Fitness isn’t health

If you pay attention even a little to the health happenings on the world of sport, you’ve noticed that every year one or two super fit and sometimes famous or competitive endurance athletes die of heart attacks.

The deaths are always shockers, because endurance events are supposed to be good for your heart,  yet there they go.

You hear about the super famous ones, or the super fit but unknown ones who die in famous events. If there are only two degrees of separation, you hear of more, and word travels faster. In 2010, Tom Milton, the Selle An-Atomica saddle guy died of a heart attack while on the Devil Mountain Double, a local 200-miler. Tom came by here a lot, we knew him well, and he looked like we’d all like to look at 56. Lean, smooth, tan. I’d guess he was about 6 feet x 165 lbs.

Ed Burke, a professor, author, coach, and ultra endurance rider (RAAM /Race Across America veteran), died on his bike in 2002 at age 53.

PowerBar founder/coach/marathon runner Brian Maxwell died in 2004 at age 51. In 2009 Steve Larsen collapsed and died during a track workout. He was 39, the father of 5, and may have been the fittest 39 year old in the history of sport. It wasn’t obviously a heart attack, but given his history with riding and triathlons and the mounting evidence that sustained high heart beat exercise is bad for you, it’s hard to not suspect his training.

These are a handful of the fit-deaths that come to mind immediately, and that I either knew personally (the first three) or had met (Steve Larsen). Of course there are ten thousand people who’ve benefited from exercise for every one it has killed. But given the growing number of fit-deaths, it still seems fair to say that being super fit doesn’t protect you from exercise-induced death. It makes you wonder if they’d have died if they’d halved or quartered or even totally abandoned their mileage and hourage in the decade before dieing. I know hikers and birders and couch potatos die too, but still. Hard exercise is supposed to supercharge your heart, and it’s not doing that. Maybe it’s overcharging it.

Many athletes push themselves far beyond anybody’s idea of normal, in order to give themselves that extra measure of fitness, which they confuse with health.

Fitness is how fast or far or easily or skillfully you can perform, and health is what’s going on inside.

From a bike rider’s point of view, fitness is the ability to cover a lot of miles fast. Bike riders gauge fitness as speed over distance, and the top finishers in the BORAF (Big Old Race Around France--it's not a Tour) are considered—by other bicycle riders—to be the fittest athletes in the world. Bike riding doesn’t use many muscles, and the BORAF winners don’t do anything fundamentally different than kids racing kids around the block.

But put the BORAF winner on a pommel horse, or on the mat with a high school sophomore junior varsity wrestler of the same weight, or in a swimming pool, or on a rock face, or set up the pole vault bar for him, and let’s see how fit he seems.

Every sport has its own self-serving definition of fitness, but when you look at which muscles are used, how they’re used, and the technical difficulty (and complexity) of the movements in different sports, it’s hard to make a case for the fastest bicycle rider being the best or fittest athlete.

So the only way the cyclist is even in the running in a fitness competition is if you reduce the scoring to a formula derived from speed, distance traveled, average heart rate and hours of out there. That’s aerobic fitness, but it’s not the same as extreme health, though. A good case can be made that extreme aerobic fitness comes at the cost of all around fitness and health. A good case can’t be made that these uber-human efforts we’re seeing so much of these days is good for you and gives you an extra margin of safety from heart attacks.

Extremism is the new norm

With so many people doing so many things, it’s inevitable that a certain number of them will break away from the pack and do something that’s a super nutso variant of the parent activity. The immediate community admires it and society rewards it with praise and fame and usually some kind of commercial endorsement. That’s why, over time, rock climbers end up speed-climbing 2,700-foot walls unroped, and 14-year olds sail around the world solo, and sword swallowers become sword swallowers. These are things not done in private and kept silent. Every sport and activity succumbs, over time, and there’s nothing you can do about it except Not Participate. You won’t get ooh’d and ahhh’d when you don’t, but if you can resist the immediate praise of the community for doing something wacky, you may live longer. Of course, the extremists would say that’s a life not worth living, but that’s a philosophical discussion, and right here we’re more concerned about health.

It’s important to distinguish between health and fitness, or else it’s too easy to wind up thinking fitness is the way to health, and that as long as you can ride your bike fast and long, you’re doing OK in the health department.