Survival Fitness and Health- Part 1, by JBH

This essay series is for informational purposes only. Fitness concepts are discussed that the reader may find informative; however, the reader is advised to visit their health care provider and obtain medical clearance prior to embarking on any exercise program. The author is not a health care professional and assumes no responsibility for injuries or detrimental health effects the reader may sustain from performing any fitness regimen.

As evidenced by the multitude of subjects covered in SurvivalBlog and other preparedness websites, many elements come into play if you desire to survive some of the potentially devastating and even not so devastating situations that one can encounter today. What is the most important element? Beans? Band-Aids? Opsec?

Physical Abilities– Most Important Element For Survival

Arguably, the most important element to me is physical fitness. If you were to counter with skills and attitude, I would not argue too hard with you, but I would perhaps offer that, although well armed, the gentlemen described below do not appear as if they will do very well in a difficult survival situation. But then again, who knows? I will discuss that later.

Regardless of whether it is the most important element or not, I would argue the following is important. Without the following physical abilities and attributes, you will not fare well in a survival situation (and you will struggle in normal situations):

  1. The ability to walk at least a few miles with a load.
  2. Enough strength to do manual labor and/or possibly fight.
  3. Freedom from the need for regular medical care or pharmaceuticals for survival.
  4. Freedom from debilitating chronic pain or another condition(s) that may significantly limit your activities.

What This Essay is Not

I have some specific goals to achieve with this essay. Also, I have some specific things I am not trying to achieve. First what this is not.

Not the “Best” Fitness, Diet, or Health Routine

I am not trying to specify the “best” fitness, diet, or health routine possible. This is impossible; it is subject to endless debate, and as I will discuss this varies from person to person.

Not Specific How-To Exercise Regimes

For the most part, I am not trying to provide specific how-to exercise regimes like, “Do three sets of this many of that exercise.” I will leave that to you, Google, and also a few books and links I will recommend on the way.

Not Delving Into First Aid, Pharmaceuticals, or Herbs

I am not delving into first aid, pharmaceuticals, herbs, or any of that side of the health equation, although these are very important. That is one reason I am calling this article “Fitness and Health” rather than “Health and Fitness”.

What I Am Trying To Achieve in Essay

There are several things I am trying to achieve with this essay. I hope to:

  • Motivate you to get fit and healthy.
  • Educate you on the elements of fitness, or at least one way to look at it, as there are some different ways to categorize them.
  • Provide an overview of some of the exercise systems out there.
  • Provide some broad opinions on diet.
  • Provide you with some of the experience I have accumulated in personal training, training others, and in the research I have done over the course of approximately 50 years.

My Background

Some of my relevant background includes that I have been an avid runner, a weight lifter, a Navy fitness trainer, and a Cooper Institute of Aerobic Research Certified Personal Trainer. I have observed hundred of sailors who were struggling with various aspects of fitness. Over many years of involvement in fitness, I have injured myself and healed and watched others do the same. Also, I have done a lot of personal research.

Now, in my mid- to late-50s, I’m trying to fight off (with moderate success) the accumulation of excess weight (about 10 pounds over) and monthly prescriptions (none so far) that I am observing among my peers. I really relate to that country song, “I’m Not As Good As I Once Was, But I Am As Good Once As I Ever Was”. Although, even that is not quite true.

I am not as good once as I ever was, but I am doing okay. As I sit writing this, I am working through some hip and sciatica issues from an old injury. Yet, I am still very active and functional.

Not An Athlete

What I am not and never have been is an “athlete”. I played some sports with limited success from time to time, but the only thing I would say I was really good at was hitting a baseball. I have always been pretty good with a hay hook, shovel, or splitting maul.

Separate Athletics and Fitness

I have usually been fit and had an athletic frame, but right here I would like to separate athletics and fitness. While they can be linked, some of what we do to achieve athletic prowess, especially in youth sports, is not conducive to long-term fitness. In many cases, youth sports pushes the “non-athletes” away from fitness (as they sit on the bench or get humiliated on the field). This mentally burns out and/or physically damages the “athletes” in a manner that results in them abandoning fitness in later years.

I feel this is very important. If you are in either of those categories, I hope this will revive your interest in fitness.

What Makes a Person Fit

What makes a person fit? Or what are the components of fitness? There are subtle variations in fitness literature, but on the whole the following is a pretty good list:

  1. Muscular Strength
  2. Cardiovascular Fitness
  3. Flexibility
  4. Body Composition

Muscular Strength

Muscular strength is pretty basic. How much can you lift or move in various manners? How often or how many times can you do it? How much force can you apply to a wrench, a sledge hammer, pick, shovel,…, or attacker?

Some would divide muscular strength and endurance and perhaps even power. There are some useful subtleties, although I will not cover them here.

How Muscular Strength Achieved

Muscular strength is typically achieved through calisthenics, weight lifting, kettlebell training, physical labor, et cetera. What is the best way to get strong? The answer is, whatever of these you will consistently do, with one caveat.

Exercise Whole Body

You need to exercise your whole body. The best way to do this is with exercises that utilize multiple joints at once. Examples include:

  • Squats, weighted and/or body weight,
  • Push-ups and/or bench pressing,
  • Military presses or hand stand push-ups,
  • Pull ups or rowing exercises, and
  • Deadlifts with barbells, hay bales, rocks, or whatever.

Kettle Bell Training

If you do not like the sound of the above exercises, or just want to do something different, look into Russian kettle bell training. It can do everything you need by basically swing and/or lifting a cannonball with a handle. The 53lb kettle bell was and is a staple of Soviet/Russian military training. It’s highly effective at building strength and endurance in a relatively short time period.

The 10-minute kettle bell snatch test is reportedly part of the overall Secret Service physical fitness test. Mixed martial artists are also very big into kettle bell training these days and swear by it. I keep a kettle bell in the trunk of my car and frequently use it when I have to travel for work.

Strength Training Can Reduce Body Fat and Help Avoid Injury

While there are at least four distinct elements of fitness, they interact. Strength training can reduce body fat by increasing resting metabolism. You do not burn many calories in a weight training session, but you increase your fat burning for the rest of the day. Some strength training will increase your cardiovascular fitness a bit, especially kettle bells and calisthenics, but more importantly, strength training will increase your ability to do cardiovascular activities with good form. Therefore, it helps you avoid injury.

Less Obvious Benefits

Strength training has other, less obvious benefits. There are quite a few of these.

Bone health is one. Without stressing the bones, they will deteriorate and as you age can become brittle. Strength training provides this stress and helps to ward off or even reverse this problem.

Balance is another. Strength and balance go hand-in-hand.

Injury prevention is yet another benefit. Strong muscles are not as easily damaged as weak muscles. These strong muscles provide protection for the rest of the organs in your body as well.

There is research that the chemical benefits of cardiovascular training, like blood sugar normalization and normalized cholesterol levels, are equally conferred by strength training.

A Question of Why I Need More Exercise

If you are a physical laborer, or like me have property that keeps you physically active, you are likely relatively strong already. You may ask, “Why do I need more exercise?” This is a valid question, which I shared for many years. I would counter with several answers.

Physical Labor Is Not Same As Systematically Exercising Whole Body

The point of physical labor is primarily to get things done, not to exercise. You will not typically systematically exercise your whole body effectively doing physical labor. You may exhaust certain parts of your body while barely working others. For example, a friend of mine (my same age and rough build) who is extremely active on his property with all manner of projects is quite strong in the upper body but has pretty weak legs. By his own estimation, he may need knee replacement eventually. Although he has a pretty strong back, he has already had two major back surgeries with some subsequent limitations and pain. Would exercise have mitigated this? Most research indicates that certain targeted exercises to round out his strength may have improved his chances.

Cyclical Physical Labor

Physical labor for most is rather cyclical. You do certain activities for a while and then shift to others. You dig a ditch for that project, and then about the time your body adapts, you start working on your wood pile. At that point, those ditch digging muscles weaken. Variety is good; however, the continuous conditioning followed by loss of conditioning can take its toll on the body.

Physical Labor Has Only a Degree of Progression

Physical labor only has a degree of progression to it. If you buck hay, you reach a certain level of strength and then pretty much plateau before you reach your genetic potential. Systematic exercise (especially accompanied with some physical labor) takes you much closer to your genetic potential.

Systematic Exercise Makes You Better At Physical Labor

Systematic exercise will make you better at physical labor, especially labor that is cyclical. If you are better at physical labor, you will be more productive, and this increased productivity will more than offsett the amount of time spent in systematic exercise. Remember that in many cases you can get quite good results in as little as 15 to 30 minutes a day.

Sources For Specific Workouts

I will discuss important basic principles later. I will not delve into specific workouts here. For specific workouts, I would go to these sources.

The books Convict Conditioning and Convict Conditioning 2 by Paul Wade. These are definitely the best books I have ever read about calisthenics and are possibly the best exercise books of any type I have ever read.

It is super simple in principle and bone easy to start and work with, but it is the most advanced general calisthenics program I have ever seen. If you have no preferences regarding fitness and want to quit reading this essay here and just do something sound, get these books, do what they say, and walk at least a half hour per day (sometimes with a pack). Without the walking, you could do Wade’s system in as little as 15 minutes a day, although you could spend more time and get more benefit. The one weakness I see with his system is, that despite his claims, I do not think the lower back is strengthened as much as it might be with his system. To counter this, perhaps do some deadlifts a couple times a week with a barbell, hay bales, big rocks, or whatever else you have. Research good deadlift form online to avoid injury. See your physician before doing any of this, of course.

For Bodyweight Training

For a peak into where you can go with bodyweight training go to These are not calisthenics done the same way you likely did them in gym class in school. I do not think the site is as informative as the Convict Conditioning series, because it is not quite as systematic in the progression. That is what makes Wade’s books so special, in my view and in the view of many prominent fitness professionals. He shows the average or maybe weak person how to get from almost any starting point to their genetic potential in a realistic manner. It should be noted that the host of the “Beast Skills” site features prominently in Paul Wade’s books demonstrating Wade’s techniques.

Flexibility System

Convict Conditioning 2 also provides an excellent flexibility system and, interestingly enough, some decent life philosophy, IMO. Paul Wade (a pseudonym by all accounts) claims to have spent a couple decades in prison, which is where he learned his exercise techniques. His insights into personal struggles are interesting and quite good, IMO.

See Also:

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

This has been part one of a five part entry for Round 78 of the SurvivalBlog non-fiction writing contest. The nearly $11,000 worth of prizes for this round include:

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Round 78 ends on September 30th, so get busy writing and e-mail us your entry. Remember that there is a 1,500-word minimum, and that articles on practical “how to” skills for survival have an advantage in the judging.


  1. Back side of 50, sounds about right for all the damage you’ve done to yourself over the years to start catching up with you. All the bar wars, car wrecks, hold my beer moments, stubbed toes, etc, simply living a normal life, your body wears out.
    Rather than dwelling on your past deeds, try to focus on being the best with what you are capable of… now! And be prepared for things to get worse! Take it from a 75yr old, it will.
    Old age ain’t for wusses.

  2. Great article. I’m just in my early 40s and (knock on wood) am way ahead of my peers in the health and medication department. Fighting some tendonitis but that’s about it. I’m not nearly as fast as the 21 year old Marine me, and probably never will be again, but I’m one-rep stronger.

    I chose running, biking, and Crossfit and that seems to work for me. Makes some of the chores like splitting wood much easier.

    I too like kettlebell swings but find I can hurt my neck when I bring my head up explosively.

  3. After a career in the Army, I slacked off for a few years, then started a walking routine. Now, at age 67, I still walk three miles several times a week, with a goal of three or four days each week.

    The wife and I joined a gym so she could do yoga and tai chi, and I spent time with the weight machines. It was pretty obvious that I had slacked off, but the muscle memory was still there for curls, presses, leg presses, etc. Within a couple months I was back to within 80% of my previous maximums.

    I cant recommend too highly the combination of weight training for strength and walking or jogging for aerobic conditioning.

  4. Wait until you get into your 70’s. Ones physical abilities can change quickly. Torn shoulder muscles, slips & falls, replacement of parts (hips, knees, etc) will change your physical abilities and not for the best. Frankly, at 72, I have no intention of “bugging out” or anything else. No way will I out run a 35 year old. I will stand my ground and deal with the issues.

  5. Personally, every time I see a self-professed “Survivalist” with a gut, 25 pounds overweight sucking down a cherry coke I shake my head in disgust. You’re wasting your time and money.

  6. The Cooper Institute is best of class and this writer obviously knows what he is talking about. As another author who I like has written, “Exercise is non-negotiable” and separate from what you do for fun or work. It’s simply keeping everything moving and it’s progressive.

    I’m 73 now but the best shape I’ve ever been was 18-22 years ago when I was 51-55 years ago. It can be done, and whatever contraindications you may have can generally be worked around. I had a cystectomy in 1994 and was bored with being out of shape so I went to a small local gym where half was devoted to exercise for those who had had a stroke, heath attack or physical impairment. The only thing I had to restrict was hard
    exercise around the abdomen – no pull-ups and such. Because it was directed by a professional, my urologist signed off on it even though he initially had reservations.

    The person in charge eventually left (she now heads the entire department of physical
    exercise and disabilities at a large local university) and I left too. Joined 24 Hour Fitness and told them of my only restriction and hired a personal trainer for 6 months. Never have I felt better. Walked everywhere, even when I should have been working. I was self employed and I could do that. I absolutely loved the strength training and put up with the cardiovascular.

    I’m older now but still have muscles to work with (no sarcopenia) and this article, and the ones to come, are a great reminder to get back in shape. I got an exercise bike two months ago, ordered a book on exercise bands which got lost in the mail so will reorder and will get some exercise bands plus some smaller dumbbells to begin again with.

    I so look forward to the remaining articles and the incentive it is giving me to work on the one thing I have control over. And yes, finally, I’m going to get the book I never got around to, since I’m stiff just starting out, “Stretching: 30th Anniversary Edition, by Bob Anderson. The one you want to go to when your just getting back in shape.

    Really looking forward to remaining articles. We’re toast during SHTF if we are not in shape. Our stuff won’t save us.

  7. Yes, old age does catch up eventually, but with discipline you can manage the process very well. I’m 56 and have been active all my life and I still workout several times each week. Most people that I meet think I’m mid to late 40’s. In addition, because I have taken good care of myself over the years I’ve been able to enjoy many other things to include my 42 yo girl friend!

  8. Rosco
    I’m 81 and overweight some
    recently returned to bike riding with a one speed
    lots of short walks as I can not remember why I went there.
    I swing a 10 or 12 Lb Sledge in winter Rock-hounding
    I will look for Convict conditioning, but Will try to find Used.

  9. Great article, spot on and words to live by. There are no shortcuts. Begin gradually and build up fitness as you learn what works. Read, get off the couch, seek advice, ask questions and don’t stop moving. Being truly fit means regularly putting forth an effort to challenge yourself physically and mentally.

  10. Good writing. I’m 63 and began having pain in my knees and back a couple of years ago (I am physically active at work). On a job site, I met two single women in their 50s that were in terrific shape that inspired me to get busy at a gym. A friend is a weight lifting coach and got me doing squats and dead lifts……within three workouts, the knee and back pain was gone. Free weights are medicine! Now I maintain what I have. I’m never going to be 22 again, and will not hesitate to use technology and cunning to solve problems with younger/faster threats.

    Physical fitness is a great asset to have, but it’s all important. A guy that can run a four minute mile and dead lift 400 lbs can be taken out with a toothache or lack of water (or any number of things). You’re always better off being fit, but it’s only a fraction of the solution.

    Looking forward to the rest!


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