active versus sporty

When thinking about the human body it’s hard to separate health and movement, just as it is hard to separate being unhealthy and sedentary. But we need to make an important distinction: being active doesn’t mean being sporty.

Over in camp healthy, there are two common mindsets:

“I love my sport. I follow a strict training and diet regime to enter an upcoming event next year.”

“I am a very sporty person. I cycle every day to school and I love hiking.”

One of them is a sportsperson, the other one enjoys movement and physical activity. 

What does it mean to be active?

By an active lifestyle we mean cutting sedentary time to a bare minimum. Netflix, TV, laptop, consoles are all enemies of activity. Cycling, beach ball games, climbing stairs to rooftops, dog-walking.… this is what our body craves! 

Being active is absolutely essential for physical and mental wellbeing, with benefits ranging from a more active heart, healthier respiratory system, burning some extra calories, all the way to the positive effects on our psyche. It lowers stress, it lowers anxiety, it even helps you being more social*.

Muscles keep you warm: Your muscle mass (when metabolically active) wraps your body in a warm blanket, protecting you from cold by… movement! If you sit and wait for the bus on a cold windy day, you’ll start shivering very soon. If you decide to walk briskly to the next stop, you are less likely to feel that cold. Also… more muscles, more warmth!

Muscles pump the blood up from your  lower body: Your legs are (obviously) way lower than your heart. How does the blood circle all the way up to the heart again then? A simplified explanation is that it’s due to your legs moving. By contracting, your muscles squeeze the blood vessels and pump the blood back up. Let’s say now you wait for the bus but just standing still. Soon enough you’ll feel blood building up in your feet and ankles!

 

Keeping joints fluid:  When two or more bones are connected, they form a joint. Exactly like your bicycle, if all of these complex intersections are not used, they will rust! No, you can’t use WD-40 on your knees: The only way to lubricate your joints is by moving them! When movement is detected, our body automatically releases synovial fluid in our joints, which will maintain them healthy for the rest of the day.**

 

Blood pressure: Regular physical activity makes your heart stronger. A stronger heart pumps more blood with less effort. As a result, the force on your arteries decreases, lowering your blood pressure. Easy!***

Now… go outside for some ultimate frisbee! But don’t stop there, because the benefits of committing to a tougher regime are massive.

Sport: when physical activity becomes a commitment

Progressive overload: Progressive overload is striving to get better at what we do each time in order to coax adaptations in our body. Being active for leisure is by definition light and casual. You don’t  time yourself when cycling to school, you don’t increase the intensity of climbing the stairs, and you don’t increase the strength and pull of the dogs you take for a walk. In short, we move comfortably. This, very soon, will stop producing further adaptations in our body.****

The real gains in strength, endurance, competitive results, physical appearance and sense of achievement happen when every time we aim a little higher. Take a close look at the supercompensation period which follows serious exertion.

Your body adapts to anything we throw at it, including movement. It’s a blessing as much as it is a curse for the sportsperson. On one hand it means we can achieve absolutely anything if we put our heart into it, but on the other hand, it means we must constantly keep increasing how hard we do it, or we will soon (sooner than you think in fact) plateau. It won’t help you tone up, lose weight or get stronger. It will barely maintain the shape you are in. 

 

The mentality of a sportsperson: When you aim high, you need to prioritise your sport over every other commitment. That’s not to say that is the only thing you do or think about (that is called obsession) but that everyday life is scheduled around your sport and training for that sport. An example? If you want to compete in the hammer throw, your diet will reflect the need for being big, heavy, and strong. You spend time throwing the hammer (of course) but also in the weight room. No hiking, no cycling, no jogging while chatting with your friend. In a way, this sportsperson is less active and healthy than the average weekend hiker.

A sportsperson doesn’t go to the gym “to move and burn some calories”. They go to achieve that goal for that day which their coach has set.

Waking up in the morning, do some yoga, taking part in a fitness class at lunchbreak, cycle with your friends at night. Unthinkable for a sportsperson. One training session should be aimed for maximum quality and intensity. And if it’s not intense, it either means you failed, or perhaps that the coach wanted it to be a recovery, or a lighter session for tactical reasons. In other words, quality over quantity.

Is sport better then?

No! This is by no means meant to define sport as a superior form of activity, just a more focused one. Sport is a very complex and specific environment where athletes aim to excel and to be as competitive as possible. Sometimes, they even sacrifice other aspects of health on the altar of attainment.

While on a personal level I pursued professional  attainment, I also have a great deal of respect for those who always incorporate activity. They shouldn’t kid themselves about the outcomes, but there are other gains than for example endurance. Perhaps going outdoors to play in the sun, with a bat or with a beach ball or with a frisbee, should be recategorised as “the sport of total health”.

 

References

*Berger, B. G. (2012) ‘Psychological benefits of an active lifestyle: what we know and what we need to know.’ Quest – online journal. Originally from American academy of kinesiology and Physical Education, 48, 330-353.

**Rassier D. E. (2010) Muscle biophysics. 1st Ed. New York: Springer.

***Clays, E., De Bacquer, D., Herck, K. V., Backer, G., Kittel, F., Holtermann, A. (2012) ‘Occupational and leisure time physical activity in contrasting relation to ambulatory blood pressure.’ Biomedic central public health, 12, 1002- 1010.

****Kavanaugh, A. (2007) ‘The role of Progressive Overload in sports conditioning.’ NCSA performance training journal, 6(1), 15-17.