Fit, Flab and Flogging the Body


Remember those dungeons in stories, full of instruments of torture ?

Do you ever get the guilts about being unfit? Do you see your friends hit the gym and think "hmmm, I should do that"? Or jog or cycle, or whatever?

Well the good news is there is no such thing as being 'fit'. Most of the talk of fitness you hear assumes that fitness is some single thing or state that you can reach with more or less 'exercise'. There are a whole range of interesting assumptions built into that.

The most obvious assumption is that nobody is ever just fit. You have to do something to become fit, and then to stay fit. So we're all (apparently) born with slob as our default state. We're naturally flawed, if you like, we can't just be, we have to go out and do a whole lot of physical things for our bodies to operate in a healthy way. Often this is justified by stories about how in earlier times we were all running about chasing buffalos and kangaroos so that we'd have something to eat - hunting is what always kept us fit, but now our 'sedentary' lifestyles mean we're all turning to flab. (Interestingly in these stories it's just the fellas out chasing food, the women are gathering seeds and nuts and doing all the cooking. So sorry ladies, under that theory you've been slobs for the past few million years.)

Not to worry, the theory is likely crap. Ever noticed that animals at the zoo still seem to be pretty 'ripped', even though most of them haven't had to hunt for food their whole lives but have had it dished up on trays at regular times? Apart from the occasional keeper that gets eaten, there's not much hunting going on. And even many wild mammals spend most of their days laying in the shade or up a tree picking fleas off themselves, or napping. And they're ripped and 'fit' in ways that would put any gym junkie completely to shame. How can it be?

There are 2 more big assumptions behind the fitness industry, and it is an industry, it makes billions of dollars every year. One is that without exercise you will get fat. The other is that if you want to be ripped, to have good muscle tone, you have to 'exercise' those muscles.

To take getting fat first, ever seen a fat animal? I don't mean animals whose nature is to carry fat (although they're not common, like walruses who use blubber to keep warm), just ordinary non-domestic animals. A fat lion, anyone? A fat gorilla? A fat giraffe? Me either. Animals don't get fat for the simple reason that they don't eat when they've had enough to eat. They use their appetite to guide them in how much food to put in their mouths. So why do we humans keep eating when we've had enough to eat? Nearly always because of some form of food addiction, such as sugar or alcohol, which drive us to keep eating or drinking past when we're full. Our bodies are just animal bodies, we're built to be super lean, carrying no excess fat, if we stop eating when we're full. No need for exercise to keep a healthy weight at all.

As for muscle tone, the fitness industry has everybody convinced that unless you're pumping iron and running and cycling and swimming, or whatever else, you'll turn to flab. But remembering the ripped wild animals, and how they don't spend hours every day exercising, and no time at all with weights, why aren't we just naturally ripped, like them? Because, as I described a while back (see here), we don't use our bodies how they're designed to be used. We consciously turn off a lot of our muscles as we go about our everyday activities like sitting or walking, so that we're slumped and slouched. The reason wild animals are always ripped is that they don't do that, in even the simplest activities like laying under a tree all of their muscles are being 'worked out'. People can do that too, if they re-learn how to stop turning all of their muscles off. No need for even the tiniest bit of what we normally call exercise to achieve perfect toning, all over.

So back to being fit, or fitness. The problem with the way we use that idea is that it assumes that there is some perfect end-point called fit, and depending on how much we exercise we're more or less close to that end-point. But we're all born fit, and we can stay that way our whole lives, provided we don't have a food addiction and that we use all of our muscles when we do things. Like wild animals. There is a much better and more accurate use of the word fit, closer to its original meaning, as in 'to fit'. For example our clothes can fit us well or badly. Or a window we're installing might be a good fit for the hole in the wall. Or something is 'fit for purpose', meaning it's a perfect match for what it's going to do.

That's what fitness really is. Not some end-point of hours and hours of flogging our poor bodies half to death. Your body can be exercised to cope well with particular things you want to do, so that if you're a runner for example if you practice it a lot, your body will change to become better at running, so that runs which originally exhaust you get easier and easier. Your body is then 'fit' for that specific purpose - running. There is no such thing as a 'fit' person, only bodies that are fit for various purposes they've been trained to be fit for, even if that's just sitting and watching TV. A top swimmer won't necessarily be a top rower or runner, the body will be different because it's a completely different specific activity.

In fact elite athletes, or even ordinary people who exercise a lot, are less healthy than people who just eat what they need and use their bodies properly in the ordinary, everyday things they do. Exercise at that level places enormous strains and forces on the body, it's not good for you, even if you can manage to do it using your body well in the whole-of-body way. Elite athletes are often sick for just this reason, because they've stressed their bodies to an extreme level. They're not 'fitter' than the rest of us, they've focused their bodies in specific ways to do very specific things. You are just as fit doing no exercise at all, provided you use your body in the way it's designed to be used.

You may not be able to run 40km non-stop, but that's only because you haven't stressed your body repeatedly in hours and hours of running to make it 'fit' to that task. And your joints and muscles and organs and the rest of you are very happy not to have all those forces and stresses put on them.

That's not at all to say that people shouldn't run, swim, ride a bike - whatever. Those things are all fun. But it's pointless doing those things to 'get fit', because there is no such thing as that general 'fitness'. Unless you're an elite runner or swimmer or cyclist and you have to train your body for those extreme activities. You're not going to be any healthier if you flog yourself like that - quite the opposite.

Gyms on the other hand abstract physical activity into machines. So instead of going out for a run and taking in the sights and sounds, you run on the spot on a treadmill. They extract the 'exercise' out of the everyday activity and get rid of everything else. Now that's fine if you actually like the surroundings of a gym, with the music and people and so on, it's likely to be more fun for you running there than out in the bush. But many people go to gyms solely to 'get fit', to 'do the exercise', and unfortunately because there's no such thing as fit in that general way, it's a waste of their time and money. So they'd probably be better off taking in the sights and sounds of their local neighbourhood on foot or a bike.

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