“I want to be healthy like you, but you RUN and LIFT! I can’t do that. It hurts too much.”
About a year ago, a beloved friend of mine said this while we were talking about nutrition and health. (I promise I do talk about other things sometimes.) She has the same health problems that fully 80% of the American population now have to some extent, namely metabolic damage. She can’t run. Of course she can’t! She’s sick! But this idea that you have to work out to become healthy (or slender, which often, but not always, amounts to the same thing) is completely backwards. You have to become healthy to be able to do these things!
Sometimes I want to quit running and strength training, or at least keep it a deep, dark secret from everyone who knows me. That’s not because I’m ashamed of my activities or because I don’t enjoy it, but because people think that it’s the sport that made me healthy and slender. They see me doing these hard (for them) things, and they just about give up any hope of becoming healthy. They know they can’t do these things right now. In fact, if somebody had told me six years ago that I would be running 5ks and strength training most mornings, before I even ate breakfast, I would have said the same thing: That is impossible! I’d be miserable!
And I’d have been right.
It’s important to build muscle and endurance. I’m not saying it’s not! Physical activity commensurate with the level of health you have is an absolute must for maintaining that health! But the fact remains that I didn’t do any exercise at all to get healthy…not at first, at least. I exercise because I’m healthy. I think that’s the difference between being healthy and being fit. We talk about health and fitness as if they were the same thing, but fitness is impossible without health, while it is possible to be healthy and still somewhat out of shape. When you are metabolically or otherwise sick, it is necessary to recover your health before you can add fitness. I had lost 60 lbs. before it ever occurred to me to put on a pair of running shoes. Thank God for that, because if I had tried to exercise my way to health, I would have most likely failed. When I got well through dietary and other changes, my body suddenly demanded that I do something more with it. That’s when I started to get fit. I couldn’t just sit around and do nothing, because I’d have lost my mind having all that energy coursing through my body with no outlet.
There’s a phenomenon of energy wasting known to nutrition researchers called Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis whereby, when you give a person extra energy from food, they will “waste” that energy, even when at rest. They’ll tap their feet, fidget, get up and pace more often, maybe yell at the kids a little bit more than usual. (I’m kidding about that last…sorta.) This energy wasting is not conscious. It is your body naturally using up what energy you give it. That is why I run, and why I do strength training, and hike and bike and roller skate, and every other active thing that presents itself. It is because I’m well!
It’s not just food, either. Your clean environment, your consistent sleep schedule, your stress-management, all of these things are how you attain the health required to be fit. And all of these other changes in lifestyle are possible by conscious choice, unlike exercise, so you need to focus on those things long before you think of deadlifting. If I need a recovery day, as all humans do, no matter how fit, there is no pep-talk or mental trick in the world that can make me do a PR. It is simply not possible that day. Likewise, if you have poor metabolic functioning, you simply can’t ask your body to perform as if you didn’t. Do the necessary conscious changes, and physical activity will follow of its own accord.
Getting exercise is incredibly important. It helps me maintain all of those other areas of wellness. If I’m not active enough, I don’t fall asleep early enough. Getting in a morning run helps me burn fat the entire rest of the day. Bigger muscles are important for glucose regulation. I would be miserable if I didn’t exercise, and your not exercising is, in fact, part of why you are miserable.
Physical activity is not last in importance to your health, but it has to come last in the timeline. Not first. Forget about running for a while, if you are in the initial stages of getting healthy. When you are unwell, pushing your body to the edge of exhaustion, trying to do what the already-healthy people are able to do, is just ticking down an already slow clock.
Do something, though. Walk more. Get a step counter and find out how many steps you take in a normal day, then add a few hundred steps to your goal every week until you’re doing at least 8,000-10,000 steps per day. Lift a little bit of extra weight. Pick up a gallon jug of something and curl your biceps with it a few times, or press it over your head. Do a squat or five at your desk periodically through the day. Toddlers make great sandbags for squats! Learn some bodyweight exercises.
Work on your muscle tone and endurance in small ways while working on your general health in a BIG way, and you’ll find yourself easing into a life of increased activity as you gradually improve your health.
But don’t try to spend all of your reserves on energy-wasting activities, thinking that it will help you get healthy. You need what energy you have to do your normal day-to-day activities. Don’t waste that. Get healthy before you try to bust your butt at the gym. Work on diet, stress, sunlight, and sleep. Clean the processed foods and seed oils from your diet. Get all the plants out of your diet, even. As a carnivore coach, I can help you figure out how to make a ketogenic or carnivore diet work for you. Eat right, live clean, and then give it time.
You will eventually start to move more as if by magic. You will be fit. Exercise won’t be a chore that ruins the entire rest of your day, if you just get healthy first.