I was struck by an article I read this week in the New York Times Magazine, entitled “Why Are Americans So Fascinated With Extreme Fitness?” There has been a growing trend in the fitness industry with ever more extreme workouts, from P90X for in-home puking to CrossFit for group puking. While I may be exaggerating a bit, many of the hard-core fitness fanatics participating in these methods embody the following statement from the article, “The ‘extreme’ version of anything is now widely assumed to be an improvement on the original rather than a perverse amplification of it.”
Trainers are often looked up to as models of physical health and achievement, our level of fitness seen as the yardstick by which clients can measure their own. But now that there is this extreme exercise craze, I can’t claim to keep up with even the weakest of the bunch in a CrossFit or NAVY seal workout class. And I have no interest in trying. Because, to me, fitness ≠ health. Let me explain…
I recently had a forced lay-off from exercise, about 4 weeks. I needed to take it easy after a minor procedure and, knowing I’d have to restrain myself from a higher-intensity approach to life, I braced myself for a very hard month. But something unexpected happened. I had no interest in working out. I didn’t even miss it for a second. In fact, I enjoyed being inactive so much that I extended my break by another month.
It may be that my brain was tired from 20 years of structured gym training (not including the 7 years before that of formalized tennis training) or that my body preferred to experience life without the chronic aches that come along with lifting weights. It may have also been that I enjoyed having the time I saved from working out to devote to other projects I often short-change.
Whatever the reason, I was blissful for 2 months and, ta-da, my aches disappeared and I felt mentally at peace with being a sloth. I didn’t experience the typical guilt of missing a workout or not exercising as intensely as I should have. Even if my fitness levels had dropped, perhaps I was experiencing greater overall health.
Pushing yourself to be fitter and less sloth-like is probably the right approach for most people. However, if you ambled into the gym like my client last week, looking exhausted and fighting a bad cold, maybe it would be smarter to choose health over fitness. He’s so used to getting up early to run or lift (work on his fitness) that he’s forgotten how to obey the obvious signs that his body wasn’t in good health.
Deliberately dialing down the intensity of a training session now and then can be the right move if you aren’t feeling well (read: sick, overworked, stressed, sleep-deprived). Yes, this trainer is telling you to fight the urge to push too hard. After all, being fit for a lifetime requires a balance of stress and recovery. And that requires you to honestly appraise what you need most to feel your best.
Keep on Movin’
P.S. I’ve started back to exercise and I’m slowly gaining the wind in my sails.