Athlete. Even the pronunciation of the word makes it sound lofty – the first syllable rising up and hovering around the teeth before the second lands – victorious, grounded, confident. But, while we may well marvel at the skill, strength and fitness of those currently playing at Wimbledon or competing at the upcoming Olympic Games, we shouldn’t assume that they are healthy.
“Health”, as defined by the World Health Organization, refers to a state of “complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. As such, health is about balance and integration – whereas being fit? That means being ready and prepared (for purpose).
It’s a completely different thing yet, somewhere along the line, we’ve got confused. Why is it that Olympians and other top sportspeople are used to advertise things like vitamins and health insurance – aspects of life traditionally associated with a moderate, healthy lifestyle? Are these fit elite really postergirls and boys for health?
Never mind the fact that dropping to a body-fat percentage low enough to produce noticeable abdominal definition will, for many women, result in amenorrhea. That following punishing training schedules alongside restrictive diets for months or even years can lead to the development of body dysmorphia and eating disorders… There’s also the potential for loneliness – the focused life of a dedicated sportsperson requires levels of grit, resilience and focus that (necessarily perhaps) leaves little room for spontaneity and vulnerability. I touched on some of this myself back in 2012 when, inspired by Nicola Adam’s Olympic boxing win, I decided to enter a boxing fight. For more than two months, I lived like an athlete, training intensely twice a day, six days a week – one long Groundhog Day of punching, sweating, eating, washing and trying to pretend I was invincible. I became simultaneously fitter, faster, more exhausted and stressed than I have ever been.
For more than two months, I lived like an athlete, training intensely twice a day, six days a week – punching, sweating, eating, washing and trying to pretend I was invincible
“You’re so fit and healthy!” my friends all exclaimed. But they were wrong: I wasn’t both – how could I be? As I discovered, during that brief foray into boxing, the life of an athlete is often one of sacrifice as much as it is achievement. Former British Olympic gold-medallist swimmer Becky Adlington hit the pool at 5.30am every morning (and then again in the afternoon) for years. Tennis legend Serena Williams began intensive tennis training at the age of three. Is this commitment impressive? Inspirational even? Absolutely. But is it healthy in the true sense of the word? Of course it isn’t. The pursuit of greatness rarely is.
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“There’s a common misconception that competitive athletes are superhuman but people generally don't realise how unhealthy it can be at peak fitness,” says 36-year-old Hazel Gale, a former champion kickboxer and boxer who developed chronic fatigue in her late twenties while preparing for a major championships. “Most serious sportspeople, when training heavily, are prone to illness (common colds, digestive issues and other viruses like cold sores). Many of those I knew would hide away when not training, keen to avoid busy places for fear of contracting illness.”
Former Olympic silver medallist diver 38-year-old Leon Taylor agrees that there’s a cost to pay for being the best. “Performing at the highest level rarely equates to being a well-rounded person,” he says. “It’s inevitable that you’re going to train too much and get sick; the immune system gets a kicking [from hours of daily exertion]. My focus wasn’t to achieve a level of wellbeing – it was to get the most out of my body so I could reach performance goals. The result was four reconstructive surgeries on one shoulder and chronic back pain for the last five years of my sporting career. The medical team eventually told me: ‘If you were a horse, we’d have to shoot you,’ and so I finally stopped and since have rebalanced my body with yoga.”
So, is it possible to ever be really, really fit and healthy at the same time? Well, fitness is part of health, and health is part of fitness, and (much like joy and sorrow) they can coalesce and complement each other, or they can be in opposition. There is a fitness-health sweet spot somewhere, but it’s certainly not in the middle of a Wimbledon champion’s newly strung racket. So let’s let athletes be athletes and leave the healthy living to normal folk.