A calorie is essentially a unit of measurement for energy. Our bodies use a certain, variable amount of energy each day, and food contains energy. Counting calories is our way of keeping track of all this. It’s the old energy in/energy out thing – are you providing your body with enough energy through the food you eat, or are you not? And just as you struggle to eat less in order to deprive your body of energy in the hope that it will burn its own fat stores to compensate, bodybuilders struggle to eat more, to supply their body with enough energy and nutrients so that they can build more muscle. It’s quite difficult to track, let alone balance.
If you do over-train and under-eat, you won’t simply be losing weight – at a point your body will start to struggle to recover and repair damaged tissues, and rather than feeling fitter, instead you’ll find you’re in a perpetual state of fatigue and injury – and you might start to wonder why you feel so bad even though you’ve been doing all the right things.
I had a great chat with a friend the other day, where we established that the reason our friends like us has nothing to do with our sporting prowess or our athletic potential. I see it often – athletes lose the ability to perform at their sport, and they start to wonder who they are? They are the same person. There’s always something deeper, something valuable that has nothing to do with skill or function. We are like onions. Or cakes. There are layers. Nobody likes me just because of my shape, and bigger deltoids aren’t actually going to win me friends.
I’m finally getting comfortable with the idea that my self-worth is not dependent on competitive athletic success, or being more skilled than other humans in some contrived way. That the validity of my professional opinion isn’t dependent on knowing more or having had more meaningful experiences than other people. I was a competitive athlete for close to ten years, and as much as I don’t feel like I was all that obsessive about it, no competitive success was ever quite enough. There were still all kinds of things at which I didn’t believe I was good enough.
It feels like a strange way to pander to privilege. Who am I if I’m not a world-class athlete? Must be nice to have the opportunity to experience that particular crisis. Or who am I if I’m not an academic? What if my use of punctuation does not actually make me a better person than those who don’t know how to spell “you’re”? You’re just like everyone else in this crazy boat called life. Who am I if I’m not better than someone else in some way? And if that’s a problem – what’s behind this contempt for humanity? Why would it be so bad to be just like everyone else – the people in your life who you admire and respect? Or if you don’t respect them, why not?
We are played off against each other. Beauty and athleticism. Sports are competitive, and maybe we don’t know how to filter fitness education down from athletic training programs to the rest of us without maintaining that competitive mindset? But the reality is your beauty is not dependent on the beauty of somebody else. Your uniqueness does not rest on being more or less than another person – that’s why we use the word unique. There’s always a core of you, that’s deeper than what you think. Life has a strange way of revealing to us, over time, that we are capable of more than we thought. More great things, and also more terrible things. When you find yourself saying “I didn’t realise I was the type of person who…” well, all that really means is that you’re not a type. You are capable of many things, not because of your type, but because of our shared humanity.
Another mind-numbingly frustrating phrase you might have heard is this: “obsessive is the word the lazy use to describe the dedicated”. But it’s crap. We know the difference between dedicated and obsessive, when you are uninfluenced by propaganda you can spot it a mile away. Dedicated is engaging, inspirational even. Obsessive is pathological.
We humans seem to have a tendency towards masochism. So it seems, to a point, we can get away with this; in an evolutionary sense, it’s logical that the ability to endure suffering without excessive distress is a valuable survival skill. But the important point for me is this: don’t harm yourself in the name of health.
I read once that training at as little as 60% of your maximum capacity is still enough to stimulate athletic adaptations in the body. If you think about it, 60% really isn’t that much. In weightlifting terms, if you can bench press 100 pounds once, 60 pounds is not that challenging. Maybe you do a few reps, maybe not – you don’t need to be pushing failure, you don’t even really need to struggle that much. All you need to do is pay attention and do something. I can easily do ten repetitions of a weight that is 60% of my max. And your own particular max, your own capacity will always vary wildly compared to that of anyone else. And if you aren’t in the habit of formal training, that doesn’t matter either. It takes a hellava long time to get to the point where lifting percentages make sense or even matter. The take home message is this: working within your capacity is fine. It’s healthy. You don’t need to push it all the damn time.
In the end, it’s not glamourous. It’s just simple movements that you practice, in ways that make you feel satisfied. All people have good and bad days; on the good days you can hit it as hard as you want, and on the bad days you take it easy. If it really was about health, the obsessiveness would not be seen as a prerequisite. Instead we would be encouraged to pay attention and do what feels like it’s good for us.