Myths of Fitness and Why They’re Not So Simple.

(A blog post side-tracked by disability)

Let me smack you in the face with a harsh truth. You are not special. You are not (to steal from Chuck Palahniuk) a unique and beautiful snowflake. Okay, perhaps you are. Your mind is most definitely unique. It may be a beautiful snowflake. But psychology aside, when it comes to your body, you’re just like me. Your muscles, your internal organs; the systems that toil away whilst you slumber—they are as common as we are human. Our bodies are vessels. Carriers of DNA. There are no snowflakes here, just a production line of evolution, physiology 101. What makes you different is the driver behind the wheel. The mind behind the machine. My point? With enough plastic surgery we can all look the same. The body is a physical device. A machine to mould. The mind is an exquisite work of art. A fingerprint of psychological identity. Nourished by education, environment, and choice, the mind—what is essentially you—is a different beast from the body.

This lack of physical uniqueness is important. Congenital and accidental defects excepted—we are all the same. To a great degree this is true. You may raise a hand to object. Or a stump. Perhaps you don’t have arms at all. This is important. Life isn’t equal, or fair. But stripping away that difference you still have a heart. Lungs. A brain that encompasses freewill. The physical determinant of life is the same for all humans. We require fuel, we require nourishment. To remain healthy, to grow, we require physical stimulus. No matter the shell, the physiology is the same. We are the same. Except we aren’t.

Revelation. This post was intended to be about exercise myths. But scribbling through the second paragraph the hypocrisy of the initial title (Monster Myths of Fitness) became apparent. Hand on cold heart, I do have a ‘get out of jail free card’. I’m disabled. A weight-lifting ‘accident’ in my teens damaged nerves in my spinal column. My left leg is now a pitiful reminder of outrageous misfortune. A bicep curl gone wrong. Yes, that’s what damaged my nerves. Easy as that. To walk distance, I require a brace. Fastidious with my study and research I found one that works well. As expensive as it is effective, I can walk for miles; just as long as 80% of my left leg is encased in aluminium, plastic and wonderful German engineering.

For the record, this isn’t a sympathy post. I’m awesome. I’m still more active than most Glaswegian men in their late forties. I can bench more than I weigh. My leg press? Not so good. Oh, you sneaky devil. You got me there. I’m far less awesome if you factor in my mobility. But that’s the point. Fitness myths often make a generic assumption: we are all equal. I tell you—we’re not. Nothing close. There are fitness truths, and there are individual differences. It is those differences that we can choose to define us, for better or for worse.

To highlight the issue, take a common ‘fact’ as an example. Walking one mile burns the same calories as running one mile. Nope. False. Time is a factor. If you amble for one mile, your energy expenditure is constant. Tame, almost. If you sprint flat out, as though a T-Rex was on your tail, you’d add in an extra factor. EPOC. Excess Post Oxygen Consumption. A debt to your energy production system. It’s what HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is based on. Basically, if you exercise at 100% intensity, or close to it, your body has an energy ‘lag’. Working at the extreme end of intensity requires huge amounts of energy. Your heart rate will be high (90%+ of its maximum). This isn’t sustainable—it’s why HIIT contains that word ‘interval’. Once that rapid mile is complete, there is a period of extended, elevated heart rate. A period of increased metabolism. One mile is not one mile. Effort is the multiplier. But there’s another disregarded factor. Disability. How much effort to travel a mile on one good leg? (I tell you, a lot). What about a person on crutches? A wheelchair user? Have you used an arm ergometer (an arm-cycle)? One bipedal mile is not the same as one pushing yourself along on wheels. Then again, downhill, the wheelchair wins. Swings and roundabouts. Poor choice of phrase, those things are never wheelchair friendly.  

Disability, accidental or genetic, is a spanner in the cosy world of exercise and activity, both myth and reality. The mainstream doesn’t cater to it. Media personalities are uncomfortable with it (it’s not a big market—harsh truth). The best a disabled athlete or exerciser can hope for is a condescending interview from an able-bodied numbskull. Didn’t you do well, they say. It’s as though the person is nothing but a comical seal balancing a ball on their nose. An item of amusement to forget when the ‘real’ athletes arrive.

In the ongoing pandemic, with lockdowns and various forms of societal restriction, social media is buzzing with media personalities prancing and dancing on two legs. Great skippy, go for it. I won’t name individuals because they’ll likely sue, not that this blog gets that many hits. But you know them. People I imagine would make a hollow sound if you blew into their ears. Nothing but air into an empty bottle. Stare deep into that lughole and you’ll probably be able to see the other side of the gym. Yeah, him, or her—those wonderfully shallow energetic bunnies. Very few—the noble few—cater to a more diverse audience other than the standard bipedal human. Kudos to them. But that’s not the road to glamour and fame. The Oscars of the fitness world isn’t a flat red carpet. It’s an assault course of hurdles and barriers, spike traps and rope climbs. Try pushing a wheelchair through that. Those less fortunate, those interesting side-projects of bastard chance and accidental circumstance are left to their own devices. Walk on Mr & Mrs Perfect, I’ll grab the wheels.

As an able-bodied reader, you might feel uncomfortable with this. You shouldn’t. It’s natural to represent the majority. It’s certainly business to do so. Besides, Johnny ‘no legs’ doesn’t want your sympathy. He wants you to look at him. As simple as that. See him. Not pity him. A disability isn’t a curse. A challenge, yes. But then, so is being stupid and many able-bodied people suffer from that malaise. I’d argue that idiocy is humanity’s greatest disability. Not something as mundane as a physical impairment.

Disability and exercise are bound to a particular fitness myth. The disabled person in the gym is somehow a hero. Myth. They’re doing exactly what you do, although their path to it is harder. It doesn’t deify or canonise them. I mean, sure, give a helping hand where required but don’t fuss. And, on pain of death, don’t pat their heads and say, ‘Well done!’. Do that to a Murderball player and they’ll show you no mercy. Again, there is a fine line between staring and looking away. As numerous UK campaigns (especially for mental health) have stated—look beyond the disability. Don’t focus on the difference. See the person.

What an able-bodied person sees as an oddity, the disabled exerciser experiences as a daily task. To them it isn’t special. By way of transposition, nor should you consider it to be special. It would be impossible to mention every conceivable disability (physical and mental) but where limbs are concerned, exercise creates the same rewards. A wheelchair user will amend their form to lift a dumbbell. The stimulus and response are the same. Metabolic (or developmental) disability excepted, there are no physiological differences between able and disabled. In that respect, the challenge is comparable.

There’s one disability myth I wish to firmly reject. It’s not universal but it is one that requires focus. There is physical disability and there is mental disability. Sometimes both. However, it is wrong to assume cognitive impairment in an exerciser with a physical disability. There are conditions that manifest in ways which are socially awkward. A person with Cerebral Palsy may find it more difficult to communicate. It doesn’t make them dumb. Ditto for the wheelchair user. Even a client that requires a companion or a carer should be spared the instant tag of… well, whatever word you’re thinking of.  Again, see the person. Not the condition. Compassion isn’t required, understanding is the key.

To conclude, I ought to apologise for a less than humorous blog post. But then, laughing at disability isn’t funny. Unless, of course, it’s to mock a fitness guru being run down by a maniacal wheelchair user. Take that Billy Two-Legs.