Fitness Vs Health — The Hidden Cost To Fitness Explained By An Olympic Coach
What You Need To Know
The terms being “fit” and being “healthy” are often interchangeably used in the same category, describing an ideal state we should work towards if we value a strong quality of life.
However, the terms “fit” and “healthy” are actually two different states of being by definition. Both are important to live an optimal life, where people either embrace, ignore or define to various extents and measurements.
Personally I see many people achieving great measurable levels of fitness and then assume they are healthy as a byproduct. But this is very often not the case.
An example of this is where an athlete’s drive can push those who aren’t familiar with principles of physiology, to unintentionally create anxiety patterns and chronic health issues that worsen with training.
I’ve seen all sides of this topic in great detail from coaching Olympic athletes, being personally addicted to training myself and now living a lifestyle focused on health. It’s important to remember that most professional athletes in traditional sports (e.g. rugby, football, track and field etc) have very limited careers.
At best they may still compete past their 40th birthday. Most retire before this time with significant physical and mental hangovers from the demands they placed on their body.
Fitness vs Health
To ensure we are on the same page I want to define fitness and health.
Fitness (performance) training involves activities of some sort that stimulates various systems of the body and maintains a certain condition or output within the body. This perspective is all about points, winning, load lifted, time achieved e.t.c. All things that aren’t actually real because they are just constructs or ideas to get us motivated to do something.
Health, on the other hand, involves every system of the body and is only achieved through a lifestyle that supports health. Something we have a relationship to, and asks us to look outside of the egoic state that we are in. This perspective is all about emotional and cognitive load, physical exertion, our sleep, food choices, our relationships, our feelings, the sum of stress we are experiencing across all areas of our lives e.t.c.
I have an ego, and it constantly checks in still (albeit a little less now) and when it does it wants me to do a faster time or catch up with someone that over takes me on my bike.
When that happens I ask myself does this feel like something my body wants to do? Am I able to pay the cost of this effort without affecting more important areas of my life — in other words will this help me be more creative for work? Will I become a better father and husband? Will I be too tired to play with my 3 year old later that day? Will I affect my sex drive?
The reason so many find it hard to transition into this way of thinking is that it requires them to form a relationship with something they don’t understand yet. Which challenges them, and why they feel they can’t have that much change because they’re still able to perform well in their preferred domain (compared to the made up measures).
Which then asks the question is there trauma that’s set up in the “I have to win” “I have to be first” “I have to be under this time or lift a certain load”… or else I can’t move forward? This block in perceived progress leads to personal shaming and self-directed anger.
The people that shame themselves, angry and disappointed that they couldn’t meet a certain (made up) target one day, could well benefit from asking deeper questions of themselves. This isn’t easy, and from experience these questions often begin to surface post physical or emotional breakdown.
The Costs of Fitness/Performance Training
The first question you should be able to answer if you’re training hard for fitness is:
“What is the goal of your training?”
And I mean what specific and measurable markers are you using to inform you that you’re heading in the right direction.
Common mistakes are when the target is calories burnt or how one looks naked in a mirror. These are goals based on a lack or scarcity mindset — “I will be better when I have less body fat” or “I will be accepted and more attractive if I look more athletic.”
As a trainer/coach, I believe your job is as a teacher first. This means educating your clients at every step. If your clients are focused specifically on “looks”, your job is to not just work on the physical, but to help with empowering their mindset into more sustainable perspectives that support their health as a whole.
In professional sport the multidisciplinary teams are working together to plan the minimal amount of training to get the biggest payback. The very simple reason to this is when you cross that line, you’re going to get diminishing returns on all effort after that point.
Rather you’re going to get more neural fatigue and more tissue micro trauma that’s taking you or your athlete quickly towards lower performance outputs and ultimately injury.
Here are some classic symptoms (costs) of excessive fitness/performance training:
- Physical damage (e.g. chronic injuries or pain). If so what’s the message you’re ignoring?
- Nervous system fatigue (e.g. decreased performance).
- Chronic symptoms (e.g. unnatural menstrual cycle).
- Sympathetic dominant nervous system at rest (e.g. chronic low heart rate variability and high resting heart rate).
- Trapped energy and emotions within tissues (e.g. within fascia).
- Low energy/vitality (e.g. training is an effort, not fun).
- Soothing (e.g. you feel a brief sense of calm in the period after exercising, before then feeling anxious to train again the next day).
- Addiction (e.g. If you can’t stop your pattern and enter into personal shaming if you miss a days training).
- Comparison and/or validation (e.g. constantly comparing yourself to others and seeking praise from your peers for an achievement).
- Overly competitive (e.g. your drive becomes an unhealthy obsession which shows itself when you overly check fitness apps such as Strava).
- Over identified with your physical “look/“performance.”
- Ego leading decisions (e.g. inability to listen to your body for what’s best for your higher self).
- Disconnected from your body.
- Overly attached (e.g. inability to let go to changes in life).
- Unable to see past your identity (e.g. detached from the bigger perspective).
Here are some reflective questions for you to help with understanding this point:
1. “What happens when the way you are training is actually creating more anxiety and tension across your entire nervous system?”
2. “What if it’s an addiction that’s actually depleting you?”
3. “What are you going to do if you do get injured and that’s your only outlet?”
The question I find most powerful to initiate a shift towards a relationship to health and away from arbitrary (made up) gym numbers is:
“How does this practice benefit my life?”
Inevitably what comes from asking that question is an awareness of a broader perspective.
The shift that happens is that people begin to see that their exercise is a tool towards loving more openly in their relationships, becoming less emotionally reactive to life and gaining more energy to offer more service in some form to others. All qualities needed for a long health span, not just life span.
Here are qualities experienced when the balance of exercise for health is achieved:
- In tune with the undulations within your body (daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal cycle).
- No chronic pain or injuries.
- High vitality/energy.
- Freedom to express movement in many ways (e.g. not identified to one training method).
- Self-discipline with respect (e.g very flexible to adapt based on what’s needed for the greater good of your life).
- Sense of feeling light and resilient.
- Adaptable to life/change.
- Balanced approach to your goals (e.g. enjoyment of the practice of the skill and not focussed on the outcome).
- Integrated mind and body (feel what’s needed).
- Awareness that you are not your mind or body (nothing to prove to anyone).
- Clear energetic channel.
- Connected to the multidimensional aspects of your being.
When we view life from a spiritual perspective, we see ourselves connected to something larger than ourselves.
This “something” has a mysterious quality that can give rise to a sense of awe and wonder. The people I’ve worked with who do this best are the acrobats and men and women of the ocean and mountains of action sport.
There are extremely powerful lessons we can learn from them. If they survive without big crashes then that’s a good day. Winning matters of course, but the real adversary is nature.
They have a profound respect and connection for their environment and they need to heed the warning signs. Therefore they have to be in tune with themselves and with nature — otherwise they can pay the highest price with their lives.
Wellbeing Health Check-List
The idea of this check-list is to help you bring awareness to elements that are very often overlooked. Whilst this article is primarily aimed at those who push themselves hard on a regular basis, it’s true that this list can also be a start point to help those seeking to improve their health by moving away from a sedentary lifestyle.
This list compromises many aspects of wellbeing that I used working with Olympic athletes. A very simplistic approach is asking yourself each day:
“Are you Happy, Hungry and Horny?”
This is a genuine subjective litmus test measure I used with athletes. For a more comprehensive check list, spend some time answering the following questions:
- Are you overly fatigued or have chronic low energy? (Do you rely on pre-workout booster drinks to get you training? If so what’s the message you’re ignoring from your body?).
- Do you suffer with chronic poor quality sleep?
- How resilient are you to stress in your life? Are you more emotionally reactive?
- Do you suffer with chronic diarrhoea or constipation?
- Do you have chronic low mood and appetite?
- Do you suffer with chronic pain, symptoms or illness? (Menstrual cycle or testosterone changes).
- Are you taking longer to heal or get over illness than normal?
- Do you prioritise recovery and restorative practices? (e.g. yoga, breathwork e.t.c. When limited on time on a busy day you force a hard workout rather than taking time to do restorative practice).
- Do you have a fixed mindset? (Inability to move away from the way you exercise).
- Do you have a low sex drive?
- Are you unable to see a broader perspective in your life?
- Do you have a constant need for stimulation? (Inability to rest/relax/sit in stillness).
A deeper question to ask yourself is:
“How many of these symptoms do you take medication for?”
This article is meant to be a start point for you to expand your awareness. If you’re still reading at this point, you’re probably like I was and have hit a crisis in your life. Whether that’s injury, illness or some other life halting event — you are now curious about how to do life differently.
I can assure you that despite what can feel like chaos, confusion and a lost identity comes new beginnings when the time is right. I found the key is to not rush change. This change is what I call The Path to Personal Mastery.
Richard has coached at the highest level of Olympic sport in the U.K, China and Japan. Having been successful in these high performing environments due to his ability to manage stress effectively... with inspiring and creating environments that encourage and support people accessing their best.