Survival Fitness and Health- Part 3, by JBH

This article is about physical fitness, because I believe it is most important for those who want to survive some of the potentially devastating and even not so devastating situations that one can encounter today. I’m not an athlete but have been involved in fitness training for decades and done quite a bit of research as well. As an introduction to the concept of fitness, I identified its components– muscular strength, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, and body composition.

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.

Body Composition (continued)

In our current society, fat is viewed as a shameful thing. From my observation, this is especially hard on women. We want everyone, especially our women, to appear lean and hard. This was not always the case. Century’s old art indicates that a little extra weight on women was viewed as positive at many points in our past. Why would that be, and why would it change?

Some Conclusions From Observation About Body Fat

I do not know for sure but during my time as a Navy Physical Fitness Coordinator I came to some conclusions based years of observations. They will be presented, though you may disagree. I will state that I am a male who does not typically struggle with weight.

In my Navy time, most people did not fail the physical fitness test on performance of the three exercises of the run, push-ups, and sit-ups. If they failed, they typically failed because they were above the Navy’s body fat standards. Nine times out of ten, my job was to get people within the body fat standards.

“Unlucky” and “Lucky” Ethnic Groups

I quickly noticed that on my roster of “fat boys”, certain last names dominated the list. They included those with “Mc” in front or “ski” at the end. The “Smiths” and “Jones’” were frequently African American. Although it may be politically incorrect, it was pretty clear that those of Irish, Scottish (to some degree), Slavik, and African American decent seemed to struggle with their weight more than those of English, German, or Scandinavian decent. There were, of course, exceptions, but this was my general observation.

All these “unlucky” (by body fat standards) ethnic groups had one thing in common– their ancestors, by and large, had a worse food supply than the “lucky” ethnic groups, or so it appears from my reading of history. The Irish had the potato famine. The old Scottish in the highlands frequently had a very rough time. The Slavik people are called Slavik from the root word slave, and they lived in an area where war came from every direction, causing them to be frequently enslaved. And of course, most African Americans had to run the gauntlet of the Atlantic crossing. With all these groups, even if the people did not actually starve, their women, once they got below a certain body fat, would become infertile. Only those who stored fat well survived, which would explain why women with higher body fat were viewed more positively in the past.

My Opinion

That is my opinion. It may offend some. For those who are old enough to remember Jimmy the Greek, a famous sports odds maker who used to be all over television, he had a similar opinion about the ethnic element of athletic performance and lost his job over it. It is something we are not allowed to talk about. However, I think it is relevant.

I also think that in a survival situation just who is lucky and unlucky in this regard could flip very quickly. From a survival perspective, those who struggle with their weight may be genetically superior in my opinion.

Meal Team Six

There is a  humorous picture of “Meal Team Six”on the Internet. There are two gentlemen who are fairly thin and two who are pretty hefty. Who would survive? I say it depends.

Fat– A Double Edged Sword

Fat is a double edged sword. It has been proven that older people who carry a bit of extra weight have a higher survival rate if they get cancer or other issues when they get older. In my time in the Navy, I found that many “fat boys” had some serious reserves of endurance. I knew marathoners and triathletes that barely stayed within and sometimes strayed out of body fat standards. In a famine, the fat people will likely survive longer. However, at the same time, carrying excess weight can lead to diabetes, heart disease, and severe joint issues. If you needed to walk somewhere, excess weight could stop you. If you had diabetes and needed insulin, an interruption of your insulin could kill you.

In a survival situation, some obese people may die quickly if they are unable to move about as needed or if the obesity makes them dependent on medications for survival. After the initial “thinning”, to use harsh term, the obese people who survive may be better off than those who were viewed as physically superior in better times.

Body Composition Must Be Divorced From Society Constructs of Appearance

So my conclusion is that body composition is important but must be divorced from our societal constructs of appearance. A six pack is not going to be relevant or maybe even desirable in a survival situation, whether it be societal collapse or being diagnosed with cancer. However, if losing 10 (or 50) pounds prevents knee surgery or replacement and keeps you mobile during societal collapse or just old age, that is desirable.

Focus On Function Not Aesthetics

If losing 50 pounds prevents or even cures diabetes and prevents all the unpleasantness that disease can offer (like neuropathy or even amputation of limbs) that is desirable. Keep the focus on the functional not the aesthetic.

Adjusting Body Composition

My time training people in the Navy taught me several things about adjusting body composition. There are many things that have no effect.

Cardio Has Limited Effectiveness in Reducing Body Fat

Cardio has only limited effectiveness in reducing body fat. Strength training has more. I observed that swimming and biking (unless you are at a competitive level at least equal to perhaps a high school swimmer) had almost no effect on reducing body fat, although they were outstanding for overall fitness. I even saw a lot of good runners struggle with their body fat, though some had good success.

Diets and Physical Labor Worked

Low-carb diets worked but were difficult to stick to. Eliminating alcohol worked. Eliminating sugar worked. The new Weight Watchers diet works pretty well, from my observation.

Periods of physical labor, where people work at least four to six hours a day with a shovel or some other pleasant instrument, work very well.

I had a Navy Corpsman friend who was sent to Viet Nam to dig up the remains of U.S. servicemen that were found in the country. (This is actually an assignment that Navy Corpsman can apply for, and it is a great honor to get selected.) He would shovel and sift dirt, frequently on hill sides, looking for the bones of the fallen for about six hours a day in the Viet Namese heat. He was a bit hefty going in, but at the end of six weeks his weight was the same. However, his body fat was down 5%. For his weight, that was the equivalent of losing nine pounds of fat and gaining nine pounds of muscle in six weeks.

Bodies Designed For Effort

I am convinced our bodies are designed for long-term, moderate effort, like when people worked in the fields every day. We do not get it as much anymore, and that is a big reason for the “obesity epidemic”. It is hard to get that kind of fat burning activity in the gym or even running, unless you have a lot of time.

Concentrate on increasing muscle mass and decreasing fat, rather than losing weight. There is some value in getting weight off joints, but muscle mass and strength around those joints compensates for a lot of that. Few of the people I dealt with, who had chronic (as opposed to transitory) body fat issues, ever lost weight and kept it off. There were those, however, who could gain significant muscle and lose fat and keep the fat off, but they had to be sold on the idea. This was especially true of women.

Almost everyone, and especially women, needs to gain more muscle, even if they are currently of good body composition. Attempting to stay too small and skinny often results in excess body fat later on. This is hard for many to accept, especially women.

So far in this series we have discussed four elements of fitness and broad ways to achieve them. These are: muscular strength, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, and body composition.

Four Principles/Variables Applicable To All Fitness Activities

Next we will discuss four principles/variables applicable to all fitness activities.

  1. Specificity
  2. Intensity
  3. Duration
  4. Frequency

These items are important to understand to avoid injury and burn out and to generally get anywhere. These are subtleties I wish I would have paid attention to when I was younger that would leave me fitter today.


Exercising one part of your body does not, in general, make other unrelated parts stronger. Working your upper body does not have a great effect on your lower body and vice versa. Running will provide only marginal improvement to swimming and vice versa. This is not a hard and fast rule, and that is why cross training and continuing to train uninjured parts of your body when other parts are injured can be helpful. However, if you habitually neglect one aspect of your fitness, it will as a rule stagnate or deteriorate.

Specificity says you need to exercise your whole body with enough variety to keep your whole body strong. There are ways to do this that are not overly time consuming or complicated. In practicality, the specificity principle leads to some recommendations.

Time Effective Exercises

Do exercises that involve multiple major muscle groups and joints. Squats are usually better than leg presses. Rowing exercises or chin-ups are better than curls. By better, I largely mean more time effective. If you have all the time in the world to exercise each individual muscle, that is great. I do not.

Although manual labor is an excellent source of exercise (perhaps the best for managing body composition IMO), it fails in specificity. As previously stated, most manual labor will tend to overuse certain parts of the body and underuse others. This can create injury problems and leave holes in your fitness when you switch activities. Chopping firewood is great exercise (one of my favorites), but it only helps you so much when you pick up a shovel. And after your yearly firewood is put up, or the ditch is dug, what then? Manual labor can be a cornerstone of fitness (and was for peasant societies), but specificity will demand that it be supplemented with other activities. And many peasants practiced various exercises to enable them to continue their manual labor.


As I mentioned earlier, youth sports can sometimes be actually detrimental to long-term fitness, both mentally and physically. Incorrect management of intensity is one reason.

Youth sports seasons are limited in time, and sometimes coaches are in fact not allowed to even interact with their athletes in the off season. This produces pressure to get everyone in shape quick and then start competing at full intensity on short amounts of training. There is also a tendency to view training in this environment as an avenue to “make a man out of you” and “toughen you up” rather than train at the optimum level (which is not necessarily very intense). This approach is not good for long-term physical performance. Consequently, many raised in this environment will approach training with too much intensity, get sore, get injured, get discouraged, and/or get nowhere.

Consistency Beats Intensity

You do encounter some who err the other way and train so lazily that they get nowhere. However, I have observed that sometimes the slacker gets further in the long run than the more diligent person, so long as they keep with it. Consistency beats intensity by a long shot.

From a functional and survival perspective, we also want to avoid being sore, as it may impair our ability to respond to an emergency situation. If you make yourself overly sore working out and you have a home invasion, you may lose a step or two in speed that may prove useful to fighting off an intruder. One of my favorite fitness authors, Paul Wade, points this out in his book ***Convict Conditioning*** In one of the ultimate survival situations, prison, you cannot afford to be sore and unable to move effectively if attacked.

The Correct Intensity

What is the correct intensity? It’s hard to answer that definitively, but with caveats I would say roughly 70% to 80% effort with very occasional short forays into 90% plus ranges.

How does 70% to 80% work out in practicality? For cardiovascular work, this is 70% to 80% of theoretical max heart rate. Theoretical max heart rate is typically calculated as 220 minus your age. For example, if you are 40, your theoretical max heart rate is about 220 – 40 = 180. So then, 75% would be 135 beats per minute (bpm). That’s not a bad place to aim for with your cardiovascular work with occasional short training sessions of perhaps 5 to 10 minutes approaching 160 bpm every week or two but no more often.

Tomorrow, I will continue on the correct intensity as it applies to strength work and move forward on the other principles of fitness– duration and frequency, before wrapping up this article.

See Also:

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  1. Did we just get a 4th “B”? Band aids,bullets, beans and blubber!
    Joking aside this is a really good series. JBH has provided helpful reminders and suggestions.
    My takeaways so far are.
    Interval training is good.
    Consistency beats intensity in the long run.
    Make a plan to include strength training.

    One thing that I know from personal experience. Consistent cardio in conjunction with a sensible diet does really help with stabilizing blood sugar and cholesterol. Diet alone does not work for me.
    I am not diabetic but my body was trending the wrong way.
    Three years ago we started doing 45 minutes of cardio 4 days a week. I do the hamster routine on a treadmill. I get 3 miles in while changing elevation.

    My blood test numbers are much better, I got off the statins and my blood sugar is trending down. I am still fighting with 15 extra lbs.

    JBH correctly determines that cardio alone in most cases does not cause weight loss.
    Thank you for this timely series, Thanksgiving is just around the corner.

  2. “Century’s old art indicates that a little extra weight on women was viewed as positive at many points in our past. Why would that be, and why would it change?”

    “Why would that be?” It was seen as a sign of wealth and ease, therefor upper-crust sophistication. Also when everybody is lean muscle, a rounded women is alluring, unusual, soft. “Why would it change?” Because being fat is not healthy.

    When everyone actually worked and everyone, save the aristocrats (thieves), had to feed themselves people were hard. Now that nobody works and food is free, everybody is fat.

  3. You forget the 3 body types(genetics don’t change)endomorph,ectomorph,mezomorph or skinny,fat and in between. You can only deal with the genetics your parents gave you(Mc,ski etc) and does not correlate to the new fads of body fat% and BMI’s. You don’t differentiate between visceral(internal,around organs) or beer belly,and subcutaneous(in layers of skin) fat and how they affect health and wellbeing and performance(long term endurance on fat burning is exponentially greater than on blood sugar). The other factor is the insulating use of subcutaneous fat,those that are exposed to outdoors ,especially colder climates will know that as temps fall your body will put on subcutaneous fat(as much as #15-#20) and shed that much or more as temps rise(90+deg days/70+nights fat dissolves in 2 weeks or more),the ability to survive exposure to weather cannot be discounted(try going out in a cold rain for a couple hours even with good rain gear). Obesity is very bad but having a good body fat of the right balance should be the goal.

  4. Part of the problem with our overweight society is the aspect of
    “convenience”. There is a fast food joint or mini-mart on every corner. As a kid, getting a coke was a very rare reward for me, literally perhaps twice a year, today many people I know inhale 3 a day. We are mentally addicted to convenience, sugar, carbs which work against the motivation to become fit, even if suffering some level of physical disability.

  5. Good observations. Although I produce a lot of our own food, my grandparents produced everything they consumed. They worked hard physically all their lives, but were still hefty. As a female in her 60’s, who has struggled with weight, & an ethnic background that includes Scandinavian, Scottish & German, I have lost over 40 pounds in the last 6 months. Most effective weight loss program I have ever met: Folfox chemo for cancer. I literally cannot keep enough down to maintain weight. I am within 25 pounds of my high school weight now, halfway thru treatment, & my survival may well depend on those extra pounds I had. Cancer is not likely to just disappear if SHTF, although finding treatment might be problematic.

    1. Sorry to hear about your struggle. Have you watched the science of fasting? There’s some interesting science out there that fasting a couple of days before chemo can help out a lot.

  6. Great series. I can’t count the number of women I’ve observed going on a “diet” to “lose weight” with not a mention of exercise but it has been shown scientifically that if nothing is done to increase muscle size whatever “weight” does come off will include muscle and one’s calorie burning factory (muscle) will be reduced and one will never lose fat, but gain it.

    I have no interest in losing weight, only fat. A good “diet”, that is, how you eat, means eating less refined food and watching sugar (has a 100 names and is in most all processed food) and not drinking my calories because it’s too hard to take off.

    I like carbs but try to keep them whole and not refined where everything important has been taken out to allow it to sit on that supermarket shelf too long before it goes bad. Notice I didn’t say cut them out. I love my carbs. Did I mention that?

    Ladies, if muscle is our calorie burning factory, then you need to feed those muscles and that means protein and muscle exercises. The easiest way for me to increase my protein is protein powder and I usually get it at Costco (cheaper) and make my drink with 1/2 cup cold water, half cup of ice and only 1 scoop of protein (usually half the amount of a “serving” on the container) and usually a half hour after exercise. It enhances my protein intake while not going overboard, because I still like real solid food.

    Most women hit the wall with weight gain (fat gain, not muscle) at just about 40. But think about it. Child rearing is now past, no more running and lifting kids all the while with groceries in the other arm while going up the steps. It kept you stronger. But it’s gone now and has to be replaced.

    When I was better at following my own advise years ago, when I was in better shape and going to the gym, it took me hours to convince a friend that if she took up strength training she wouldn’t end up looking like the guy next door. It just ain’t gonna happen.
    What will happen, if you take to heart the very good advice of this writer, is that your body composition will automatically change without you even thinking about it. And one day you’ll get into that dress you haven’t been able to get into the past 10 years.

    1. “it has been shown scientifically that if nothing is done to increase muscle size whatever “weight” does come off will include muscle and one’s calorie burning factory (muscle) will be reduced and one will never lose fat, but gain it.”

      this is not true. excess fat can 100% be controlled by diet.

      Several years ago I was doing p90x and still not losing weight. Then I did intermittent fasting and low carb. Dropped 30 lbs in 4 months.

  7. I’ve long held the opinion that not enough fat isn’t a good thing. Look at what photographic artifacts we have from the American Indians; the early stuff. The people pictured weren’t lean at all! They had some fat on ’em! They lived in a feast or famine world. They ate well whenever they could, because their next meal was never guaranteed! They packed on the pounds in preparation for the lean times. In the coming times, this will be something we need to embrace as well…

  8. Excellent series… I whole heartedly agree with many points, especially the theory of adaptation of our ancestors to a hard scrabble life. The people who could manage to put on extra reserves allowed them to survive the winter, bouts of sickness, etc. Women especially needed those extra reserves when pregnant and nursing (look up the paleolithic carving named, the “Venus of Willendorf.”) We are built to survive the starvation times.

    My grandmother and her mother were peasants who came out of rural poverty… they were both short and “chunky” …they ate whatever they wanted, and tended gardens into their old age. Both lived to over 100.

    Years ago I postulated that the ancient “cave man” diet of primarily meat and green vegetables, with limited carbohydrates is probably the ideal. This is now called the “paleo” diet. Until they settled down and started farming, our ancestors didn’t have access to huge amounts of wheat, and the resulting diabetic issues (see the book “Wheat Belly.”)

  9. The next time you have a car loaded with hungry children running between school and after school activities, make a stop at the local drive through. Check out the menu and the prices. Look at the prices of the lower cost items also known as the dollar menu or other named affordable choices. Then look at the price list of the healthier choices on the menu. Now do some simple math. Add up the prices of the value menu vs the prices of the healthy choices. Assume four children and one or two adults. Take into consideration One parent is working overtime to try to pay for this meal, and one parent is lets assume working only 40 hour weeks so they can drive the children to and from multiple activities. Where do you find the time to shop and prepare nutritious meals three times a day for this family? Where do you drive through and find nutritious meals at an affordable price for a family of four children plus two adults? Lets not forget, the time demands on this family with the football practice, soccer, band practice, music lessons, cheerleader practice. Lets remember this family was at one time a one bread winner family, then it became a two breadwinner family, now its two breadwinner with one working all the overtime they can get. And we wonder why our children are not the most healthy of generations. How about “fast food” drive throughs offering nutritious choices at low cost like the “low cost items” that are not nutritious choices. How about helping a family out! BTW, most families do not have jobs where they are paid to exercise and get in shape but rather have to find time to “fit” it in. Families are struggeling and could use some help. If someone is “over weight”, perhaps it is due to the fact they are spending time with their children between after school shuttles, trying to have quality time rather than having time at the Gym. Its not simple people. Our children need us and it would be great to be able to work less, and excerise more and still have the time with our children we desire and hold in high esteem.

  10. The farmers wife tends to be thicker and larger than her counterpart from the big city. I wouldnt say unhealthy just more on the large, thick, well fed side of life.. certainly not slim, lean and shapely.
    I cant say why this is the case, But I do know that in big cities, people tend to do a lot more walking but their diets are less than ideal. One would think that with all the hard work and daily chores that rural living requires, coupled with a diet primarily of wild game and homegrown and preserved food the women would be slimmer and leaner, but this just isnt the case.

    The opposite seems to be the case concerning the kids, The kids in my town of 200 are thin, healthy and very active outdoors, while the kids in the cities tend to be chubby, inactive and more of the indoor couch potato types.

  11. re:

    I might offer a different opinion about obesity.

    I was a Physical Therapist for decades, specializing in nutrition. The vast majority of obese individuals carry less fat… and more edema, water from inflammation.

    What causes inflammation? Injury. After a surgery or illness or trauma, the body manufactures cholesterol to heal the injured area. This is a normal reaction to injury. And injury is supposed to be temporary.

    What if injury is chronic? What happens from a diet high in inflammatory choices == grains, dairy, most oils, sugars such as alcohol, stimulants? C
    The inevitable result is chronic debilitating injury such as asthma, arthritis, cancers. Fatty liver disease. Dementia.

    What about ‘comfort foods’? Pasta, corn bread, ice cream, coffee? I have a theory on this == inside the human brain is a section devoted to addiction. Since the chemical structure of grains (and grain products (corn syrup)) is similar to opiates, our brain recognizes them as addictive. The result is a craving for those feel-good consumables (they are not ‘food’, they offer zero nutrition, they are poison).

    Do you want to lose thirty pounds in thirty days? Experiment with eliminating grains, dairy, stimulants such as coffee, soy, inflammatory oils such as soy, corn, sunflower, safflower. Replace those with vegetables and fruit, several servings with each meal including breakfast. Aim for twelve to fifteen servings of vegetables and fruits daily.

    To significantly reduce the potential for cancers, experiment with eliminating crops produced with petroleum-based chemicals.

    Picture a body constantly flooded with inflammation. Can you see the chronic aches and pains? The edema resulting from inflammation?

    Now, consider the example in the article == parent rushed to get something / anything in the stomachs of a vehicleful of youngsters, driving into a fast-food joint to purchase products to feed the cravings.

    Can you imagine a family participating in the growing and raising of their meals? Can you imagine a family working together to prepare this food? Then sitting to eat together as a tribe?

    My suggestions:
    Choose fresh local seasonal organic.
    Choose extended meditation to compensate for moments of competition.

    Experiment with the ‘Paleo lifestyle’. Diet… plus Paleo exercise == bursts of tree climbing during walks, bursts of sprints while walking. A burst of maximum-effort swimming while enjoying a float.

    Paleo includes sitting around the campfire telling stories of heritage. Include, and be included.

    Listen to your body. How about a journal listing everything you consume followed by the impact of the products and the circumstances of the consumption. How does a picnic with friends compare to eating while driving while talking on the telephone while looking in the mirror to adjust your wardrobe hair face while rising anxiety about some competition…

  12. two years ago, I was diagnosed with testiculaar cancer, I went throught chemo , which seems to have killed the cancer, ( almost killed me while taking the chemo drugs as well ), anyway, I started the therapy at 260 pounds, chemo and lying on your back for months on end does not help in managing weight, so it went up ! , my ancestry is German / slavic, so have always been very strong in my lower body, especially legs, my arms so so, deep chest, again ancestry, I started a low carb diet or Paleo eating plan in January of this year, I cut out all suger, restricted coffee intake to two cups for day, and used full cream ( unsweetened ) in my coffee or organic cocoa, used no milk, drank over 1250 mils of water a day, cut out all rice, white potatoe, cous cous, wheat, bread, and other starches, I drank or do drink, whiskey, vodka if I choose to 3 times a week moderately, bacon and eggs for breakfast most days of the week, my workout ? three times a week to lift intense weight for a brief 45 minute session, my cardio I limit to a 15 minute cycle or similar before doing the weights.

    After three months I had lost 3 inches of my waist and lost 25 plus pounds eating greens,( no peas though , meat ( all types ), no junk food, and now feel very, very good, I easily leg lift 160 pounds and arm lift 130 pounds, can I do better ? sure !, for someone who has gone through the pain and anguish of cancer I am quite pleased with my progress, I am not Arnie, but for my age of 60 quite ok, I still retain more body fat that I like ( 28 percent ), in closing I will say, to lose weight and be healthy, put less food in your mouth and exersize doing something you actually like will benefit you in the long run.

    For me , I find losing weight fairly easy , I suspect though it comes down to my European ancestry ( Nordic tall strong race of people ). My ancestors were all hunter gatherers, how much does that help ? I truly don’t know.

  13. I agree with the author’s observations regarding body composition. I’ve spent 25 years in the USAR and have fought”The Battle of the Bulge” the whole time. This despite normally scoring over 80% on each event of the Army Physical Fitness Test and usually near maxing the sit-ups and dusting young men much lighter and younger than me. I’m sure genetics plays a part, but body composition is a much smaller part of overall fitness than generally thought. Of course not that the Army will change that standard. Heaven forbid they admit they were wrong about something.

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