There's no point in dying while trying to get fit, is there?
The guy was just in front of me as I was descending the steps at Red Rocks, an outdoor amphitheater in Colorado. It was a sunny morning, about 8 a.m. and crowded. People ran, walked, crab-walked and otherwise did a variety of boot camp calisthenics, many with dogs in tow.It’s a popular spot for good reason.
What struck me was how hard it was for him to walk.He wasn’t disabled. Anything but, at least in that sense of the word. He was grossly over-developed.His calves and thighs were so big that he had difficulty walking. They rubbed together in a way that made it nearly impossible for him to comfortably walk, much less exercise.It hurt to watch. In his enthusiasm to “GET HUGE” he had effectively disabled himself.
In the sometimes-extreme effort to develop titanic muscles, impress each other at the gym or win a bodybuilding contest, people often overdevelop their musculature, using steroids along with their hard work to build size. This has led to a whole other “-exia” in the fitness field, called Bigorexia, which afflicts those who simply can’t get big enough. They could outsize the Hulk, but like anorexics, can’t see what they’ve done to their bodies. It’s simply another kind of body dysmorphia.
Just like the man at the top of this page, whose over-developed traps (without equal attention to his abs and forearms) has turned him into Quasimodo. Good luck finding a collared shirt for work.
As a bodybuilder myself for 47 years, I see this all the time. What pains me is that those who engage in this kind of twisted attempt to outdo everyone else is that this isn’t fitness. It’s madness.
There are people at my gym who scoff at me because, after 47 years of lifting, I don’t sport massive size. Dear god, thank heaven I don’t. Imagine developing dense, very heavy muscles on my upper body. I get conked by a branch while riding a horse, then I try to lift all that weight back upright. You are coming off, and worse, with all that weight you’re going to land with all the delicacy of a granite boulder. I kayak, cycle, ride horses, skydive, bungee jump, hike, paraglide, a vast range of sports which require agility. Flexibility. Swift movement, especially if you’re in trouble. At 5'8.5 and about 123 lbs, even at 68, I’m agile, swift, limber. That’s healthy.
I like my guns, but you can’t break bricks with them. Besides, and forgive my frankness, who cares? Is that fitness functional? For me, at least, that 's the whole point.
Trading Fit for Freak
What good does all this hard work do if you cannot use what you’ve built, and if anything, it not only ruins your body, but shortens your life with all the drugs and horrific dieting that’s involved?
I would never take away from the work ethic these people have. However, I question- for good reason- what drives them to go so far beyond any semblance of normalcy. What are we proving here?
I met a retired fireman two weeks ago who made a comment that stuck with me. We’re both in our sixties and have been at this game for decades, in part because we’re both military veterans. The discipline of exercise and thoughtful diet are simply a way of being.
But here’s the thing. Imagine if all our soldiers were so massively overdeveloped they couldn’t walk, hike or run. Cartoon figures notwithstanding, among the finest athletes in all the military are SEALs. They tend to be smallish, tight, wiry and intensely athletic. Big muscles get in the way.
One of my friends is married to a SEAL- he’s short, tight, slim, and a ridiculously fit man, now in his seventies. This is called functional fitness. Captain America is a joke. Fine for a comic hero but dysfunctional as a solider, pilot, special ops guy. Too. Damned. Big.
The military knows exactly what it’s doing. The services can’t afford folks who can’t use their muscles any more than they can use obese folks. Whether you fit into a tank, a sub, or a high-performance aircraft, you have to be functionally fit to get the job done.
If you can’t use those muscles in life, if they don’t serve you, then this begs the question: why overdevelop them?
While I understand the attraction of having the biggest biceps on the block, why do it if taking steroids costs you one or both of your testicles, to say nothing of your long-term health? Turns you into a murderer? This is the sickness of either starving ourselves to look like the freak show which is the modeling community or bulking ourselves up to look like cartoon characters.
Here’s a good example of what cost 31-year old Austrian bodybuilding Andreas Münzer phenom his life in 1996, after he was inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
After months of stomach pain, he was hospitalized. He died not long afterwards. Here’s what the doctors found: Münzer’s kidneys and liver failed. At this point, Münzer’s condition had degraded so badly that he was unable to receive a blood transfusion. Andreas Münzer died on the morning of March 14th, 1996 at just 31 years of age.
The autopsy report was extremely unsettling. Details included a complete absence of subcutaneous bodyfat, a liver full of tennis ball sized tumors and a crumbling mass of polysterene-like tissue, and a heart almost double the size of a normal heart. His electrolytes were also out of balance and 20 different substances were found in his toxicology report.
Münzer was known for being “ripped,” a highly desirable aspect of elite bodybuilders . To get that takes ridding the body of fat and water. Unfortunately, the body needs plenty of both. That’s not healthy. That’s deadly sick.It’s also very common in bodybuilding circles, a community that loves to claim healthy living as a lifestyle. Nothing could possibly be more from the truth. My BF, who in his twenties was a champion all-natural bodybuilder, refused to take steroids, but was surrounded by those who did. He saw the damage. He chose health, won championships without them. He even met a few top bodybuilders in 2018 weeks before they succumbed to the very lifestyle habits that made them famous. That’s not functional fitness. That’s fakery of the worst possible sort. It saddens me deeply that bodybuilding has devolved into such freak shows that it's very difficult to be healthy while having the kind of extreme muscles that the industry loves. I don't decry the choice, I am sorry for the dishonesty message. It sells the one thing it is not: healthy.
Defining Functional Fitness
Any time we engage in a workout program, for my exertion dollar, it's to get to the point where we can use that strength and endurance in life. In sports. To support healthy aging. To keep us flexible, agile and confident in our physical forms.
The Mayo Clinic defines functional fitness training this way:
Functional fitness exercises train your muscles to work together and prepare them for daily tasks by simulating common movements you might do at home, at work or in sports. While using various muscles in the upper and lower body at the same time, functional fitness exercises also emphasize core stability.
As we age, we face multiple challenges ranging from sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss), decreased lung capacity, and reduced flexibility. Each of these is much reduced- although all are inevitable in the end- by regular exercise. The more we extend ourselves the better the results. However any extreme of any kind is going to do damage one way or the other. If we avoid it altogether, we pay a steep price. If we repeatedly exercise to exhaustion we can damage ourselves.
Neither is functional.When we head into the gym, the signs exhort us to push to the extreme. I see programs that deify those who do such extraordinary stunts- which frankly, are impressive- that those of us mere mortals feel like dopes because we can’t even come close. There seems to be such a celebration of extremity that those who might otherwise be motivated to even reach an average level of fitness feel defeated before they start.
The Evolution of Physical Fitness
Over the course of history, fitness and its popularity have waxed and waned. Early on, fitness was considered essential for war, with games such as the early Olympics a place were participants could demonstrate their prowess and physical beauty in celebration of Zeus. In the early days of Christianity, the emphasis on readying oneself for the afterlife overrode the importance of fitness in the earthly life. Over time, serfs and servants who worked the land had no need for any additional exercise. As the industrial revolution took hold, so did an interest in a fit form. Early proponents of fitness for everyman (and woman, thanks to Catharine Beecher in 1823) evolved, along with gymnastics and centers devoted to physical beauty and health.
The emphasis had always been on fitness which made us better in life. Not to turn us into freaks and gargoyles for bragging rights, at the extreme cost of high cholesterol, heart failure and early deaths for those who took it too far.
The Greek father of medicine, Hippocrates (whom doctors would do well to revisit, I might add) had these essential quotes about exercise:
Everything in excess is opposed to nature.
What Real Fitness Looks Like
While each of us has a unique body type, one way to think about this is what do you want to do with your body? If you’re an Olympic athlete, that’s one thing. If you’re just an everyday Joe or Jane, it’s another. Rather than be defeated by the extremes that fill the airwaves, consider where you are right now and where you would like to be. What sports do you want to do? Or do you simply want more use of your body? Beat back aging with a good regime? Get rid of diseases and the limitations that are the inevitable results of bad habits? Just to be able to roll out of bed without back pain?
My handyman, Steve, is 65. About 5'9", maybe around 160, he’s slim, flat-bellied and very strong. There’s not much he can’t lift, move around, or accomplish. He’s compact, a vegan, and meditates. He’s been doing handyman work for decades and it shows. He’s full of energy and enthusiasm, can wiggle into tiny spaces, and is extremely flexible due to his yoga practice. Steve is the epitome of functional fitness. He's vibrant, strong, full of life. And not a bulging muscle on the man.
On the other end, I see people everywhere who struggle to get out of their chairs. They need assistance getting in and out of a car. Their lives have already ended as a result of bad choices. And kindly, you and I can cripple ourselves by going to extremes at either end: too much extreme exercise cripples just as no exercise and bad food can cripple. That's not functional. That's how we die young. To that then, here's your RX for Functional Fitness:
- Don’t let extremes intimidate you.
- Find what makes you feel joyful, and get fit for that sport or activity.
- Take your time.
- Be patient.
- Work within your limitations and be willing to back off and rest when the body speaks to you in tongues about going a wee bit too far.
- Forget the freaks. Nobody is happy paying that kind of price to have the biggest biceps on the block.
- Laugh along the way. If it ain’t fun, you will find plenty of reasons to quit. That’s when we start dying young.
If the point of life is to be in it fully, extremes of any kind don't tend to serve. We want to be able to play as long as we possibly can. That's very much within our grasp. To that, there's no call for extremity but for bragging rights. Let's just not let our bragging rights end up dragging us to an early grave or disability.