Heavy Breathing —
On the /r/AskHAES subreddit, there was a follow-up question to an earlier thread where trolls and twits made the case that only certain people may lay claim to the title of athlete. For example, this guy said, “Look, there can be no more even-handed test of fitness than to say to a group of people, ‘run this distance,’ ‘lift this weight,’ or ‘perform this physical activity’ and then see who does it fastest, or who does the most weight.”
Aaaaah, fitness elitists. Ya gotta love ‘em.
It’s a ridiculous and short-sighted definition of fitness since there are genetic limits to the effects of training which are revealed by the law of diminishing returns in some aspiring athletes. I’ve written about the genetic influence on both fat and muscle development before, but in short, your ability to build muscle or store fat depends upon some things called the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors, or PPARs. There are three PPARs that effect various forms of metabolism and storage: alpha (lipid metabolism), gamma (fat storage and glucose metabolism) and delta (oxidative metabolism).
How well your muscles respond to training depends in part on your genetic inheritance with regard PPAR-delta, which improves your body’s ability to break down fat for fast energy. If you want to “rev up” your metabolism, you could genetically alter this pathway such that your muscles use burn your fat more efficiently and they perform better as a result.
In fact, during the 2003 Howard Hughes Medical Institute lecture series, Dr. Ronald Evans of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies explained how he and his team created a genetically-modified mouse with a revved up PPAR-delta receptor. Then they put the modified mouse on a treadmill beside a normal, wild mouse. The results were astonishing. After 90 minutes, the wild mouse gave up, while the modified mouse continued.
[T]he revved-up PPAR-delta mouse did something rather remarkable. He kept running on that treadmill for another hour — vastly more than we had ever expected in his very first run. So this basically was a genetically engineered long-distance runner. It was an awesome change. Usually in science, we expect changes of 5% or 10% if we’re lucky.
Now, this isn’t to say that genetics makes it impossible for someone to become a weightlifter or a long-distance runner. It can, however, limit the success you have at any particular sport. Take two people, Bob and Phil, and have them train for the same marathon at the same time, and they will each get different times. Yes, if Bob continue training for marathons, he can improve his time, but Bob will still never be as fast as Phil. And that’s okay.
This first exchange about fat athletes got mired down by a bunch of trolls looking to mock the idea that some fat people actually exercise, and to scoff at the idea that Kelly Gneiting “ran” the LA Marathon because it took him just under 10 hours, improving his time since his first marathon by two hours.
This second exchange starts out on a far better foot, in my opinion, by asking the definition of an athlete, rather than asking for the names of fat athletes and laughing at all the answers. I felt like my response gave a fair baseline for discussion:
Let’s go back to basics and define “athlete.” Meriam Webster:
A person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina
The key there is “trained or skilled.” Not “trained and skilled.” There are good athletes and bad athletes in any sport, but even the weakest person who is training is still an athlete, right? There’s no cut-off for skill to call yourself an athlete. If your sport is running, and you run on a regular basis to train for that sport, even if you’re slower than shit and couldn’t win a race to save your life, you are still being athletic.
I stand by this definition. To say that the only people who get to call themselves athletes are the strongest/fastest/best in their class is some elitist fucking bullshit. And it’s the kind of elitist fucking bullshit that intimidates people from pursuing any kind of athletic goals at all.
Recently, I decided that I would try and train for one of those vertical marathons where you climb a shitload of stairs. The one I’m doing is called the Fight for Air Climb, or Master the Met, named after the Met building in St. Louis where it’s held. I would never, ever in my life do a real marathon because I hate running with a passion (if I have to go to hell, I will no doubt be forced to “pound the pavement” for eternity). But climbing 40 flights? I thought I could do that.
I began by using the Stairmaster at my gym instead of the elliptical, and I discovered that while I can get my heart rate up to about 75%-80% of max heart rate and keep it there forever, I got my ass handed to me after four minutes of stairs. I could tell my heart rate was significantly higher than on the elliptical, and my moderate pace resulted in gasping for air and sweating like Oscar Bluth in a sweat lodge. On the plus side, I tackled 14 flights on my first try.
My curiosity piqued, I returned to the Stairmaster two days later and tried again. This time, I did 20 flights. And each time I returned, my breathing became less pronounced and my sweating less profuse. But I was still gasping and secreting because that’s what exercise does to the body. And yet, I found that I was a bit self-conscious about all the noise and moisture emanating from me because, hey, fat guy on the Stairmaster looks like he’s dyin’.
But I was determined to continue my training, and when I was selected for jury duty a month ago, I began taking the steps up the five flights to the jury room since the elevator in the county courthouse was set on “glacier” speed. Imagine my surprise when just 5 flights of real stairs kicked my ass as much as my first 14 flights on the Stairmaster.
So, I’m in the stairwell, wheezing like an asthmatic on Mad Men, and I’m still feeling weirdly self-conscious because, hey, fat guy in the stairwell having a cardiac arrest.
But I kept doing it because I want to know what my body is capable of.
Last week, I finally got up the nerve to start training in the stairwell at my 16-story office building. I’ve now climbed eight flights of stairs three times, and the last time I timed myself at around two minutes. Yes, all three times, ended with me gasping and wheezing, albeit with less intensity and a faster recovery each time.
I plan to continue challenging myself to do more real stairs for the climb next March, but I’ve become increasingly optimistic about my chances of being able to tackle 40 flights. In fact, yesterday, after my third climb, I noticed that my calf and thigh muscles felt like that were at that stage where you can feel them getting stronger, tighter and bigger. It’s the stage when you can physically feel your training paying off, and I love that feeling. I also love the feeling of sweat drying on my skin.
There are tons of benefits from exercising on top of improved health, and these are the things that motivate me to keep going, not whether I will be the best stairclimber ever.
I checked this year’s results and found that the fastest climb was just over 4 minutes, while the longest climb was 45 minutes. The median is around 10 minutes. According to the dictionary, I’m an athlete because I’m training in an exercise that requires physical strength and stamina. According to critics on AskHAES, the best proof of fitness is whether you’re the best. So, is there a finishing time at which my athletic attempt goes from being illegitimate to legitimate fitness? Am I only considered an athlete if I beat the median? And who sets the bar for defining athleticism and fitness?
Personally, I don’t refer to myself as an athlete because I don’t think of climbing stairs as an athletic pursuit. I guess I’m biased toward thinking of athletes as those who participate in traditional sports. But that’s the great thing about labels: you can apply them however the hell you want, and it’s nobody’s damned business but your own.
In the second reddit question, the OP asks if an otherwise sedentary guy who walks his dog is considered an athlete. I think the more pertinent question is whether that guy would call himself an athlete. Are there really people out there who are sedentary except for walking their dog, and who go around telling people that they’re athletes? Is this a problem we need to solve? Because I’m pretty sure we can all handle the process of labeling ourselves as athletes or not.
Might I suggest that we stop assuming that we, as outsiders, get to determine the labels we think others deserve? Can’t we stop dismissing those who are consistently training their bodies to achieve great feats simply because they don’t look the way you want them to? And can we please stop basing the concepts of fitness and health on one’s personal skill and competitive achievement, and instead ground our understanding of these concepts in the more relevant realms of physical effort and personal improvement?