Extreme Performance or Optimal Health? Pick One!
Many of my clients will ask my opinion about whether a particular sport or activity promotes movement health. Yoga, running, swimming, weight training, ballet, soccer, gymnastics, crossfit. (People are especially interested in whether these activities will be healthy for their kids.) It’s an interesting question because almost any physical activity you can think of has costs as well as benefits. Of course, I usually answer that everyone is different so it depends on the individual and the sport and yada yada yada. But I also offer my Grand Unified Theory of Specialization, which, because it is Grand and Unified, applies to almost any activity, and goes something like this:
In general, as you progress in any sport or activity from novice to intermediate, you will probably benefit your overall movement health by improving some previously underdeveloped fitness quality, such as strength and aerobic fitness. You will also likely improve on your basic movement skill set by developing body control, or balance, or hand eye coordination. These fitness qualities and skills are likely to be transferrable to other domains. And, you will probably be performing at a low enough level of intensity and frequency to minimize injuries and excessive stress. So this is good.
However, as you progress from intermediate to expert, it becomes far more likely that this will negatively affect your movement health. The movement skills and fitness qualities you develop will become more and more specific and less useful in other domains. And, more importantly, these adaptations can only be bought at the great expense of putting the body under extreme levels of physical stress, which increases the risks of injury and overtraining.
In short, the very general rule, to which there are obviously many exceptions, is that most sports and activities are good for you to the intermediate level, and bad for you after that. Here’s how this rule might play out in the context of different sports or activities.
Aesthetic movement disciplines
Gymnastics and dance (especially ballet) are excellent examples of activities that I think are quite healthy at moderate doses and then an absolute disaster at elite levels of performance. The good news is that they provide a great general education in body control. The highly successful Soviet sport development program considered gymnastics to be a key ingredient in general physical preparation (GPP) for athletes in any sport. My own experience in working with dancers or gymnasts is that they have a very good body sense that makes it relatively easy for them to modify their movement behaviors.
But the bad news is that at some level of accomplishment, these sports create massive stress on the body. This is particularly obvious in the case of ballet, where walking on the toes and turning the feet out wreak havoc with the lower hips and feet. I also think that excessive focus on the appearance of the body as it moves, as opposed to how it feels or what it does, can be an unhealthy way to form your self image.
Soccer, baseball, basketball, hockey, etc. develop a wide range of fitness qualities such as strength, speed, endurance and power. At the same time, they teach many basic movement skills such as hand eye coordination, spatial awareness, agility, single leg balance, and fundamental movement patterns like kicking, throwing, swinging, and lunging. (By the way, when I dictated that last line into my Dragon Dictate program, it transcribed "swinging and lunging" as "swinging in London." Oh behave!)
One of the drawbacks of team sports is that they can involve so much external focus on events outside the body (such as the ball, or the opponent, or the goal line) that you can miss out on the benefits of the internal focus that is present in gymnastics or the locomotive sports. And, as we all know from simply watching popular sports, these games take a huge physical toll when played at the highest level. Few people can remain elite competitors after the age of thirty, and even recreational athletes find competition tough after forty five.
Running, swimming, cycling, walking, cross country skiing and rowing all involve full-body basic primal movements in a cyclical, rhythmic, repetitive fashion. This type of exercise seems to uniquely beneficial in developing aerobic fitness, maintaining metabolic health, and creating the beneficial mental state of focused and meditative discipline.
Resistance training has been shown to have tremendous benefits for metabolic, structural and mental health, and it appears that as we age the importance of resistance training increases.
But whatever type of fitness quality you are trying to develop, elite accomplishment in that area will always come at the expense of other types of fitness or health. The more you lift, the less you can run and vice versa. Some top powerlifters can barely waddle a mile. Some top marathoners can barely do a push-up. They should both be admired for their amazing accomplishments, but not envied for their health. In some sense, your body really does not want you to be able to run a mile in under four minutes, or deadlift a thousand pounds. These abilities imply an allocation of limited health resources that is skewed so far in one particular direction as to be unhealthy.
Certain martial arts and slow meditative movement practices such as tai chi, yoga, and Feldenkrais have huge potential benefits and I write about them on this blog quite a bit. They can reduce the threat value of movement, help with chronic pain, build new movement patterns, and develop a greater self awareness that extends beyond mere movement.
As much as I love this stuff I have to imagine that at some point the degree of internal focus in these disciplines can go too far. Surely it should be balanced by the occasional reference to the hard edges of the real world provided by an opponent or an objective measurement. This keeps us grounded in reality, and not off on some weird tangent of self indulgent internal exploration.
There is nothing wrong with reaching for the highest level in whatever you do. It is very rewarding, and in fact I have devoted and continue to devote a lot of time and effort to reach my potential at one sport or another. But I don't imagine this has made me healthier! Health is always about balance. Extreme performance or optimum health, pick one!