Humans are a peculiar species particularly where physical activity, nutrition and lifestyle changes are concerned. All of a sudden we begin to think in absolutes and become overnight fitness extremists. Extremism however is often quite dangerous. From one end of the spectrum (inactivity, poor nutrition and ill health) we look to the polar opposite of our current situation as the solution. We jump straight from poor nutrition to extreme diets, from inactivity to hyperactivity and from the ‘bad’ as we perceive it to ‘good’ as the polar opposite and therefore correct way forwards. We assume that eating sugar is bad and that eating vegetables is good so we make crazy sweeping decisions to banish all things that contain sugar in all its hidden forms from our diet. But like in all things there is a middle-ground and the reality is that the opposite of these ‘bad’ elements is often misguided, misrepresented or just downright incorrect. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
Posture: We have a general understanding that slouching is bad posture. If you sit at a desk all day you’ll be aware of what I’m talking about. Rounded back and shoulders, head dropped, midsection switched off and your hips/bum completely inactive all while taking little shallow breathes. If this is ‘bad’ then what is good? The opposite? Stand up and stretch. Open your chest, reach back, extend your hips and lower back and squeeze your bum as hard as you can all while pulling as much air in as you can. Feels great right? For about 5 seconds. Now try to sustain that position all day. It quickly becomes uncomfortable, unsustainable and leads to a whole new set of problems. The solution, like with most things in H&F exists somewhere in between. Neutral spine, good breathing and lots of movement and within this solution exists the entire universe of good exercise. Many people dive straight into the exercise forgetting about posture. Get your posture right and you can execute the movements more effectively getting the best out of your workout. Forget about posture and you will continue to receive poor results.
General Exercise: No exercise ever is bad, we know this. Bad is bad, we know this too. We want less bad in our lives – so what is the opposite of no exercise? LOADS of exercise… immediately! Train all the time – it must be good (even if you haven’t addressed the point on posture above because who cares!). We already covered the pitfalls of biting off more than you can chew. If you are not physiologically ready for advanced high intensity twice-a-day training but you know that sitting on the couch all day is a bad idea then recognise that answer lies somewhere in between. Learn to walk before you can run, literally. If you have been doing nothing thus far and all you do is start walking to work then that is better than sitting on the couch but there is always something better we can be doing and “better” should be the aim not exhausting yourself beyond your ability to recover.
Specific Exercise: Take strength as an example. Being strong is good, being weak is bad. The solution must therefore be to train only for strength right? Well unless you are a strength athlete then that’s probably not true and even then it’s debatable! Sure strength is important – but it is one of many components on the fitness spectrum (like having the ability to run for a bus, carry your shopping bags or not die in your sleep because you neglected to train your cardiovascular system). Yes, strength training should be part of your programming but it doesn’t need to be the only thing you do. Add some structural work, teach your body new ranges of movement, do some circuit style training and get outside from time to time – the outdoors is good for the soul.
Nutrition: We know for the most part that an excess of poor quality calories can lead to poor body composition and negative health risks. Instead of modifying our diets accordingly and changing the quality of our nutrition we tend to through the baby out with the bathwater and react by thinking ‘eating has got me here, so not eating will get me out’. The thinking here is that if 3000kcals a day is bad for me then 500kcals a day must be good right? Wrong. Under-eating is just as bad for you as overeating in the same way that driving too slow on the motor way is just as likely to get someone killed as driving too fast. If you hope to live a healthy happy life on something stupid like 500kcals a day then you are in for a big surprise. Not a lean happy healthy surprise: think more along the lines of ‘finding a clown in the closet holding a knife’ kind of surprise. The answer here is eating well and understanding what that actually means, learning the basics of nutrition and adjust intake to support your levels of activity. Don’t go from having a bad breakfast to no breakfast!
The take home point in all of this is that enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. Extremism is rarely a good thing. Religious and political extremism is responsible of some of the most awful events in humanity but equally terrifying is how fitness and nutrition extremism has given rise to macro-coaches, inexperienced experts and the assumption that looking good on the outside is somehow the only indicator of good health. Take the common ground and use your common sense: look at exercise and good nutrition as medicine. Some medicine will cure you, but too much of it might kill you. Be aware of the dose response – take as little as possible to elicit the maximum positive change and aim for balance, health and longevity while having as much fun with a barbell as you can along the way. Be yourself, not the opposite of who you are!