Friday, December 01, 2006

General advice vs. specific circumstances

Fitness advice, mine included, tends to be written in universal terms. “Eat more fiber,” “get some exercise,” and so on. There are a couple of obvious reasons for this. One reason is that what people should do to be healthier really is pretty universal. After all, we’re all human beings, with bodies that work in the same basic way. Another reason is that adding all the “one in a million” disclaimers to every observation I ever made about the human body would be incredibly tedious, and all the parenthetical remarks would make for awful reading. Finally, fitness advice is generally pretty harmless; you’d have to try pretty hard to poison yourself with dietary fiber and Omega-3 fish oil, for instance, so there is little potential harm in giving blanket advice about that kind of thing.

But there are exceptions to the rule, and it is worthwhile to consider if you are one of them before following anybody’s advice on fitness. For the most part these exceptions are common sense, but I guess saying that that means I’m generalizing about when you shouldn’t be listening to someone who is generalizing…never mind. On to the list:

1) You have a disability, debilitating medical condition or serious disease. I hope it is pretty obvious that anyone with a genuine medical problem should consult a physician before changing anything about their diet or exercise. Obvious factors to be conscious of are increased potential for injury, supplement interactions with any medications you are taking, and outright inability to perform certain exercises.

2) You have a serious emotional or psychological problem. Trying to get into shape without resolving an eating disorder, severe depression or the like is to get things exactly backwards. It is addressing symptoms without dealing with the more severe underlying problems. This is even more important when you consider that successfully getting into shape, and especially staying in shape, is largely about your mindset.

3) You are at an extreme. It should go without saying that someone who is morbidly thin needs to take a different approach than someone who is obese. A 15 year old starting to lift weights is not the same as a 50 year old starting to lift weights. And someone who is in extremely good shape will probably be doing many things differently than somebody who is picking up a barbell for the first time in their life.

This also applies to goals. Professional athletes have much different fitness goals from someone simply trying to live a more healthy lifestyle. A model, bodybuilder and powerlifter will each take completely different approaches to fitness. And so on.

This is probably most obvious with diet. For the typical overweight person, going on a severe calorie restriction diet is an incredibly bad idea, and will really set them up for future failure for a wide variety of reasons. But for someone who is morbidly obese, fast weight loss on a medically supervised diet may be absolutely essential to prevent or reverse the onset of serious health problems. Drastically different needs dictate different methods.

4) You are just different. I was hesitant to bring this up, because the vast majority of people who blame some vague innate factor for their failures are full of crap. But some people just don’t respond to certain elements of diet or exercise like everybody else. So if you are following the conventional fitness wisdom and it isn’t working, it is possible that you should be doing something else. Because at the end of the day, fitness is about what works for you, not what people think should work. Results trump everything else.

For instance, the vast majority of women couldn’t gain large amounts of muscle mass by lifting weights even if they wanted to. They could lift weights all day long, and nothing short of steroids and a 4,000 calorie a day diet would make them get big muscles. For them, lots weightlifting is a great idea. But some women can gain a relatively large amount of muscle mass naturally. Should they be lifting heavy if they don’t want to have all that muscle? Of course not.

My advice, and most fitness advice in general, is aimed at the large majority of people that have the same basic needs. But you need to take the time to judge what does and doesn’t make sense for your specific circumstances. The danger here, of course, is that innate factors can be easily used as a justification for failing when other factors are really at work. But there is no question that there are times when they are worthy of serious consideration.