Fitness extremes… are they healthy?
I have always admired the commitment and determination of the Ironman athlete and fitness competitor. Both sports, although very different, take an extreme amount of dedication, hard work, and MASSIVE commitment. Both sports challenge the human spirit to push past its limits — physically and emotionally. Both sports can absolutely consume your life with training schedules of 15 to 20 or more hours a week. Both sports, although praised for their high level of fitness they require, can be considered one of the unhealthiest things you can do to your body — physically and mentally. What?
Extreme fitness does NOT equal health! Yes, I said it.
Just because you can obtain low levels of body fat, or you may be able to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a 26.2 mile marathon (all part of an Ironman triathlon event) does NOT mean you are healthy. It just means you are trained and fit. By definition health is a state of complete mental, physical, and social wellbeing — whereas fitness is the ability to meet the demands of a physical task. Now, don’t get me wrong. Competing in these sports is a major accomplishment. Like I said, I truly respect these athletes. However, for the everyday Joe or Jane who is looking to achieve optimal health, I believe neither of these is the way to go.
With the help of two of my fellow fitness professionals, we will discuss the ups and downs of extreme fitness and why it may NOT be the best way to achieve optimal health. Meet Ashley Mahaffey (a seasoned triathlete) and Monica Vargas (an NPC figure and fitness competitor).
Kate: “How do you get ready for a competition — what does your training schedule look like?”
Ashley: “As a triathlete, my focused training starts 24 to 26 weeks prior to my ‘A’ race for the season. I train generally 7 days/week, which is about 12 to 18 hours weekly.”
Monica: “As a fitness competitor, my training is year-round. But when I do a show, training to get on stage takes 14 to 16 weeks — depending on my current condition. The closer I get to a show, the more grueling training becomes. I will start to perform 45 to 90 minutes of cardio, 7 days a week — in addition to the 5 days of week of weight or metabolic training”.
Kate: “What about diet? Is there any special diet you consume while training?”
Ashley: “Personally, my diet stays pretty much the same — I just eat more. I would guess I eat upwards of 2200 to 2400 calories a day while training. I would say I consume more sugars, gels, and Gatorade than normal. Oh, yes — I also will consume Cokes and Fritos on training days for a sugar, caffeine, and salt jolt.”
Monica: “Although I maintain a fairly clean [strict] diet year-round, once I start training for a competition, my calories drop to 1300 to 1500 a day — all while working out harder and longer. I eat 6 to 7 meals a day, based on protein, low fat, and carb cycling — and depending on my activity.”
Okay — so far, none of this seems too bad. Right? We would all expect there to be a lot of working out and eating “clean” to be an extreme athlete. Yet, there is one big problem…
The damage it is doing…
Kate: “Have you ever experienced any negative side effects from all the training and dieting?”
Ashley: “Well, I am definitely more irritable, and I am far more tired. I go through stages sometimes when I don’t have my period for 2 months — and then it comes every 2 weeks for a 6 week stretch. I have increased digestive issues. Last Ironman, it was so bad it caused me to get hypothermia and I had to pull out of the race.”
Monica: “Yes, I have experienced negative side effects. I have a low thyroid to begin with — so all the increased exercise and extreme dieting makes me feel more sluggish and tired. I also suffer from joint pain as my body fat starts to reach very low levels. With the increased workout load and not enough recover time, my adrenals and thyroid gets stressed from the high levels of cortisol running through my body. In addition, I feel my work and social life is affected dramatically. The training and prepping take so much time and effort that everything else has to take a backseat.”
As you can see, extreme fitness has its drawbacks. These athletes may experience it in irritability, fatigue, joint pain, hormonal, and digestive irregularities. Others may see it in loss of muscle, fat gain, and increased susceptibility to illness and disease. All of these are signs of metabolic damage. We must understand that extreme fitness does not increase your metabolism. In fact, it actually damages it. As I have stressed before in my past blog, Is your workout making you fat?, too much of anything (even exercise) will start having negative effects.
Here are just a few negative effects of over-exercising:
Decreased production of the thyroid hormones T3 and T4 (these are your hormones that control your metabolism)
Decreased conversion of T4 to T3 in the gut and liver
Increased inflammation in the joints, muscles, and gut
Chronically high levels cortisol and adrenaline. Short-term both of these can help with lowering body fat and increased performance. Long-term they will both cause metabolic disturbance, sleep issues, fat gain, and muscle loss
Calcium deficiency, which leads to osteoporosis and bone damage
Hormonal imbalances of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, which lead to irritability, menstrual issues, weight gain, water retention, low sex drive, and sleep issues
Increased oxidative stress, causing free radical damage, aging, and increased chance of illness
Yes, you may look leaner. Yes, you may be able to work out for 15 hours straight — BUT the real question is, “are you healthy?” I don’t think so, and neither do either of these two athletes.
Kate: “Would you recommend your sport to anyone who is trying to get healthy?”
Ashley: “NO — no way. Not at all! I compete because I like to push through my own perceived limits. I like to keep moving that marker of possibility further ahead. I do it more to build on my mindset of a champion more than anything. I don’t do it to get healthy. I just do my best to stay healthy so I can push through the pain when things get really tough.”
Monica: “No, extreme sports need to be taken as just that — extreme! The training and dieting performed is too strict and rigorous to achieve real health. Once you start getting negative effects, it is no longer healthy. In fact, if you are not careful, these sports can be somewhat addictive and create a poor body image. I am an athlete at heart and I love the competition. I like the idea of a challenge with a specific goal in mind, yet I know the sport of fitness and figure competing can be somewhat extreme — surpassing the boundaries of actual health.”
At the end of the day, anyone who is thinking about doing a major endurance event like an Ironman or getting involved in a fitness and figure competition needs to understand what they are getting themselves into. These sports should not be taken lightly. They take a huge amount of commitment and dedication, and they place an unnecessary amount of stress and strain on the human body. Personally, I am not against performing in any kind of extreme sport or activity. I have definitely participated in my share: running a marathon, hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim, hiking Mount Whitney, and mountain biking over 100K. These were all huge accomplishments, all took a massive toll on my body, and all required weeks/months to fully recover — NONE did I do with intentions of improving my health.
When it comes to my health, I will admit, I am little bit of a nut. However, I am a big believer that you must live your life to the fullest, and sometimes that may come at the expense of your health. You don’t want to live your entire life on the sidelines, right?
You have to live life, and if doing an Ironman or a fitness competition makes your heart sing and you love it — then do it! All I would have to say is, be smart about it!
Make sure you are healthy before you start
Train with a professional or have a strategic training plan
Rest, recover, and rejuvenate after the event
Do not do an extreme sport for the purpose of becoming healthy
Proper nutrition is essential
Have fun. If it’s not fun, why are you doing it?
To truly live your life, you have to learn the skill of balance. If you want to push your limits physically, mentally, or emotionally, you must give yourself time to rest and recover — always. This will ensure your mind and body can heal and prepare you for your next adventure in life. Personally, I want to live a very long life. Yet, I want to live it and not just be a bystander. Therefore, if I shave a few years off my life for doing a few extreme things, I am totally ok with it. So I’ll only live to be 102 and not 110. I can deal with that.
Your Optimal Health Coach,
Thanks so much to:
Ashley Mahaffey of www.ashleymahaffey.com, fitness strategy expert and mentor
Monica Vargas of www.mbr-fitness.com, NPC fitness and figure competitor