The Catch 22 of Being Unfit and Unhealthy

I want to start off with saying that this doesn’t necessarily have anything to body weight but it also might for some people. I have been unfit and unhealthy and I think most of us have been at some point in our lives. Lots of us are now. The longer you are unfit and unhealthy the harder it is to do anything about it. Eventually this will catch up with you and health problems will catch up with you. Then doing something about it gets way harder! But it’s not something that’s rare or entirely avoidable. How do we fall into that trap and get out of it if we’re already there?

What does it mean to be fit?

We’re not talking an instagram model level of fit here because well you don’t really have to be that fit for any real health benefit. But rather a basic level of fitness. So how fit is fit? I like to refer to government recommendations for a basic level of exercise as a great benchmark for fitness. Those are usually being active for 150 minutes a week at a vigorous level. At that level you will reap pretty much all the protective rewards of physical fitness. Here’s the thing only 4% of the North American population does that. I would say on average over the year I achieve this level. In training season it’s a lot more in February a lot less. I would even say if you get 90 minutes a week you’re doing pretty well. You are at least well on your way there.

Where we can be more specific is basic definitions of being unfit. Researchers have developed reliable easy tests to see how fit someone is but it’s actually way cooler than that. Some of these tests are linked to poor health outcomes, frailty in seniors and well maybe not so cool, early death. These aren’t run a 10 minute mile type tests everyone should be able to do these:

  • One leg balance test: Stand on your dominant leg with your non-dominate foot touching that leg. Everyone should be able to do 30 seconds or more.
  • Sit and reach test: After moving around a bit sit on the floor with your feet about a foot apart. You should be able to reach your heels.
  • Get up off of a seated position on the floor without using your hands or an object.
  • Get up and sit down 15 times in 30 seconds from a chair.
  • You should be able to touch the shoulder blade of your opposite arm.

These tests are developed for seniors. If you can not meet or exceed these benchmarks you are very, very unfit unless you are over 80.

On the flip side you are a basic level of fit if:

  • You can do 40 sit-ups in one minute.
  • You can hold a full plank for 2 minutes.
  • Men can do 20 push ups in a row and women can do 12.
  • Perform 30 squats.

Now you have to be honest with yourself where you lie on that scale. 

What does it mean to be unhealthy?

This can be really personal but sometimes it’s not. Towards the end of grad school I was unhealthy for sure. How do I know that well I smoked a pack a day, didn’t do any exercise, walking 4 flights of stairs started to make me winded, my blood pressure was high at the doctors to the point they wanted to put me on medication. I was unhealthy but I was never even at the top of my BMI range. Like I said it’s personal but here are some things to look out for:

  • BMI over 35
  • Clinically high blood pressure or cholesterol levels under age 50
  • Poor sugar, blood tests or other medical test results
  • Continuing in inarguably bad habits
  • A completely sedentary lifestyle
  • Inability to complete basic tasks like cleaning, yard work or taking the stairs
  • Skipping things you want to do because you don’t think you’ll be able to
  • Having to manage chronic health conditions at an early age or that could be treated with lifestyle changes.
  • Sore joints not due to injury.
  • Being a poor ‘healer’.

These are just the sorts of things that you should keep you eye out for. It might be possible to be fairly healthy and have a condition on this list. But… I don’t think it’s possible if you have three or more. You already know where your health status is though because the best indicator is how you feel living you life.

The catch 22 of being unfit and unhealthy

At this point you probably feel like I’m shaming you a bit. I’m not trying to and that changes here if you’re feeling that way. First of all you are not alone in this. A huge portion of the population is overweight and unhealthy and more and more so over time. But here’s the thing over half of the population falls into the unfit and unhealthy category. I believe that if the majority of people in a population have a certain issue it’s not a problem with lots of individuals it’s a whole population problem. I think we all live in an obesogenic environment. Living in the environment we do it’s no wonder so many people are in this boat.

If you have gotten to the point where you are dealing with underlying health issues it makes it a lot harder to reverse the trend. Imagine that you realize you need to get moving to make changes and maybe even save your life but you really physically can’t. You hear about things like a couch to 5k but you literally won’t be able to do that in 6 months let alone 2. What then? Plus all that means is you are doing less and less and you’re just getting sicker. For a lot of people when the do go to the doctor time after time they just extoll the virtues of exercise. They might be telling you that right after telling you all the things your medical issue means you should avoid. That’s a pretty impossible situation. You may end up with the message that where you are is all your fault and who wants to think about that?

I think a lot about my Dad when it come to this catch 22. He was first diagnosed as a mild diabetic who was to treat his condition largely with diet. He did sometimes but he was also an old dad and kids want things in the house like ice cream and white bread. That progressed to heart disease over time and eventually a quadruple bypass and death. For decades before that he was unhealthy, a bit obese, a two pack a day smoker and I imagine knowing him he never once ever exercised on purpose back then. Here’s the thing it’s easy to say he should have walked to loose weight and he could have reversed the disease. That technically is true and he did buy a treadmill and start a walking program several times. Here’s the reality though he had flare ups every couple of years or so where he would have bad angina for a period and end up hospitalized. Nothing would really have changed in what he did but somehow his heart would just act up for a period of time. We obviously knew about those ones where he ended up in the hospital but I’d bet he had periods that were similar just not that bad. I imagine that it scared the bejesus out of him the same every time and some of those scares came while he was walking. Plus toward the end when he would exert himself in every day life his sugar would drop so low he would start to pass out. Or it didn’t seem like the right time to start walking when just carrying groceries in caused him to need rescue medication. How do you look at your kids and do something that feels like and really might cause you to have ‘the big one’ heart attack and die? Doing nothing really can seem like the right choice.

Not everyone is in that dramatic a situation but that doesn’t really make it easier. It might be chromic fatigue, exercised induced asthma, Chrones, sore joints or any number of things. Even if the doctor says getting fit will make it better it certainly might get worse in the short, medium and kinda long term first. While it’s not that dramatic an health issue for me for almost a decade now I have a whole host of IBS symptoms and my old doctor basically said I had it. There really isn’t a diagnostic test. If I’m pretty careful with my diet I’m totally fine. If I cheat once in a big way or relax a little too much it starts to get worse fast for about a week. I do feel like exercise does help too. But when I was unhealthy it WAS NOT under control! That totally freaked me out about leaving my house to run because, well bathrooms. That’s just a little health issue and it did hold me back!

Which is to say being unhealthy does make it harder and add in the right mix of health issues and it really can seem impossible. Imagine sitting with that for a while. Imagine the reality of that. You’re sitting there feeling terrible, knowing you’re not healthy at all and knowing that something just has to change or you might not make it. I used to freak out at the idea that if my blood pressure was clinically high at 29 and I went on medication now where would I be at 50? So you start something healthy like walking, join a gym or doing some yoga makes it so much worse. You might even seek treatment and your doctor may tell you that you’re doing too much and to stop. So you’re stuck where you are right? For almost everyone out there no, you can absolutely make a change, lots of them in fact.

How can unhealthy people become fit people?

I think that very, very few people out there really are stuck where they are including my Dad. There are usually some options though they might be much harder to and it might not be where you want to start. You might have to walk a long road before you can get to step one. It can also be really personal and require lots of creative thinking on your part. But here are some ideas to get you started thinking:

  • Fix your diet first, easier said than done but it’s something everyone can do. Sure it can be expensive but there are lots of very cheap vegetarian options like beans and lentils that can lower the weekly cost.
  • Maybe you can’t start with a couch to 5k, or even a two mile walk a day but you can start with walking around your living room for a few minuets every hour and standing every hour of every day.
  • You can give up bad habits with a lot, a lot of work.
  • You can reach out to your doctor for help with occupational therapy or physiotherapy.
  • You can take care of your mental health by reaching out to friends and practicing effective self care
  • If you only take a few hundred steps a day you can add 100 every other day. In 200 days that’s 10 000 steps. Failing that you can add 100 a week. At that rate you’ll be at 10 000 in less than 2 years.
  • You can make some small changes that add up to big differences.
  • You can start to keep track of where you’re going wrong.
  • You can switch up what you drink.
  • Prioritize getting the medications you need even if you have to ask for help.

Here’s the thing, even though progress may be painfully slow and hard fought for a long time it’s still progress. Within a few months you will feel better and feel that progress. Things will get better and then hopefully you’ll stay motivated to stay on track. You will literally be changing your own life.

Whatever you’re dealing with I promise lots of people have changed their lives with it already. Go out and find some inspiration out there. Copy what they did because it’s a pretty great place to start from.

The best option make some changes before you’re ‘caught’

Again not for everyone but almost everyone gets a long time scot free to make those changes. Most people get years or even decades to make these changes. The terrible effects of our unhealthy choices don’t usually show up over night and they tend to creep in slowly. For a lot of us we will have times where we fall into periods of unhealthiness and while not exactly okay it’s more than understandable. I urge you to not let the effects of those choices catch up with you, which they will, and make some changes before that happens. As soon as you recognize that something has to change and you are able to do it.

For a few unlucky people something will change fast but no matter what it is putting your health first is a priority. When I was in an unhealthy period I felt like my body was holding me back from the life I wanted. Like everyone I have regrets in life and staying as long as I did living like that is one of them. I’m hard pressed to think of anything that actually necessitates it and is worth it, certainly not a degree. This past weekend I got to do one of my favorite things, which I do often and go for a run. I’m well over a decade older than that girl now, getting ever so close to 40. I now feel lucky to live in this body and I often tackle something no one thinks I can do and crush it because of it. I did it twice this week in fact. A tad vain but looking at my pictures from that run, didn’t suck either. If’s a game changer when you start to feel strong and good about yourself. Make the changes you need to now because it’s totally worth it in the end, I promise you’ll only regret not starting sooner.

Other posts that might help:

I know that you can get a lot of flack and feel stuck in that catch 22 if you are both unfit and unhealthy because you are. I also know that it’s not totally your fault that you’re here. There are lots of times that I want to help/encourage/talk to someone about their options but it’s almost never my place. Here’s how I feel though, having been on both sides. I wish those people would reach out if they can because when they do I’m just itching to spring into action. I think that’s some of what I’m doing on here creating a space for people to find some of the information they need. I think most fit people would be happy to talk to you about anything you had questions about, go for a walk with you or support you in any way they can. So do it! If you are one of those people look for opportunities for reach out when you can. I’ll bet someone somewhere helped you too. If you are in this catch 22 what little change could you make? What is holding you back? Maybe someone here can help! If you are a ‘fit healthy’ person how did someone help you? Are you happy to help someone if you could? Have you already? Leave it in the comments below

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