What Fitness Can Learn from Big Pharma

You are a character inside the Mortal Kombat video game.

You have a stamina bar and a lifeline bar. The stamina bar reflects the amount of energy you have to do stuff. The health bar reflects the amount of damage that has been inflicted. While separate, they have a relationship. If your health bar expires, you can’t use your stamina bar. And if you use your energy too quickly, you will be a sitting duck for the next barrage of attacks.

If we had a technology that could provide us with a halo of these two bars, our athletic ability would be prolonged. Why? I believe that most people underestimate the importance of their stamina bar, it runs out, and they ‘die’ (die = athletic ability runs out).

Let's get the facts straight. 

I want to be clear on differentiating facts from opinions. Facts are beliefs at this point in time that are collectively believed as being true due to an abundance of reproducible evidence through scientific experimentation. Opinions are beliefs derived from facts, impacted by a persons prior experience and/or belief system. An opinion will have more credibility if it sits on more facts.

Let's get past the motivational quotes that pepper the fitness industry and take a look at 'facts' that happen to the human body with time:

1.     Sarcopenia means we will lose muscle mass (and strength/power) when we age
2.     We have a loss of VO2 Max by 1-2% after the age of 40
3.     Our hormonal system changes with age (decrease in testosterone for men)
4.     Performance gain is the the accumulation of supercompensation cycles (an increase in fitness baseline after a period of recovery)

This implies our athletic ability has a timeline. Without external intervention (drugs, robotic legs, stem cells etc.), there is a point in time where we are going to lose a race to our younger selves. That’s not the depressing part. What’s more unfortunate is few of us actually reach the end of that timeline.

Now, let's look at the fitness industry.  

We have experienced a shift to functional training and high intensity training. Let’s not get caught up debating the definition of 'functional training', let’s just say that resistance training exercises now use more joints per exercise, and cardio feels much more uncomfortable (damn you Tabata!). There was plenty of evidence that supported and continues to support the shift. Functional exercises have a greater benefit to an individuals activities of daily living compared to isolation exercises, and high intensity cardio has nifty little benefits like EPOC, curbing our appetite and is quite practical as it requires less time.  

Much like a drug has its list of side effects, when it comes to training we often have selection bias; we forget to talk about the potential side effects inside that accompany certain fitness prescriptions. We get caught up with the % increase in strength from the latest training protocol, but forget to mention the number of subjects that dropped out of the experiment due to injury. The potential side effects don’t stop you from taking the drug; they provide you with a bigger picture of the pros and cons.

Here is a list of some of the potential 'side effects' that have come along with the functional training and high intensity shift:

1.     Functional exercises by definition involve more joints and require a higher level of co-ordination
2.     High intensity activities may be higher impact with larger eccentric forces (the phase of muscle contraction that makes you sore)
3.     Compound exercises load the spine (think kettlebells, squats, deadlifts etc.)
4.     High intensity exercises require more voluntary effort/willpower; something we have a finite amount of.

 This isn’t a campaign for a new tribe to oppose the functional fitness craze. Far from it. This is a campaign to prolong the functional fitness craze.

Back to the Mortal Kombat Stamina Bar...

I believe that performing high intensity and functional exercises makes our stamina bar decrease at a faster rate, resulting in our athletic ability timeline to end prematurely. The abundance of fitspirational quotes makes us train more, rest less and try more difficult exercises. We forget about biological constraints and fitness side effects very few of us can escape.

The good news is there is a way we can have our cake and eat it too. All it takes is these three steps:

 1.     Program Design: balance rest and work to allow the body to supercompensate
2.     Corrective Exercise: perform exercises to make sure that each joint functions correctly
3.     Training Intensity: do the least amount as possible to get the maximum benefit, ie – minimum threshold for a training stimulus

 The bad news is, it can’t be covered in three paragraphs, three articles or three months worth of articles. It probably can’t even be covered in 3 articles or even 3months worth of articles. It’s a long ride and I hope you all jump on and share it with me.

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