When we talk about ‘fitness’ or ‘health’ definitions are often blurred. Inwardly the fitness industry tends to focus heavily on body composition, size, and strength, while outwardly our health service and medical industry have real concerns over obesity, diabetes, and the rapidly increasing elderly population. There is still a major disparity between the two camps, though in reality the two are closely linked. The fitness industry by it’s nature seems to attract those who are younger and have less interest in the long-term health aspects of exercise and fitness. Through the rise in media surrounding how we look, rather than how we feel, it has become far more trendy to post pictures of six-pack transformations and large muscular physiques than it has case studies of improved health, daily function, or disease reduction. Nevertheless, the two need not be mutually exclusive, although it is questionable that we should sacrifice the latter in search of the former. If our clients are truly in search of ‘feeling’ better then we need to take a wider look at their health and know that if they can get those aspects in line that they will not only feel they look better, but also feel better about how they look.
The increase in depression, eating disorders, stress-related illness, and dependence on medication is frightening. Our ability to change our habits and improve our health is built on a foundation of being able to emotionally cope with change, and the realisation of the need to do so. Obesity lives at one end of the eating spectrum, while obsessive eating behaviours and eating disorders occupy the other. Both are unhealthy but are all too easily formed. For many who feel a lack of control in other aspects of their life, eating habits can quickly become the anchor to which they attach a need for control. Of course, eating is not the only vice chosen. Alcohol, drugs, smoking, gambling, violence, and promiscuity all form conduits by which people try to find some escape from their unhappiness. For those wanting to make changes to their life, addressing emotional health is the place to begin. Recognising this and then taking steps to improve it is a necessary start to living a life free of unhealthy emotional attachments and destructive habits.
Tip: Many factors affect our emotional health and the reality is that we will all have to deal with difficult and unpleasant situations in our life. Adopting healthy habits and hobbies that bring us pleasure, be that owning a pet or taking up a sport, improve our ability to deal with these situations and minimise their impact on our overall health. Find something you’ve always wanted to try or experience and go do it. Searching out new and exciting experiences is always rewarding, support this with a diet high in unprocessed foods and vegetables, healthy sleep patterns, and minimising substance/stimulant use that tend to have a depressive effect.
While working out is often associated with building bigger muscles and improving muscular strength, it is far less trendy or sexy to talk about joint health. However, when our joints start to break down or are injured the effects are debilitating. This is why we place such a large focus on flexibility when working with our clients. While the benefits of resistance training are plentiful and well-established, it does carry the potential to increase wear and tear on the joints of the body. Of course, this may not manifest itself to some way down the training journey, but when it does it will be much harder than muscle damage to recover from. Our joint structures turnover far slower than our muscles and once damaged will be hard to repair. Couple this with the effects of age, poor nutrition, and a sedentary lifestyle and the importance of attention to joint health is obvious.
Tip: Bodybuilder Reg Park (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s idol) recognised many decades ago that there was value in taking lay-offs from heavy resistance training loads. While this may be a bitter pill to swallow for those competing in strength sports, it shouldn’t be so hard to swallow for those for whom long-term health is a consideration. Breaks from high volumes of resistance training, coupled with a healthy respect for flexibility and nutrition should provide a recipe that can mean making weight training a lifelong pursuit. Similarly, so many people ignore the signs of poor joint health and continue to load joints through a fear of ‘letting go’ of their strength training schedule. Stretch tight areas, improve range of movement, and allow rest and recovery when joints start to tell you that they need a break. Activities like yoga, Pilates, and tai chi can be a fantastic balance for heavy resistance training.
The digestive system is a powerful window into our health. Modern research is identifying the role of the various elements of gut health that can even start to show links between digestive flora and obesity and we all know the effects that stress, anxiety, or excitement can have on our stomachs. Our digestion can also suffer when confronted with foods that provide a greater challenge than it was originally designed for. Diets high in wheat, gluten, refined/processed foods, all increase the burden on the gut to effectively break down and absorb nutrients, which can affect everything from our mental health (95% of our serotonin is found in the gut) to simply cramping our social life when suffering from bloating and stomach ache. It isn’t just our diet either that can cause digestive problems. Prescription medication often has detrimental impacts on gut health, ranging from the damage caused by NSAIDS to our stomach lining to the effect of antibiotic use on digestive flora.
Tip: If you suffer from poor gut health then an elimination diet can be a useful way to determine what causes you problems. Taking out key troublemakers such as high wheat foods can often have an immediate impact on improving digestion. Often including foods like pears, nectarines, and prunes can help smooth digestive transit along with a good intake of water. Try to avoid using over the counter medication where possible, in particular known gut irritants like Ibuprofen.
With so many of our clients attending regular health screenings and operating in high stress environments it would be foolhardy to be ignorant of metabolic markers of health. From aerobic capacity through to blood lipid levels, these tests can provide insights into the possible risk of long-term health problems. Cholesterol still seems to be predominant spectre of impending doom, though I am less convinced by its importance, particularly with some of the levels our clients are being told are ‘unhealthy’ seem to be getting lower and lower each year. It is a shame that these medicals give little attention to measures of inflammation and blood triglycerides, which to me would seem more pertinent as the paradigm surrounding heart disease risk gradually starts to shift. Aside from that debate, blood pressure, waist circumference, and resting blood glucose provide an excellent insight into our clients health and we have consistently seen these drop markedly in our clients with a bit of attention to diet, a reduction in alcohol intake (note total abstinence not required), and the addition of some cardiovascular exercise, which our clients enjoy both the physical and psychological benefits of despite its vilification in recent times by countless fitness experts and personal trainers.
Tip: Metabolic markers of health can often be considerably improved with simple and easily sustained changes to diet, lifestyle, and exercise habits. Reducing alcohol on several days of the week, lowering sugar and starch intake, taking some exercise over the weekend, and managing stress all combine to have a powerful effect on improving health.
The last part of this little post is to look at dental health and the emerging data linking heart disease and dental health. I won’t get into all the hubbub surrounding fillings and heavy metal poisoning etc, it’s way beyond the scope of this post and I’m way under qualified to comment on it. However, one thing is for sure and that’s that we only get one set of adult teeth so we had better look after them. Many habits that affect our health negatively can also impact on our dental health causing tooth decay, gum disease, discolouration, acid erosion, and bad breath. All equally bad news, but a very quick and easy way to get a window into someone’s overall health is to look inside their mouth. Stress, anxiety, and stimulants can cause teeth grinding (the official name is Bruxism) which also accelerates the wear and tear on our mouth. In a 2010 study, those participants with the worst oral hygiene routine were 70% more likely to develop heart disease compared to those who cleaned their teeth twice a day. Whether it is causative or simply correlation remains in debate, in a similar way to how we should be viewing cholesterol in reality. However, gum disease (gingivitis) is an inflammatory condition and modern health research is showing us that for many years’ inflammation has been the elephant in the room when it comes to heart disease.
Tip: Brush your teeth twice daily, preferably with a electric toothbrush and careful attention to teeth, tongue, and gums. Get teeth professionally cleaned by a hygienist twice a year, and avoid habits that damage teeth, such as smoking and fizzy drinks.
So, there you have it. Five pillars of health that when combined give an insight into our overall fitness outside of the now more mainstream measures of BMI, Body Composition, or muscularity. What’s more is that very few of these require much effort to monitor or measure, with the exception of some aspects of our metabolic health that can be easily tested with home kits or via private medicals. Address and in turn improve in all the above areas and it is highly likely that you’ll see an accompanying improvement in how you look, feel, move, and function as our body remodels itself to the demands placed on it. Often health improvement is less of a consideration or motivation for many taking up exercise, but for those clients we see at our City of London studios it will often be a high priority as they notice their decreased ability to cope with the stresses of the modern workplace and lifestyle surrounding it. As with much of our work, simple changes can have profound effects. Tackling the ‘big rocks’ within our clients’ lives, and strengthening them through intelligently applied resistance and cardiovascular training provides a platform for them to continue to enjoy their work, families, and leisure time.