When most of us think of “fitness”, the images that arise are often not pleasant: sweaty gyms, restrictive diets, and the thought of fitting even more tasks into an already busy day.
If we summon the courage to visit the gym, we get home to catch the latest news about that new thing that causes cancer, and how we all need to eat less, move more, and eat five a day.
It’s not that these snippets are wrong. But they're presentation is often painfully uninspiring and negative.
Furthermore, lots of advice also skips the vital step of asking why this might matter to you. How does it affect your day-to-day life and bigger goals?
While we all have a sense that being healthy is “good”, we can often lack a full appreciation of what fitness truly delivers, and so miss out on one of the most transformative opportunities in our lives.
The truth is that taking responsibility for your health and fitness is one of the most empowering things you can do for yourself and those around you.
My aim in writing this is not to get you to sign up to the gym or take up a new sport, but to reflect on the true value of taking back your health for yourself, and to use that reflection to spur you on to pursue food and movement that bring you joy, as a lifestyle, not merely as a crash diet or January guilt trip.
The greatest difficulty is that the benefits of being fit are often not apparent until you begin to arrive there. When a person reaches that stage, you don’t need to convince them to stay there. They will fight to maintain their fitness.
The flipside is that many of us only come to value fitness when it deteriorates: a tough medical diagnosis, or the loss of a loved one to disease are all potent triggers that cause us to stop and rethink our assumptions.
What is fitness?
Let’s roughly define fitness. More than just the absence of disease, we’re talking about:
- Maintaining a good baseline weight. As your weight goes up, a host of biomarkers that measure your physical health slowly and then rapidly deteriorate. This is why weight loss is a great proxy for overall health. Being under-weight can also contribute to disease, but it’s less common.
- Eating a nourishing diet. Even a lean individual still needs to eat well. Food fuels us in so many ways, both physically and emotionally. Eating well does not depend on the adoption of any particular diet.
- Being active. I’m talking about having the aerobic capacity and general fitness to be able to lift something heavy or move your body without collapsing like a sweaty sack of potatoes on the floor. Regular movement, especially if you work in a sedentary job, and irregardless of the type of movement, is key.
None of this is easy, at first. There are countless elements of our lives that conspire to keep us sitting still and eating incredibly delicious, dense food all day. It’s not your fault if you’ve fallen into that routine.
Today, we have to work to get out of it, because it is the default. But there are many tools and routines that can help us, and once they are in place, it’s easier to maintain escape velocity.
But we’re jumping ahead—what aspects of being fit do we overlook or forget? Why does it really matter?
Sit back and don’t grab a doughnut.
Looking good naked
This is near the top of everyone’s list, although it’s not something you’ll hear Public Health England regularly discussing.
The threat of an impending social arrangement that involves skimpy clothing can light a fire under someone’s ass like nothing else.
Looking good naked isn’t the only reason to get in shape, but the desire to be happy with one’s body is deeply rooted, and when cultivated properly and met with the right food and movement, can be the best motivator there is.
If this is a big motivator, then fully embrace it—whilst it may seem vain at first, it's a simple gateway to everything else that fitness offers.
It’s within everyone’s grasp to create visible change to their appearance. And the body confidence that comes with that change reverberates into everything we do.
Along with the confidence that comes from being happier with one’s body is the secondary confidence that I did it; I said “enough is enough”, I made the changes, and I saw the results.
To admit you are unhappy with something, to plan a way out, and to execute that plan instills deep confidence that change is possible. When I really want to do something, I can put my mind to it and succeed.
If I can transform my own appearance, what else can I do? If I can significantly reduce my risk of disease, what else can I change?
The outward energy of confidence can also give rise to an inner drive of self-care.
Experimenting with the way we eat and move is a form of self-care, something that many of us struggle with.
To put your head out and challenge yourself is a refusal to continue engaging with a way of life that is dragging you down.
It is self-defence, and a line in the sand for your own well-being.
A basic level of fitness brings freedom. Freedom to move and participate without being held back or left behind.
If you’re getting out of breath going up the stairs, it means there are a lot of activities that you’re probably excluded from.
We don’t all need the aerobic capacity to run up a mountain, but basic fitness means that you always have a reliable foundation to fall back on, whether you decide to go hiking, skiing, or start training for a half marathon.
Even more importantly though, it gives you freedom in the every day—the energy to take yourself for a long walk when you need it; the strength to play with your sister’s kids without feeling like you’re having a coronary; and the simple yet profound joy of confidently navigating the physical spaces of your life.
Fitness brings energy.
Not temporary energy from the bottom of a can, but stable, reliable energy that you can depend upon for work and pleasure.
Freedom from endless "hits" to get you through the day, and a deeper reserve to draw upon throughout your life, whether moving house, helping others, or just getting through the insane work schedules that many of us have signed up for.
We're also talking about the kind of energy that might just get you an extra pat on the back the next time you leave the bedroom.
Exercise releases all kinds of wonderful substances into your bloodstream.
Whether it’s the “runners high”, the burn of lifting something heavy, or just the buzz of getting outside, physical movement can be a big source of pleasure and joy.
When trying to get someone to use the gym or take up a new sport, this is one of the main checkpoints they need to reach. Once they’ve surmounted the initial hurdles, the difficulty of introducing a new habit, the drugs take over: they’ve tasted the good stuff for themselves.
Starting the day with some movement is a great way to trigger that flow. Furthermore, nothing breaks you out of tense, stressful day like a good workout.
A New View of Fitness
Achieving a higher level of fitness changes how we think about fitness.
Once the body is used to a certain level of well-being, it becomes much clearer when we’re slipping below that line. A new process of feedback is in place.
The body learns to self-regulate at a much higher level, recognising when we need more nourishing food, greater amounts of activity, or maybe more rest.
After a while “fitness” becomes normal. It’s a gift. A gift you maintain because it’s drastically better than life without it.
As someone who’s suffered with mental health issues, I was able to discover first hand how running and exercise in general can reduce the symptoms of mental illness and overall stress.
Physical activity has now been shown to improve virtually every type of mental illness, reducing anxiety, depression, and negative moods, whilst improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Its simplicity belies its power, and unfortunately this means it is often overlooked.
How could a short run possibly help lift this impenetrable fog that I’ve been wading through all day? Try it. The research is already there.
Humans evolved outside. Humans were outside before there was ever an “inside.”
Our bodies are built to soak up the sights, sounds and air around us. It is a primal nourishment, and something we all instinctively know to be life-giving.
Beyond the purely physical benefits of being outside, there is the simple joy of the outdoors.
The "side-effect" of getting outside is often the driving force that allows many people to find activities they enjoy.
All of the above means less time at the doctors, and less prescriptions, less interrupted work time.
Health, or lack of it, can be an expensive business, not only in terms of money, but also time. Your country of residence may drastically impact the associated healthcare costs, or whether you have to pay them at all.
We are bombarded with minor money saving tips, but what would a daily investment in our health save us over a few decades?
Guess what—being at your ideal weight also means your body does most of the talking for you.
You’re gonna look good in jeans and a t-shirt. Jeans and t-shirts are cheap.
Be more successful
So you lost some weight and got into better shape. You’re now likely to be judged as more competent and land your dream job:
"What we found across our studies is that obesity serves as a proxy for low competence," Schweitzer said in a release. "People judge obese people to be less competent even when it's not the case."
Is it fair that this is the case? Probably not.
Is it good to be aware of? Yes.
While the visual benefits of fitness are easily observable, we often miss the more profound benefits on our bodies, and the resulting resilience to illness and injury.
Resilience is simple: less suffering for you. Less time in bed with colds, less of an impact when illness does still strike, quicker recovery, and more time doing the things you love.
For people who are already active, it can also mean greater resilience against injuries. Here’s the difference: that twisted ankle is just a pain for a few days, rather than a fracture that puts you on your ass for a month.
A healthier resilient you, also means more of you, for everyone else.
It might mean the difference between a happy last 20 years, or a much more difficult time in care, or a hospital.
It might be the difference of having those extra 20 years at all.
It may be the difference between having the ability to appreciate your grandchildren, or struggling to recognise them.
We know that many of the primary diseases that kill us are preventable. “Lifestyle factors” figure heavily in heart disease, cancer, diabetes and many other chronic diseases.
“Lifestyle factor” is just smart-speak for “how you live your life, each day”
Your lifestyle is your responsibility, and with some fundamental changes, it can work to protect and strengthen you, each day.
Of course, it's no guarantee against accident or plain old bad luck. But it is the best we can do for ourselves, and the benefits are immediate and ongoing; short and long term.
This is something we don’t talk about enough. It is difficult, not only to contemplate personally, but also to express interpersonally. Expectations that we should always "focus on the positive" and remain buoyant and upbeat don't help us here.
This is not an excuse to beat yourself up because you’re “not doing enough”—it is an invitation to connect with what you truly care about.
How? Find movement that brings you joy
Your body was made to move well.
Today, we are surrounded by cheap, engineered hyper-palatable food, and immersed in sedentary jobs that short circuit the basic level of fitness we would usually have achieved just by finding food and day-to-day exploration.
Our ancestors didn’t need to prioritise something called “fitness”—it was fulfilled through the movement required to live and thrive.
But how do we begin? The best starting point is a bold confrontation with the why?, which hopefully this post has helped with. You don't need This One Amazing Trick—you need something you actually want to work for.
One of the best ways to go about that is to find movement that brings you joy.
We are made to move. Movement is in our bones, in our genes. The idea of sitting still inside of closed-off buildings is a relatively new one, and while I like a nice warm library as much as the next person, a lifestyle based around sitting is suffocating a part of you.
The movement that brings me joy is running. I’d run on treadmills before, but a combination of watching the Rio Olympics, and moving to a house in the country finally gave me the incentives to delve into an activity that truly brought me joy, as well as helping me loose 12kg.
That joy drives everything else. It gets you out of bed for the run, keeps you fuelled during it, and keeps you wanting more after it.
Whether it's running, cycling, climbing, bowling, bouldering, dancing, sailing, spinning, skiing, skating, hiking, wrestling, grappling, boxing, polo, netball, or squash... Find movement that brings you joy.