It was the summer of 1976, and I wanted to watch the Olympic sprinters in Montreal. I was in a hospital bed with an undiagnosed ill-ness that caused me to drop 60 pounds in less than a year. Now, weighing only 97 pounds, I was barely able to reach the switch for the TV and too weak to turn it on. The nurse came in to help me. While watching the Olympic games, I remembered the days when I was a national-class sprinter. And I wondered how my health could so rap-idly deteriorate.
The road to full recovery from that illness was long, and required that I learn more about how my body works. In a sense I’m still on that road, continually and now intuitively assessing my food, nutri-tion, physical activity and lifestyle in order to stay healthy. By tuning in more closely to my body’s needs after my illness I began to see the immediate benefits of improved health and also began to feel well for the first time in several years. During this period I began going for a walk every day. In April 1980, I found myself admiring the finishers of the Boston Marathon, thinking that these runners must be really healthy in order to run more than 26 miles. As I watched the marathoners finish I developed a desire to test my own health. I had been walking regularly for more than two years. The New York City Marathon was six months away and that seemed like plenty of time to train for it. After all, I mused, I ran in high school and in college.
It was a cool, overcast morning as I began my journey to the New York City Marathon. The race started with a cannon blast so loud it shook the Verrazano Bridge. The crowd of 18,000 runners began to move and I was among them, ready to prove to myself that I really was healthy. All went well through the first 10 miles. The excitement swept me along at a slightly quicker pace than planned, yet I felt great. As expected, by 15 miles I felt tired but was able to continue.
Within the next couple of miles, however, I began to shiver. Despite drinking plenty of water, I felt dehydrated. And I was craving cotton candy. At 18 miles, I stopped to check my feet. They were numb, and I wanted to be sure they were still there. “My hamstrings are cramp-ing,” I said out loud. Suddenly I realized I wasn’t thinking rationally and all I could remember was my goal to finish the race and prove my health.
Alarmed by how bad I looked, two paramedics tried to take me off the course. But I wouldn’t stop. Somehow, I fought my way onward. I have very little memory of those last few miles, but I’ll always remember the finale. A minor collision with a TV camera in Central Park made me realize I was close to the end of the race. As the pain became more intense, the crowds got louder, and I finally had a clear view — the finish line.
A medal was hung around my neck, and I cried. I thought the les-son was over, but would soon be struck by a more meaningful one. The next moment I discovered myself in the first-aid tent. It looked like a war zone. There were casualties all around me. Doctors and nurses were running around. People on cots groaned in pain. Ambulances came and went.
Looking around I had to wonder: “Are these people really healthy?” I realized then that running the marathon had not proven my health at all. I was fit enough to run 26.2 miles. But clearly fitness was something quite different from health. The next morning, sore but happy, I pondered my new goal to improve my health. Achieving this would not be so simple as running a marathon. Optimal health would be something that I would continually strive to attain for the rest of my life.
Defining Fitness and Health
The real lesson from my marathon experience was not one of proving health, but rather that I became fit enough to run a marathon. Clearly this had nothing to do with my health. Fitness and health, though many think the terms are interchangeable, are actually two different, but mutually dependent states.
Later, in treating patients who were very athletic, I would see individuals who were very fit but at the same time unhealthy; injuries, illness and other unhealthy conditions often accompanied their quests to be faster or go farther. Clearly, some athletes would be healthier had they stayed couch potatoes! On the other hand, I saw many sedentary people who attempted to get healthy without an ade-quate level of fitness — also a condition that was not ideal. The main reason for the dysfunction in both types of patient is an imbalance between fitness and health. Let us define these two important terms as follows:
- Fitness: The ability to perform physical activity. You define thelimits of your fitness; you can walk a mile a day or train for the Ironman Triathlon.
- Health: The optimal balance of all systems of the body — thenervous, muscular, skeletal, circulatory, digestive, lymphatic, hormonal and all other systems.
Improving fitness is associated with physical activity. Only a cou-ple of generations ago, most people were naturally active, working hard physically to accomplish their daily chores. Today, we have esca-lators, microwaves and remote controls. Some people drive around a parking lot for 10 minutes to get a parking space closer to the door. Others wait minutes for an elevator just to go to the first floor. We can fulfill most of our needs literally at the push of a button. This radical change from a vigorous to an inactive lifestyle has taken place, genet-ically speaking, in a very short time frame. The human body can’t adapt to such a major change without dire consequences. Our relative inactivity has resulted in an overweight and obese society and an entire host of other functional disorders from blood-sugar problems and overfat bodies, to fatigue and low-back pain. This is followed by increased rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other diseases. Dysfunction and disease are, in large part, due to not taking care of the body.
Since most of us have lost the natural tendency to be active like our very recent ancestors, we must satisfy that need artificially, by exercising. Without some fitness activity, you can’t improve your level of health. And don’t forget the issue of balance; too much activ-ity can also impair your health.
Steps to improving your health may include eating real foods rather than processed, obtaining real vitamins and other nutrients from foods rather than synthetic vitamin supplements, and control-ling stress. These and other specifics are discussed throughout this book.
With the realization that fitness and health are different also came the conclusion that these states are elements of an even larger concept human performance. When health and fitness are balanced, the result is optimal human performance. We often associate human per-formance with the fulfillment of some athletic feat, like winning an Olympic gold medal. But in the true sense, human performance per-tains to all aspects of life, including personal, family, social and work functions.
Performance pertains to either physical or mental activi-ties, or both. The benefits of improved human performance include increased energy, productivity, creativity, and better relationships with people. In my practice I had the pleasure and excitement to actu-ally see people improve their human performance, and thus succeed at whatever their primary goal in life was at the time. These goals included winning the Ironman Triathlon, achieving career success, and being the best-possible parent.
The secret to reaching any of these goals is optimal human performance, and its foundation is balanced fitness and health. Thus, we can define human performance as the opti-mal balance between health and fitness that allows a person to achieve success in all areas of life. Or, the simple equation:
Fitness + Health = Human Performance
This is a relatively simple concept to understand, but it’s impor-tant to note that this equation is not one-directional, as its effects are actually cyclical and exponential. In other words, increased human performance can, in return, also bring about even greater improve-ments in the foundational elements of fitness and heath. Thus, as you improve your fitness and health, thereby improving your human per-formance, this additional human performance can fuel even further improvements in your fitness and health. There’s virtually no end to this cycle, meaning that a person can achieve virtually unlimited physical and mental energy. It’s really just a matter of how far you are willing to go to improve your fitness and your health.