Global Resilience Solutions > Maximum Effort, Maximum Damage: The difference between health and fitness

Maximum Effort, Maximum Damage: The difference between health and fitness

Yesterday, you forced your body past all of its previous limitations, pushed yourself to 150% of your normal endurance, felt the burn.  Now, as you contemplate your next workout, something strange is happening.  Your body is not just stiff- it rebels at the idea of movement, and energy drains from your limbs.

Many of us have had that experience, heard our instructor telling us to push past it.  No pain, no gain, right?

How long did you stick with that program?  If, like most of the population, your mental resistance built up until you’d accept any excuse to avoid your workout, you should know that there’s a reason that was well-known to the practitioners of Taoist martial arts like Tai Chi and Bagua.  Taoism understands the need to seek balance in everything, and it knows that if you overload your body, it will push back.  Whatever is overstretched collapses.

We’re used to a world in which professional athletes, martial artists and people in other high-fitness professions push themselves so hard on a regular basis that they routinely wreck their joints, their backs, their connective tissue and so on before they reach their mid-30s.  We’re taught to push ourselves to new heights by straining our bodies to their limits and pushing ourselves to exhaustion again and again.


Fitness versus Health

It’s entirely possible to be fit without being healthy, and to be healthy without being fit.  We may see someone who’s ripped and can do endless push-ups or run marathons as healthy.  By Taoist standards, they may be anything but.  The Taoist definition of health requires that

–          your body is able to move painlessly through its whole natural range of motion

–          that you are free from chronic illness, injury or pain

–          that you have a healthy back, joints and connective tissue

–          that you have high vitality due to a healthy emotional life, lack of tension in the body and free circulation of life energy- chi.

–          that the resting state of your muscles and nervous system is completely relaxed

The problem with constantly pushing yourself to your limits is that you build abiding tension in your muscles, you strain your joints and connective tissue in ways that lead to a constant state of pain and inflammation, inviting disease.  You become physically and emotionally exhausted, draining your energy and vitality rather than building it up.

That is exactly why Taoist training methods build up basic health and vitality before attempting rigorous strength, speed or endurance training, and don’t jeopardise the former to get the latter.

If this seems strange to you, there’s one question you should ask yourself that will put the health versus fitness question in perspective:  when you’re forty, fifty, even eighty years old, will you have an easier time or a harder time staying fit because of the kinds of exercise you’re doing today?

This is exactly the dilemma which so many martial artists in disciplines like Karate and Tae Kwon Do – that emphasise maximum effort and raw performance – face all the time.  After a certain point, usually in the mid to late twenties, their abilities peak, and no matter how hard they practice, they just go downhill, more often than not with chronic pain from injuries and strains to slow them down even further.

One of the great advantages of the Taoist internal martial arts is that this wall doesn’t exist– you can keep practicing and improving throughout your entire life.  The timescale of training in these arts, even in the times when they were actively used in combat, ran into decades.

Build Yourself Up Without Destroying Yourself

This lifelong vitality is achieved through a method that respects the laws of natural balance.

  1. The 70% rule: This rule from Tai Chi practice asks you to train consistently at around 70% of your capacity.  This not only means 70% of your strength, speed and endurance, but even your range of motion, the length of time you practice and so on.  As you do this consistently, your body will use that last 30% reserve of energy to repair and replenish itself, building up your vitality over time.  As you practice consistently at this level, your 70% will go up naturally.  This is the direct opposite of the “train till you drop” propaganda that permeates our competition-crazed culture.
  2. Slow down to speed up, relax thoroughly to increase effort: The more pressure you or your trainer bring to bear on your body to put forth ever more exhausting effort, the more that tension is going to live in your muscles and nerves, reducing your ability to move freely, creating emotional stress and changing the neurotransmitter balance in your body.  On the other hand, if you train slowly, deliberately, and make sure to move with complete, deep relaxation on a regular basis, you will find that you can not only move faster when you need to, but also put forth more effort.  This is exactly why Tai Chi forms are done at a fraction of combat speed- that slow, relaxed and deliberate approach in practice translates into movements so fast you can’t see them with the naked eye.
  3. Injuries are bad for your health: It seems odd to have to say it, but building up your strength by injuring yourself is a contradiction.  Yet this is exactly what we do to ourselves through our obsession with endless repetitions of a single exercise, or in sports like football where injuries are virtually inevitable.  Boxing has taken some hits [] recently over the brain damage suffered by many boxers from repeated blows to the head.
  4. Treat pain with respect: If you are coping with pain or injury and you want to return to full health, follow the 70% rule to gradually improve, rather than trying to push all the way through and probably exacerbating the problem.


Pain is a Teacher

Think about this.  What is the point of fitness now that wrecks fitness in the future?  What is the point of strength now that leads to injury, disease, chronic pain and possibly early death in the future?  A certain amount of stress is necessary for us to make progress in any area of life- it’s called eustress, a term coined by Hans Selye meaning good stress.  The opposite of eustress is distress, the stress that leads to real pain and exhaustion.  When we cross over from eustress to distress in exercise, our bodies know.

Listen to psychological manipulation perpetrated in this video.  “Pain is just weakness leaving your body.”  “He had more in him.  Wuss.”

These are the hallmarks of the Western approach to strength, which always tries to overcome the body with the mind.  Over the millennia, humans have performed certain kinds of tasks for which our bodies are optimised- namely, slow, painstaking tasks that require us to sustain about 70% of effort by their nature.  Hunting, gathering, farming, carpentry.  Our burst capacity is for emergencies, not everyday use.  That’s what we’re set up for.

If our approach to training ignores the balance of human nature, something will give.  For every action, there is a reaction.  For every overextension, there is a collapse.  That is the most fundamental difference between the Taoist approach and the others.  One respects the way the human organism is set up.  The other works against it.  But nature always wins.

  1. Posted 2 years ago

    This is huge! Since I started to constantly practice tajqi and bagua, I feel so good and healthy, besides being a better swimmer. But most people seem not to ‘get’ this and all they do is going to the jym and do what is fancy and trendy at the moment. There is though a sort of subtle admiration towards those who practice exhausting workouts ( and with apparently disappointing results)while yoga o tajqi are still considered strange eastern stuff.
    In addition to that, I have recently lost a friend of mine,55, while he was running a night-marathon. I know that he also worked very hard so I suppose he did not take enough rest,to make things worst. He had a fatal heart attack while running. And I know some long-distance young runners who suffer any kind od possible pain, back pain, knee.pain, arm pain etc.
    Changing way of thinking is so difficult! Few want to even try.

  2. Posted 2 years ago

    So true, Raffaella! And very sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. Unfortunately, though, that’s all too common. Several years ago, a cardiologist attended a seminar I was running and when I asked her about the frequency with which long distance runners seem to suffer cardiac arrest, she confirmed this is the case and explained why. While I won’t attempt to replicate her medical explanation, you would think people would get the hint by now. I remember as a young man visiting Greece for the first time; the tour guide recounted the story of how the “marathon” came into being, with one runner covering the huge distance to bring a vital message. Of course, once he had transmitted the message, he dropped dead. Again, you would think people would have long since taken the hint from that.

    As for the “strange Eastern stuff” that you and I both practice, the West still has no idea HOW healthy and fit this can make you. And, if I remember correctly, your Tai Chi is Chen style? Chen gives you a double advantage because its coiling motions are so effective at detoxifying the body and ensuring the lubrication and overall health of the joints. And once you add the internal energy work to the Tai Chi form, your health and vitality can increase quite dramatically. Chen’s other advantages are the more varied speed of practice – from very slow to very fast (vs. other styles, which seldom speed up) – and its use of FaJin (“issuing power”, which really means “hitting as if you mean it ;-). All of these increase the health AND fitness take-aways from the practice of the art, and all without taking you past that 70%-of-your-maximum-effort rule.

    Then Bagua adds some other energetic dimensions to it as well. Please feel free to share sometime what you’ve learned from Bagua circle-walking or other aspects of that rare martial / energy art. And thank-you again, Raffaella!

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