By Michael Krueger
Because I’m a trainer, people assume that I’m very fit and very healthy. Outward appearance would tend to lend some credence to this assumption, but appearances can be deceiving.
I actually am quite fit, but as for the healthy part, I don’t really know. It somewhat depends on whom you ask and what parameters they use in their assessment.
So, with this in mind, I’ll ask you the same question, “Are you fit and healthy?”
There are numerous ways to determine where you fall on the fitness continuum for your sex, age, job, sport, or any other category to which you might belong. There are tables that you may consult, which will tell you where you should be to be “normal” or “average,” which, in fact, are two different things, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Fitness needs vary greatly by what you are trying to accomplish in your life. A firefighter’s needs are quite different from the needs of a computer programmer. If your job description includes being able to climb a ladder with 60-plus pounds of clothing and equipment while facing down a fire, you had better be mighty fit.
On the other hand, sitting at a computer for hours on end requires a type of “fitness” that is very different from what we might normally associate with “being fit.” Being sedentary is very hard on your body. It wreaks havoc on your heart and circulatory system. The posture that you maintain while seated can have detrimental effects on your skeletal and nervous systems. Pinched nerves and muscle strains are very common among office workers.
There is a minimum level of fitness that everyone, regardless of occupation, really ought to aspire to. This doesn’t mean competing in a triathlon or being a power lifter. We have a somewhat confused idea of what minimum fitness really is. I could give you data that are very quantitative, and your performance may or may not indicate that you are fit, which would just confuse matters even more.
My way of determining someone’s fitness is less numbers oriented and more real life performance based. Life fitness has more to do with asking yourself whether or not you are able to participate in life day to day in the way that you want. “Can you do your job?” is a good question with which to start. Are you avoiding activities because either you don’t feel physically up to the challenge or because you would feel uncomfortable even trying to participate? Feeling depressed is sometimes associated with a lack of fitness too, so that’s a question to ask yourself. Research has found that regular activity is good for your brain, so how are you doing in that department? Feelings of embarrassment concerning your appearance is another issue; lack of self-esteem can affect many aspects of your life. All of these situations can lead to social isolation, and that’s detrimental to both physical and mental health and your overall sense of well-being.
So, being fit means more than just the score you achieve on a bunch of tests. Let’s face it, most people who are “unfit” would score poorly on physical fitness tests simply because they don’t do any of the activities that make up the tests. If you don’t do push-ups regularly, you probably won’t do very well on a push-up test. On the other hand, if you practice push-ups for a week or two, you’ll probably test better simply because you got better at doing push-ups, not because you actually got stronger.
In the pursuit of fitness, it’s important to know where you’re at now and also where you want to go. As for where you are right now, you don’t need to know what percentile you’re in for chin-ups or what your VO2 max is. If you have been struggling just to get through your day, your pants don’t fit too well, you huff and puff climbing stairs, and you spend way too much time on the couch watching Netflix, you know where you’re at and you know it’s not good. What’s even more important though is that you it’s not where you want to be.
Your fitness is easier to improve on than your health. If you make changes to your fitness routine beginning today, you’ll see quantifiable results in a matter of weeks. If you decide to improve your “health” and expect to see immediate changes, well, that’s another matter ….
Let’s talk about health.
If you’ve been to doctor in the past year, you probably know where you fall with regard to some basic health parameters. You know what your heart rate, blood pressure, and body weight were on the day you were at the clinic. They may have mentioned your body mass index (BMI) and, based on that, recommended losing a pound or two. If you were there for a more extensive physical, then your blood sugar, cholesterol, kidney function, and a myriad of other data may have been spread out before you, each indicating … something.
You may have been prescribed one or more medications. You may have been surprised to learn that at your last physical you were told that everything was “fine,” but now, even with the same or improved results, you are no longer “fine” but are told that you need to be on medications. “Health” is different than “fitness” in that way. What was good before might no longer be good enough, and the health care industry can give (sell) you something for that.
Don’t get me wrong on this point. I know that many adverse health events have been prevented due to modern medicine. Drugs that lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol and blood sugar have been a literal lifesaver for those who need them. Keeping these three (mostly) lifestyle metabolic conditions under control has made all the difference in many people’s lives. There are also many chronic illnesses that we now have treatments for that have enabled sufferers to live more productive and pain-free lives. This is a very good thing for the individual and for society in general.
Of course, there have been side effects as well. I’m not talking so much about issues directly tied to the drugs but rather in the attitude of those who take them and for the way we as a people view preventable illnesses. We have come to believe that having a preventable condition “controlled” is the same as being “cured” or “healthy”; it’s not.
I know people who eat whatever they want because after the meal they check their blood sugar and shoot up with insulin. They don’t understand that they are, in fact, diabetics, and while it is important in the moment to control their blood sugar, this is not long-term, responsible behavior. Shooting up with pharmaceutical insulin does not “cure” diabetes, as many sufferers seem to believe. They think that as long as they carry insulin with them, they can eat whatever they want and they don’t have a problem … not a good way to think.
I once interviewed a prospective client, and he provided me with a (rather substantial) list of the drugs he was taking. I couldn’t help but comment on the large number of illnesses he had for a man of his age. He took umbrage with my comment and said that he didn’t have high blood pressure or diabetes or any of the illnesses he was taking drugs for. I asked why he was taking them then, and he said because they “cured” him, and as long as he takes the drugs he would remain “cured.” That’s like a junkie saying, “As long as I can get my heroin, I won’t go into withdrawal so I’m fine.”
There are “good” drugs” and “bad” drugs. Good drugs can literally cure you of an illness. These drugs come in too many varieties to mention and cure too many illnesses to count. I was very glad for the antibiotics I was given for a nasty staph infection in my right elbow; those were “good” drugs.
Other good drugs allow those with chronic, debilitating, and incurable illnesses to live without pain and suffering. Such drugs often allow them the chance at a normal lifespan and a normal day-to-day functionality. These are the miracles of modern medicine of which we often speak and are a boon to humankind.
Bad drugs (I don’t mean literally bad but metaphorically bad) can control a situation, delaying the onset of worst things that may come from the situation, which is, in fact, a good thing. Many of these drugs are used long term to treat illnesses caused by lifestyle choices. Cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and hypertension once again top the list.
If you’ve been prescribed one of these drugs, it should be a major wake-up call to change the way you are living and thinking. Losing weight, eating better, and getting more exercise will in many cases make these drugs unnecessary. Personal responsibility for the things you can affect is the real cure and the only permanent one for these lifestyle diseases.
Fit AND Healthy
Fitness is nearly 100 percent under your control, and there is no reason that you aren’t on top of this aspect of your life. I’ve heard every excuse imaginable for justifying the lack of personal responsibility regarding fitness. These excuses are flat-out worthless, and they don’t change a thing. Push away from the table, eat something green, get off your butt, get moving, and accept that it is your responsibility and the fitness part of the equation will fall right into place.
Health is tougher because you can do everything right and still run into problems. Many illnesses are completely out of your control to prevent; that’s just the way it is. Genetics, environment, and just plain-old bad luck are not within your control. Eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising, and having strong personal relationships and a positive attitude will take you a long way toward improved health, even with the uncertainties that life hands you. There are no guarantees, but at least you will be living a fantastic life along the way.
So, do all you can to positively affect what you can affect and avoid the avoidable; with a little luck, something unseen won’t sneak up and take you down. That’s really living life to the fullest …
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.