The Real Purpose of Health and Fitness Certifications

People often critique exam based certifications like the CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) that lack a practical component. Critics say “you just need practical experience” and “it’s just a title”. I think these critics misunderstand the purpose of these certs. Here we’ll look at the purpose of these certs (next time we’ll talk about the limitations).

Exam based certs like the CSCS are a structured, standardized way to learn foundational, didactic knowledge in health and fitness. This serves several crucial roles:

1. Foundational knowledge makes practical experience more valuable

Imagine Jimmy, an aspiring strength and conditioning coach. Jimmy believes all that matters is practical experience. He walks into a gym and says “I want practical experience, can you mentor me?”. The coach says “Great Jimmy, come along and watch. Today my athlete is doing a squat workout; 3 sets of 5 at 80% 1 RM”. Jimmy is quite confused; what’s a squat? , what’s a set?, what’s a rep?, what’s an “RM”? The coach proceeds to define each term and explain basic principles of strength and conditioning…

As we can see without foundational knowledge, the valuable time of a practical experience would be frittered away passing on knowledge that the student could have learned on their own. The practical experience is the time to see foundational knowledge applied, not to learn it.  

2. Foundational knowledge is crucial to understand and apply scientific literature

Similar to practical experience, having foundational knowledge equips you to take advantage of scientific literature in the field. If you are reading a research paper but don’t know basic terms and principles, it would be nearly impossible to understand and apply that research. And with the plethora of health and fitness gurus promoting “cutting edge” workout routines and nutrition supplements, having foundational knowledge and reading research helps you verify claims.

3. Foundational knowledge lets you think for yourself (instead of just copying gurus)

Suppose a coach mostly does “fives” (sets of five) with athletes. Their apprentice who has no knowledge of loading parameters might just assume, “Well, in strength training we do ‘fives”. The apprentice who doesn’t understand the principles that inform that choice has to follow their guru’s advice. That person cannot adapt a training program to different athletes at different times. Ultimately, this person will be unable to modify and create programs.

Foundational knowledge is necessary to optimize practical experiences, use scientific literature, and think for yourself. It is necessary, but not sufficient. Of course, a certification is not the only way to learn and there are certifications that teach low quality information.

Having foundational knowledge in health and fitness doesn’t “make you a coach”, but it does set you up to become one.

Is Daily Practice Important? Why We Need to “Load the System”

I broke my DuoLingo streak. While studying for the PT licensure exam, I used DuoLingo as part of my Spanish training. Every day, I would hop on the app and do the exercises to hit my daily XP requirements. I built up a 45 day streak. Yet I retained little to nothing from these exercises (despite accumulating almost 2 hours per week). So I deleted the app and broke the streak.

I had been fixated on this idea that I needed to practice every single day. DuoLingo states that “15 minutes a day can teach you a language”. And many people online stress the importance of daily training: exercise, mindfulness training (meditation), etc.

However, if we are overly focused on daily training, we can run into a few issues:

First, adherence can be difficult because there is usually a cost to switching tasks (i.e. to exercise you have to put on exercise clothes, warmup, etc.) Second, sometimes life happens and we don’t get to practice. So we may feel we are failing since we’re not keeping our daily streak. Lastly, certain types of training actually benefit from not being performed daily. For example, most often people lift weights intensely 2-4 days per week. Lifting weights daily can make it harder to bring the necessary level of intensity (i.e. due to motivation, fatigue etc). Training too often can be ineffective and/or impractical.

So what is the alternative to daily training? We need to “load the system” with deeper, more intense sessions. A basic principle of biological systems, like us humans, is that stressors (challenges) promote adaptations. When a person lifts a heavy load they feel tired Their muscles, bones, and tendons have been stressed. They have “loaded the system”. That load provokes an adaptation to get stronger. Now they can lift the same heavy load with less effort.

Similarly, with other types of training we need to “load system”. For example, in language learning we need to reach that point of being challenged in order to progress. When I went to Argentina for a short trip, I thought I would practice a lot of Spanish. I did. However, the conversations were mostly less than 10 minutes and therefore not challenging. When first meeting someone, the conversations are mostly small talk, “what do you do, where are you from, etc”. Only after the 10-15 minute mark do you really get to discuss more in depth topics. And that depth is challenging, which is where the growth happens.

All this being said, daily “low load” training is still beneficial. For example, in addition to lifting weights a few times per week, walking daily is excellent for your health. In language learning, daily immersion is useful in addition to having challenging conversations.

Note that there is a minimum frequency needed for training. For example, although lifting weights for 1 hour, 3 times a week is beneficial, it would be ineffective to lift weights for 3 hours straight, once per week.

In short, not all training needs to be done daily. Rather we need to ensure we “load the system” by working at our limits.

You Are Not Your Grad Program

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.”

― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

I’d like to add to that list, “You are not your grad program.” My choice to enter PT school came after a brief career in engineering, so I had a sense of “this is it, I’ve gotta make this work” when I started PT school. During my first summer in gross anatomy, school was the sole focus of my life. I socialized very little. I did almost everything in relation to school-I focused on quality sleep, exercise and good nutrition to enhance academic performance. I had no real hobbies outside of school. During that summer, I occasionally visited my family to recharge but would otherwise go days without calling because I was “too busy” with studying and needed to focus. As I became more focused on school, my performance on each test became of utmost importance. Doing well on a test, meant it was a great day. Performing poorly, would mean frustration and angrily analyzing why I didn’t perform well.

Once anatomy was finished I picked my head up and realized how much I had missed that summer. I hadn’t really explored the new city I found myself in. I had missed great social opportunities. I had made no progress in the gym. Most concerning of all was when I visited friends back home. In conversation, I mostly just talked about PT school. Of course, grad school is a big investment of time, money, and emotional energy-but my identity had become centered around grad school. I looked ahead to the next 3 years of grad school and thought “I cannot just be a PT student for the next 3 years”.

So over the next year I started building up a life again. I actually said “yes” to social opportunities. I started strength training. I picked up sports like volleyball. And somehow my grades stayed about the same (and no I didn’t sacrifice sleep). I realized a few crucial things:

1. The difference between an 89.5% as a B and getting a 90.0% as an A really wouldn’t matter in the clinic after graduating.

2. Diversifying my identity put school in perspective and dramatically reduced the stress of each test, quiz, or project. Which ironically improved my grades, but with less time studying.

3. PT school and my career are long term commitments, so the only sustainable option to thrive long term is to maintain the other areas of life.

Going to grad school and/or having a career I care about is rewarding and an opportunity I am incredibly grateful for. However, career is only a single dimension of a meaningful life-there are parts of us that our careers will never fulfill.


The Seesaw of Serendipity and Drive

Confused. What better way to feel on a Friday after work. Coming home from work I didn’t know what to do. So, I started changing clothes for the gym. Next stop, the gym and then…

A sort of emptiness started filling my mind. I had no obligations that evening. I had achieved all I wanted to for the week. Larger recent life events: got my undergraduate degree, got a great job, and began work towards new dreams outside of work. My life is going in a direction I want. Yet the empty feeling persisted.

I have been known to get busy and “productive” to defer that empty feeling. That confusing yet strong feeling that I have diagnosed as PES (Post-achievement Emptiness Syndrome): the inability to engage in activities just for fun, often the result of focusing excessively on achievements. I didn’t want to work, but I had forgotten how to play.

So I started watching Youtube videos about business and fitness. After a few videos I thought about a trip I had a few months before…

My first trip to Spain reminded me of a forgotten attitude. The child’s attitude. That mindset of wandering with curiosity and embracing whatever happens. Travel and other non-achievement oriented activities are the perfect way to rekindle this mindset. I don’t mean traveling with a list of the “must sees” or packing each day full of adventures. In fact, I took the exact opposite approach on a recent trip and had one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

We were going to Spain after graduation. But I was poorly “prepared” for the trip. I knew about 15 Spanish words (10 of which were numbers), I hadn’t researched the “must sees”, and hadn’t looked into hotels (we actually had only booked 4 nights of the 14 day trip). A sense uneasiness set in as I boarded the plane with so much uncertainty ahead.

Upon arrival in Spain it was hard to get into that child like mindset.* When you have deadlines, meetings, and classes 7 days a week it can be hard to adjust to having zero commitments. It worried me slightly that we didn’t have all our hotels booked and that we had no planned activities, would this trip be a waste?

On a train out of Madrid we looked over cities to visit and impulsively chose Sevilla, which turned out to be the highlight of the trip. Sevilla has the variety of options typical of a city, while maintaining the hospitality and warmth of a small town. Also, it turned out the hotel had its own inexpensive bike rental service. And the city happened to have recently finished a tourist bike path. And the city is known for its amazing food. I didn’t even know this city existed until 2 days before we got there.

So where does this musing about Spain and my eccentric Friday evening leave us? The recognition of 2 forces that must be balanced in life; drive and serendipity. We need drive to dream and work towards future achievements. However, we also need serendipity to wander, play, and embrace whatever experiences lie before us. The only problem is that in the modern world, drive is overemphasized to the point that we forget serendipity. Think about mainstream Western schooling. For 8 hours a day, enthusiastic children are forced to sit through a series of regimented learning activities. Even P.E., art, and music are highly structured classes. After school, many kids are ushered into sports practices. Finally, at night they do homework. Lunch and recess only offer a brief time to play for most kids. A similar pattern follows in most jobs. Now this is not say our jobs and school system are completely broken, but they need to allow for more wandering and play.

 Serendipity is not just important, it is necessary. This force helps us:

  1. Develop a childlike curiosity for the world, crucial to creativity and learning.
  2. Be inspired and infuse passion into life.
  3. Prevent burnout due to being in drive mode for too long.

So just play. Stare at the sky. Take a walk. Forget having a reason or purpose. Let the waves of life wash over you like when you were a kid at the beach.

*Note this is a repost from August 2015 from a previous blog I ran.


Recommended Further Reading:

Leo Baubata’s The Place Where You Are

Charlie Hoehn’s Preventing Burnout: A Cautionary Tale

Why We Need Some Stress, But Not Too Much

“Much of modern life is preventable chronic stress injury.” -Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nowadays stress seems to be as bad as sugar, inflammation, and gluten. It is something we need to “cure” with meditation? Or is there such a thing as good stress? And how much is too much?

I realized there is such a thing good stress after reading Nassim’s Taleb Antifragile. Taleb discusses show there are positive acute stressors which strengthen us and negative chronic stressors which weaken us.

For example, if you place 300 lbs on your back and squat 10 times and wait a week, you will be able to lift 302 lbs. The stressor of the added weight has caused you to overcompensate and be able to lift more than 300 lbs. However, there is a limit to how much stress we can take. If you take 3,000 lb and try to squat it 1 time, you will be crushed under the weight. So with acute stressors, such as exercise, the dosage must be right along with the recovery time. Unfortunately, recovery is under appreciated, but this is when the response to a stressor occurs! Consider, that many of the performance enhancing drugs used by athletes are meant to accelerate recovery so the athlete can train again, more intensely.

Acute stressors not only make us stronger, but when deprived of acute stressors we become weaker. Most people have heard that while in space astronauts lose significant bone mass, connective tissue integrity, and muscle mass. These negative effects occur because they lack the stress of weight bearing activity on Earth.

On the other hand, there are other chronic stressors, which gradually wear us down. These include daily traffic, exam pressures, and 24 hour negative news cycles.

So in general we need to 1. Eliminate the damage from chronic stressors, 2. Add healthy acute stressors, and 3. Enhance recovery from these stressors. 

We regularly need to experience acute stressors such as:
-Intense heat exposure, such as a sauna
-Intense exercise (such as interval training or heavy strength straining)

And reduce chronic stressors such as:
-Sitting in traffic
-Financial worries due to a high cost lifestyle (i.e. mortgage, fancy car, a boat, beach house, etc.)
-Constant consumption of negative news
Sitting excessively (this creates excess stress on areas such as the low back and neck)

And enhance recovery from stressors with methods like:
-Acupuncture, massage, or even self care tools like the Nayoya Acupressure mat
High quality, sufficient sleep-this is likely the most important recovery tool.
“Forest bathing”: this is a practice coined by the Japanese which is essentially taking a walk in nature. A 2011 study found that walking in a forest actually led to a larger decrease in blood pressure and stress hormones, than a walk in the city.

Management of stress is not just for today-it may be the most important tool to help us stay functional into old age. Although we may not be quite as sharp and strong as when we were in our 20’s, I am skeptical that old age must be a slow decay towards death.

“We observe old people and we see them age, so we associate aging with their loss of muscle mass, bone weakness, loss of mental function, taste for Frank Sinatra music, and similar degenerative effects. But these failures to self-repair come largely from maladjustment-either too few stressors or too little time for recovery between them”. -Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb