“Health is something we go through on the way to fitness.” -Dr. Lou Pack
My friend and colleague, Dr. Pack, loved to say this during his presentations and seminars and the more I heard it, the more I saw it exemplified in my own experience working in the fitness industry. Often the things people do to improve their fitness have a negative effect on their health. Taking sports to the extreme, using potentially dangerous supplements, drugs, and other means of performance enhancement may carry a certain level of risk that is far from healthy. There is nothing wrong with pushing the boundaries of what the body is capable of, but we need to understand that the further down that rabbit hole we travel, the further away from health we get. Extreme endurance or strength athletes certainly display a high level of fitness for their respective sports but the wear and tear on their body, joints, and connective tissue cannot be denied. Again, fit but not healthy.
I am in no way saying do not participate; we have bodies that are capable of amazing things. Just be sure to make health a priority. First, you must be completely honest with your level of commitment to your sport and understand the sacrifices that may come from choosing to participate. Most of the people I know who compete in extreme sports like powerlifting, strongman, bodybuilding, ultra-endurance races, combative athletics, etc. are doing so at what I call a recreationally competitive level. They take it seriously, they want to push themselves hard to see what they are capable of and constantly achieve a personal best in competition, but they are not making their living doing it. This is awesome, and I support going “all in,” but we need to make health a priority.
Training hard and competing in sports we enjoy creates a great deal of physical stress on the body. When we lift heavy weights or log serious mileage on the trail, we create a huge amount of stress on the muscles, joints, connective tissues, and cardiovascular system. We need to devote a great deal of our time to practices that encourage restoration and optimal health as well. Be sure to couple your intense training with a restorative practice like yoga, qigong, or Tai Chi. Adopt the practice of daily meditation. Do not overlook the importance of regular muscle flexibility and joint mobility exercise. Be sure your nutrition is rooted in high quality, health promoting foods and not just “macros.” Engage in regular therapeutic activities like massage, contrast baths or showers, sauna or steam rooms, hot and cold therapy, and other soft tissue work that assists with healing and recovery. Make sleep and rest a priority. The harder we push our bodies, the harder we need to push these restoration and health practices.
It is possible to be extremely fit but not healthy. I have seen athletes perform at a high level while eating poor diets, getting little sleep, and overall neglecting their health. Although it is possible, this is not a good approach for the long term. By making health a priority we not only experience greater longevity in our chosen sports, we also do our best to ensure a better quality of life and optimal health when our competitive days are over.
Stay strong AND healthy!