Risk Managed out of Health & Fitness

Today’s post is written by Dr. Lon Kilgore, research leader and senior lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland and co-author of FIT, a no-nonsense book on effective fitness that we wrote with Dr. Michael Hartman.

Risk Managed out of Health & Fitness
by Dr. Lon Kilgore

I was recently told by a university administrator that I wasn’t allowed to move classroom desks (weighing in at a whopping 5kg) as it was a health and safety issue. Apparently, as a faculty member, I’m not trained or qualified to safely move physical objects of any mass greater than a dry erase marker. If I was to be injured moving something as simple schoolroom chair, I would not be eligible for sick leave benefits.

The basic principle this illustrates is that we live in an aggressively and progressively risk averse world. The fear is upon us. The fear of risk exposure, the fear of litigation, the fear of failure, the fear of injury, the fear of disease, and the fear of pain. I should say that the fear is thrust upon us by those who believe they know what is best for us; politicians, lobbyists, law enforcement, professional organizations, lawyers, clinicians, insurance companies, the press, and even our neighbors.

So how does fear and risk management relate to compromised health and fitness?

Let’s look first at one well known example of health & safety measures inducing an unintended health result. We’ve all been told since we were kids don’t put that in your mouth, keep out of that mud puddle, don’t get dirty, you touched that so go wash your hands, and more. We have become an overwhelmingly clean society, afraid to touch anything resembling dirt or to be dirty in order to not be infected by the reportedly rampant germs present everywhere. But that is supposed to be good isn’t it? Cleanliness, that is. Yes, it assists in reducing disease transmission. Keeping equipment, mats, and floors clean absolutely helps prevent gym outbreaks of staphylococcus aureus and other contact transmissible pathogen infections. BUT an unintended effect of clean is that our kids, well, all of us are no longer exposed to environmental allergens, the things that were in the dirt (but weren’t germs), the dirt we were supposed to avoid or clean away to keep healthy. We all know the concept of biological adaptation elucidated by Selye or more famously recognized in Neitsche’s “that which does not destroy me makes me stronger” quote. To become more survivable we have to be exposed to a homeostatic disruption (that’s how vaccinations work). In the case of a super clean society, the absent exposure to allergens has resulted in a maladaptation, asthma. The being too clean or hygiene hypothesis has been around for a while and hasn’t really been broadly accepted as it doesn’t seem to fit with our concept that sterile environments are safe and healthy, preventing infection and allergy (think of all the hygiene signs and regulations of which you are aware). But very new data just published in Science suggests that childhood exposure to pathogens and allergens reduce the life-long inventory of invariant natural killer cells in the body, having many of these cells is linked to asthma and inflammatory bowel disease. We have developed as a culture to assume that we are managing the risk of infection in our children’s health by bringing them up with virtually no exposure to “dirt”, but when we are never required to adapt physiologically to our environment, we are setting up conditions prime for development of auto-immune pathologies … unless we want to be the boy in the bubble.

Getting back to the fitness aspect, this same principle of lack of exposure exists in the fitness arena as well. I can’t move a 5kg chair at work by regulation. Skateboarding, BMX biking, and Parkour are illegal by most urban codes as they pose a risk to health and safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics, while acknowledging the large benefits of children training with weights, and while acknowledging that data suggests that it is healthy and much safer than average exercise, recommends against powerlifting, weightlifting, bodybuilding, high intensity, and progressive training for those same children as they may be at increased risk of injury (even though they acknowledge there is no data to support this position).

Everywhere we turn, someone or some group with incomplete information and who is very short sighted has placed a limitation, regulation, or practical barrier to being physically active as part of our work and play. Ostensibly, this is because they believe they are protecting us from ourselves, who apparently want to act irresponsibly by being physically active or by just doing our jobs. In the context of preventing us from being physically active, they have done the opposite. No physical activity means that we cannot adapt to the stress of our occupation, of daily life, or towards supporting a health recreational life. In a very practical sense, risk management and safety policies, operations, and conventions seem to be functioning counter to their intent in respect to what a prohibitive approach does to the physiology of the human body.

What’s the solution? Anarchy? Civil disobedience? Occupy? Protest? Political Action?

Probably the best solution is to simply get to the gym … planned and progressive exercise is much better and more efficient at reaping the physiological and health benefits we want than randomly placed physical activity within a workday.

20 thoughts on “Risk Managed out of Health & Fitness

  1. Well said. Here’s the insane passage from the American Academy of Pediatrics he refers to:

    “Prepubertal youngsters are involved in competitive weightlifting, but philosophies often vary between Western nations and Eastern European nations.35 Limited research on weightlifting as a sport has revealed that children have participated with few injuries,35–37 and some programs have low rates of injury because they require stringent learning of techniques before adding any weight. As with general strength training, strict supervision and adherence to proper technique are mandatory for reducing the risk for injury. Clearly, this is an area in which more research is necessary to substantiate low injury rates as more youngsters continue to be involved with competitive weightlifting. Because of the limited research regarding prepubertal injury rates in competitive weightlifting, the AAP remains hesitant to support participation by children who are skeletally immature and is opposed to childhood involvement in power lifting, body building, or use of the 1-repetition maximum lift as a way to determine gains in strength.”

    So, the data we have points to low injury rates, but, uh, we think it’s dangerous.


  2. I grew up playing outside all the time, eating dirt, not giving a care to anything cleanliness-related. Still to this day I don’t wash my hands just cuz I touch my dick. I’m not scared of keeping my immune system working. I haven’t been sick in 11 years (I had the flu when I was 15), not even the sniffles since then. And I’ve worked with sick people for the past 5 years (paramedic). I have no food or environmental allergies. So it’s settled. My kids will lift heavy shit covered in mud and germs.

  3. Good stuff. If I had a penny for every diet and/or exercise fad that gets really obnoxious and popular despite having no factual evidence I’d be a very rich man.

  4. Great post. My son is 10 years old, about 6 inches taller than everyone else his age and weighs in at a slightly doughy 150 pounds, but not yet like crazy obese ‘break a sweat getting out of a chair’ kind of fat. His doctors think he needs to lose weight (so do i). I had him doings some crossfit type stuff when i was still drinking the koolaid a couple of years ago, and he actually was enjoying it and his body comp. was getting better. I’ve been wanting to show him some oly lifting stuff for a while now. But of course his pediatritian and his football coach told my wife that was a terrible idea and it would stunt his growth. So now he refuses to even let me show him technique w/ a wooden broomstick. Oh yeah, did i mention that my wife thinks all will be solved with endless cardio?

  5. @becker tell her she has 6 weeks to have him do cardio and show a change. Then when that fails, put him on a good strength program with a short finisher that gets him going (sprints after works well). You’ll get results from that in 6 weeks for sure, if he is eating quality food.

  6. Funnily enough, I’m an administrator at a UK university and we pretty much have to do all our manual handling ourselves since they laid off all the porters.
    Got my first aid at work certificate a few weeks ago, and the NHS rep did actually bring up the point about the unintended consequence of a clean society, so I think that is being noted in official health circles but I guess it will take a while until anything results from it, if indeed it ever does.

  7. I was eating my paleo lunch in the break room at work today. A woman who works in the same facility as I came up to me and asked me if I was going to “eat all that meat” I said “its only two lbs and I’m breaking it into two meals, I really should have at least three lbs for two meals” she was appalled and told me not to eat it all because of all the cholesterol. I then took a big bite of delicious ground beef. And she went and and ate two fucking lean hot pockets. I bet I’m gonna die of heart disease wayyy before she is.

  8. I’ve been working with kids for a few years now and the trend towards a soft, protected life is worse than ever. Smart kids aren’t getting the full benefit of the world around them, cuz someone said it’s “too dangerous”. I was 8 when I got my first knife as a present. First thing I did was slice my thumb open, right to the bone. Have I done that since? Goodness, no, but I can’t promise you the 17 year old I tutor won’t make the same mistake. Sharpest thing he knows is a wii and you can bet he’s never going to pick up a barbell.
    Anyway, thought you’d like this video on kids’ safety: http://www.ted.com/talks/gever_tulley_on_5_dangerous_things_for_kids.html

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  11. Great post and I couldn’t agree more. But, as far as being prohibited from doing things at work- it’s not just the employers being overly cautious about preventing injury, it is also the fact that the same ‘weak’ people who then get injured and file a law suit. Besides the insurance premiums, it ends up costing a lot more to fight or settle out of court. As usual, we can thank lawyers for ruining life as we know it.

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