Ask ten people “What does it mean to be fit?”, and you’ll get ten different answers.
- To some people, being fit means being at the top of their sport.
- To others, being fit means being able to run a half-marathon, or simply hike for a couple of hours, without feeling like a wreck afterward.
- To others still, being fit means being able to play with their grandkids, or simply waking up without stiffness and pain.
Moreover, what fitness means to you today can change tomorrow. Case in point: Kamal Patel, Examine.com co-founder (i.e., me!).
A decade ago, my main goal was to pack on muscle. Forays into powerlifting, strongman competitions … muscle was all I cared about. I had a 430-pound deadlift, and both my squat and bench were above 300. I was roughly 175 pounds at 12% body fat, and my goal was to be consistently sub-10%.
(Note that I hail from a family of rail-thin Indians and was among the naturally skinniest of them. My max bench was a shaky, grind-it-out 65 pounds after my freshman year of college. Suffice it to say that my fitness journey took quite a lot of time, effort, and learning.)
Fast forward to today, and my definition of fitness has completely changed. I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disorder that affects connective tissue throughout the body. I’ve had well over a dozen MRIs and multiple joint surgeries. I still research fitness on a daily basis, but now with a broader understanding of interconnected factors such as joint pain and sleep.
And years of research have taught me this: fitness is usually oversimplified. For many people, it is all about muscle and fat, weights and cardio; but to solve a puzzle as complex as optimal fitness, hammering the same routines over and over will not work. You need to figure out your personal bottlenecks among the six main fitness factors and take advantage of the most recent evidence to remove them, or even turn them into strengths!
- Joint health
Healthy joints allow your body to deal with the strains of exercise, sports, and normal everyday activities. A lack of pain should be your everyday state!
Deep, restful sleep lets your body recover from the day’s activities and wake up energized.
- Muscle and exercise performance
Muscle is one of the two obvious fitness factors, but optimal muscle mass isn’t just for looks: it helps keep testosterone levels high and lets you enjoy physical activities.
- Fat loss
Fat is the second obvious fitness factor: high body fat leads to lower testosterone, lower self-esteem, and accelerated aging.
Optimal testosterone levels have far-reaching benefits, including more muscle, greater mental clarity, and better mood.
- Cardiovascular health
Cardiovascular health grows in importance as you age: improving it now will not only boost your recovery but also help prevent future heart complications.
Importantly, each factor affects all the others. So don’t focus on just a couple and let the others become roadblocks in the years to come!
Imagine you found a VW Beetle from the 1950s and upgraded the engine, and only the engine, to something from 2019. What would happen?
The drivetrain would underperform. The shocks would fail pretty quickly. The wheels would not be able to handle the speed.
By focusing on one component and neglecting all the others, you’ve only marginally improved the performance, and at the same time created new risks.
This is what happens if you don’t focus on the big picture.
Here’s a real-life example: your knees.
Every pound of excess weight you carry means about 4 pounds of extra pressure on your knees when you walk, 8 when you run. In other words, if you’re just 10 pounds overweight, that’s 40 to 80 pounds of extra pressure on your knees with every step you take!
And yet, if you’re overweight, the first thing friends told you was likely to run, either outside or on a treadmill. Miles of running every day. Hours of running each week. “No pain no gain!”
That’s a recipe for disaster.
Instead, you could alternate between running, swimming, and lifting, so that your efforts don’t all put pressure on your knees. You can also decrease your knee pain with smarter nutrition, supplementation, and body positioning at work.
As your pain decreases, you can exercise more and thus lose more weight, thus lessening the pressure on your knees, thus reducing the pain even more. More exercise and less pain make for better sleep, thus better recovery, allowing you to exercise harder. The harder you exercise, the more your cardiovascular system improves, making it possible for you to exercise longer, thus lose more weight, thus decrease the pressure on your knees, and so on and so forth.
In short, as you improve one fitness factor, the others improve too. This synergistic process is the virtuous circle of fitness.
Too many books focus on just one fitness factor. But most people don’t have time to read six different books and figure out, for each of them, what’s true and what’s just good salesmanship. The job of our Fitness Guide is to translate all the most recent scientific evidence about the six main fitness factors so you know which diets, supplements, and lifestyle approaches work, which don’t, and which might but don’t have enough evidence yet.