Survival Health and Fitness

There is a preparation we can all make that doesn’t required much money, much storage, or much expertise. Yet it should be a critical component of your readiness. Yes, it is your personal health and fitness. If you started 2014 with good intentions but haven’t had the success you hoped for, this article is for you. This commentary outlines the whys and hows of improving your health and fitness.

Survival Benefits to Improving Health and Fitness

Prevent ever needing, or even reverse the need for drugs that you may no longer be able to get when the SHTF. Statins (Crestor, Lipitor, Zocor) for cholesterol control are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S. Blood pressure medicines (ACE inhibitors and diuretics) are the next most common. Metformin, to help mitigate diabetes, also makes the Top 10 list. How will you cope when your supply is gone? Fortunately these are drugs that most of us can avoid ever needing simply by employing good nutrition and exercise practices. Even those who are already taking these drugs may be able to get off of them by improving their diet and exercise habits. For example, for every two pounds an overweight person loses, their blood pressure is lowered by approximately one point (1 mmHg.)

Improve your work capacity. When the SHTF, the technological advancements that have enabled Americans to enjoy physically easy lives may not function. Want to be warm or to cook? Start chopping and carrying wood…lots of it. Want to drink? Walk to your water source and/or carry water back from it, over and over again. It’s sad but true that even without the presence of a criminal element, many Americans will not be physically able to care for themselves after a major disaster.

Improve your self-defense ability. Of course, when the SHTF there will be a criminal element looking to prey upon others, particularly upon the weak. Don’t be one of them. Improving your fitness will go a long way in making sure you can hump that bug out bag (BOB), carry that rifle, climb that fence, and sprint away from danger when you need to.

Happily, the benefits of improving your health and fitness are not only highly beneficial to you if the SHTF, they are highly beneficial to you if it doesn’t. It’s a no-lose scenario! How do we know if we’re fit or fat?

Fatness Tests. You probably already have a general idea if you need to drop a pound or 20 or 100. Certainly the scale and the mirror are easy places to start. However, the scale and the commonly used Body Mass Index (BMI) can be misleading. By BMI standards, every six foot, 205-pound piece of twisted steel that plays defensive back in the NFL is “overweight.” And the linebackers are obese. A much better standard is to actually have your body composition tested. As a general rule, men should have less than 20% body fat and women less than 30%. While commercial body composition testing can be expensive, embarrassing, and/or unreliable, there is a very simple and effective method of estimating fatness that can be done at home– the Waist/Height ratio. Your waist measurement should be less than half your height. For example, if you are 5’10” (70 inches tall) and have a 32″ waist, you probably have relatively low body fat. If you’re 5’10” with a 40″ waist, you have some work to do.

Fitness Tests. This is a critical tool that even many people who regularly exerciser ignore. How will you know if your personal physical training (PT) program is working if you never test yourself? Obviously, there are a myriad of these tests, from expensive VO2 Max tests (measuring the maximum rate of oxygen consumption during incremental exercise) to simply seeing if you can touch your toes. Since we are talking about survival fitness it seems logical that we look toward military physical fitness standards. In order to graduate from basic training, male Army recruits must perform roughly 30 push-ups, 40 sit-ups, and run two miles in under 17.5 minutes. Female recruits must perform 11 push-ups, 40 sit-ups, and complete two miles in under 20.5 minutes. (The actual numbers vary somewhat due to age-related adjustments.) Keep in mind, these are the basic military training MINIMUMS, and therefore not at all representative of an elite warrior, like a Ranger or even a basic infantry troop. If you want to survive TEOTWAWKI, it seems like those minimums would be a good place to start. Another way of measuring your fitness for survival is to test your performance in survival simulations. Can you carry a five gallon bucket of water the 200 meters from your hand pump or creek to your shelter? How many times? How much wood can you chop in an hour? One excellent survival-specific test would be to actually load your BOB or get-home bag and walk the number of miles you anticipate walking when the “balloon goes up”. If you can’t do that easily, you need to improve your fitness or change your plan. Important caveat: If you’re not already pretty healthy, do NOT try these fitness tests. Employ gentler methods of improving your health first, then worry about improving and testing your fitness.

Hacks To Improve Our Health and Fitness

Despite what the marketers of commercial exercise and diet plans will tell you, this is not rocket science. To lose weight, eat less. To run faster, practice running. You get the picture. However, there are some scientifically proven strategies which can improve the effectiveness of your quest to improve your health and fitness, and some of these are not as commonly known as they probably should be. Listed below are seven of the most important strategies (along with supporting references, so you can see that this is not just one person’s opinion.) With 33% of Americans overweight and another 33% obese, most of the recommendations here are of highest relevance to those who need to lose weight. However, all of these strategies will also help people who are already at a healthy weight.

Step 1: Start! Nobody’s perfect. Only a select few have the genetics and discipline to be SEALs or Olympians. All of us have factors that make it difficult to completely incorporate ideal health and fitness habits. Still, every one of us can be healthier and more fit in two months than we are today. Setting your intention is the first and most important step in any self-improvement effort.

Step 2: Don’t Drink Your Calories. Sugar in liquid form, like in soda or even juice, is less satiating (satisfying) than in solid form.[1] Notably, diet colas are not a suitable substitute. Not only is there scant evidence of their consumption being beneficial to weight control, but some research has reported they increase hunger[2], which of course can lead to weight gain. Additionally, fruit juice is not a healthy alternative to soda. An 8-ounce glass of orange juice contains about 21 grams of sugar! Get in the habit of drinking WATER.

Step 3: Obey Your Hunger, NOT Your Appetite. Distinguishing between hunger (a physiological need for energy) and appetite (a psychological desire to eat) can prevent overeating. There are several ways to effectively reduce hunger.

  • Eat slowly. This allows more time for our hunger-related hormones to adjust to our food intake. Specifically, it allows ghrelin levels to fall and peptide YY and glucagon-like peptide-1 levels to rise, effectively telling you that you are not hungry.[4] This strategy has been demonstrated to effectively reduce total caloric intake.[3]
  • Consume plenty of fiber. This provides a physical feeling of fullness that can reduce hunger.[5]
  • Avoid liquid calories and simple carbohydrates. Instead, choose foods that promote feeling full, as outlined in steps 2, 4, 5, and 6.
  • Engage in mindful eating. Observe, smell, and really taste your food. Pay attention to your body’s cues. Zoning out in front of the TV while eating often results in eating well beyond the point of natural fullness.

Step 4: Eat Complex Carbohydrates, Not Simple Carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates include vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. Simple sugars (syrup, candy, soda), which contain few nutrients and cause a potent insulin response, should be avoided. A logical next step is to consume foods with a low glycemic load. Not only do such foods cause a less dramatic insulin response than high glycemic foods, but they are more satiating than high glycemic foods.[5] In general, low glycemic index (GI) foods include vegetables, beans, and berries; medium GI foods include whole grains and most other fruits, while white breads (pasta, rice, pretzels) are high GI foods.

Step 5: Avoid Foods Labeled “Low-Fat.” Despite the low-fat mantra being drilled into Americans’ psyches over the past few decades, there is scant evidence that simply changing your macronutrient ratio to include a lower proportion of fat has any desirable influence on weight or health. Worse, most “low-fat” foods have replaced the fat with extra salt and sugar. Compare any “low-fat” snack with its “regular” counterpart to see for yourself. Finally, fat is an important nutrient in its own right, promoting good endocrine health. Notably, most of our fats should be monounsaturated. A diet above 12% in monounsaturated fats has been demonstrated to increase satiety, reduce fat mass, and lower blood pressure.[6] Examples of healthy monounsaturated fats are nuts, avocados, olive oil, and cold-water fish.

Step 6: Eat At Least 1.5 Grams of Protein Per Kilogram of Body Weight. Protein is vital to maintaining our lean body tissue, particularly as we age. There is convincing evidence that a higher protein intake increases thermogenesis, as well as it being very satiating.[7] Both of these factors promote weight loss. The U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is a meager 0.8 grams (g) per kilogram (kg) of body weight. However, the International Society for Sports Nutrition recommends 1.5-1.9 g/kg for adults engaged in regular resistance training, which you’ll do if you follow Step 7. Following those recommendations, a 180-pound man would eat about 145-155 g per day. First convert pounds to kilograms by dividing by 2.2. Then multiply by 1.9 to get the target daily amount of protein. (The math looks like: 180/2.2 = 81 kg; 81 kg x 1.9 g/kg = 155 grams.)

Step 7: Resistance Train At Least Twice Weekly. Like in the case of avoiding fat, mainstream health advocates have been tireless but misguided in their promotion of endurance or “aerobic” exercise. Certainly, that type of exercise is beneficial. However, resistance training provides benefits that endurance training alone does not, such as an increased basal metabolic rate (which aids in weight loss/maintenance), reduced potential for injury, and increased strength and work capacity.[8] A well-rounded exercise program includes both endurance and resistance training. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends resistance training 2-3 times per week. One other note: Because it incorporates balance, proprioception (an unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation), and natural movement paths, resistance training that uses free weights (like barbells and dumbbells) will be much more transferable to survival activities than resistance training with machines would be.

Step 8: Seek Help if Needed. Many preppers understandably take pride in their self-sufficiency, but we must be wise enough to know when we need to consult an expert. This is particularly true in the world of nutrition and fitness because there are so many charlatans out there peddling ineffective or even dangerous plans. If your plan isn’t working, seek out a trainer and/or nutritionist who possesses: a) a degree, b) a recognized certification, and c) a physique/lifestyle that proves he or she practices what they preach. There are some good trainers who don’t have all three of those qualities, but finding someone who has all three all but assures that they will be able to help you.

I’m confident that incorporating these strategies into your lifestyle should leave you healthier, happier, and better prepared. Valeo Valui Valiturus.


[1] Mourao DM, Bressan J, Campbell WW, Mattes RD. (2007). Effects of food form on appetite. Int J Obes (Lond). Nov;31(11):1688-95.
[2] Mattes RD, Popkin BM. (2009). Nonnutritive sweetener consumption in humans: effects on appetite and food intake and their putative mechanisms. Am J Clin Nutr. Jan;89(1):1-14.
[3] Andrade AM, Greene GW, Melanson KJ. (2008). Eating slowly led to decreases in energy intake within meals in healthy women. J Am Diet Assoc. Jul;108(7):1186-91.
[4] Kokkinos et al. (2010). Eating Slowly Increases the Postprandial Response of the Anorexigenic Gut Hormones, Peptide YY and Glucagon-Like Peptide-1. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2010 Jan;95(1):333-7.
[5] Chang et al. (2012). Low glycemic load experimental diet more satiating than high glycemic load diet. Nutr Cancer. 2012;64(5):666-73.
[6] Schwingshackl L, Strasser B, Hoffmann G. (2011). Effects of monounsaturated fatty acids on cardiovascular risk factors: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Nutr Metab.;59(2-4):176-86.
[7] Halton TL, Hu FB. (2004). The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss: a critical review. J Am Coll Nutr. Oct;23(5):373-85.
[8] Knuttgen HG. (2007). Strength training and aerobic exercise: comparison and contrast. J Strength Cond Res. Aug;21(3):973-8.

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