Despite what you hear from big food companies, fitness and exercise actually play a relatively minor role in your overall health compared to nutrition and other lifestyle factors like sleep, sun, and other steps taken to reduce stress. You simply can’t out exercise a poor diet or unhealthy lifestyle. Certain people like Doug McGuff have even delved into the absolute minimum amount and type of exercise needed to get maximum returns in terms of maintaining muscle and healthy biomarkers and avoiding disease (it’s about 15-20 minutes per week). If you’re the type of person who dislikes spending time exercising and wants to get the best bang for you buck health-wise and then move onto more interesting things, it’s a great read.
Of course most people reading this likely have at least a small passion for fitness, training, competition, performance, sport, and physical culture in general. I bring up McGuff mainly to make it clear that excessive exercise or training does NOT equal health. If your only goal is health, there’s simply no need to punish yourself on a treadmill 5 days a week and do 500 situps a day. But if instead your goals fall in line with any of the following, there’s a wealth of information, connection, and fun to be had out there in the world of physical culture:
- Avoiding injury through consistent practice of correct movement and biomechanics
- Maintaining muscle mass and hormone levels to stave off the effects of aging
- Regularly learning and playing new sports
- Connecting with others through competition, learning, and teamwork
- Building a GPP (general physical preparedness) base that will allow high levels of activity on a daily basis
- Challenging yourself physically and mentally in non life-threatening situations
- Exploring the meditative and flow aspects of movement and sport
One of the best writers on this topic of the ‘health vs. performance curve’ is Keith Norris at Ancestral Momentum. Ben Greenfield is another great guy to follow if you’re interested in the interplay between performance and health. His post comparing a blood panel before and after a triathlon reveals the devastating effects that exercise and sport can have on health markers. And bear in mind that this occurs in a guy who’s doing everything humanly possible to optimize his recovery, fueling strategy, nutrition, and lifestyle factors.
Going beyond the Doug McGuff-type baseline, there are three additional principles I would add as worthy goals and principles to pay attention to even if you’re not a fitness and sports junkie…
I. Movement Matters
“You’re only as old as your spine.” – Ancient Chinese Proverb
“All human beings should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves.” – Kelly Starrett
These days, we’re spending more and more of our time in the same position. Whether it’s a car, bus, ferry, desk, conference room, or parked in front of the TV, we’re in a seated, head forward, upper back flexed, arms forward position for the majority of our waking hours. Going from this position straight into anything explosive like running, basketball, tennis, or CrossFit is an injury waiting to happen. A mind blowing 70% of runners are consistently injured in some way, shape, or form.
Injuries mean time lost to training and money spent on doctor’s visits, chiropractors, massages, physical therapists, and surgery. Expanding your knowledge base and skillset around human movement and preventative mobility work will be one of the best investments you ever make over time. Kelly Starrett is a great one stop shop for a wealth of knowledge on this subject:
MobilityWOD – Ongoing daily and weekly mobility exercises and strategies
Becoming a Supple Leopard – Great introductory read to learn how to move well and mobilize yourself
Deskbound – A must have for any office worker looking for strategies to limit the detrimental effects of sitting
Ready to Run – Excellent for runners and triathletes trying to reduce injury risk and improve performance
II. Find Passion, Motivation, and Social Connection
Fitness and sport have been a core part of my life and have lead me to some of my most valued relationships and experiences. Deep down, I think there’s something for everyone out there, whether it’s recreational sports like tennis, volleyball and soccer, fitness groups like yoga, TRX, Olympic Weightlifting, CrossFit or Spartan Race, or other sports like indoor rock climbing, mountain biking, or martial arts. Learning from excellent coaches and meeting others who are passionate about these things can stoke the fire for achieving new goals in life.
Not only can you forge powerful social connections and relationships, but these activities also act as a much needed break from technology and screen time. It’s amazing to me how many people I see at commercial gyms who are running on treadmills watching TV or heads down and plugged into their phones in between sets. Fitness and sport represent one of those rare blocks of time these days when you can fully disconnect from social media and work and fully be present with other people.