Why Are Americans So Fascinated With Extreme Fitness?

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“Why are Americans so fascinated with extreme fitness?”, a New York Times article by Heather Havrilesky recently asked.  This is a loaded question but I have a few thoughts.  I think it boils down to two things:  Education and Fun.

Let’s look at what I’ll call the education aspect first.

What Are Your Resources?

Television is frequently people’s resource for various things.  In the world of extreme fitness two things stand out to me.  The Biggest Loser and the Crossfit Games.  I admit that I am fascinated with both of these.  Not so much that I want to participate, but because it’s more like a train wreck.  With their popularity soaring, even with all of the other information at our fingertips, I can see why viewers see this and think that it’s a good way to “work out”.  However, let us not forget the opposite end of the spectrum the author mentions, including Jim Fixx’s avid runners of the past, 8-minute abs and Richard Simmons.  These forms of exercise all had plenty of exposure whether through tv or magazines.  Inasmuch one could argue that these new extreme forms of fitness are weird and potentially dangerous, you could argue that these fads of the past are equally a complete waste of time.  Aside from media exposure what makes Americans so fascinated?

What’s The Goal?  What Are You Preparing For?

Well, sometimes people don’t know any better.  Often they don’t actually know what the goal is.  At that point any form fitness whether extreme or not will suffice in satisfying their desire to exercise their way to, who knows what.  Which brings up the whole “prepared for anything” obsession mentioned in the article.  One of the best quotes I’ve heard related to this topic came from Greg Everett when he said, “Being prepared for any random task is not the same thing as preparing randomly for any task.”  It reminds me of the show “Doomsday Preppers”.  Preparing for the unknown sounds really cool.  However, it’s tough to actually build any skill that way though.  I have found that a well rounded, progressive, strength and movement program pays large dividends in preparing for many things in life.  I’ve seen it happen with the members at our gym often surprising themselves by being able to conquer random tasks of both endurance and strength.  Now if you’re prepping for the off chance that 20 ft tall lions might be parachuting into your neighborhood with laser guided missiles attached to their heads then you’re right, I probably can’t help you.  If you are in fact preparing for a sport or specific task of some kind then a less diverse training program may be more appropriate.

Minimal Effective Dose.  Is More Better?

Perhaps there is a goal.  Something beyond preparing for the unknown.  A Point B as Dan John likes to call it.  We could take a straight line path to the goal, meaning the “minimal effective dose” to achieve the desired outcome.  Or, we could take the roundabout way and “drive a few extra miles” to get to the destination and in turn waste a bunch of time. Which path is better?  I’ll take the former.  I can certainly understand the more is better thought process talked about in the article.  Most of us have been there at one time or another but just because you ran 5 miles today doesn’t mean you need to be running 500 hundred by next year or you’re a loser.  Literally anything can be made infinitely more difficult and challenging. Does that mean it needs to be?  Consider Occam’s Razor in your training.  Be realistic and don’t forget the law of diminishing returns.  Ultimately results and performance will suffer if you just keep adding more.


Feel Better, Look Good Naked

I say it all the time but most people are interested in feeling better and looking good naked, or as the author puts it, looking good at the beach or in the bedroom.  These are fine goals. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  This can be accomplished in a lot of different ways. Not all of them are extreme or need to be but often the “no pain, no gain” perception is there.  Some people would consider themselves very close to their ideal body and I would argue they certainly don’t need some sort of extreme intervention to get where they want to be.

Self Limiting Exercises?  Risk vs. Reward

The author of The Times article suggests that swinging a sledgehammer while fatigued is potentially dangerous.  Well, I agree.  Consider the concept of self limiting exercises. Pushing a weighted sled, although not the same as swinging a sledgehammer, might again look like manual labor.  The key here is the risk involved.  When someone gets fatigued pushing a sled it usually just stops moving and then, well, nothing.  Game over and everyone is intact.  The same could be said for other exercises that are still hard and laborious like ropes or shuttles or bike sprints.  Risk vs. reward still comes down to education.  There’s room for debate here but consider how extreme something actually is when the risk for injury is rather low.

Is It A Sport?

I think another important concept is that of sports and I think the author misses this one a bit.  She mentions Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which certainly is becoming more popular.  But I don’t think she can just lump it’s popularity into the extreme fitness craze completely.  Some of those practicing martial arts are essentially studying, while others are competing in a sport, and yet still others are, in my opinion, less informed and believe that simply practicing Jiu-Jitsu will help them achieve the body they’ve always wanted.  It could happen, but again, it may not be the most effective path to the goal.  I think there needs to be an understanding of what is actually a sport and what is a program to help you achieve your fitness or athletic goals.  I compete in the Scottish Highland Games but I wouldn’t consider it a form of fitness anymore than the occasional hockey game that I play in.  I wouldn’t recommend either to someone looking to change their body and be healthier.

Strong Fixes Everything 

I’ve talked about this topic previously but sometimes being strong makes you better at life. I’ve had many a timid female enter Ambition Athletics with various goals only to have them discover the confidence and positive body adaptations that come with learning how to move a weight they never thought possible.  At the same time others have reduced pain and improved their quality of life by getting stronger.  In either situation I don’t think extreme measures, as the author sees them, would be necessary but that may easily be up for debate depending on how you are going to define extreme.


Which brings me to my next point.  Sometimes this stuff is just fun.

Marathon runners and triathletes aren’t usually chastised for the many many hours of hard work they put in.  But those are extreme forms of fitness as much as anything else the author talks about.

Your Mindset And Is It Fun? 

Listen.  If something legitimately isn’t fun for you then why do it?  Life is too short for that. In the same regard, if some form of extreme fitness mentioned above or otherwise is your cup of tea, then who the hell am I to tell you what to do.  If you wanna push yourself to do an Ironman, CrossFit, practice a martial art or make it on an episode of “American Ninja Warrior”, then enjoy it.  Have fun.  Get after it.  If not, you don’t have to push limits ever, if you don’t want to.  Just maintaining your ability to move might be enough to keep you healthy and happy.  Somewhere in the middle of those two extremes is likely the best.  Surprise, surprise.  Moderation wins again.  You might not survive Armageddon, play a pro sport or join the Navy Seals at the age of 75 but if you’re happy, who cares.

– Mike Baltren




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