A Look at Athletic Life & Its Many (Hard-Earned) Benefits

1 Jun

I am a lifelong athlete. I wouldn’t say I am a “natural,” but I consider myself athletic. How do I define athleticism? Fundamentally, it is the attitude of being inspired by the potential of human movement to improve your physical health, as well as in activity’s ability to enable mind/body learning and goal achievement. Another way to consider this is that every movement-related activity is an opportunity to understand how your body and mind function in a way that is different than eating, sleeping and working. Each new sport is a complex integration where you are learning the rules and then applying them to specific movements.

At a basic level, most sports are a practice of efficiency and economy of movement to generate the most output. With few exceptions (cross training, functional movement training), every sport is a very specialized set of activities. Your body is an adaptable machine, and over time it internalizes the movements required of a particular sport. Simultaneously, the plasticity of your body molds and develops it around the movements inherent in a sport.

The downside of this is that same increasing efficiency through specialization contributes to the creation of imbalances in your physical machine. Witness the various injuries related to each activity: “tennis elbow,” baseball’s “Tommy John surgery,” ACLs in skiing, and many others.

Through my nearly 50 years of athletic life, I have gone through bursts of starting, learning, and then practicing many sports and activities at a high level. Even now I have a practice of making a deep dive into a new activity for three months every 12 to 18 months to understand how it works and explore whether it’s something I want to add to my set of preferred activities.

The range of sports I’ve kept practicing is wide, and I think this is important. It includes endurance (hiking from Mexico to Canada), strength (powerlifting), adrenaline (steep skiing), artistic (ballet), teamwork (Ultimate Frisbee), teamwork (football), balance (Vinyasa yoga), crosstraining (Crossfit), strength/balance (climbing), and combat (wrestling, martial arts, boxing) among others.

The benefits of regularly doing these various activities are multifold:

  • Positive Biological Stress: Any new activities will cause your brain to create new neural muscular proprioceptive pathways as well as the formation of new learning patterns in your brain. I’ve noticed that when I’m learning new sports and then go back to familiar ones, I’m better at all of my other sports.
  • Correcting Imbalances: Depending on what you choose, a new sport or movement will lessen the overall physical strain on your system because of different movement patterns. This is especially important as we age.
  • Opportunities for Personal Growth: Learning any new movement pattern is a humbling reminder that no matter how proficient we are in a particular area, when we’re out of our comfort zones we are all beginners.
  • New Social Opportunities: All sports have social circles and hierarchies, and with them come chances to meet and interact with active people you didn’t know before.

I truly enjoy maintaining a high level of conditioning and athleticism because it allows me to engage in physical play. The instant I feel bored by an activity, my nature is to seek out a new learning situation. (This isn’t to say that I avoid foundational conditioning or training if it’s boring. I really try to maintain a base that allows me to engage in sports I love, those I want to try, and all the while being vigilant about avoiding injuries.)

One of the biggest shames of American attitudes towards human movement is our need to be judgmental. When I say this, I’m not talking about people around you judging you—I mean self-judgment. Sports seem to bring up a number of emotions that remind us of feelings we’ve had at other points in our lives. All of us can remember schoolyard days when we weren’t as good at an exercise as someone else or were teased. We internalize these memories and use them for the rest of our lives to guide our behavior. These internalized memories become beliefs: “I am not naturally athletic,” “sports are only for jocks,” “exercise is painful and a chore,” etc.

This is a shame. One of the greatest aspects of activities is the opportunity to play with others and have fun encouraging one another to improve and hit goals. While I sometimes find myself making comparisons, I’m really only competing with myself, and for that I’m grateful for the activity and the challenge.

13 Responses to “A Look at Athletic Life & Its Many (Hard-Earned) Benefits”

  1. Barbara June 6, 2011 at 12:35 PM #

    I completely enjoyed reading that. We are all athletes if we choose to be!

    • Jim Kean June 8, 2011 at 8:48 PM #

      Thank you Barbara, I am happy that you found value in this.

  2. Dustin | Fit Marriage June 6, 2011 at 12:50 PM #

    Thanks for sharing this, Jim. There’s no doubt that the journey and new struggles that accompany new athletic pursuits can open up the mind and body in unexpected (and usually awesome ways).

    I’ve found this is something as simple as running my first 5K alongside my wife. She’s a “runner” and I’m “not” yet I found that participating in my first running event was a total high, and it has pushed me to pursue something new and refreshing.

    By the way, my business partner at Fit Marriage (Tony) also did a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, and it changed his life. Everything from his marriage to his spirituality was deepened over three months of endurance athletics. Incredible stuff.

    Dustin

    • Jim Kean June 8, 2011 at 8:51 PM #

      Hi Dustin,

      You and your wife have a great attitude and this is going to spur personal growth. Great to hear about your business partner. Always happy to hear about another thru hiker.

      best,

      jim

  3. Jay Jacobs. June 6, 2011 at 1:00 PM #

    I never understood this until I was on the Biggest Loser. Loved what you shared, look forward to reading your book. Jay Jacobs, Biggest Loser Season 11 Final 4 Contestant – 181 lbs

    • Jim Kean June 8, 2011 at 8:53 PM #

      Hi Jay,

      Congrats on the biggest loser – 181 is awesome. It would have been interesting to run our biomarker platform on you before and after.

      I am glad you received value from my post.

      Best,

      jim

  4. TO June 6, 2011 at 2:40 PM #

    I agree that learning new sports make you better at old ones. Snowmobiling made me a better mountain biker.

    And don’t forget nutrition!! I am currently on week-3 of a 30-day paleo diet trial, and I may swith over to paleo diet for athletes. I think this is a great way to go, until we start reprogramming our genes more often.

    • Jim Kean June 8, 2011 at 8:54 PM #

      I am definitely a biological composition of paleo. I tend to optimize best around this diet.

      I will be writing something about nutrition soon, stay posted.

      best,

      jim

  5. Jeff Sutherland June 7, 2011 at 8:59 AM #

    Encouraging! I’ve taken a similar approach, but I’m 20 years behind you. Great confirmation that I’m on a good path.

  6. racarlarl June 7, 2011 at 6:50 PM #

    This is the first time time I’ve read your blog. I am in my 50’s and, like you, am a lifetime athlete / fitness fanatic. I especially liked what you said about the range of sports that you engage in to cover all the bases from endurance to balance. I have tried to do the same focusing in on endurance and strength sports mainly but I also like and practice Vinyasa Yoga since blowing out a disc in my lower back from doing heavy squats in a gym. I also really liked what you said about the benefits of sports. I think it’s safe to say that most people only consider the physical benefits of sports and do not consider all the other benefits you mentioned. I’ve always noticed that most people do not go to public gyms simply to work out but more to socialize with their friends; the workout is almost of secondary importance and focus.
    Thank you for your thoughts – I think that there may be a book somewhere in there that hasn’t been written yet!!

    Roger Carl

    • Jim Kean June 8, 2011 at 8:56 PM #

      Hi Roger,

      Great post and thanks for your thoughts.

      Nice job on finding your approach to an active life.

      I am definitely thinking about writing something more extensive.

      Best,

      jim

  7. marykmhui June 10, 2011 at 5:09 AM #

    Thanks for sharing such interesting thoughts. I particularly liked your emphasis on sports as ‘movement’ – while sports definitely require us to make physical movements, I also think that the benefits you’ve named (personal growth, new social opportunities etc) can also be regarded as ‘movements’. For me, movement is a defining feature of who I am. I find that what drives my passion for sports is not only the technicalities of the sport itself but also the physical, mental and intellectual movements that they offer. Being in motion allows me to enter ‘the zone’ where despite being constantly moving physically, my mind experiences a kind of refreshing stillness that allows me think things through, experiencing a totally different form of movement.

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