Oftentimes, in the circles of the preparation-minded, the focus centers around guns, grub, and gear. Areas most certainly worthy of attention, but in my opinion, second place to the state of one’s health, fitness, and overall capital in the realm of physical resilience. An individual with the best-prepared resources in the realms of food, water, and security yet neglecting their fitness and health, whether consciously or not, is missing a key component of their preparation program.
My personal definition of fitness is an ability to perform any desired labor or leisure task at any time, with physical competence, and recover from that task in order to handle whatever comes next. Fitness is more than muscle bulk, six pack abdominal muscles, marathon times, and vanity: it is the currency of physical aptitude. Our levels of fitness determine the breadth of our gas tanks, the larger your tank, the more you can handle on every level. Emotional and mental stress as well as the obvious physical stress all drain on that same tank, and a well-rounded base of fitness will ensure that your most important piece of equipment, your body, is prepared just like all other essential considerations of your life.
The copious volume of information currently circulating regarding the fitness and wellness space can be mind numbing and nauseating. There is a program for every goal imaginable, as the purveyors of this information seek to spin, twist, and transform every insecurity into a marketable product. It invokes paralysis by analysis and frustration in even the savviest of consumers. How do you know where to start? How do I know if what I’m doing is working? How to I properly progress? What is the right thing for me to be doing at my level? These questions and endless more are hard to get straight answers for. There are some brilliant minds in the world of fitness out there, but many struggle to get their message to the masses if they don’t have a platform on social media or a network television show because their sound, logical, science-based approaches aren’t as sexy or catchy as the latest trending fad gracing the cover of magazines.
What I will seek to do here is layout some tested, vetted principles and tangible actions that can help those at any level optimize their individual fitness and health regimen. These are principles I have personally seen bring boundless fitness into the lives of clients, friends, family members and myself. At the heart of all this is the desire to identify the correct fit for the individual that will lead to a lifestyle modification rather than a time-restricted window in which one seeks to cram 10 pounds of fitness in a 5-pound bag, in a hugely unsustainable push. Our discussion will focus on the following areas, which together form the synergistic approach to build a fortified human.
The Essential Pillars of a Comprehensive Fitness Program:
- Sleep Optimization
- Energy Systems Training (aka “Cardio” or “Conditioning”)
- Resistance Training
- The 3 Key foundational pillars
What if I told you there was a drug that could help you lose fat, build muscle, heal injuries, reduce stress, have more energy, think more clearly, and strengthen your immune system. This drug was free, and carried with it zero side effects or risks. You’d take it right? I would too!! The good news is that “drug” is SLEEP!! You may think my above example was hyperbole but I assure you it’s not! Sleep is THE strongest driver of those items within our reach and at ZERO COST.
The current recommendation for most is somewhere between 7-9 hours of sleep per night, with perhaps a little less required for the elderly. The more research one does into the role of sleep, the more you respect its power. Forcibly reducing sleep by as little as 1 hour per night over just a couple weeks can severely dampen multiple systems in the body, increasing hunger, decreasing the ability to lose those extra pounds, and diminishing cognitive function to a significant degree. While of course there are times for all of us we will have to cut sleep and make due, as a default, establishing a sleep routine that allows you the highest quality and quantity of sleep is a massive game-changer in your quest for physical resilience. The following are some quick tips to fortify your sleep routine, and give yourself every advantage you can!
1.) Sleep in a completely blacked out, cool room.
2.) Avoid any screens 1-2 hours before bed as much as possible. If not possible, look into blue light blocking glasses that will help your body produce the melatonin it needs to wind down appropriately.
3.) Dim lights in the house and favor fireplaces/candles if possible once the sun has set.
4.) Seek to align your sleep/wake cycle as close as possible to the rising and setting of the sun.
5.) Try and get some sun on your skin as early as possible in the morning. This will help to get your circadian rhythm on track and make falling asleep easier at night.
6.) If possible, try not to eat after dark (again plays into optimizing our circadian rhythm).
7.) Establish a calming mental practice before bed be that prayer, journaling, or something of the like that allows you to bring your system into “rest and digest” mode as much as possible. If nothing else avoid intense or mentally stimulating reading.
While a full deep dive into nutrition is beyond the scope of any single article, it would be negligent to discuss fitness and health without highlighting nutrition as a pivotal factor in that quest. Like the topic of fitness, nutrition today is a hotly debated topic on par with religion and politics that has created massive amounts of division and confusion for the individual seeking some truth and clarity. In nutrition, like most things, avoiding the extremes with an open mind tends to paint the clearest picture from which one can make an informed decision on the best path forward. The following are nutrition principles that seem to have the greatest bang for your buck, and a large amount of overlap between much of the current top nutrition data. To keep things simple, I usually recommend the following principles as a starting place, and at first place no restrictions on quantity, aside from trying to be mindful of satiety.
1.) Seek to eat 1-2+ “Fist” size servings of vegetables at every meal, and strive for as many shades as possible daily
2.) Quality animal protein should be present at most, if not all, feedings. 1-2 Palm size servings is a solid place to start.
3.) Eat as large a percentage of your diet as whole minimally processed foods as possible. Foods the “ran, swam, flew or grew” is an awesome place to start.
4.) Match your overall carbohydrate intake to your activity level. What this means is that if you are really active foods like rice, potatoes, and starches should be included in higher amounts; but as one shifts to more sedentary phases or times of lower activity likely they will need fewer of these foods.
5.) Be mindful of how certain foods make you feel; 15-20 minutes after a meal just take mental account of your energy and if certain foods don’t sit well or leave you feeling lethargic.
As you get more advanced and seek to make more and more progress your food quantity tracking may need to get a bit more rigid, but for the vast majority starting out that is not an effective gateway to lifestyle change. With any nutrition approach consistency is the largest factor, so I encourage everyone I talk with to delve into cooking and explore ways to make real food tastier and more enjoyable. There is really no shortage of high quality recipes on the internet, this site boasting many itself! I have included some resources I’ve found very helpful in shaping my nutritional philosophy, that I think can help cut through the ocean of conflicting camps out there, and provide a starting point for anyone seeking to make a change.
“Fatigue Makes Cowards of Us all.” -Vince Lombardi
The value of well-developed energy systems (a fancy way for saying, the various pathways by which our body makes “movement currency”) cannot be overstated. If you’ve ever watched a boxing match or MMA fight you’ve likely seen what fatigue can do to even the most elite practitioners, experts in their discipline; Skills fade, reaction slows, and the will to fight can be seen visibly drained from the fatigued combatant. The ability to supply your body with the energy it needs to engage in intense actions (perhaps sprinting to an area of safety in a sudden bout of severe weather while holding a child) or sustain for long durations at lower intensities (maybe walking with a 50-pound pack for a number of miles in the event a vehicle is disabled) could literally be the difference between life and death.
While I don’t assume the readers here are seeking Olympic levels of conditioning, regardless of where you are you can improve and increase your capacity across multiple domains with little to no equipment or cost involved. While the investment in dollars is low, there is no escaping the sweat equity required to gain the required capacity to become the best asset you possibly can. The following is a very elementary breakdown of the broad types of ways our body produces energy and what types of workouts and in what ratio will best allow you to expand your gas tank.
Aerobic (oxidative) conditioning
The aerobic system is the body’s means of producing energy over long durations (majority contributor for any activity > 2mins). This is the base from which all other systems are fed, and a key driver to one’s overall health. For the vast majority of us the best means of aerobic training is sustained exercise for 30-120+ minutes while maintaining a heart rate of between 120-150 beats per minute (OR in simple terms, a pace at which you could hold a full-sentence conversation). Oftentimes people will think you need to suffer in order to build conditioning, which is not true in this case. Keeping your heart rate in the correct range will allow the correct adaptation to take hold. What we are trying to do is get your heart to pump more blood per beat (your stroke volume) so it needs to beat less in general to do the same work. This brings with it a myriad of benefits, one of which is improved oxygen delivery during exercise, and thus improved aerobic conditioning. A reduced resting heart rate means your heart needs to beat less to do the same work, and massive factor in cardiovascular health and plus in the longevity column! These workouts shouldn’t leave you gasping for air, and in fact when done properly should be somewhat enjoyable once you establish an initial base of fitness!
Steady state (done at one consistent pace) exercise at the aforementioned intensity is the meat and potatoes of aerobic conditioning, but it’s not the only method. Various forms of interval training will tap into the aerobic system heavily, and can be used very effectively. The key when using intervals to bring up aerobic conditioning versus other systems we will discuss soon, is to make sure your periods of “higher” effort are not maximal. An example of this for a beginner would be as follows:
A 20-30 Min total bike/jog/swim/row where every
:60-:90 seconds you engage in a burst of higher (but not maximal) effort for :10-:30
More on intervals when we discuss higher intensity anaerobic conditioning!
When building up your aerobic conditioning it does not need to be complex. I would use a simple build up like what follows, progressing when the individual was able to successfully complete the prior step. This example mixed “rucking” (walking with a load) and running, as these are two activities I think cost the least and have the most bang for your buck.
(Side Note: jogging should always be unloaded – running with a pack risks unnecessary strain on your hips, knees, and back)
-Walking unloaded for 60 mins
-Jogging 20 mins continuous
-Walking 30-pound load 30 mins
-Jogging 30 mins continuous
-Walking 30-pound load 60 mins
-Jogging 40 mins continuous
-Walking 50-pound load 30 mins
-Jogging 45 mins continuous
-Walking 50-pound load 60 mins
…. etc. in such a fashion incrementally making improvements once you are able to successfully complete the prior task.
What is good enough? When is someone good enough…That really depends on a multitude of factors, namely what is someone’s age/background and current health? How high of a priority do they seek to make fitness? If I was forced to give some hard metrics for aerobic fitness for someone who just wants basic capacity as a capable human, I’d say the following would be solid goals that would put someone in a place where their fitness was not a liability for very general applications:
Age 20-30: 3 mile run in <25:00 3 Mile 50-pound ruck in <55:00
Age 30-40: 3 mile run in <26:00 3 Mile 50-pound ruck in <1hr
Age 40-50: 3 mile run in <27:00 3 Mile 50-pound ruck in <1hr10m
Age 50-60: 3 mile run nonstop (w/o having to walk) 3 Mile 30-pound ruck in <1hr
Age 60+ Walk/shuffle/jog 5 miles in <1hr
Obviously, it would pay dividends to exceed these standards but if you are someone to whom fitness has not been a priority, use these as solid goals to shoot for. For some these may come easy, others may spend weeks or months chipping away to get there, the important thing is that smart effort is applied consistently!
There are many more methods, of increasing complexity, when training the aerobic system, but if you stick to the above recommendations you will find not only do you make progress, you should feel good while doing so.
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)