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.

Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

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.

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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.

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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:

If  we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and  exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the  safest way to health.Walking is man’s best medicine.

Everything in excess is opposed to nature.

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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.

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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:

  1. Don’t let extremes intimidate you.
  2. Find what makes you feel joyful, and get fit for that sport or activity.
  3. Take your time.
  4. Be patient.
  5. 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.
  6. Forget the freaks. Nobody is happy paying that kind of price to have the biggest biceps on the block.
  7. 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.