Are you surprised by the question? Believe it or not, it’s hard to be both; so hard that it rarely happens in modern life.
These are all good questions to ask (especially that last one). Most of you know that I have an aversion to the word “fitness”, and rarely use it. You have no doubt noticed that the word is used to describe anything from bodybuilding to weight-loss. In short, the word has little real meaning. Plus, the common spiel is that fitness and health are acquired through the same means, but that is only true at a certain point in an individual’s progress. So fitness performance (also known as goal performance) and health performance are technically not the same thing, but they both must be understood so that you can make a conscious choice and not assume you’re always getting both in the same process.
When I owned an athletic conditioning gym I was all-in on the fitness bandwagon; coaching from a purely physical standpoint. I considered health to be a personal matter and not really my concern. Pretty typical training stuff. But as my understanding of athletic excellence grew, I realized that what was holding many people back most was their lifestyle outside of the gym. Toxic (unhealthy) behaviors are the norm in modern life, and it made no sense to me to be giving them my best as a fitness coach when they were holding themselves back with rudimentary lifestyle issues. That’s when I decided that it only made sense—and was in everybody’s best interest—to insist that people clean up their lives—as in, create a baseline of health—first, before we get to the business of fitness goals.
It was about then that I quit asking new clients what their “fitness goals” were (standard-issue question from fitness trainers) because I already knew what they needed before I ever needed to know the answer to that question. There were bad habits to break (in and out of the gym), therapies to apply, and a basic understanding of how their lifestyle would affect the results of any work that we did in the gym. While it made perfect sense to me, I was pretty surprised at how little buy-in I got from clients for this approach. Most have become conditioned to believe that their workouts would serve as the antidote to a toxic life, rather than understanding that there is no antidote for destructive lifestyle choices.
With a lifestyle and therapy training model I definitely noticed that their overall adaptation and conditioning improved considerably even without the direct training that usually required. It was clear that a focus on health alone through lifestyle and movement therapies improved functional capacity and other markers for performance like body composition. And this was in advance of any traditional training methodologies. After an initial phase when a measurable health baseline is reached, the paths to both greater health and the beginnings of fitness look pretty much the same… until you reach the other end of the spectrum: the very fit.
Remember, fitness is always about being fit for something. This ‘something’ is often a sport, or a physical pursuit as a hobby: like climbing or surfing. The commonality is that they are about performance first and always; health be damned. With that as a goal it is easy for the respective paths to diverge at a point where enhancing performance is actually destructive to health, as in the results of performance-enhancing drugs and other body-hyping strategies. Or, the ‘something’ that someone wants to be fit for is an unnatural activity that will be destructive to the integrity of the body; ultra-marathons and Iron Man Challenges come to mind. An individual can be very “fit” for these events, but the end result is damage to the body that will take a toll on future function. No strategy with health as a goal will ever compromise current or future function.
Knowing that being ultimately fit for something is a compromise of health, we all need to ask ourselves which we really want more, knowing that our ultimate quality of life will depend on the choice. You can be uncommonly fit and healthy, just not ultimately fit and healthy. You may still choose to compete in a sport or pursuit at a very high level, just don’t be surprised at the price you will pay for that choice. Choosing health first through attention to nutrition, broad-based natural movement (not exercise), sleep, water intake, stress, etc. will have the effect of limiting fitness performance even after the application of fitness training. The prize for unwavering attention to health is longevity, vibrancy, and an overall quality of life; those are things that elite fitness performance cannot promise. Personally I would never trade those qualities for the bragging rights of competitive-level fitness.