Yesterday, I explored the malleable meaning of fitness , including how our ideas of fitness (both reproductive and physical alike) have drastically changed over history. What began as a reliable indicator of a person’s ability to survive and provide for his or her family or tribe has lost its urgency, and becoming fit in the modern world is now a choice, rather than a necessity for reproductive survival.
Or is it?
Putting aside the potential long-term health and longevity benefits conferred by optimum human fitness (to be discussed later), there are still certain timeless, universal advantages to being fit. And no, I’m not talking about stuff like tool making, hunting, interpersonal combat, hard physical labor – all classic human activities that undoubtedly see a boost when the actor is fit, but they aren’t exactly ubiquitous in 2009. I’m talking about those fight-or-flight moments, those instances where time slows down and you’ve got to act – NOW – or risk probable death. Grok  faced these moments, probably on a regular basis, and it was his level of physical fitness that determined whether he’d escape unscathed or lose his life. We face these moments, too, though perhaps not as regularly as Grok (though this depends on our station in life), and the survival mechanisms are exactly the same.
You can’t always reach for your cell phone and call the authorities, and sometimes you just can’t wait to be rescued. In these situations, the abilities to maneuver your body with precision, manipulate/lift/push/pull your own bodyweight without tiring too quickly, jump high and far enough to clear a few feet, swim for a few hundred meters, and maintain top running speed for a couple hundred meters are crucial for survival.
- Grok might have ascended a tree to escape a massive grizzly bear who cannot follow, whereas I might climb the nearest tree to escape a rabid dog that’s off its lead. In both situations, you’d have to be able to pull your own bodyweight up to survive. Practice your pull-ups!
- The rain gods were overly generous this season – the hills have turned to mud and the creek’s trickle has grown to a torrent. A flash flood strikes camp, and Grok has under a minute to gather his family and get to higher ground. If he were a bachelor without dependents, escape would require little fitness; as it stands now, he’s got to carry the remains of last night’s kill over one shoulder and his little scamp of a son in the other, and haul ass to higher ground with over a hundred pounds of added weight headed up an incline. A strong core and lower body are absolute essentials.
- Natural disasters and other incidentals might be less devastating with our modern infrastructure in place (although that can’t always be relied upon; see Katrina, Hurricane), but there will always be occasion to carry something precious and heavy to safety (if not a bloody bison, perhaps a flatscreen, or your chest freezer full of grass fed meat) under extreme physical duress. Imagine being out on a hike with your significant other, and he or she breaks a bone, gets bitten by a venomous snake, or is knocked unconscious. Your cell phone has no reception and your partner’s losing blood fast. What do you do? You’d better hope you can support their weight and make the hike back out.
- And if Grok gets swept away in the flood? He’d better be a strong swimmer. Same goes for you, modern Grok. You can’t always expect a lifeguard to be on duty and, unless a life vest is part of your daily attire, you should know how to tread water and swim. Oh, and swimming fully clothed is a little different than swimming in shorts, so plan for that.
- A couple of unsavory-looking fellows are trailing you on the street, and you know something isn’t right. Rather than let them catch up and (possibly) brandish weaponry, you decide to make your getaway at the next intersection. If you’ve been doing your sprints, you could turn the corner and take off. By the time they turned the corner, you’d be long gone. If you’re just waddling along, though, unable to run, you’re a sitting duck.
- Then there’s the “organ reserve ” aspect which argues that as you become more fit (read in this case: have more muscle) your organs (heart, lungs, kidney, liver, immune system, etc) must keep pace with that fitness and improve in their own functionality. Imagine, despite your hypervigilance, you fall off a ladder or are involved in a car crash and suffer severe injuries. Your fitness – and your organ reserve – may make the difference between your making it to the hospital or not. That same fitness would also play a role in the speed and quality of your recovery.
These are, of course, extreme examples. Most of them are unlikely to ever befall us, and I seriously hope they never do. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that these have happened, do happen, and will probably happen again, or that they negatively impact our survival – our reproductive fitness. One commenter  on yesterday’s post asked about competency in fitness – “What’s ‘competent’ to mean these days, anyway?” – and I think the ability to save your own life in an immediate (however rare) crisis should be the absolute baseline for general competency. After all, what’s more truly indicative of one’s fitness (the ability to survive and reproduce) than being able to call upon said fitness to extricate oneself from a dangerous situation. That should be the absolute minimum.
So, I count manipulating your own weight (including pulling, climbing, pushing), supporting someone else’s weight while walking, swimming, and sprinting as the fundamental abilities any competently fit person interested in surviving dangerous situations should possess. I’m sure I’m missing at least a few more, though, so I’d love to hear from readers: what other physical abilities do you consider crucial for survival, especially in this modern world?
Now that I’ve established a tentative baseline standard for human fitness, tomorrow I’ll be exploring the other ways we can classify and compartmentalize effective, proper physical fitness. Is there an ultimate standard for optimum fitness? Check back tomorrow!