Whether it be losing weight, gaining muscle, or just living an active lifestyle we all start off on our fitness journey with some sort of main goal. Early on, our decisions are mostly geared towards improving our health. Gaining muscle and losing fat makes us healthier and being active in general protects us from so many health concerns. But as we get deeper into the fitness lifestyle, we often find ourselves looking at higher performance as a goal.
It is natural to look at professional athletes and marvel at their physical capabilities. They look great and can perform unbelievable feats of athleticism. Naturally, we tend to think of athletes as the pinnacle of health. But is this really the case? Does performing at a high level really translate to better health and longevity? In reality, high performance often comes at a price. And more often than not, that price is paid from the health side of things. Not many people truly understand or acknowledge this fact. However, it is important to be transparent so that general fitness enthusiasts can make an informed decision about whether high performance is right for them.
What is Health?
In order to compare the constructs of health and performance, we have to define our starting point. Everyone has a different definition of what it means to be healthy. Medical professionals would define healthy as being free from disease and sickness. But health and wellness experts would probably add a few parameters to that definition. I might define healthy as being able bodied, free from disease, active, of sound mind, and fulfilled in life. This means that “healthy” incorporates the mind, body, and spirit to a certain extent.
If we are working toward being healthier, then our actions should not take us backward in any of the domains mentioned above. Smoking cigarettes may fulfill us in some capacity, but it also takes a huge toll on our body. By the same token, adequate amounts of exercise breaks down our body a bit in the short term, but the long term adaptation is a healthier body and brain. Again, everyone has a different range with these actions but we can still look at them with some objectivity.
Performance Can Steal Your Health
Those who perform at a high level may look really healthy, but they’re often pushing their body to the absolute limit. Taking blood work from an elite athlete during the tail end of their competitive season might reveal some surprising results. High levels of inflammation, low sex hormones and thyroid hormone, and impaired blood glucose are just a few odd results you might see. This begs the question “how could a person who exercises so much have these issues?”
The relationship between exercise and health is mostly linear in that more exercise equals better health and less risk of disease. However, as it turns out, there is such a thing as too much exercise. Eventually the relationship between exercise and health starts to reverse direction. After all, exercise does damage and break down tissue. If you end up doing more damage than your body is capable of repairing, you start getting some issues. Resources that are supposed to go to normal bodily functions have to be rerouted towards repairing the damage. As a result, normal hormone and organ function is depressed and health comprimised.
This impact on health can sometimes be temporary and reversible but often times athletes will experience long lasting effects. However, athletes are usually fine with this trade off. Most retired athletes who experience health complications will tell you that they don’t regret their decision to push their bodies so hard. And many up and coming athletes are not bothered by the dangers they might face health wise. Even those who don’t get paid or will never make a living off the sport they compete in will echo the same convictions.
Make an Informed Decision for Yourself
Whatever need or drive that athletes have to perform is much stronger than their need to preserve their health. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it certainly is something that warrants an informed decision. If you find yourself wanting to perform at a high level in some sport, you have to know the trade-off. Performing at the highest level in any sport will often age you more quickly. You might open yourself up to a higher risk of certain diseases. Or you may find that aches and pains set in at a young age. Either way, it is unlikely you will “retire” unscathed.
But, if competing or performing at a high level is something that give you joy and fulfillment, it may be worth the trade-off. Maybe your personal idea of health is different from the objective one I am presenting. For others, health is much more important to them. They are content to exercise regularly and never push their body to any extreme performance wise. In reality, there is no right or wrong answer here. You just have to choose to satisfy whichever need is more important to you.
We may look and athletes and high performers and assume they are the picture of health. But in reality, most of them currently deal with or will deal with some health issues at some point. Whether it be serious injury, organ dysfunction, or mental health concerns, performance can come at a steep price. But most athletes understand those risks and choose to engage in their sport anyway. They have made the informed decision to trade some potential “healthiness” for better performance in their sport.
There is not right or wrong answer when it comes to deciding which is best for you. Everyone has different priorities and goals in life. But in making your own decision just remember that there is a difference between maximizing health and maximizing performance.