Monday, October 25, 2010


Last year while I was in the restroom before the Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot 5 km race, I overheard two guys talking. They knew each other but hadn't seen each other in a while, and the topic soon turned to their expectations for the race. The lesser fit guy said that he hadn't been running much and didn't expect to do well. The other guy, who looked every bit like a good runner, replied, “That just means you've found balance.”

I think I know exactly where that second guy was coming from in his response. Somehow, in these four-plus years I've lived in Phoenix, my social network has transformed itself into a rather lopsided and biased sample of fit people. Other than my coworkers, most people I know and see on a regular basis are into running, bicycling, and/or triathlons, and they're fit. Many aren't your doing-a-race-to-finish types; they're marathoners and ultra-distance racers and humblingly strong cyclists. It's an integral part of their lives.

Just as fish probably have little understanding of the water they spend the entirety of their lives within, it's easiest to lose sight of the importance of an activity exactly when you're most surrounded by it. For me, I get a double-helping between my Ironman triathlete friends and some rather good cyclists who I ride with. In both cases, the people involved are not just doing these activities; rather, these activities have a way of owning their participants. You can't be either one of these types of people unless you are committed to it. Commitment is the necessary path to success, but it is the antagonist of balance.

Once a person decides to get off that couch and start moving, any worthwhile discussion of fitness will inevitably broach the subject of balance. How much is enough? When you're firmly inside the world of the fit, there's always someone else faster and fitter than you. But many are only a little faster and fitter, and their level of performance is reachable. By trading hours spent training for seconds gained on race day, you can beat them. But how much is enough?

One of the more common mistakes made in understanding fitness is the assumption that more is never enough. There's a dualism that separates lifestyle choices into good and bad, and the pursuit of fitness is put squarely in the good category. Thus, it follows, spending a lot of time and a lot of money pursuing fitness is a worthy way to spend one's life. Often we hear others state goals of putting in more training time or perhaps upgrading their bicycle or equipment, but infrequently do we hear goals like: “I want to cut down on my training during the weekends. I want to spend less money on fitness stuff.”

I won't argue against the point that there are many good ways to live a life. Regarding fitness, going for broke is not automatically a bad thing. However, I will make a few points.

  • Fitness is indeed underrated, even in our vain, image-crazy mass society. Most of us younger people are underrating the real possibility for preventable chronic, decades-long health problems brought about by sedentary lifestyles, and we're overestimating the ability of a quickly-becoming-dysfunctional health care system to fix our future problems.

  • There's no substitute for physical activity. No amount of healthy, organic eating and traditional or non-traditional medicine will make up for our genetic need to be out and doing something, even if that's just walking several miles a day.

  • There's also no substitute for oral hygiene. Gums that are chronically infected can lead to heart disease and other systemic health problems seemingly unrelated to the mouth, yet for all the talk that fit people make about having healthy, strong hearts, there's a strange lack of emphasis on the basics, like flossing.

The point about flossing may seem a bit strange, and yet it serves as a springboard for the overall point I'm trying to make. I've claimed previously that the optimum amount of exercise per week is ten hours. That's about one hour per day most days of the week and one long session of several hours once per week. Incidentally, this can be carried out by walking or biking to work and doing one “traditional” exercise session on the weekend, like going for a long hike or medium-distance bike ride. When you integrate physical activity into your real life, ten hours accumulate in a hurry. But I digress; this is not intended as an anti-car post.

The marginal return on exercise past ten hours seems so marginal that I suspect that, on average, no amount of additional exercise past those ten hours makes up for not flossing regularly. Put another way, exercising more than ten hours per week better deliver something of value to one's life other than perceived healthiness. Real-world people have jobs and families and social involvements and real commitments. There's nothing wrong with spending more than ten hours per week exercising—it's just an estimate I came up based on personal observation and is not based on anything scientific—but to do so with the expectation that doing so is automatically good and worthwhile is dangerous. Maybe our jobs and most probably our families and friendships and other non-fitness commitments and goals will benefit us more after devoting more time to them than will a new 5 km PR time will benefit us. This doesn't make pursuing that 5 km PR time a bad thing. Rather, it shifts the focus away from “more” and towards “balance”.

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