Today I watched a documentary called Spirit of the Marathon on Hulu. I had previously seen it in the theater and loved it both times. It follows several people from training through their marathon. From elite athletes who run the marathon at an unimaginably fast pace (every mile faster than the treadmill at my gym goes), to runners who are “doing it for the t-shirt”. There’s even a runner who advocates running as slowly as possible “You paid for this course to be open as long as it’s open – take your time and get the most out of your marathon dollar…” I also watched a recording of an Ironman. The former Ironman winners who were interviewed, to a person, said some version of “This is a thing that the human body just isn’t supposed to do.”
We celebrate this in our society – people who run farther, go faster, push the boundaries of human endurance. As a professional dancer I endure a level of training that very few people would probably want to do. (Not many 33 year old women are pulling muscles working on their splits or training to do a back handspring). Those of us who push the boundaries tend to be proud of the level of our athleticism.
But do we need to do this to be healthy? No! Abso-freaking-lutely not. Athleticism and health are not necessarily the same thing at all. Over a lifetime of playing sports as hard as I could and especially as a dancer, I’ve had any number of injuries that a normal healthy person would never have. I’ve also ignored my body’s signals in order to compete. My second year dancing I started to feel a twinge in my ankle about a month before Nationals. But it was a month before Nationals so I didn’t feel that I could stop training and it wasn’t that painful. At Nationals during waltz the ankle bent completely in (so that the inside of my foot touched the inside of my ankle I later saw on the video), causing me to fall hard on the opposite knee. I got up and finished the dance. I danced there more dances that day and eight dances the next morning in a lot pain – mostly from my knee at the time. Turns out that the knee wasn’t that hurt but I had very seriously injured my ankle – so much so that I had to do a year of medical massage, acupuncture, pilates and rehab to be able to dance on it. The whole thing probably could have been avoided if I had taken a couple days off when I first felt the injury, but I’m a boundary pusher, which doesn’t always equate to smart decisions or common sense.
In order to do these crazy things that we do, we ignore our body’s signals all the time and work well past what we would need for general health. So I wonder, does celebrating this level of athleticism discourage people who could be healthy if they just moved 20 or 30 minutes a day on most days? Do they feel like they need to run a marathon or they just shouldn’t bother? I wonder what would happen if society would glorify dancing around your livingroom or gardening or whatever kind of movement you would like to do, instead of pictures at the gym of people at their physical brink, trying to push past.
There are people for whom testing the limits of their bodies is part of what they love about movement. I’m one of them. That’s fine. It doesn’t make us better or worse than people who don’t want to see how hard they can work before they vomit and how hard they can work after. If we really thought about it, it’s not really about our health – we could have health without stress fractures, muscle strains, sprains, pulls etc. and all manner of overuse injuries, and ignoring our bodies when they are screaming at us to stop. That’ s not particularly healthy at all.
One of the Ironman competitors said “To make it through the Ironman you don’t need to be the best, you just need to be consistent and keep pushing forward.” It would seem from a lot of the research that health and physical fitness can be acquired in roughly the same way. If you feel like you’re not getting enough movement in your life, find some stuff you like to do and do it. Try some new stuff – if you like it do some more of it. If not, you don’t need to do it ever again. If you like to run and feel like you’d like to try a 5K, or whatever – try it.
It’s important to remember it’s not about your weight (I talked about this in my blog “Is it Cause I’m Fat?”) It’s about realizing your current level of physical fitness and what you’ll need to do to get where you want to go. You can be healthy and happy even if you never run a mile. Move and have fun and see what happens.