How Fitness Can Save Your Life
You never know when being fit will save your life.
The word fitness is defined as “the ability of an organism to deal with the demands of its environment”. So in survival of the fittest terms, it is not the animal that is strongest, or most beautiful, or most durable that survives and thrives, but the animal that is most well adapted to the particular niche it occupies. This is a fairly well accepted and agreed upon concept for the word. But I would like to expand on its meaning to us in our modern lives.
My problem with this definition is that it leaves you the freedom to infer that what is necessary and important is the ability to cope with the usual, everyday demands of your environment. Where in fact fitness is the ability to deal with the potential challenges that your environment could, might, possibly throw your way.
We have spent the last 10,000+ years carefully and deliberately curating our environment to remove as many challenges as possible, making life as comfortable as possible. Which is great, don’t get me wrong. Writing this in the evening with lights on and central heating after eating a tasty meal straight from the fridge that other people grew the ingredients for and delivered to my house for me to cook on my hob without making a fire from scratch is a great privilege. One I am happy to experience on a regular basis. I am able to devote mental energy, time and effort towards this article because of that situation, it’s fantastic.
But there is a price for everything. The price we have paid for our remarkable state of convenience and comfort is that the level of fitness required to deal with the modern lack of demands of our environment is extremely low. In turn, this means that the level of fitness that our environment maintains for us is also very low. Leaving us to invent challenges like going to the gym, or running for fun (a concept that would never have made evolutionary sense until very recent times) to maintain respectable levels of fitness.
If we change our perspective for a moment, we may see the role of fitness in a different light. One that places it much higher on our priority list and bathes it in the importance it deserves among our hectic contemporary life.
To do so, let us look at how we quantify fitness. Obviously there are many metrics we could look too for this purpose, like VO2Max or Strength. But a global definition of how you would quantify the fitness of any organ or system is, I propose, “the amount of stress a system is capable of tolerating”.
Combine this with the fact that we live in a chaotic world, with a high enough degree of entropy to send us unexpected, unpredictable and occasionally devastating stressors. The result, I will argue here, is a perspective on fitness somewhat analogous to that you may have of insurance. Seeing fitness requirements in the light of the challenges you know your world will demand of you is like seeing insurance through the lens of the challenges you know your business will face. We do not do this with insurance. Instead, we insure ourselves against things that could happen, worst case scenarios. We prepare ourselves for the unlikely, but possible floods, fires and catastrophes we prey we never face, but know that the world is capable of levying upon us.
Fitness, I argue, should be seen in the same light. Being strong, lean, durable and mobile increases the amount of stress your body can take and keep on moving. We should be fit so that we are prepared for the unexpected, potentially devastating events the randomness of life just might throw our way. Start looking at things this way and I am sure your perspective of the minimal fitness level required for life will change.
To illustrate this point, I am going to share with you three examples of when different types of fitness saved a persons life, two of which are deeply personal.
In the news a few years ago the story of Kevin Hart, the famous comedian, breaking his back in a car accident was reported. Mr Hart’s driver had lost control on a Californian highway and Kevin had suffered serious injuries, including a broken back. Kevin would later share on the Joe Rogan Experience that doctors had told him that if the muscles of his abdominal cage hadn’t been so strong, he would have been snapped in half and almost certainly died, at the very least would never have walked again.
Kevin didn’t train to survive car accidents. He simply was dedicated to fitness and worked hard, likely simply for general health and vanity reasons. (Not a judgement). But by being in exceptional shape, when the unexpected, unpredictable, potentially devastating event hit, his body was able to tolerate the stress to a level that spared his life and his ability to walk.
Client and close personal friend, Loz, suffered a horrific accident snow boarding. He fell 50m, yes thats 50 metres, off a cliff. Loz has always been extremely dedicated to training and fitness. One of my most consistent clients over the last 6 years that he and his amazing wife have been training with me.
Loz pushed hard in the gym and in life. And he a had a pretty impressive physique to show for it. He used to joke and claim that he was all show and no go, being that he trained for purely and strictly vanity reasons only. But on the day of his accident it would become clear that there is not such thing useless muscle.
The fall had a lasting, incredibly serious and debilitating effect on Loz and his family. Today, as I write this, partly inspired by him, I have just returned from his house where I am helping him with rehab. He still cannot stand, let alone walk, has little function in his hands and torso. But whatever he can train he is training just as hard as he ever did. Watching him refuse to accept his current level of function and push towards a better future is humbling and inspiring.
The fall broke Loz’s neck, femur and one shoulder, while dislocating the other. Paramedics who attended to Loz at the scene told him that his muscle mass saved his life. The strength and physical padding it provided, prevented massive internal trauma to crucial organs. Loz never trained to survive massive traumas, but being strong of body conferred that benefit when catastrophe showed face. Being strong of mind, which I guess is another kind of fitness, is now getting him through the ensuing struggles no amount of strength could have protected him from.
(Loz, his wife Sarah, and his two young daughters would be extremely grateful for any donations to their gofundme campaign which you can find here).
Not all stressors are acute, traumatic, and overt in their presentation. Some, in fact many physical health and wellbeing threats, are insidious in nature. Fitness is one of the most powerful predictors of your risk of dying of any cause, but especially of the most common cause of death, cardiovascular disease. Prior to the British lockdown in response to coronavirus, my father, 75 years old at the time of this writing, played 3 rounds of 18 holes every week. It was the only thing that resembled a fitness challenge in his weekly life, and it helped him maintain perfect blood pressure, excellence resting heart rate and a respectable work capacity for his age group.
After 4 months of no golf, which ironically is probably the one sport that could have easily continued without much disruption, his fitness has suffered significantly. For a long while two bouts of only 9 holes would leave him gassed for a few days, aching and tired from the effort. At his age, (and his resistance to listening to his son) this fitness might be quite hard to re-gain.
Given that fitness, especially cardio respiratory fitness, is one of the single most protective factors against CVD, a condition that runs in our family, this diminished capacity may well shorten his life.
When you factor in that social connectedness is an extremely well documented factor in health span and life span, the situation appears even worse. His diminished fitness will in turn diminish his ability to maintain a habit that facilitates social connectedness on a regular basis. Strength, mobility, endurance, all these assets increase independence and the options of activities you can participate in. As you grow less able to move you grow less able to participate. This negative spiral is not only physical, but by extension is also social and mental.
My dad hasn’t got a go fund me campaign, but if anyone could tell him the exact same things I have been telling him for years that would be great, as he might listen to you. ; )
Fitness can save your life by making you resilient to trauma. By keeping the level of stress your heart can tolerate high, by giving you the physical endurance to hang on until help arrives or you can reach it, or by simply facilitating continued healthy habits, participation and connectedness.
Please, don’t simply meet the demands of your leisurely habit, but pursue fitness, for life. Be ready, be resilient, be robust, be fit.
Here’s a little something to help you get started on your fitness journey…