Check out this picture from 1950's Texas. This is an audience enjoying the show at the annual Frontier Fiesta in Houston. Of all these hundreds of people, I can't find a single overweight face in the room.
Here's a photo from a recent Houston Astros baseball game, from the "Budweiser Patio" near center field.
What happened in the 60 years between these two photos?
For the purposes of this post, I'm going to call the 1950's photo the "old-school" group, and the recent photo the "modern" group.
As far as your fitness goes, there are three main factors: your diet, your daily work routine, and your exercise. Let's look at the differences between old school vs. modern approaches to these three points.
Diet - what you eat.
The old-school diet consisted of mostly whole foods. People didn't worry about how many carbs or proteins or fats they were consuming, they just ate food that was prepared by hand from basic ingredients. The same way people had been eating for the last 10,000 years.
The modern diet contains highly mechanized food, prepared many hundreds of miles away, with ingredients that are scientifically calibrated to bring the most pleasure per bite, with the calories to match. Portions have also increased greatly.
Daily work - what you do for the majority of your waking hours.
Old-school work was usually manual labor. A few hundred years ago it would have been farming or herding. By the 1950s it might have been a factory or a service position that had you on your feet most of the day. Jobs that had you sitting at a desk all day every day were uncommon.
Modern work is highly cerebral. We sit immobile in front of screens for hours at a time, our brains juggling complicated tasks while our fingers fly across the keyboard. We're extremely clever and sophisticated with how we use our minds. But our bodies waste away beneath us.
Exercise - how you intentionally move your body for health purposes.
The old-school approach to exercise is pretty casual. "Take in the air" with a walk after dinner. Go swimming in the lake. Play a sport on the weekends. Go dancing with your sweetheart. The concept of "building your body" was seen as a strange hobby for a few weirdos.
Modern exercise is much more focused on results. We take exercises in sets and reps to maximize muscle gains. We understand the difference between aerobic exercise (cardio) and anaerobic exercise (strength building). We approach exercise as something that's hard, sometimes painful, but overall good for us.
As you're looking at your health and fitness options, you often need to choose between doing things the old-school way and the modern way. But how important is each variable to your overall health?
To clear things up, let's play a game called Fit, Fine, or Fat.
FIT means low body fat with good muscle tone.
FINE means you're not in tip-top shape, but look good in clothes and aren't carrying around a lot of excess weight.
FAT means you're carrying significant amounts of body fat and are in poor physical condition.
We'll run through the different permutations of diet, work, and exercise and see what comes out!
A. Old-school diet, old-school work, old-school exercise.
You eat wholesome handmade food. Your work keeps you on your feet, and you do gentle exercise as time allows. If you keep everything old-school, you're going to be FINE. You're going to look a lot like the people in the first photo, not too heavy but also not particularly in-shape.
B. Modern diet, modern work, modern exercise.
This would be the person who eats poorly, works at a desk, but hits the gym hard in an effort to stay healthy. If you do everything the new way, you're going to be FAT. The reality is, if you're eating a lot of modern processed food and not spending hours a day on your feet moving at work, it doesn't matter how hard you go at the gym, you're going to lose the battle and come out worse each year. That's how potent modern food is.
C. Old-school diet, modern-work, old-school exercise.
You eat real food, you work in an office, and you try to do something active every day. You're going to be FINE. It doesn't matter that your job has you sitting all day long, if you're avoiding those modern foods and getting the bare minimum of exercise, you're not going to get in too much trouble!
D. Modern-diet, old-school work, old-school exercise.
This might be someone who eats poorly but spends their day doing manual labor. This person will be FINE. The only thing that can compete with the modern diet is a working life that has you moving for 8-12 hours a day. And despite all that work, you'll only have average fitness, that's how much the food sets you back.
E. Old-school diet, modern work, modern exercise.
This is someone who eats right, works a desk job, but hits their modern workouts hard throughout the week. This person will be FIT. Your desk job doesn't spell doom for you. If you stick to eating fresh, non-processed foods that are prepared by hand, and just add a few hours of intense workouts, you're going to look and feel great, despite spending hours a day in front of a screen.
F. Old-school diet, old-school work, modern exercise.
This is the recipe for someone being super FIT. You eat clean, your job keeps you on your feet and using your body, and you back that up with a concentrated workout routine. You can find a lot of these people in active, outdoor jobs. Adventure sport instructors, lifeguards, soldiers, firefighters, that kind of thing. And of course you have the whole world of professional athletes, models, and actors, who are paid to spend hours a day working on their fitness.
I know that we're painting with the broadest strokes here, but I hope this exercise puts some things into perspective for you.
1. Food is THE MOST IMPORTANT PART of your fitness. Nothing else comes close.
2. Don't compare yourself too harshly against people who have a different life situation. If you're sitting at a desk all day but comparing your physique to a pro-surfer you're going to come out feeling bad about yourself. Make the most of your current set-up, starting with your food! And when life gives you the chance to be more active, take it.
3. You don't have to kill yourself with modern style sets and reps exercise to look good. But you do have to get in that daily old-school exercise and keep your diet in check.
4. Modern exercise IS highly effective for getting fitness results, but only in the context of a healthy diet.
Thanks for playing Fit, Fine, or Fat with me! Think about these patterns in your own life and the lives of the people near you, you'll start to see the underlying order behind why we look the way we do!