7 min read

The Purpose of Fitness and Nutrition

Brad Pitt Energy BalanceAlright, i know that most people want to use fitness and nutrition to look good. In fact I wrote a post about that not too long ago, here.

Beyond trying to look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club or Megan Fox in Transformers, fitness and nutrition provides numerous benefits above and beyond good looks.

Most people know that eating well and being active is good for them, but may not fully understand the purpose, well no more.

et’s get it all out on the table and discuss some deeper more meaningful ways to make fitness and nutrition impactful. In writing something like this, I hope you’ll find a spark of some kind that resonates with you, something you can associate personal meaning towards.

Fitness and Nutrition essentially do 4 things:

1) Controls Energy Balance and Body Composition

Seems obvious right?

Well some of you may recall that I wrote a post a couple of months back on why counting calories sucks, so why would I — a supporter of not tracking calorie intake for pretty much 80% of the population or more — talk about energy balance?

What some people missed from that article is that I was never disputing that energy balance matters, just that the act of tracking calories doesn’t work for most people because it’s error prone and not generally any more effective than tracking other things like vegetables, protein, starchy carb and fat intake.

Worse yet, people focus so much on calories sometime, they completely lose site of the actual objective (usually fat loss, sometimes muscle gain) and don’t track the things that really matter: Weight/Girth at a minimum. For more on tracking what matters, read this.

Tracking progress matters most — even if you choose to count calories, don’t forget this — and loads of people are easily discouraged by what seems like simple math not panning out to specific end results. i.e. I’m in a 14000 kcal deficit for the last two weeks, why haven’t I lost 4 pounds?

There is a lot more to the calories in, calories out (CICO) math; things like the thermic effect of food, the body’s unwillingness to part with stored energy, non-exercise thermogenesis and allostatic load. 

Referring to that post about calorie counting, not all calories are created equal according to your body, so this makes the math tricky.

Note: A calorie is technically a calorie, it’s just a unit measure for heat. The same way a degree celsius is a degree celsius, or a meter is a meter. How your body utilizes calories from different macronutrients is different though. Kind of like the difference between how quickly Usain Bolt can cover 100 m and how quickly I can. Same distance, different result.

There are also possibly other factors at work — like gastrointestinal health — that we do not even fully understand at this point and in a small percentage of the population some genetic predispositions — genetics are rarely an excuse though or health concerns that may be affecting our energy balance.

I’m getting off track; Energy balance matters if you want to gain muscle or lose fat, no two ways about it. 

Rather than counting calories (in or out), I generally encourage people to focus on improving skills and tracking results to see if those skills are leading them in the right direction. i.e. the right energy balance.

I care about the result, not the method.

There is a time and place for counting calories, I just think most of the time it’s best as an awareness raising tool, as opposed to a long-term option.

There are variety of skills and different combinations that work for different people; Counting calories can be one of them just realize that if the results aren’t changing, your formulas need to be tweaked because they have become inaccurate. Energy balance is a moving target.

If you are in balance, however complicated it may turn out to be, you will at least know it because your body composition won’t change significantly in either a positive or negative direction, or at least no appreciable amount over an extended period of time.

The purpose of fitness and nutrition at that point then becomes yielding whichever outcome is desired.

Gaining weight is not always a bad thing if it is muscle mass instead of fat mass. Likewise, losing weight should mean losing the right kind of weight: fat.

Nutrition is where you’ll create the biggest changes in energy balance, but fitness is where you’ll ensure the right kind of mass is being lost or gained.

A big part of that should be prioritizing resistance training and eating sufficient protein.

2) Enhance Performance 

This is not necessarily what you may think it means. When I say this, most people think athletic performance but by performance I simply mean;

“the act of performing, achieving, accomplishing or doing something successfully; carrying into execution or action; representation by action; a thing done or carried through; a deed; an act; a feat; using knowledge as distinguished from merely possessing it; a process or manner of functioning or operating.”

With regards to obtaining an “ideal” body composition, there are a lot of benefits that come along for the ride. Eating better generally improves mood, sleep, and cognitive performance.

Exercise improvements lead to better tolerance to stress, better movement ability (like touching your toes and tying your shoes), or simply making everyday tasks easier like being able to pick stuff up and move it.

This is what I mean by enhanced performance, generally just an easier time getting through your days. The specific requirements of that ‘performance’ are unique to the individual.

If you were a basketball player your performance needs would be much different from a rower which is still much different than the average parent who works a traditional day job. Enhancing performance also means training and eating to maintain homeostasis (AKA allostasis).

If your daily activities drive you away from ideal homeostasis — like sitting all day or eating junk food — then allostatic changes like exercise or changes in nutrition are geared towards achieving balance to the system.

For instance, athletes can generally tolerate, and in fact need a higher caloric intake because being active is their job. Most of us, aren’t that active.

This is why Michael Phelps can tolerate a 6,000 calories diet made up mostly of McDonald’s, and you can’t — bad habits, like dishonesty, almost always eventually nip you in the butt eventually, it’s only a matter of time.

If you jog — which requires a lot of sub-maximal hip flexion — or sit a lot during the day, you may need to elongate the muscles that get flexed the most, via some stretching or mobility work and strengthen the muscles that don’t get as much work. In order to achieve performance balance, the hip musculature needs to be balanced out, or often you end up with pain. There are plenty of other fitness examples too.

3) Provides Optimal Health Measures/Markers

If you’re over the age of 40, you went to see your doctor this year right?

They probably hooked you up with some blood tests to look at your HDL levels, your LDL levels, your triglyceride levels and some other odds and ends lipoproteins, mineral levels, red and white blood cell counts, hormone levels and vitamin levels.

Fitness and nutrition can help regulate a lot of that.

Cholesterol levels too high, and the doctor may recommend you exercise more and reduce your salt intake, before putting you on a statin drug like Lipitor.

Well imagine you tried to eat and exercise well before it became an issue?

Not only would you live longer, but your quality of life would remain high throughout that increased longevity, leaving you independent and more capable of performing a variety of daily tasks.

Optimal health is the absence of disease or injury.

The two most common recommendations before drugs are always diet changes and exercise — if you aren’t presently active, being active alone without diet changes does not always seem to be effective and vice versa —  when dealing with abnormal markers of health via our medical system.

Similarly, can you touch your toes, or touch your fingers behind your back?

There are also some clinical physical markers of optimal health by way of flexibility at a joint, total body mobility and strength outcomes.

Non-contact injuries are most often caused by completely preventable imbalances between flexibility and strength relationships.

The deep overhead squat for instance, in my experience, has provided one of the best indicators of likelihood of injury, it is also one of the hardest positions for a lot of people to get into comfortably.

4) Improves Other Aspects of Well-Being

Richard Branson, billionaire, founder of Virgin Inc., was quoted a few years back as saying that working out provided him with at least 4 more productive hours a day. Thus, exercise has helped him be more proficient at work, or his occupational realm.

He’s not the only one, nor is he any more special than you or I when it comes to fitness and nutrition. People almost always overlook this as a benefit of good nutrition and exercise and focus too much on weight loss or aesthetics.

When I say aspects of well-being, I use that interchangeably with the dimensions of wellness, as seen here.

As I’ve discussed before, these dimensions interact with one another and are not mutually exclusive but rather interrelated. You have to think beyond weight change objectives sometimes and more towards performance objectives or other indirect benefits of better eating/fitness to make it matter to you on a deep personal level.

You need to find your why, and it isn’t always aesthetics.

I’ve actually witnessed all kinds of cool changes in people’s lives over the years and often, very little of it has to do purely with physical changes alone, though those are certainly a nice bonus too.

Most notably here is a — by no means exclusive — short list of stuff I’ve witnessed:

  • greater appreciation of life (renewed spirituality)
  • greater energy levels
  • greater productivity
  • greater satisfaction from work
  • greater physio-social interaction with their children or grand-children
  • greater self-esteem/confidence
  • greater emotional control and stress management (improved emotional intelligence)
  • improved understanding and working knowledge of your own body
  • improved sense of, and sensitivity to, surrounding environment
  • positive changes in social status/group
  • greater understanding of self (purpose, goals, capabilities, strengths, weaknesses)
  • improvements in cognitive ability
  • improved focus
  • enhancement in markers of intelligence (physical activity (like music) can actually make neurological changes)
  • greater sense of duty, contribution, growth and significance

Think I missed something? Follow me me on Twitter or Quora, then tell me all about it.