Here’s a potentially touchy question: Does your training make you a healthier person? Do I get a resounding roar of “Yes,” or do I hear crickets? How many bold souls will admit that honestly, no, their training is not contributing to their health, but may in fact be damaging it?
I’ll be the first to admit it. My training does not, in any way, maximize health. I think this is a point more of us need to be honest with ourselves about before we can help other people.
Here’s what I mean. Lets just take some general qualities of performance and body composition: strength, size, body fat %, flexibility, and endurance. Just throwing out some hypothetical numbers, a person (man, for this example) training to optimize health should reasonably be expected possess these general abilities/qualities:
Weigh 170-180ish (for a normal sized guy) at 10-15% bodyfat
Perform adequately for most measures of flexbility/mobility (be able to hinge forward and touch the floor, be able to touch their hands behind the back with one arm over the shoulder and one arm coming from beneath, etc.)
Run a 5k in 24:00
Now, I’m sure we could quibble that some of those numbers are a little too high or too low, but I think most of us can agree that the person I just described is probably quite healthy.
Let us now assume that this person decides to take up competitive powerlifting or competitive marathon running. Do you honestly think they become more healthy by pushing their strength or endurance to crazy levels at the expense of everything else? What if he decided to become a contortionist and did everything possible to drop muscle mass to be able to attain insane levels of mobility? What if he wanted to diet down to 4% bodyfat for a physique show, or get as huge as possible for bodybuilding? Although all of these things are associated with positive health outcomes (strength, muscle mass, cardiovascular endurance, reasonably low bodyfat, and mobility), pursuing any of them to the elite level does not intrinsically further your health, and it could even be harmful to you depending on your goals, methods, and potential exclusion of training for other physical characteristics and abilities.
I know that, in my training, I’m not doing anything to improve my health by working to improve a 700+ squat. To think otherwise is asinine. I do my best to keep a decent body composition and maintain decent levels of flexibility and conditioning, but I am definitely increasing joint wear and tear which is especially hazardous for cartilage which has poor blood supply and does not repair very well.
Of course, joint wear and tear is also a result of excessive running. Cardiovascular disease can result from getting too big (regardless of whether it’s muscle or fat, you still have miles of extra blood vessels your heart has to pump to), dieting down to extreme leanness can cause endocrine disruptions, and (the elephant in the room), the level of training necessary to become truly elite in ANYTHING typically carries with it an intrinsic social cost, whether it be in lost time you could have spend socializing, or stigmas associated with your lifestyle or appearance.
Sure, training solely for performance in a given discipline is more healthy than sitting on the couch eating junk and doing nothing, but is that REALLY a comparison that verifies the healthiness of your pursuit?
I think it’s important to differentiate between training for health and training for performance. I am, obviously, not against training for extreme levels of performance by any means. Nor do I think that training for performance in a given discipline must me unhealthy, just that it can be.
Consider your goals. If your main reason for training is so you can look good, feel good, and live a healthy life, then ignore all the noise out there telling you that you should get down to 4% bodyfat, run a marathon, lift ungodly amounts of weight, etc. Your training is not somehow less important or less productive because you’re not training to break records. Your goals are your goals, and your training is perfect if it serves those goals. If a trainer tries to mold your goals to conform with his or her area of of interest, give them the boot and find someone who prioritizes your goals over their own.
Hopefully, if nothing else, this will serve as a reminder to be congnizant of your goals (or your clients’ goals) and to not fool yourself with false reasons for why you do what you do. If you’re training to be healthy you’re training to be healthy. If you’re training to be a freak, you’re training to be a freak. I think both a perfectly good reasons for training, and you shouldn’t need to fool yourself about your reasons.