What is Health?

Greg Glassman changed the fitness landscape with his "What is fitness?" article more than any other single event in history. The ramifications of that paradigm shift can be seen everywhere from traditional bodybuilding gyms, to PT sessions run for the armed forces. For me though, this was only the start. The evolution of the definition to one of health was groundbreaking and led me to reassess what I consider quality of life.

When defining fitness, Glassman asserted that if we plotted each of ten general physical skills along the x axis of a graph, and a score of competence for the y axis, that we can then plot a curve to show a person's fitness. The area under this curve is then their fitness; a larger area means greater fitness.

This was later expanded to form the basis of the definition of health. By plotting this every year, 5 years, 10 years etc, we can then stack those graphs one in front of the other, along a z axis, and join all of the curves. This would then give us a volume, which can be used to measure health.

This forces us to view health differently. In CrossFit's now famous continuum, they show that as mile run time, deadlift as a percentage of bodyweight, resting heart rate, blood pressure and a number of other health markers, all improve in concert with one another. This means that if you can demonstrate a high level of fitness across each of the ten physical skills, and therefore have a larger area under your curve, you are healthier at that point of your life. The argument for extending this over life, is that those capacities give you the ability to enjoy your life more, and get more from it. You'll spend less time at the doctor's or the hospital, you'll be able to carry your own bags and luggage, you'll be able to perform tasks yourself, instead of having to pay someone, you'll be able to take part in a wider range of activities, and get more enjoyment from them, and in later life you'll maintain independence safely, for longer. Note at this point, that we are not talking specifically about length of life, but quality. Whilst following CrossFit's exercise and nutrition prescription is likely to lengthen life, care homes and an array of pharmaceutical interventions can do the same. Living until 90, having spent two decades being dressed and assisted to the toilet, I would contend, is a far less enjoyable life than dying at 85 in your own home, having just enjoyed a walk with friends.

After briefly contemplating our own mortality, how does this affect us day to day? Well, there are a few angles I'd like to view this from.

Daily function

With increased capacity in the gym (done the right way), comes increased capacity in life. This directly means you can do more things, for example climb a steep hill, mountain or set of steps, but indirectly means the things you can currently do, and must do, become less onerous, for example carrying shopping, or retrieving items from the loft. This opens up opportunities you don't currently have, be they physical or social. It also saves money. How? Well, the more you can do independently, the less you have to pay people to do for you. Maybe right now that sounds far fetched. Just Google the price of care homes, and you might change your mind. Further, doing more and being capable of doing more means lower chance of illness and injury. This means lower medical costs; now, but also in later life.

Emergency situations

One of my favourite books (it's actually a small series) is Methode Naturelle by Georges Hebert. This concept first published in 1912, outlines a list of physical tasks humans should be capable of, and how best to attain proficiency. I won't list the standards, because we would likely find them quite depressing, but I will say he asserts that everyone should be capable of a bar muscle-up (in his own words), in order to bring him or herself above a beam or branch from which they are hanging. This might seem outlandish as a concept from 1912, but it is believed that physical training would have taken much more of a route CrossFitters would recognise, had it not been for the First and Second World Wars killing off most of the proponents. The crux of the message shared by Hebert is that we should all be able to survive situations in which we might find ourselves. These situations might have change to some degree in the hundred plus years since these ideas first saw the light of day, but many still persist. How confident would you be climbing down the outside of a burning building? Or running to escape a terrorist or dangerous animal? What about swimming to shore from a sunken vessel? The problem with these tasks is that we are very seldom required to perform them, but when we are, there is very little room for error! So how is this part of health? Well I think it would be reasonable to suggest a healthy person should be able to survive these situations should they arise, and somebody particularly fit and healthy should even be able to assist others. In this point, I think it is important to note that nature (or murderers or arsonists etc) do not discriminate based on gender, age or any other distinction we might consider excuses us from maintaining our health.

Resisting illness, infection and injury

Put simply, the healthier you are, the less you get ill, and when you do get ill, you're better equipped to fight the illness. COVID-19 provides a pretty topical, and overwhelming demonstration of this. Of those that have died, over 94% have had co-morbidities. It is not much of a leap to say, from the remaining 6%, there were very likely to be undiscovered co-morbidities. The point is this, a healthy population would be almost COVID-19 resistant, and would develop herd immunity pretty quickly. Practically, this means less restrictions, business closures, and disruption to the economy and life. Of course, some viruses seem to have no regard for health, and kill indiscriminately, so this is certainly not a panacea, but in so many cases it can make a difference. With regards injury, all to often people see the minor injuries sustained by those who are active, then misconstrue this as working out leading to more injuries. At a simplistic level, this can be true. The truth is though, that the vast majority of workouts are very safe, and injuries relatively uncommon. Furthermore, fitter people recover more quickly when they do get injured. The most at risk group, actually seem to be those who dabble in exercise. Think the go hard on a Monday, live like a slob till Sunday type exerciser, or the Sunday league footballer, who does no other activity all week. Lack of consistency, and lack of skill are what cause injuries, more specifically than volume. Zoom out again for a moment if you will, less injuries, less often, with speedy recovery from the few you get, is what I'd call better lifelong health, and a higher quality of life.

Psychological health

Stress levels, anxiety, depression and a host of other complex conditions are favourably impacted by regular exercise. There are many reasons for this, so I'll only outline a few here, but rest assured, this is a deep and complex topic that could be discussed at length! Exercise releases endorphins. These chemicals numb pain sensations in the brain, and make us feel happier. Unlike synthetic substitutes, they aren't addictive. Additionally, exercising regularly is associated with better quality and duration of sleep; a key factor in the fight against dementia, and many other conditions. I think it's worth throwing into the mix the first and second order social effects of training too. At the gym, you'll likely meet, interact with and befriend people you might not have otherwise done. It's certainly the case for me, and one of the key reasons I love CrossFit. A step on from that, I have also met people and made friends by doing the activities and taking part in the events that CrossFit has afforded me the ability to do. When we talk about mental health, a strong social circle is right up there with nutrition, exercise and sleep, but aside from that, the very act of socialising, training together, chatting, sharing a coffee after a run, etcetera, is that quality of life we're so often seeking. It is both vaccine and antidote.

To summarise, and to build on the CrossFit definition of health, I would suggest that health is the ability to mentally and physically make the most of your life, whilst be able to rise to its inevitable challenges, for as much of your life as possible. For me, this always has started, and always will start in the gym, because this is where we meet friends. This is where we hone the physical skills we require. This is where we learn how to eat. Because this is where we can be around those who, regardless of any differences you might care to label, want to make the very best of what we have.

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