Inside-Out-Health Before Fitness

If you want to get fit, don’t just jump in. First deal with your inner self and any nagging health issues.

Like most trainers, I sit down with people to discuss their goals and their motivation to “change” before I take them on as a client. I also ask them to complete an exercise history and health questionnaire.

Getting fitter isn’t a punishment. Health and wellness should always be the priority. [Photo credit: Rx’d Photography]

After doing this in a PT setting for over a decade, I’ve noticed the most common observations discussed are:

  • Performance goals, i.e. get fit, get strong, run a marathon, etc.
  • The myriad of health issues and injuries they have.
  • That they want to “feel better about themselves, by “toning” up or losing weight, etc.

Look at that list again and think about the order for a second. Do you see a problem?

If you roll up to my club with a smoke in one hand, donut in the other, reeking of alcohol, and wanting to train, then you don’t have a fitness problem, you have a health problem. If you are chronically injured or in pain, you don’t have a fitness problem, you have a health problem. The reality is people who are often overweight or in pain actually need to get healthy first. Some people, whilst they may think they do, really don’t know what they need first or truly know why they are going to a trainer to begin with.

Somewhere along the line, we have got health (and I mean mental health, too) and fitness all mixed up.

Fit Doesn’t Mean Healthy

I was fortunate to be one of the first Circular Strength Training (CST) Instructors with Coach Scott Sonnon in Australia back in 2010. One of Coach Sonnon’s philosophies with CST is “health-first fitness.” This really inspired me when I first started personal training people in large commercial gym settings over a decade ago. What I saw in the commercial environment was exactly like Coach Sonnon discussed online – people were building aesthetics (or, even worse, were there to just to mindlessly burn calories) at the expense of athleticism. Everybody wanted to have the body of the athletes they aspired to without being the athlete. Aesthetics were being developed whilst mobility, flexibility, flowing graceful movement, coordination, balance, speed, power, agility, and other athletic attributes were being sacrificed. They were building fitness on dysfunction and frequently getting injured, all just to look good.

While I was keeping my body healthy doing all my “weird” joint health stuff (between 2001-2004, this stuff wasn’t cool or in vogue like it is now), ground-based bodyweight yoga flows (now in vogue too) and coincidentally lifting more, these athletes were walking away from weight training. Of course, they were looking great, but were in chronic pain. Ruining your health to look good just didn’t make sense to me. I thought, “Why not get a great body as the by-product of being healthy and training intelligently, and not the other way around?”

I started to notice that being fit (whatever that means) didn’t equate to being healthy. If we extrapolate this further we can look at the chemical cocktails that many pre-workout and post-workout supplements contain, and they are quite simply toxic. Most people haven’t got healthy eating happening, but will spend hundreds of dollars on supplements instead. We could look at the nutritional programming some adult females follow that have the caloric intake of a child or small teenager while they do HIIT to try and look like an insta-bikini model that has the genetics and a body type they will never have. I have even worked with trainers that would consume around one kilogram of red meat per day, doing testosterone replacement therapy in their twenties, whilst claiming to be healthy.

It’s clear many people value how they look more than whether they are healthy or not. I am not sure what pisses me off more – the fact that these people are clearly unhealthy whilst claiming to be clean-eating health advocates or that other people are so stupid as to follow them. Hey, that’s totally ok, as long as you are cognizant of what you are doing and it aligns with your values of aesthetics before health. But let’s be clear: it certainly isn’t healthy.

External Validation, Self-Worth, and Other Monkeys

Body image is a big, big problem. This means there is a breakdown in how we are thinking and the quality of our thinking.

My experience has ironically shown me that many people actually need to feel better about themselves first before they “get fit.” Yes, it’s a little like the chicken or the egg dilemma. Sure, once people start moving and get into their fitness journey, it can be a great catalyst; they do start to feel better as a result. But, oddly enough, it’s often the case that when people first feel better about themselves that they start to gravitate towards the things that are healthier for them – not the other way around. Let me give you an example.

Look at the emotional eating cycle. Enter negative thought and then emotion, deal with emotion X by self-medicating with food or drugs, self-judge and criticize for not sticking with the diet, and then feel further guilt or emotion X, and then catastrophically self-sabotage and self-medicate again with food and drugs. Or punish with exercise. Then rinse and repeat. It is a real vicious cycle. And it’s conditioning we even do to our kids by rewarding or soothing with food.

What this example indicates is that perhaps the quality of our thinking and our ability to process our emotions in a healthy way, rather than using food and drugs to self-medicate, is really the issue for a lot of body composition goals. A trainer coming in and saying the obvious, like “you need to eat better and move more,” as their best advice is just infuriating. The bigger question is, with all the information out there, why aren’t they?

In my opinion, some people would be better suited to start with a counsellor, not a personal trainer.

“Healthy thinking = perfect body.” This is a quote from self-help guru Byron Katie. In other words, when the quality of your thinking is better, then your experience of yourself and your body is, too. When you stop trying to be a perfectionist, stop self-judging and being so self-critical about your body and start to accept and love yourself, your focus changes. You just can’t ever be happy in your own skin if you are constantly comparing and competing with others, judging yourself and others, or obsessing over every little region of your body or your training program. This mental shift takes people away from poor self and body image, the “Adonis complex” and an unhealthy obsession with exercise and the perfectionist pursuit of the perfect body (which simply doesn’t exist). It means unconditionally loving your body right here and now regardless of where you are on your health and fitness journey – if you are even on one. It means your self-worth isn’t dictated by your weight, clothing size, how much you squat, or what your straddle-press handstand is like.

Rather than inquire into our thoughts and where they come from, or looking to deal with our emotions in a healthier way, we have become masters of self-medication. I have often heard “you don’t hate yourself enough to do something about it.” Maybe that has helped some people get off the couch to do something about their health, but the reality is it’s probably the very reason why they aren’t.

Longevity, Health, and Hobbies

What I have found is that when client’s motivation is health, they are more likely to adopt a long-term lifestyle of moderate physical activity and movement. I don’t mean exercising for the sake of burning calories either. I mean finding pursuits and hobbies that create passion, interest, and excitement – ones that are about learning, self-development, play, movement. Health will often trump aesthetics as a long term motivator, and finding sports and physical pursuits, passion, or practice. Why? Because they are intrinsic. Intrinsic motivators are often better for creating long term success and results than extrinsic ones such as external validation.

My guess is that training purely for aesthetic reasons is often driven by external validation and gratification, which is the stuff you should be giving yourself. As Byron Katie says, “It’s your job to like yourself, not others‘.”

What the Longest Living Cultures on the Planet Can Teach Us

In his book The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner identifies longevity hotspots in Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece), and Loma Linda (Seventh Day Adventists in California). Buettner offers explanations on empirical data and first hand observations as to why these populations live healthier and longer lives. In fact, the first three allegedly produce a high rate of centarians, suffer a fraction of the diseases that commonly kill people in other parts of the developed world, and enjoy more healthy years of life.

The people inhabiting Blue Zones share common lifestyle characteristics, and Buettner provides a list of lessons that contribute to their longevity. Excluding family, social, and spiritual factors (which were big players) they are:

  • Less smoking
  • Semi-vegetarianism. Except for the Sardinian diet, the majority of food consumed was derived from plants.
  • Constant moderate physical activity as an inseparable part of life (several hours daily).
  • Legumes being commonly consumed
  • Stress reduction
  • Moderate caloric intake
  • Low alcohol intake, especially wine.*

* I’d also add fresh air and water and enough quality sleep.

How many people do you know get all this correct before they start training or have got this right on their current training program?

The best results I have had with changing body composition and overall fitness have come from getting these exact things on track. It hasn’t been from “smoking” them in workouts. It’s been from getting their thinking right. It’s been from removing the negatives and the things that got them to where they are. It hasn’t been from giving them the next wiz-bang training program or supplementation plan.

It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.

Bruce Lee

The more I train people, the more I realize we need to focus less on adding things to our lives and more on what negatives we can remove to improve our physical and mental health. Say no to working longer hours. Say no to more alcohol and indulging (read: self-medicating with food and alcohol). Say no to the TV, computer, tablets, phones, and staying up late. Say no to the self-judgment and that little voice inside your head that says you aren’t enough or are unlovable. Say no to punishing yourself in your workouts and guilt Mondays in the gym. Say no to the negative internal dialogue and self-talk.

For many people about to embark on the getting fit journey or those who are currently training and not getting results, my advice is this: try taking a step back, first to getting your head right, and second to getting your health right.

The key to longevity in health and fitness? Remove complications:

Simple Does Not Mean Ineffective

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