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Think about all of the different people you see at your local gym. There are the “bros” with every piece of gear that Jim Stoppani convinced them they need. They have a shaker bottle with some vibrantly colored fluid that they sip on between sets as they scan the gym hoping for one girl admiring their “gains.” Over on the treadmills, you might see some college-aged young lady who is doing some weird exercise that looks like something made up by Tonya Harding. Next to her is your typical middle-aged woman, likely a busy mom, grinding out her hour of cardio. On the bench is a middle-aged man half-repping 185 pounds thinking of his glory days as a 20-year-old football star, somehow ignoring his shoulder and back pain. What do all of these people have in common? They all want to be “fit,” but each has a very different definition of what that means.
Much like porn, in the immortal words of Justice Stewart, we may not know exactly what fit is, but we know it when we see it. Or so we believe. Let’s start with a clear definition of the term “fit.” Fit means that someone or something is, “in a suitable condition for doing or undergoing something; prepared, ready(1).” Clearly, the definition of fit does not include body fat percentages, aesthetic requirements, miles-run, pounds-lifted, or anything else that we often use to measure our level of “fitness.” Instead, being fit means you are capable of accomplishing your necessary tasks on a daily basis. Plus, in my opinion, being able to meet any extra needs in an emergency. So no matter what any fitness guru tells you on YouTube, fitness is a relative term. Think of it as a job interview. Does your resume show that you are “fit” for the necessary tasks of the job you are applying for? You can think about it in politicals terms too. Is this person “fit” to serve in that office? “Fit,” however it is used, is referring to a very specific and unique set of requirements applied to a task or position.
Think about this; does a marathon runner need to train the same way as a powerlifter? The short answer is no. A marathon runner is not going to lift as often or with the same intensity as someone chasing a heavy deadlift, squat, and bench. Conversely, the powerlifter is not going to run the same distance or duration as a marathon runner. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they are physically different in both capabilities and aesthetics. Each of them has unique requirements that they have to be “fit” enough to satisfy.
Now, what do a powerlifter and a marathon runner have in common? Unsurprisingly, they’re both humans. Humans, no matter what sport or profession, have some basic common physical needs. There are seven fundamental movement patterns that we should all have the proper range of motion and strength to accomplish. These are; push, pull, hinge, squat, lunge, rotation, and load carry (or walking)(2). This may vary based on sourcing, but overall it’s accurate enough to get anyone started. Whether you want to be a powerlifter, marathon runner, soldier, doctor, lawyer, or a dog groomer, you should be able to efficiently complete a task in these seven patterns of movement. This does not mean that you have to bench press twice your bodyweight or carry 100 pounds for a mile. It just means that you should have enough physical strength and mobility to move in any of these patterns without pain. Both a powerlifter and a marathon runner should be able to sit in a deep squat and not feel like they’re about to fall over or like their knees are going to break. Both should be able to complete some sort of row or pull-up, scaled or not, without feeling as though their back is too tight. Both should be able to rotate with some resistance without thinking they just cracked their spine. You get the idea. As long as a person, without some kind of injury or disability, can accomplish these tasks and has a healthy cardiovascular system, then they should be considered basically “fit.” Beyond that, any unique requirements or tasks imposed by their daily lives will determine how far they will push any of these seven movement patterns, essentially.
This sounds easy enough right? That depends. If you want to become a proficient powerlifter, marathon runner, Olympic lifter, Crossfit athlete, or any other physical competitor, then it is obviously going to be difficult. However, if you want to improve your physical capability and mobility to promote healthy joints and general longevity, then it is certainly more manageable. With the amount of sitting we do, it should be no wonder that it produces issues in mobility and increases in body fat as we get older and remain sedentary. A study of ‘Baby Boomer’ aged participants, average age of about 65, who established a baseline level of health in 1995 and 1996 was conducted for a decade and published in 2017. It showed, not surprisingly, that the more sedentary the participants were, the more mobility issues were reported as well as increased body fat(3). In simple terms, their backs hurt, their knees hurt, and they got fatter. The good news is that we can get ahead of this with learning simple exercises and emphasizing proper form. It just takes discipline.
I set some rules for myself that can apply to anyone who has been exercising for years or is just about to start.
- Humility trumps ego. I know how easy it can be to forgo form so you look stronger or more athletic than you really are. I still remember when I first started to learn how to squat with a broomstick and used a bench to gauge my depth. You can imagine how a 19-year-old guy in a college gym would feel about that. But, if I can push through that and embrace the fact that I had a long way to go, then so can you. Focus on what you need to do and not what looks cool. If you want to be “cool,” go home and stick an ice cube under your armpit because the gym is not the place for you. A lot of guys may be embarrassed to do something like glute bridges. But, if you need to improve your glute strength so your knees are safer during your squat, then do the work. The purpose of exercising isn’t to be pretty, it’s to make yourself healthier, and not everything about that will be sexy.
- Quality form needs to be the priority. If you could find more depth in a Jersey Shore episode than in your squat, then humble yourself and lower the weight. If your back resembles that of a dog relieving itself in your front yard when you deadlift, lower the weight. The only people you will impress with bad form are those that don’t know any better. Impress yourself with your dedication and progress with proper form.
- Keep it simple. Put the bosu ball away. Get off the leg press. Set down the triple-digit dumbbell. People used to get really strong well before all of the fancy accessories we have in gyms today. If you take the time to read, listen, and talk to a trainer or coach, then you can find a scaled option for a basic exercise that you can work on mastering. Ancient Greek Hoplite infantrymen carried over 40 pounds of supplies and fought with a 16-pound shield(4). They got strong enough to do their job without fancy equipment, and you can too.
- Focus on performance over aesthetics. I get it, we all want to look good naked. We see all kinds of attractive people daily on Instagram, Facebook, Netflix and every other form of media. We all want to look that good and get down ourselves if we don’t. I have some news for you. The top three reasons that people look like models are; genetics, severe self-esteem issues, and drugs. For many of those people that you see with chiseled abs or perfect glutes, it’s more than likely that their life revolves around looking good. I know that might be rewarding for some people, but for the rest of us, we have a lot of other stuff we want to spend our time on. If you focus on getting stronger and faster, it will show. You will probably not look like a professional bodybuilder, but you will look and feel better than you did before you started. Just remember, it wasn’t the prettiest Homo sapien that survived, it was the fastest one who outran the short-faced bear.
- Set short-term goals to reach your long-term goals. Great, you set a goal to lose 30 pounds in a year. While it’s certainly a noble endeavor, try adding in some smaller goals to keep you on track. Doing it this way will not only keep you on track, but it will be much more manageable mentally to step between small goals than leap after one major goal. If you worry more about adding ten pounds to your squat or removing 30 seconds from your mile in the next month, then you will be much more excited to keep working and that goal of losing 30 pounds won’t loom over you. Obviously, you need to keep checking in on your goal, whatever that may be, but focusing on smaller steps instead will keep you going.
Now, do you notice that my rules do not list any specific requirements about body fat, strength, speed, endurance, or anything like that? That’s because I wanted to make rules that could apply to any fitness goal that I set. Go back to the beginning and look at the definition of “fit” again. Think about what your personal fitness requirements should be. Whether you need to run a sub-six minute mile or just want to go about your day with no joint pain and more energy, you can apply these rules to reach that goal of being fit.
Before we’re done here and you go sign up with a personal trainer, I want to emphasize something. Just because you have energy and do not feel any pain, does not necessarily mean you are healthy. You might be fit enough to make it through your average day, but please consider what you would do if it wasn’t an average day. What if you needed to help carry or drag an injured loved one to get them to safety? Could you do that? What if you needed to run away from a mugger or, God-forbid, some sort of terrorist attack? What if your workplace was on fire and you needed to climb up or down to get out safely? Would you make it? Minimums are great to gauge where you are, but they are terrible standards to uphold. My suggestion is to get to the gym, meet with a trainer, and set a new standard. Being fit is not only meant to help you, but those around you as well. Always be an asset, not a liability.
Ultimately, the gym is a place to learn. You will learn a lot more than just how to execute exercises to hammer on those seven fundamental movement patterns. You will learn to be patient. You will learn to be humble. You will learn to the need for discipline. You will learn that you can become more than you are today by taking steps towards a stronger and faster you tomorrow. Most importantly, you will learn to master yourself.
*If you’re looking for some intense motivation to start your path of discipline, I would highly recommend listening or watching Jocko Podcast.
**If you want something to allow you to have a more effective and intense workout at home, I would highly recommend a sandbag or kettlebell from Brute Force Sandbags.
***If you do not know where to start to find quality information about exercises, programs, nutrition or anything else, I will include a list of podcasts and websites I enjoy using:
- "fit, adj.". OED Online. January 2018. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.niagara.edu/view/Entry/70747?rskey=1yT9En&result=6 (accessed February 03, 2018).
- Delaine Ross, “The Seven Basic Human Movements,” StrongFirst, (June 16, 2015,) https://www.strongfirst.com/seven-basic-human-movements/.
- Loretta DiPietro, et al. “The Joint Associations of Sedentary Time and Physical Activity With Mobility Disability in Older People: The NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study,” The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, ,glx122, https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/glx122.
- Mark Cartwright, “Hoplite,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 09 February 2013, https://www.ancient.eu/hoplite/.