The Difference Between Being Fit & Being Healthy

Ever since the death of a fellow runner due to a cardiac episode a few days ago, I have been getting a lot of questions from concerned athletes, especially the middle-aged ones, and understandably so. Not just the athletes but their family and friends are also cautioning them about running and they come to me for help or opinion. So it is important to address this topic now.

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First of all, one death among thousands of runners does not prove anything. Just because a 60 year old man died while running does not mean running was the cause. It is easy to confuse correlation with causation. Most probably, running was just a precipitating factor due to underlying conditions themselves caused by an unhealthy lifestyle (we will discuss what constitutes an unhealthy lifestyle below) which we do not know about. For that matter, even the late doctor may have not been aware of the underlying conditions.

Any strenuous activity like climbing stairs, trekking, cycling, swimming, playing with grandchildren, etc could have acted as a precipitating factor. Heck, people get heart attacks even when idle and doing nothing! It is easy to paint running as the culprit, but it is most probably not the real cause.

That being said, as athletes, it is important to understand the difference between being fit, as it relates to endurance, speed, etc and being healthy. You can be one without the other, they are mutually exclusive, though there is some carry over. It is possible for a very fit athlete to be unhealthy, just as it is possible for a healthy person not to have any specific run/swim/bike fitness.

Everybody, athletes included must take care of their health using these basic guidelines:

  • The most important factor is to get enough sleep. If you are not getting at least 7 hours of sleep on average per night, then you may want to rethink your lifestyle.
  • The next most important factor is to eat well. The aphorism “you are what you eat” is very true. Eat clean and in moderation.
  • Avoid too much stress of any kind for a prolonged period (months or years at a time). In today’s age, it may be impossible to escape a few days or maybe a couple of weeks of stress. Your body will be able to handle this stress provided the other two factors above are in control. But if you are perpetually stressed due to your job, business, relationships, etc, then something will give sooner or later.
    One guideline I use to determine if I have too much stress in my life is to see if I have 60-90 minutes of free time every day, on average. If there is no time period in the entire day for which I have to think of how to pass that time, then I have taken on too much work and stress. It does not matter what I do with that time, I may read, watch TV, watch a movie, go for a walk, play with kids, etc. But such a block of time has to be there, ideally everyday.

There may be other factors besides the above three, but I have found that they are indirectly caused by or related to the above three.  For example, avoiding alcohol and smoking comes under eating well. Shedding excess weight comes as a natural by-product of eating well. As long as you control the above three factors, you are covered on most counts.

Athletes may fall into the trap of thinking that having athletic fitness means they do not have to look after their health. Nothing can be farther than the truth! In fact, since endurance activities put additional stress on the body, it behooves them to be extra careful and remain on top of their sleep, eating and stress.

Next, on the base of these lifestyle guidelines, follow the more athlete specific guidelines  like:

  • Do not increase mileage by more than 10% per week.
  • Do not do hard workouts all the time
  • Take at least 1 or 2 days of complete rest per week.
  • And more..

As an endurance coach, I ensure that the above rules (among many much more athlete specific subtle ones) are strictly adhered to by all my athletes. I also guide them and hammer in them the importance of eating well, sleeping well, and reducing stress constantly.

If athletes try to follow the basic lifestyle and athlete-specific guidelines they will have a long and healthy and injury free period ahead of them.

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