This is one of my favourite quotes, and for me, the perfect definition of health and fitness.
I want to be ready for any adventure that life might present me.
Factors such as maximising longevity and optimising body composition also play a part in my motivation to stay fit, strong and healthy – It was initially a desire to get rid of my gut and avoid an early death that initially set me on my fitness journey.
In the long run, however, it was the new found freedom that my fitness brought me that got me hooked and has kept me active, training, and mindful of what I eat ever since.
Each to their own
We are all biased towards our own life choices and preferences.
“Activity / Way of living X gives me personal pleasure and satisfaction, therefore everyone else should benefit from it too.”
This is a very common way of thinking, particularly within the world of health and fitness – a deep need to convert the unfit infidels, not just to a healthier lifestyle, but to their personal brand of fitness and nutrition.
“I adore training crossfit, it makes me feel great, look great, and keeps me healthy (well aside from the litany of injuries…), I’ve signed you up too, see you at 5am, we can train till we puke together, you’ll love it!”
“Eating nothing but raw iguana meat and beetroot has cured my arthritis – everyone should eat this way, I’ve just restocked your fridge, you’ll thank me later, trust me!”
This desire to proselytise comes from a good place – health gurus want everyone to experience the joy and satisfaction that their life choices provide them, and can’t comprehend that another person might not feel the same.
If a person doesn’t become a convert, it’s because they’ve done something wrong – they’ve not given it enough time, not tried hard enough, made some kind of mistake.
They can’t fathom that other people might not feel the same way, might not have the same priorities, desires, goals and drives.
While you may derive meaning and satisfaction from having ripped 6 pack abs and the ability to complete an Ironman Triathlon, someone else may find your choices totally incomprehensible, preferring to dedicate their time to discovering the best donuts in town to fuel their epic Fortnite tournaments.
They are not wrong, or mistaken, or confused.
Or at least no more than you are.
Hard Work, Suffering and Risk
It is not just fitness, training and adrenaline junkies that value these attributes.
Whether it’s a dedicated athlete winning gold at the Olympics, a driven entrepreneur bootstrapping their start-up to unicorn status, or a vocal activist campaigning for what they believe against all odds, most people would recognise these shared traits and view them as admirable.
This is no surprise – it’s largely thanks to the hard work, and willingness to take risks and undergo suffering of (at least some) of our ancestors, that the human race has survived and thrived on this planet.
We therefore tend to attribute value to these traits wherever we see them.
There is considerably more kudos awarded to the winner of the UFC Fighting championships, than there is to someone for winning a tournament of the arcade game Street Fighter II (OK, I’m showing my age, please feel free to replace this with something a little more current, but you get the idea…).
The reason? Though it still takes many hours of dedicated and deliberate practice to become a virtual fighting champion, there is little to no suffering or risk.
This is not to say that virtual endeavours are not valued – on the contrary, pro-gamers are now capable of earning millions of dollars, but I’d still say that they’re not viewed in the same way as “real” athletes that have skin in the game.
This valorisation is purely subjective, however.
One cannot say that it is an objectively better use of someone’s time to shed blood, sweat and tears in the gym, than it is to spend those hours bashing buttons on a control pad in the comfort and safety of your living room.
We owe a great debt to our ancestors who enshrined these values learning to hunt wild beasts, explore dense uncharted jungles, and set sail across oceans without knowing what (if anything) lay on the other side.
Historically the hard work, risk and sacrifice of the few, resulted in big payoffs for the many.
Also consider that life was relatively short and brutal anyway, so the relative risk of an adventure into the unknown was much lower.
Thankfully, times have changed.
Providing you don’t do anything stupid, there’s a fair chance you’ll make it to a ripe old age.
There’s also little to be gained by society.
In the 15th Century, sailors set out across the Atlantic into the great unknown. Seafaring was much more dangerous than it is now. But staying at home didn’t have great prospects either – poverty, disease and war were the norm.
The closest 21st Century equivalent of the uncharted ocean is outer space.
Manned space flights are getting rarer and rarer however – it makes much more sense to send robots. Why risk human lives unnecessarily?
I am in favour of space exploration, and do believe it will pay dividends eventually for the human race, whether via the extraction of minerals, production of energy, or eventually colonization.
Currently, however, much more immediate profits can be made from human capital in the domains of technology and genetics.
It is the techgeeks, programmers, engineers and researchers that are exploring new frontiers and creating huge value for the human race, all from the comfort and safety of their ergonomic chairs.
Of course, I’m not saying that there isn’t any hard work, suffering or risk involved – there is plenty of mental exertion, long hours, stress, and financial risk, but there is no longer the physical kind which we’ve learned to value.
One could also point out that this is all beside the point. Even if we did still need action heroes to fight, hunt, and explore, this still wouldn’t validate needless suffering and risk.
An Ironman triathlon doesn’t provide any great benefit for humanity, so why should it be more highly valued that a computer game tournament?
Ah, but the blood, sweat and tears shed by the triathletes… But for what?
It’s all relative
Now please do not misunderstand me.
I am not saying that there is anything wrong with training for and participating in triathlons, or any other physically demanding sport or activity.
I personally love physical challenges that require hard work, and some degree of suffering and risk.
It’s the blood sweat and tears that (at least in part) give them meaning… for me.
It’s hard for me to understand someone choosing to get to the top of a mountain via cable car, or choose to do the hill program on the indoor bike to get their sweat on rather than face the elements and sketchy single track.
But they are not wrong.
I used to think, maybe they just had a bad experience, hadn’t prepared properly, didn’t have the right gear, because it was unimaginable to me that people couldn’t derive the same satisfaction and pleasure as I did from my favourite activities.
In all honesty, part of me still thinks this! But rationally, I know that this is a very egocentric view.
What exposes this irrationality, are the crazy extreme adventurers that work harder, endure more suffering, and take more risks than you do…
As much as I love hiking in the mountains, the highest peak I’ve summited was Tserko Ri in the Himalayas at 4984m. I’d certainly consider going to 6000m, perhaps even 7000m, but I have no intentions of going into the “Death Zone”.
Yes, there are always some risks in the mountains, even at much lower altitudes – landslides, extreme weather changes, trips and falls, etc, but they are still relatively low. You are almost certainly going to come back alive, and with all your fingers and toes.
Start climbing seriously, summiting 8000m+ peaks, and almost certainly changes to probably.
Gradually, the team moved up the mountain, establishing successively higher camps. The altitude, the extreme cold and the load-bearing began to take their toll. But as Herzog grew physically weaker, so his conviction strengthened that the summit was attainable. Eventually, on 3 June, he and a climber called Louis Lachenal left Camp V, the highest camp, in a bid for the top of Annapurna…
The weather was immaculate when they departed Camp V, with a pristine sky. Clear skies bring the lowest temperatures, though, and the air was so cold that both men felt their feet freezing inside their boots as they climbed higher. Quite soon it became apparent that they would have to turn back or run the risk of severe frostbite. They carried on…
The pain and the worry came later. While descending the rock-band, Herzog dropped his gloves and, by the time he reached Camp IV, he was barely able to walk. Both his feet and his hands were severely frostbitten. During the desperate retreat down steep ground to Base Camp, he fell and smashed several bones in his already devastated feet. When he was forced to abseil, the ropes ripped away the flesh of his hands in thick strips.Mountains of the Mind – Robert MacFarlane
Personally, I love my life (and my digits) far too much to be satisfied with probably keeping them.
Why should I then be surprised that almost certainly keeping them might not satisfy someone else?
The hard work, suffering and risk required to create meaning and satisfaction is always a continuum.
The Sunday 5k Runner looks down on the couch potato, but raises their eyebrow at the obsessed marathon runner.
The marathoner looks down at the weekend warrior, but thinks ultras are a new fangled form of masochism.
The MMA fighter thinks that boxing is for pussy cats, but that no holds barred stick fighting is for the criminally insane.
You get the picture.
We all believe that the level of hard work, suffering and risk that we take is spot on. Those that choose less are lazy cowards, those that choose more are crazy lunatics.
We on the other hand deserve a pat on the back for correctly identifying the perfect sweet spot, and should work very hard to show everyone else the errors of their ways…
But what about health?
I feel that I get my bang for my buck with all of my prefered activities.
Not only do they provide meaning and satisfaction vai the superation of a challenge and time in nature and/or socialising, but they also confer some serious health benefits.
Regular physical activity is known to significantly reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s and more. It is associated with not only longer life expectancy, but better life quality too.
But how much hard work, suffering and risk do you really need to endure to get these benefits?
Probably actually very little.
There’s no need to train crossfit till you vomit. There’s no need to run until your feet are blistered and nipples are bleeding. There’s no need to hold some contorted Yoga position in a sauna until you feel like you’re going to pass out. And there’s certainly no need to force yourself to swim through a frozen lake.
The truth is, if your main goals are health and longevity, then a moderate program of safe and effective exercise is probably far superior to any physical activity.
For example, 30 mins on an indoor stationary cycle will provide the same cardiovascular benefits as cycling outdoors, without the risks of being mown down by a car, or breathing in heavily polluted air.
Equally, 10 minutes of HIT strength training once or twice per week is likely more than enough to build and maintain the sufficient muscle mass for a long and healthy life.
I believe that complex physical activities do have additional health benefits – primarily for the mind, which initially evolved for movement.
But what if these same benefits can be gleaned from other non/less physical activities – playing a musical instrument or virtual gaming for example?
I think it’s highly probable that such an individual could keep their body equally, if not more healthy long term via a super minimalist exercise program (healthier due to fewer injuries, accidents, wear and tear etc), while reaping the same brain health benefits by navigating a virtual world, or the fretboard of a guitar.
Progress is not guaranteed
Life for humans just keeps getting better and easier.
Advances in science, technology and culture mean that the percentage of the global population that suffers from hunger, violence, war and disease is at its lowest point in history.
This doesn’t ignore the fact that there are still millions of people suffering from hunger, violence, war and disease for whom this global progress is probably of little personal consolation. Clearly there is still much work to be done. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t celebrate and appreciate what we’ve achieved.
In fact, I would say we should do a lot more to celebrate and appreciate this progress, in order to avoid falling into the trap of taking it for granted, and ensure we keep striving to maintain that progress and its more even distribution across all people.
1. forward or onward movement towards a destination.
“the darkness did not stop my progress”synonyms:
forward movement, onward movement, progression, advance, advancement, headway, passage; going
“ceaseless rain made further progress impossible”
2. development towards an improved or more advanced condition.
“we are making progress towards equal rights”synonyms:
development, advance, advancement, headway, step(s) forward, progression, improvement, betterment, growth; breakthrough
“the progress of medical science”
We are always progressing forwards through time. This is inevitable, unavoidable. I think we’ve also however, come to think of human progress as inevitable in the same way.
As time marches on, it’s easy to believe that we’ll continue to become more peaceful, more egalitarian, we’ll keep curing more and more diseases, raising people up out of poverty, creating new technologies that make our lives easier and better.
I highly recommend the book The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly, which does a deep dive into “the twelve technological imperatives that will shape the next thirty years and transform our lives“.
I think that the book is very insightful, and that there’s a pretty high probability that that things will keep moving in this direction, but inevitable is a strong word.
Don’t be a turkey
In Black Swan, Nassim Taleb stresses the huge impact that unforeseen, unpredictable events can, and regularly do have, on our lives.
The farmer has fed the turkey a bag of delicious cereal grains everyday for its entire life. Then one fateful day in mid-December the turkey runs excitedly up to his loving master expecting a tasty breakfast, but is instead greeted with an axe to the back of the neck.
The point of the story is to illustrate that it is foolish to think that we can reliably predict the future based on past events.
The only thing that really studying history will tell you is that history is predictably unreliable…
While it may perhaps be true that if you take a zoomed out view, and plot all manner of measures of human well-being on a graph, you’ll see a steep, ever increasing curve, if you take the time to zoom in just a little, you’ll also see that this curve is anything but smooth.
I think it’s probably fair to say, for example, that the previous statement “Advances in science, technology and culture mean that the percentage of the global population that suffers from hunger, violence, war and disease is at its lowest point in history.” would also have been accurate at the beginning of 1914.
The two most horrific wars and one of the worst pandemics of human history soon followed however.
What could possibly go wrong?
I don’t believe that we are in exactly the same situation as the turkey – that there is some inevitable premeditated doom awaiting us.
I’m actually optimistic that things will keep getting better. That the Wizards will prove the Prophets wrong… But that doesn’t mean one should just ignore the possibility that things might not go to plan.
One of my favourite contemporary philosophers is Nick Bostrom. Though most famous for his book Superintelligence, he is also the founding Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University where a lot of very intelligent people spend time thinking about what ways things might possibly go horribly wrong for humanity (and how to avoid them).
Bostrom is particularly concerned with what he terms:
Existential risk – One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.Nick Bostrom
Existential risks could could in many forms, broadly divided into two categories:
Some potential examples:
- Meteorite strike – Like the one that took out the dinosaurs
- Human Disease Pandemic – It’s estimated that the black death took out about 50% of Europe’s population. With today’s levels of population density and international travel, a disease could spread much more rapidly.
- Resource Depletion – It’s not just diseases in humans we have to worry about. A fungus has been making extinct species after species of frog since the 70s. Imagine if all cereal crops were suddenly blighted?
- Solar Flares – It’s widely believed that we’re at risk of a major solar flare could wipe out power grids on a large scale. Imagine Europe left indefinitely without electricity…
- Catastrophic Supervolcano Event – Over the past 500 million years, all of the five largest mass extinctions in the fossil record have coincided with huge lava eruptions.
Human Caused Disasters – Intentional and Unintentional
- Nuclear Holocaust – Think that the nuclear threat isn’t a worry anymore? Read Command and Control by Eric Schlosser and you might not be so complacent…
- Bioengineered super disease – As technology advances, the number of people and resources necessary to create such a thing gets lower and lower. There’s also the chance we accidentally create a super bug via overuse of antibiotics…
- Climate Change – Likely scenarios aren’t looking good. Worst case scenarios, though unlikely, could be apocalyptic.
- Rogue Superintelligent AI – If properly aligned with human interests, SGAI could and should be one of the best things ever, and probably our best chance of avoiding all the other ERs mentioned here. If not properly aligned however, it could just as easily exterminate us…
- Killer Robots/Mutants – The robots don’t have to be super intelligent to kill us. A misguided human could program autonomous drones to kill anything walking on two legs. Or perhaps some kind of GMO zombie monsters…
- A Technological Black Ball – See Fragile World Theory (PDF)
These are just a few possible scenarios. Bostrom’s paper has several more, plus the catch all “something unforeseen” – Taleb’s aforementioned proverbial Black Swan.
It must be great fun working at the Future of Humanity research centre and thinking about these things all day everyday…
Health as the ability to survive your nightmares?
So, you might ask, what on earth does all this talk about existential risk have to do with your chosen leisure activities?
I opened with a quote about living your dreams. But what about surviving your worst nightmares?
Bostrom divides existential risks into 4 subcategories of severity:
Bangs – Earth-originating intelligent life goes extinct in relatively sudden disaster resulting from either an accident or a deliberate act of destruction.Nick Bostrom
Crunches – The potential of humankind to develop into posthumanity is permanently thwarted although human life continues in some form.
Shrieks – Some form of posthumanity is attained but it is an extremely narrow band of what is possible and desirable.
Whimpers – A posthuman civilization arises but evolves in a direction that leads gradually but irrevocably to either the complete disappearance of the things we value or to a state where those things are realized to only a minuscule degree of what could have been achieved.
If humanity goes with a bang – for example the Vogons arrive and blast the planet into smithereens in order to make way for a hyperspace bypass, probably not much.
If however, we face some kind of crunch, shriek or whimper it could mean the difference between life or death.
It is not too difficult to imagine a wide range of scenarios where civilised society as we know it ceases to function.
A world with no electricity, no infrastructure, no agriculture, no transport networks – perhaps due to lack of resources, insufficient manpower, hostile takeover…
Perhaps your home has been destroyed, there are no more shops, no more power or fuel for vehicles or machinery, food is scarce and highly contested, risk of violent attack is extremely high…
All of a sudden, perhaps the physical hard work, risk and suffering put in by an athlete might just pay dividends.
The ability to run, jump, climb and crawl with speed and efficiency might come in handy for example if you regularly need to flee swarms of slaughterbots, the strength and endurance to chop and carry wood to build fires and shelters, the fighting skill and experience to protect yourself from physical attack?
It’s hard to imagine even the most skilled gamer doing very well in a post apocalyptic world thrust back into a pre-technological era. Though I suppose it is possible to imagine some scenarios where the gamers avert the apocalypse in the first place…
Hmm, perhaps also some extra body fat could be a short term advantage in some scenarios too?
the action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself, especially at a minimal level.
“the minimum income needed for subsistence”
So the question is, what types and levels of fitness might be required to get the edge if the world as we know it comes to an end?
I’d say at the very least, some kind of basic proficiency in all the fundamental types of movement that human beings have evolved to do – Walk, run, jump, climb, swim, balance, lift, carry, push, drag, throw and fight – Check my Move page for more details.
The fairly unkowable question is to what level? Do you need to be able to run like Killian Jornet, climb like Alex Honald, lift like Ed Coan or fight like Cristiane Justino?
Probably not. Which is a good job as that would be impossible for you.
I think that aiming to be better than average is probably sufficient.
Whether you’re Killian Jornet or Usain Bolt, you’re not going to be able to outrun the killer robot dogs from Black Mirror S04:E05 Metalhead. Which by the way are pretty much already here.
But the antelope doesn’t have to be faster than the lion, nor even anywhere near the fastest antelope, it just has to make sure it’s not one of the slowest!
This is not to say that I’m imagining that it’s going to be every person for themself – It’s our unique ability as a species to collaborate that has got us where we are now, and I’m sure we’d band together under such extreme circumstances, but even still you don’t want to be the slowest and weakest link, and risk being a burden to your fellow survivors.
Fitness is not enough
It should also be noted that raw physical fitness alone isn’t enough to ensure your survival in a post apocalyptic world.
As fast and strong as you are, if you can’t do things like find food, build a shelter, make a fire, perform basic first aid, you’re not going to last very long.
Some key skills that you’d likely need:
- Fire Building – I personally swear by the “Upside Down” method
- Shelter Building – (Though I’d carry my Nemo Hornet tent)
- Map Reading – You won’t be able to rely on GPS any more!
- Foraging – You’ll might be able to loot tinned foods for years, but fresh veg you’ll have to find in the wild
- Hunting and Fishing – There’ll be no more food supplements, so veganism won’t be a viable option.
- Farming – Start a veg patch now so you can learn without pressure how to get the best yields…
- Fermenting – Learn how to preserve your produce naturally without refrigeration. Also of course, how to make your own alcohol!
- Woodwork – Get good at DIY so you can make simple structures, furniture and musical instruments…
Familiarise yourself with as many survival techniques as possible, though of course there’s only so much you can learn from a book.
This is another great reason for getting into thru-hiking. Not only will it build your strength and fitness, but also develop several of the key skills you’d need to survive and thrive in a post technological society.
Through hiking also provides an opportunity to test and refine your “bug out bag”- a backpack full of the survival essentials you’d need should disaster occur that is always packed and ready to go.
I feel I should reiterate, that I am fairly optimistic that we are not going to destroy the future.
There’s a high probability that things will keep getting better and better for humanity, and that the need for any of these strengths or skills will be non-existent.
Learning to code, especially if you’re young, is probably far more likely to benefit your life in the long run, that is the ability to build a fire or skin a squirrel.
There’s probably a greater chance that you’ll end up mining bitcoin or working as an avatar in a virtual world than you’ll find yourself having to fight off GMO zombie pandas with a hand carved longbow.
The two aren’t mutually exclusive however, so why not consider doing a bit of both?
I’d say that it’s better to have these strengths and skills and not need them, than need them and not have them, particularly when the process of learning and developing them can be rewarding and fun in itself.