Head to a gym and ask somebody in the squat rack if they are healthy and they might reply with:
Am I healthy? Heck ya, - look at me! I have a 50" chest, 19" arms, 29" thighs, and washboard abs. I bench 315, I squat 405 and deadlift 495. Whadda mean, am I healthy? I have the body of a greek god!
This points out a very common misconception about fitness and health perpetuated by the large corporations in the fitness and supplement industry. Being strong and massive is not the same thing as being healthy! Often people confuse looking healthy with being healthy. I'm willing to bet that the IFBB bodybuilding pros that appear on stage for the big contests like Mr Olympia are some of the unhealthiest people on the planet, why, its time we look at what "heathy" is. Being strong is one very small part of health, a very small part. Many aspects of health are not nearly as apparent as rippling abs and huge biceps are.
- enjoying health and vigor of body, mind, or spirit
- mean enjoying or indicative of good health
- freedom from signs of disease
The first definition sums it up nicely - "mind, body and spirit". The Greeks understood long ago that "heathy" is a very large picture indeed and we seem to be on the verge of forgetting this today.
Lets start though with physical health, what your physician would say healthy means:
- blood pressure in healthy range, preferably on the low side of normal. Every 10-point rise in blood pressure above 115 doubles your risk of heart attack and stroke if you are over 40. With America's obesity epidemic and sedentary lifestyle, blood pressures are rising. Fully one third of American adults has high blood pressure. Remember that blood pressure naturally increases with age so if you are young and pushing the 115 number now you are headed for trouble.
- good cholesterol levels. America's dependence on highly processed, nearly fiber free foods doesn't help our cholesterol levels. Vegetables and whole grains are conspicuously absent from the average Americans dinner plate. Best guess is that 15 million Americans (5%) are taking statins to control their cholesterol.
- proper body composition, not too obese, not too lean. Although both being too lean and being too obese are both life threatening, obesity is *far* more common. Fully one third of Americans are obese. Obesity has now been labeled a disease much to my dismay.
- high cardiorespiratory endurance. If you gasp for air after climbing three flights of steps then you are in serious trouble. The last time the average American was able to run a lap around the track was way back in high school. Like all muscles, the heart needs to be worked out to be healthy! Please consider making daily cardio a top priority.
- low resting heart rate (RHR). Resting heart rate is a very good indicator of overall health. The heart is a machine with a finite number of pump cycles before it wears out. If your resting heart rate is low, your number of beats per day will be low and your heart lasts longer.
- quick heart rate recovery time after exercise. The better shape your cardiovascular system is in, the faster your heart rate will decline after strenuous exercise. If a minute after strenuous exercise your heart rate has not dropped by at least 10 beats per minute then you are in serious trouble.
- free of diseases, kind of goes without saying.
- strength to do every day activities properly. Someone feeble and weak cant lift properly and will get injured more often doing every day activities. Strength is critical to health and quality of life. Unless your job requires that you lift VW Bugs for a living, stronger isnt necessarily healthier though.
- flexibility to perform every day activities properly.
- good sleep patterns without sleep aids. Not only is getting enough sleep important for losing bodyfat and gaining muscle but its important for your overall health as well. Knocking yourself out with pills is not the same as a good nights sleep. Please see my article on how to sleep better.
- organs working properly and at full capacity. Heart muscle enlarged from steroid use is a very dangerous condition. Liver and/or kidney damage from alcohol, or supplements made with poor quality control are life threatening as well.
- free of toxins and carcinogens. A body full of toxins is not a healthy one. Pesticide residue is very common in our agri-business produced food. Smoking is another very common way that toxins enter the body.
- free of drug abuse and addictions. A body addicted to alcohol or drugs is not a healthy one.
So many people skip their cardio because "cardio kilz gains" as folks like to say. If you look at the above list, the first six of these thirteen criteria for health are improved by doing cardio whereas only two are improved by lifting weights. Whats the message? Cardiovascular exercise is far more important than weights when it comes to health! As I have said for years, if you only have time to lift weights or do your cardio - DO THE CARDIO!
Thats just the physical part of "healthy". The mental component of health is often overlooked which is a huge mistake because the mind can strongly influence the physical. So many things can interfere with good mental health that its not possible for me to list them all, something as simple as noise pollution can destroy mental health. An incessantly barking neighbors dog is enough to drive some people crazy. Eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorders have horrible physical consequences. These kinds of things require the help of a mental health professional to solve but lets look at the one specific aspect of mental health that is tightly coupled with physical health that we can do something about, stress.
Stress results from many causes and it is a very clear way in which the mental can harm the physical. The stress reaction kept our ancestors alive in fight or flight situations but those were few and far between. Our bodies are not made to handle constant, high stress and they can react, and often do react, with bad physical side effects - high blood pressure, heart attacks, cholesterol levels, etc. Everyone has horrible things happen to them - unemployment, financial problems, health issues, family trouble. The important thing for your health is how you cope with adversity. Good stress management is of critical importance if you are to be healthy. Lets look at the World Health Organization's definition of mental health:
Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.
I dont pretend to be an expert on stress reduction but good life balance is a critical part. A life with work, family, friends, health, spirituality, sports, nature, art, and intellectual pursuits all in proper balance will be a healthy one. "Proper balance" is what the individual deems proper and does not have to adhere to any moral or cultural ratios. If you are an artist and nothing else is important, then so be it. When things get out of balance, stress results and everything can fall apart. When all is in balance, its like a well-spoked bicycle wheel - able to withstand great forces despite its fragile appearance. Your daily actions should be in alignment with your goals. If "I owe, I owe, so off to work I go" is how you feel about your work then its killing you day by day because stress results when actions are not in alignment with passions.
What can you do about stress? Learn do deal with it because you cant eliminate it. Google "follow your breath", its one of the simplest and most effective meditation techniques. When things get bad, its time for a timeout. Just 5 minutes of following your breath can put things back into perspective. Exercise is not only good for the physical body, its a great way of lowering stress levels and improving mood. If you are feeling down or stressed, a nice long run might just what you need. Lastly, learn time management skills. I highly recommend the book "7 habits of highly effective people" by Covey. Its a great program for getting your actions to be inline with your goals to reduce stress and give bounce to your step.
Can you be healthy without looking healthy?
It depends on what you mean by "looking healthy". Triathletes are some of the healthiest people on the planet and on many occasions, people with physiques not nearly as massive as mine and not nearly as lean as mine blow by me on the race course. These people look fit but would look very out of place on the stage at a physique competition, even a natural one, but yet they are in even better health than I am. Internally these folks are Ferraris but externally they are Volkswagen GTIs. So its fair to say this, if you are healthy you will look very fit. The converse is not true unfortunately. I have seen bodybuilders with jaw-dropping muscular, ripped physiques who were chain smokers and wheeze and gasp for every breath when climbing stairs.
So are you healthy or do you just *look* healthy?