Could You Save Your Own Life?

(This is the second part of a four part series on fitness. Part 1: What Does it Mean to Be Fit?, Part 3: Modern Fitness Standards)

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!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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44 thoughts on “Could You Save Your Own Life?”

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  1. The ability to function post trauma – mental and physical. How many stories have you heard of people blanking on reciting their address when calling 911 or forgetting to perform CPR when they have been certified?

    And you need to do a muscle up on a tree branch to escape a grizzly? What if it already bit off one of your thumbs?

    I think a big part of fitness (under this context) is avoiding trauma but being able to function regardless of it.

    1. So basically, the ability to adapt within an amount of time – both immediate and over longer periods.

    2. “blanking on reciting their address when calling 911 or forgetting to perform CPR when they have been certified??

      Performing under stress… much more difficult! Train like you mean it. The military knows this.

  2. This is a great one Mark; I always think about this. The fact is, when your exercising functionally, as in with the natural movements of the body (Squat,Push,Pull,Lunge,Run/Walk,Twist,Jump) your going to see improvements in things ranging from picking the groceries up to sprinting to the bus to maybe fighting someone off.

  3. Nice post. Thanks for the clarification on “competent.” Of course our hypothetical Grok was fit by this definition, but might not many of his companions been less than that fit? After all, how many paleo folk died because the couldn’t escape up into the tree fast enough, or couldn’t fight off the enemy, or couldn’t sprint away from the flash flood? Ultimately, I think the answer is: most of them. If trauma was truly be one of the principal causes of death for paleo people then it would seem that, at some point, even their fitness proved insufficient.

    1. That’s called ‘survival of the fittest.’ I’m a teenager and I know what that is. Cool thing about finding this site is that I get a head start on being the fittest. Eheh.

  4. When in high school, I was involved in a car accident, seriously damaging one of my kidneys. I was a wrestler at the time and my fantastic fitness had me out of the hospital in two days (those were the doctor’s words). Normally, people would be in for a week. So, yes, however rare, it does happen.

  5. Is that perhaps why we have an innate desire for thrill and danger? I’ve always dreamed of the day I would get to use my physical abilities. I love that thrill you get on a roller coaster, or while rock climbing…even when a verbal argument begins to escalate.

    We are designed to run and fight, but in today’s world these skills are rarely used.

  6. As I struggle to be able to do a single pullup, I always think about that wayward chance that I might someday be hanging off of a cliff and trying to pull myself to safety. (Not such an uncommon occurence for people here in MT, hiking in the mountains) At this point in my fitness there’s no way I could pull myself to safety unless a surge of adrenaline also helped. I don’t want to rely on the “possibility” of adrenaline. I use this as a motivator to continue working out and gaining applicable strength.

    1. If you can’t yet do a pullup, then find something that you can do a few reps of that exercises the same muscles. You might consider lifting weights until you can lift yourself. Another thing to consider is your body weight. If you’re overweight, then a pullup is going to be really hard.

  7. Amen. I think about this often, and have experienced it occasionally (flipped raft on the Colorado; suspicious men in a car).

    Michael makes a good point about performing post-trauma, too. This past spring, I had to get myself and my horse 2 miles home after a bad fall that resulted in a badly torn hamstring and a concussion. Doubt I could have done it without a strong base of physical and mental toughness.

  8. As an avid backcountry skier I do lots of avalanche safty training. If you have never seen an avy debris field I’ll tell you the stuff is rock hard and can be 10,20,30′ deep. You need to be fit if you think you have a shot at digging anyone out of that stuff. I’ve never needed to, but have practiced a number of times.

  9. This self preservation is one of the reasons I take karate lessons. Besides that it’s a good workout!

  10. I was on a marina dock once when this older guy fell in between a boat and the dock. Instinctively, this other guy and I immediately reached down and pulled him out by the collar, one handed. Well, I guess I might have pulled a little too hard, too fast, because he came flying straight out up into the air to a standing position. I think the coming out frightened him more than the falling in.

  11. This is similar to some of my research for a book I am writing…Crisis Fitness. My reason for this came from reading a research piece about deaths in the Twin Towers on 911 from lack of fitness. People not being able to physical get down stairwells or help those not physically able to.

  12. When 911 happened, I can remember thinking that too many of us had the wrong priorities (getting in shape seemed like a vanity), but then I read an article about a woman who escaped from one of the towers. She said that had she not just lost 80 lbs, she would never have been able to get down all those steps.

  13. I think this is great stuff, but I want to tack on another thought or two regarding dangers that once existed and might still. Fight or flight scenarios did, and still exist today – this we agree upon. But fight or flight isn’t the only time where we here in modernity experience potentially dangerous situations.

    Example: my mother, 60 years old, spends a great deal of her time gardening. She is always out in the back yard lifting heavy pots of soil, wheeling small trees around in her cart etc. Is her back not at risk, I mean potentially? Of course it is.

    My dad, 58 years old, and a site manager at a few buildings in town gets a call one cold winter day. There’s a leak in the roof. He climbs up and finds a six inch ice dam and has to dig chip and knock it out of place. Is he not at risk of falling, pulling a muscle, throwing out is back, I mean, potentially?

    And, by nature, are we not exponentially more de-conditioned today, and thus at GREATER risk of such injuries from what would be considered by Grok to be simple, common day tasks?

    Mark, I couldn’t agree with you more about your baseline expectations of a fit human, the ability to get out of trouble – I just want to jump on your coattails here and argue that there are many situations in our increasingly de-conditioned lives where danger lurks, regardless of whether it warrants a fight or flight response.

    Make any sense at all? I guess by growing less accustomed to real work in the last 10,000 years, our risk of injury from less strenuous work goes up, Grok’s bison carrying in the woods is our taking the heavy garbage can out to the curb every weekend.

  14. I’ve got the ocean in my backyard and I often think about if a tsunami were to surge would I be able to grab my kids and book it? That is my current gauge for fitness. (and I think I could)

  15. “or your chest freezer full of grass fed meat”

    Mark, you write well and you’re funny!

  16. Jennifer… I agree – natural selection at work thinning the herd. My question was just whether we should set as the standard for “the absolute baseline” of our fitness a level of physical performance that many of our ancestors ultimately didn’t meet.

  17. This might sound silly, but my significant other taught me how to change the brakes on my car last weekend. He insisted that I learn how to change a car tire “In case you’re ever stranded with a flat tire out in the middle of nowhere in Nebraska with no cell phone reception.” Which I guess could be “threatening for any woman traveling alone.
    So, I learned how to change a tire. Jacking the car up was a piece of cake, as was getting off the lug nuts. My biggest concern was that I wouldn’t be able to actually lift the tire and put it back into place. BUT, thanks to the bootcamp classes I’ve been attending for the last 3 months, it was a piece of cake.
    So I guess things as simple as changing a car tire are not simple if you’re not fit.

    1. Also, the skill and knowledge of how to change a tire is essential in that scenario. Not only skill and knowledge in physical endeavors (form and using mechanical advantages), but skill and knowledge in other areas. One of the scenarios Mark explains is carrying someone who has been bitten by a snake to safety. The skill of sucking out poison or knowing how to utilize native plant medicines would be even more beneficial than being strong enough to carry someone to safety.

      So does skill and knowledge serve as a function of fitness?

      1. That is a common myth. In first aid they teach you carry the person to safety fast. Doctors have medicine that actually works on snake bites. Local herbs might work, but the odds that one will work is around and in season and properly prepared is low. Sucking the venom out use useless – most of it is already in the bloodstream doing damage.

      2. I somewhat agree with what you’re saying. Strength is nothing without knowledge, and wisdom. Wisdom should tell you that it’s best to go on hikes with a group of 3. If one person gets injured, one person can stay with him or her while the other gets help. Though again this comes down to fitness because if the person getting help can run for help, then the person injured can get help much faster.

        I have to agree with Henry Miller, that sucking the poison out is almost pointless as our hearts pump about 60-80 times a minute I believe, which means it’ll already be in the bloodstreem by the time you can try to suck it out. Plus, what are you going to do after sucking out some of the poison? Just sit around and wait for the person injured to get better? Strength is just as important as wisdom, and knowledge.

    2. I’m badly out of shape (I’m 5’5″ and weigh 225 on a good day) and can lift and change tires no problem. So can my also out of shape and not much lighter than me mother. We both have shoulder injuries, to boot. Maybe it would have been cake anyways.

  18. Great comments – sitting here looking out over the Channel in southern Tassie on a glorious Spring day, I am so pleased that I came across crossfit and mark’s daily apple. Life changing.

  19. I totally agree with what is being said here. But I have to say that if people are worried about defending themselves in a fight situation, you should actually train in some martial arts. Physical fitness will help you a bit, but I would bet on an out of shape high school wrestler or former boxer against a person in great shape in a fight any time.

  20. I wouldn’t advise sprinting to avoid some thugs in the street. Most of them aren’t able to follow you if you just jog, and you don’t want to risk running into a car or being exhausted if they are able to follow you.

    Also, running in the street can be a useful skill, but that should be practiced in the street, under realistic conditions (that would include clothing).

    (Same thing goes for most examples. One should carry heavy stuff while walking, swim wearing inappropriate clothes, etc).

  21. I’ve found that even though one has trained specific fitness skills, like pullups, for instance, that the ability to perform them for practical purposes (whether under duress or not) or in a non-gym, “wild” environment is severely lacking.

    I witnessed this at a 5-day MovNat seminar I attended recently. Even though I was able to perform 20 pullups prior to arriving for the seminar, I could not climb up and over a tree branch to save my life – even after dozens of practice attempts with excellent personal instruction on multiple techniqes. It wasn’t until I came home and continued my practice that I mastered this specific skill. This demonstrated that had I needed to perform it for my survival – I would not have succeeded prior to specific training for it.

    My point is that all fitness and conditioning is specific to the activity you’re performing. Just because you can bust out several pullups, doesn’t mean it will transfer over to a practical, life-saving skill when needed.

    1. I disagree to an extent. Of course you couldn’t climb a tree with ease if all you can do is 20 pullups, but a variety of exercises completed to improve your overall strength, cardiovascular capacity, power expression, reaction time, speed, agility, and flexibility, and endurance would definitely help a great amount in any situation ranging from fighting the elements, to fighting a bunch of thugs.

  22. Running from thugs in the street probably would work very well. Have you ever seen the pants some of them wear? It’s be tough to run with those pants around your knees! I had a karate instructor that told me several times that he never wears pants that restrict his kicks…

  23. I know I can’t outrun male thugs, so I got a concealed handgun license. Other than that, I totally agree with this post.

    I’ve read that, statistically, young fit males better survive disasters like plane crashes, ship sinkings, 9-11, etc because they can more easily extricate themselves from the wreckage before it burns or sinks. It stands to reason that fit females are going to have a better chance than obese or weak ones.

    When I became a mom 18 years ago, it was sobering to me to realize that whatever dumb situation I got into, I would have to be able to save not just myself, but my child too. No more driving the SUV through high water and other such nonsense.

    1. Talking of “outrunning male thugs” there are definitely some situations with flight isn’t an option, and it’s down to fight. This is another instance where being physically fit can really help.

  24. Many a modern man has been duped into believing that “It wont happen to me” That being said, I believe you are right on here Mark. In addition to watching my health and fitness, I also carried a loaded pistol. (Legal in my state.) Many don’t realize that a Supreme court decision handed down renders law enforcement not liable when it comes to protecting individuals. We are each responsible for our own health AND safety.

  25. I was thinking about this article while going for a walk with my baby. An addendum is that parents should have the means to strap their child to them and the ability to do things with up to 50lbs extra weight. 20lbs extra at a minimum.

    As for me? There’s an emergency, I’m dead, getting better though.

  26. I’ve been in a possible near-death fight or flight situation. It was scary stuff. A coked out drunk guy decided to put me in a headlock and try to choke me out. He almost succeeded. I could actually feel myself beginning to fall asleep before the adrenaline kicked in. I’m in what I consider to be moderately decent shape at best, but if I never exercised at all (as I’m guessing was the case with him) I probably wouldn’t have been able to escape his grip (and pummel him after) and there’s a chance I could have died. You might have to fight for your life or the life of a loved one some day so don’t neglect exercise.

  27. from my experience: the first rule of self defence is not to be there. The second is to bolt, as above, the third is to bluff: talk to the ringleader, that alone can get one out of a sticky spot with both parties looking good.

    The first rule of dealing with trauma: don’t rush in and be the next victim, pressure bandage on any bleeding {tourniquets are for amputations]

    when I was 16, I could swim 50 metres underwater, one breath, but have saved only two persons from the water, but I have saved myself often.
    Endurance is the more used form of strength; the older one gets, the less likely is he to be in need of flight or fight, because he knows how to avoid being in such situations.