Attraction to the Extremes of Physical Fitness and Appearance and How it May be Harming You
Before we delve in to the main topic of this article I am itching to tell you, as an aside, how to be a world-class athlete, let me get that off my chest then I guarantee we’ll get back to the bigger picture.
How to be a World Beating Athlete
Perhaps You’d Like To:
- Run 100m faster than Usain Bolt or Florence Griffith-Joyner?
- Run a marathon in less time than Dennis Kimetto or Paula Radcliffe?
- Out-punch Mike Tyson or Ann Wolfe?
- Develop superior conditioning to Conor McGregor or Holly Holm?
- Build an Olympian body to outclass Arnold Schwarzenegger or Marta Aguiar?
- Bench press more weight than Eric Spoto or April Mathis?
- Beat Ben Smith or Katrín Tanja Davíðsdóttir at the Crossfit Games?
- Dance like Rudolf Nureyev or Margot Fonteyn?
A photo posted by Ballet (@royal_ballet) on
Here are 2 Steps to guarantee your success:
- Have genetic make up that is ideal for your activity of choice. To do this you will have already won the Parental Lottery for suitable DNA, congratulations! (The odds are long-but some body’s got to win). Alternatively wait a few years for genetic science to advance enough to be able to make up for your “short-comings” and pay for the gene-therapy you require.
- Develop an extreme passion for your activity of choice to the degree that it consumes your life. You will likely need to do this from a very young age to be successful for the majority of available activities. This passion will need to be both intense and sustained, as the repetition of practice required would be considered deeply boring by most human beings (even the ones who are interested enough to show up to watch you compete live as your success grows).
What you can Hope For in Return
- Achieving a level of unparalleled excellence and mastery in your chosen activity. This alone is a huge intrinsic reward that is undoubtedly of immense value.
- Fame and adulation- please note that this is usually in direct proportion to the popularity of your chosen sport. Only a handful of individuals per generation may be able to transcend a niche sport and establish a foothold in the mainstream consciousness. This is usually based either on exceptional talent and standout performances, or personality and an impressive ability to self-promote.
- Wealth- this also is usually in direct proportion to the popularity of the sport you have chosen to succeed at… and of course the value of the contracts your agent is able to negotiate.
Terms and Conditions Do Apply:
- You will likely need to be prepared to spend your successful years hovering on a knife-edge between overreaching and overtraining with limited recovery available to you. See point 2. below, for the potential long term ramifications of this.
- You may be required to push your body to the degree that by the time you reach your mid- 30’s you are in some degree of pain much of the time.
- You may find yourself in a position where you are encouraged to surreptitiously take banned substances, substances that may enhance your ability to perform and recover. These substances do not however guarantee victory and may cause side effects and health issues, long after you have ceased taking them.
- Note that fame, adulation and the high of winning typically have a short lifespan and you may find yourself spending your post competitive career attempting to recapture that level of excitement.
- There is no guarantee that you will be able to maintain your earning potential after your competitive career is over. Invest wisely whilst you are still winning.
What About the Rest of Us?
If you have the right DNA and you are able to forge a sustained passion for a sport or activity then you are going to have access to all the plusses and minuses of sports success mentioned above. You will also likely become a role model for others, whether you intend to or not.
For the rest of us we need to ask ourselves are super successful and naturally talented athletes appropriate role models for those of us with more, shall we say balanced DNA?
Psychological Role Models… Yes
Athletes can of course be inspirational role models from a psychological perspective. Their passion, focus, determination and so on, are admirable traits played out in the arena of sports, traits that we can all aspire to within our own daily lives.
We can all relate to the emotional ups, downs, challenges and sacrifices made in the name of achievement. This I do not question, from pre-history, to the games of Ancient Greece, to those beamed into our homes by the television corporations of today, world class athletes are important. Their achievements in the microcosm of their sport are a representation of the human experience at the macro level, for the rest of us to enjoy safely from the sidelines.
Appropriate Role Models of Physical Fitness?
First we need to answer the question- are athletes physically fit? Actually lets rewind even further, what do we mean by fit? Or even better fit for what?
Evolutionary theory’s “survival of the fittest” is an appropriate phrase and concept to call upon when discussing sporting endeavor. An Olympic champion, on the day that mattered most, proved to be the “fittest” of all the competitors for the event they performed in. Less fit competitors fell by the wayside on the path to gold, unable to survive under the pressure of selective competition.
The best athletes in the world are the fittest for their sport- their optimal DNA, itself optimized through training, practice, repetition and dedication equal success. Note however that an athlete’s DNA would not allow them to be the fittest at any randomly given activity or sport. Their inherited traits display greatness in a specific pool- that’s why sprinters are not the fittest middle distance runners.
Fitness is therefore practically specific.
Unless you are a competitive athlete, training for a specific event I suggest that you will be best served by being physically fit for life, first and foremost. Before further developing the concept of being Physically Fit for Life I want to be clear that being fit for athletic expression does not automatically confer optimal health.
Fitness and Health, Not One And the Same
Fitness and health are two concepts that are often bandied about as if they are one and the same. An athlete that is able to perform optimally at their event, being the fittest, may however be doing so whilst even at the expense of their health.
We all have a tendency of looking at a champion athlete’s achievements and physique and thinking she’s fit, when we actually implicitly mean fit and healthy: a physical role model, a paragon of health, owner of a state of physical being that is to be aspired to!
The degree of extremes that professional athletes go to in their training however means that fit to perform at peak on certain competition days does not necessarily mean healthy in any wider sense.
Professional athletes actually tend to get sick more often and for longer, than recreational athletes who exercise more moderately (upper respiratory tract infections are a bain of endurance champions). Performing an excessive amount of exercise causes a transient suppression of immune function following a workout, leaving what researchers refer to as an “open window” for viral infections to take advantage of. Research has suggested that a hard run of 90 minutes or longer may suppress the immune system for up to three days.
Continuously excessive amounts of exercise as may occur cumulatively over a professional athlete’s season can also cause chronic inflammation and increase the likelihood of potential long-term damage or illness taking hold.
It is simply a case of world-class athletes having to do what they have to do to win short-term. Long-term health is simply not a number one priority during the prime of a successful athletic career.
Perhaps then aspiring to the training regimes of professional athlete’s is a big mistake for the rest of us.
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Our Attraction to Extremes
A champion athlete’s physiology is a rare thing and rare things are often perceived to be valuable- indeed that’s one reason why successful athletes in popular sports make good money. They are able to do things that the majority cannot and enough of the rest of us will pay handsomely to see that or to be associated with that in the case of sponsorship.
This also suggests that the rarity of that athlete’s physiology may be another reason that they are an unrealistic and frustrating physical role model to look up to unless you yourself are cut from a similar genetic cloth, which is unlikely for the vast majority of us.
Humans of the 21st century it appears are particularly attracted to extremes- one only has to look at those who are reflected back at us, as being the most physically beautiful humans.
The super tall and skinny catwalk princesses, the men’s magazine’s cover models: all pecs, biceps and six packs, and the fitness Instagrammer’s with their post-workout gun-shows or ridiculously swollen “squat” butts. These people don’t look “normal” at least not by my reckoning, these world’s checked normal at the door a long time ago.
Perhaps now it is normal to aspire to look like you mask your hunger with cigarettes and cocaine, or to look like you dwell in the gym only resting your monstrous biceps to stick a needle in your butt and chug a protein shake, or like you spent your loan on butt implants or a long-term contract with a Photoshop pro who “refines” your social media output.
This all helps contribute to a viscous cycle that plays on the wider population’s physical insecurities: we bite and begin to think that the abnormal is normal. It has come to be that a fit-looking-but-fake body is perceived as more important or valuable than a body that is physically fit for life.
It is perhaps the democratization of fame that has arrived with the rapid expansion of social media that is partly responsible for expediting a vapid physical culture of unreality. The pressure to post the perfect HD representation of your own image, to be forever judged by your global peers is too much for many teens and young adults to bear without resorting to potentially damaging behaviors.
We all want to look our best, to be able to present our best side to the lens that the world has become… and yet at the same time most of us do care, or will ultimately come to care about our long-term fitness for living and our health.
In part 2 of this article I will develop the concept of being physically fit for life and I will present a program of exercise that will keep you physically fit for life.
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