How often do I hear someone express surprise that so and so died of a heart attack or a stroke, because “he was just so fit”. Many people mistakenly use the words healthy and fit interchangeably, not realising there is a huge difference between the two.
Fitness is a term which describes a person’s ability to perform life’s functions with energy to spare. In everyday language, we describe as fit someone who regularly engages in exercise, either formally like resistance training, running, swimming, cycling etc or in their occupation which requires large amounts of daily energy expenditure.
Although there are specific parameters of fitness, such as cardio-respiratory, muscular strength, flexibility, recovery time etc, for the purposes of this article the term fit or fitness is used to describe someone who, through either formal exercise or occupation, maintain a good level of general fitness and is not overweight.
It is a common belief that if you engage in regular exercise, keep to your ideal weight and don’t smoke, then you are not only fit, but also healthy. This is a widespread and potentially deadly misconception.
In fact, it is possible that someone who is very fit and strong can be simultaneously very unhealthy. A recent case serves as an example:
John (not his real name) came to see me a few months ago. He engaged in many activities, including weights, running, bike riding and outrigging ( ocean water rowing) and had been very active all his life . At 53, John was regarded as very fit and healthy by his friends. He did not smoke, was lean and muscular, and had no previous medical issues, apart from a few exercise -induced injuries over the years. His heart rate was slow and his blood pressure normal.
Lately, though, he had been experiencing some dizziness, palpitations and fatigue of late and had even blacked out for a few seconds at work, which had prompted him to get a full medical investigation. To John’s absolute shock, the tests revealed he had atrial fibrillation and a 90% blockage in one of his main coronary ( ‘crown’) arteries. His cholesterol was also very high.
To say he was upset would be an under-statement. He was indignant. How could this be? He had taken pride in his youthful appearance. He was very fit and strong. He had no family history of heart problems. He had kept himself in great shape….externally.
I had known John for many years, as he would come to me for osteopathic treatment on his sports injuries. During these visits John made it clear he had no interest in nutrition or “ natural health” ideas, apart from exercise. So we never went there.
This “scare” had now motivated him. He came to seek my opinion on his situation, specifically his nutrition and diet, as he remembered my involvement in this area and was unhappy with the advice given by the dietitian, which was simply to eat “ a balanced diet”.
Johns diet was what we call the SAD- Standard Australian Diet: plenty of animal protein and dairy food every day, refined carbohydrates and sweets regularly ( “he burned it up”) and liberal quantities of caffeine and alcohol. He ate a little fruit but to his credit did eat plenty of vegetables.
I emphasised to John that his poor diet had to change, otherwise he would probably be in for a very hard landing with his health. What was the good of being the fittest corpse in the cemetery?
Such a diet wreaks havoc on the inside, even if the outside is being buffed by plenty of exercise. It is a common scenario.
James Fixx didn’t get the chance John did to wake up to the difference between fitness and health. In the late 70’s Fixx became a famous author when his book The Complete Book of Running became sports’ best seller. In it he stated that anyone who could run a marathon was immune to heart attacks. At the time Nathan Pritikin, of The Pritikin Diet fame, saw the danger in his book, and wrote an article called “Run and Die on The American Diet”, warning people not to believe such dangerous advice.
In 1982 James Fixx died of a severe heart attack whilst running, with the autopsy revealing up to 95% blockages in some coronary vessels. He was only 52. His diet was the typical SAD (Standard American Diet), basically the same as the Australian SAD. He could “run it off”, so he thought. He was wrong, and, tragically, his ignorance proved fatal.
You cannot, repeat cannot, exercise your way out of a bad diet.
Just because someone looks good (the container), doesn’t mean the insides are healthy (the contents). There is often a big discrepancy between the container and the contents.
To be optimally healthy, ALL the conditions of health must be provided, not just one.
You can be fit and unhealthy or you can be fit and healthy. The choice is yours.