering enough to see the benefits of this.
Training for health is not the same as training for fitness.