There is a difference between the concepts of “health” and “fitness”.

Let me propose a definition for each:

Health = the condition when systems of the body and mind are in an optimal state and harmony for energetic, productive, long-lasting, regenerative living.

Health is a condition that has a long, vibrant life as its vision.

Fitness = the capacity to perform a task, or activity and achieve a certain result.

Fitness is focused on a specific set of skills, goals, achievements.

I have this premise for health and fitness- that the body wants to be healthy, it wants to acquire skills and be tested, and it wants to perform at its best- I believe something is built into the body and mind that encourages this. If we learn to listen to the body and mind and work with them, they will give us the crucial pieces we need to achieve our greatest healthful achievements.

Optimal health includes fitness. Part of being healthy is stimulating the body and brain to grow. Challenge, test, rest, and adaption = growth. Optimal health must include fitness.

But ultimate fitness (i.e. peak performance) does not necessarily include optimal health.

This is really important to understand. Someone who can perform an amazing feat, and achieve some phenomenal results/speed/distance/duration may be extremely fit, but that does not mean they are healthy. Certainly, in humor or all seriousness, we may question the mental health of people who willfully pursue extremes, but we may also question the health of their body.

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It is not hard for me to point out examples in sports:

For years I’ve heard of reports of female distance runners who have disrupted menstrations, or no longer ovulate at all.

In my university years my friends who were national champion gymnasts would take pain-pills and wear ice-packs on their lower back after each performance. (Ever seen a reverse planche?)

It has been recorded that Le Tour cyclists who lose 25% of their spinal bone mass during the 21-day race.  The riders undergo this depletion and restoration each year.

Personally, I remember what those long hours in the saddle did to my groin too, and for hours afteward- and that was before saddles with those convenient little cut-outs. Thank God I have a couple children to prove the numbness that would linger for a while did not result in permanent damage.

And though I cannot grow tired of watching or daydreaming of imitating them, I wonder what the finger joints of those extreme, prolific rock climbers will feel like in 20 years.

Let’s throw in ultra-distance swimming too, just to be fair.

Did you see the picture of Diana Nyad’s face after being pulled from the water?

I make no judgment about her motives, sanity, and the purpose of the swim. I simply wonder what cost her extraordinary body is paying for trying to swim over 100 miles in jellyfish infested waters. Yet, does the impressionable young swimmer watching this really understand the price she is paying to do it? Does Nyad even know yet? But, people will inevitably follow her example and find out themselves.

These are a few examples of the pursuit of extreme fitness at the cost of health- a cost that is not known up-front.

I read a blog essay about one woman’s venture into open-water training- the camp she attended trained their swimmers to push through and endure a final (channel-qualifying) 6-hour cold water swim with iboprofen and candy bars, and I-don’t-care-about-your-shoulder-pain coaches. I appreciate her story and her attitude of exploration. I can see a lot to admire in the experience, and in the necessity for intense training to handle the extreme mental situation of channel swimming. However, I am aware there are better ways to go about this too, without risking shoulders.

It’s one thing when my mind is screaming at me to quite because I am so uncomfortable and don’t think I will go on- but when my shoulder is screaming at me because it knows it can’t keep doing this without consequence? Misreading that message that cost me 3 years out of the water in my youth. I will never to do that again- yet after all these years I still have to consciously restrain my drive to achieve the objective for the day when I feel some ache warning me to reconsider.

You may have it otherwise, but I’ve already decided that pushing through that kind of pain to make it a few meters for the practice, or for that matter, a few more hours to reach the coast is not worth losing X years of shoulder mobility toward my latter years of life.

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We know that being able to survive extreme conditions is evidence at how well our bodies and minds can adapt and persevere. Even for the survivors with a happy ending those kinds of stress also extracts a huge toll on the person’s health, particularly on the systems that promote longevity. Humans can amazingly survive extreme stress and for long periods, but that does not mean they thrive because of it.

Certainly, there are examples of people who’ve climbed mountains without oxygen, who’ve won ultra-ultra-ultra distance races, been lost at sea for weeks, who’ve endured unspeakable horrors of war and ended up living to great old age. There is a bell curve that, within its tails encapsulates humans who are extraordinary in their individual package of nature-and-nurture, and will-and-luck. There are two ends with tails- the wonderful and the tragic.

The problem is, the potential quality and quantity of life for each individual is unknown. The bill for our pursuit of extreme fitness usually isn’t delivered for years, and even then we may not recognize the connection. Our culture tends to highlight those who get away with pursuing extremes- either the price being paid in not well investigated, or the heroes keep just quiet about the deeper costs. Those people that don’t get away with it don’t often make the news 20 years later when they are suffering the internal consequences. And this is possible a great part of the reason we don’t take the risks seriously.

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Should no one pursue extreme performance and fitness?

Of course not. Humanity has a great need for people to explore the boundaries of the body and the mind. We need explorers and researchers- the smart, the passionate, and the idiots- who will volunteer to go there to give us something to learn from. By pushing those boundaries sometimes discover that some perceived boundary was actually an illusion. By trial and error we find better ways to do things (and there’s a lot of error that goes into that process). We discover that long tail on the wonderful end of the bell-curve can be stretched a bit further.

What I advocate for is sober consideration of the risks versus the gains in the pursuit of ultimate fitness and to help build a culture (particularly in how we train our children in values for sport) that pursues health in a responsible, long-sighted way.

Ultimate fitness may get you through college, and it may get you a fat professional paycheck, but what kind of body do you have to deal with afterward? I realize many people are willing to take that risk and get paid up front, and worry about the bill later.

It’s one thing for an athlete, her parents, and her coach to consider the costs (physically, mentally, socially, spiritually, developmentally, etc), against the long-term gain of that pursuit of ultimate fitness. An Olympic medal or world-record is an incredible acheivement, a great honor, and can open some powerful doors for future opportunities. But there will still be another 70+ years to live with that body after that achievment. What are we withdrawing from the bank in the first 20 years of life that we will have to pay back in the next 70?

It’s another thing for a whole culture to be caught up in the pursuit of performance, over-valuing only the triumphs the few make while not being concerned with the thousands who are washed out by physical-mental-spiritual injury during the competition to the top. Now we have ‘retired’ athletes perpetuating a training system and culture that keeps injuring people because they know nothing else- and perhaps want nothing else than to help others pay the price they had to pay also.

So pick your coach and team carefully. Make sure their vision for health and fitness matches the one you want.

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The point is- if we pursue optimaly health- wholistic health for body, mind, and spirit- then optimal fitness comes with it. Optimal health requires that all three grow together. In the pursuit of health, when we focus upon certain health-activating activities and those activities involve skills we will engage the mind- we get physical and mental health together. And when we work with our in-born positive motivations and concern for the well-being of others we get spiritual health. Even in mental and spiritual fitness, the mind is supported by a body, and when that body is kept strong and energetic, exercised and challenged to grow in skill, the mental and spiritual achievements come easier.

Now, in optimal health we may not experience ultimate fitness- the ability to set a record, achieve what has never been done before, or crush all opponents- but I argue that this not likely the best route to take if you want the longest, highest quality life. It could be for some, but I don’t think it is for most.

Simply getting up each day and striving to make it and yourself better than the day before- that could be enough to lay a the foundation for the ultimate life. No need to crush an oppoenent or do what no one else has ever done.

But if we catch the bug to pursue some form of ultimate fitness, to achieve an extraordinary feat, then let us do so with great care for the impact it will have on our whole life and on those connected to us. Though you reach for the top of the mountain you may be leaving a better life behind at a lower elevation.

– Coach Mat

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