Could Your Fitness Save You in a Crisis?

By on March 12, 2021

Most of the time, you have no need to be any fitter than you already are. I know this because you are alive and hearing/reading this! We have adapted to our environments and that’s fine.

But problems occur when that environment changes in a rapid and unpredictable manner. Catastrophic damage occurs when the environment changes faster than the organism can adapt. That’s why it pays to be fit enough not only for every day life, but for the unexpected events that could happen.

Are you fit enough if you crash land on a desert island? Are you fit enough when someone breaks into your home? How about if a friend injures themselves when you’re out on a hike? Or if you fall and find yourself stranded on a cliff ledge?

Weighted Pull Ups

What about the ever-present danger of a zombie apocalypse? Or an alien invasion, which I’ve always thought is way scarier…

Or worse yet, what if someone asks you to help them move home?

These are just silly scenarios for the most part, but they do provide a useful thought experiment. They force us to reflect on our training and ask whether it is truly offering the most benefit to our overall performance.

Carrying to Safety

Following are some basic capabilities that I think everyone should train for. Of course, physical or mental handicaps may mean these traits aren’t available to everyone. And the list is by no means comprehensive.

But hopefully they might provide a useful framework through which to view training and some goals to aspire to. Oh, and notice how nearly half these traits are examples of cognitive fitness. That’s JUST as important as physical prowess.

Can You…

Remain Calm

The first thing that will determine your usefulness in nearly any emergency, will be your ability to remain calm. You might be injured, scared, or upset – but you need to re-center and focus if you’re going to rally others and come up with a useful plan of action. In fact, remaining calm can even help you to become more resourceful and creative. This may present solutions that otherwise elude you. This has been shown in studies, where a more relaxed approach to problem-solving allowed the participants to overcome the cognitive bias functional fixedness (study).

Focus

How do we train for this? It turns out that meditation is a powerful tool for improving emotional awareness and control. By practicing focus, we can choose not to focus on feelings of anxiety or despair. Interestingly, at least one study suggests that practicing any form of extended focus can have a similar effect – even rehearsing mental math (study).

You can also desensitize yourself to stress to a certain degree. This is something that special operations training focusses heavily on. Exercises like the hooded box test train decision making in high-pressure situations. Recruitment, too, often focusses on selecting those that demonstrate an ability to remain calm under fire. Studies suggest successful candidates and high-level athletes may actually produce more DHEA and neuropeptide Y; neurochemicals that buffer the effect of cortisol in the hippocampus.

We can likewise expose ourselves to stress via cold showers, training outdoors, and pushing ourselves physically to develop mental toughness. See: David Goggins.

React Quickly

In a recent post, I discussed topics such as sports vision, visual processing, and attentional blindness. We saw that, by training the working memory and using tools like 3D object tracking tasks, it is possible to increase awareness of the visual field. These skills are likewise developed by certain team sports and those athletes may supplement this training with drills involving a reaction ball. Juggling is a great skill that we can all use for similar benefit.

Train reflexes and peripheral vision

This can be the difference between getting sucker punched, or gracefully dodging a hazard. The difference between reacting to a pedestrian stepping out into the road in time or not.

Likewise, exercises like the Simon Task can help us to improve processing for decision making. We can even train sound localization and proprioception, to create a more complete, multisensory picture of the world around us.

Lift and Carry a Heavy Object

Lifting an object is a useful ability, whether that means lifting an obstacle, or moving an injured ally. But in most scenarios where you must lift something, you also need to move it some distance. Even if you are just moving something that is blocking your path, you still must lift it and then heave it to one side. More often, you will need to walk with said object.

Farmers Walk

Strength endurance is as important as max strength then, as is the core stability and hip stability necessary to move while under a heavy load. Moreover, we must be able to lift uncooperative objects at awkward angles. We can train this by lifting sandbags, kettlebells, and Bulgarian bags: weights that shift and move and that make the challenge slightly different every time. Better yet, we can do it by climbing ropes, picking up logs, and pulling up on tree branches. We can use farmers’ walks and loaded carries to practice travelling with those weights.

This is what Nicolai Bernstein referred to as “repetition without repetition” and it is what builds robust motor patterns: such that we are not strong and capable in just one highly refined and sterile range. Lifting logs build grip and supporting muscles not trained in the gym.

Run Far

The first rule of Zombie Land is “cardio.” This is actually a very realistic first rule, given that the ability to outrun danger would probably correlate pretty directly with your chances of survival. The ability to run a long way also suggests good cardiovascular fitness/VO2 max generally.

Loaded carries

Nothing replaces steady state cardio when it comes to improving that kind of endurance. Humans are built to run – so this should form a part of any complete training program. Better yet, we should run on varied terrain so as to create a more dynamic skill that won’t be as likely to cause IT band pain and other problems.

See also: Why Everyone Should Run (Like Bruce Lee)

Run Fast

The ability to outrun danger is one of the most crucial for surviving a catastrophe, whether that’s outrunning a fire or a missed bus. Sometimes, that means moving very quickly from point A to point B, which is a full-body movement that requires a strong core, hip stabilization, ankle stiffness, and explosive power.

Run like Sonic

This is a fundamental human skill and yet it is something that many of us never practice once we stop playing sports.

Traverse Any Terrain

Humans should be able to traverse any kind of terrain they might encounter. That also means being able to move vertically up trees, over walls, or onto boulders and cliff faces.

There are several exercises you can use to improve climbing skill. Rope climbs, muscle ups, and Pavel Tsatsouline’s tactical pull up all mimic that mounting motion. Of course, nothing beats actual rock climbing which also trains the grip to a tremendous degree!

Likewise, everyone who is able should learn to swim. We should be able to cross any type of terrain, including water.

Climb

Another aspect relating to traversal is your equilibrioception. Can you balance along a thin beam? Can you remain upright as the world is crashing down around you?

Maybe it’s time to lighten that load and focus more on bar speed.

Finally, we must be able to jump. What’s important here is strength to weight ratio. It’s of no use being incredibly strong if you are so heavy you can’t climb the stairs or perform a pull up. If you can squat a huge amount of weight but can’t jump, maybe it’s time to lighten that load and focus more on bar speed?

Maybe it’s time to try lifting that weight on one leg – which is how we more often propel ourselves.

Lunge Walking

Running, climbing, and jumping gives us more options for three-dimensional movement in any environment. It literally increases your physical freedom and creates new escape routes and vantage points.

Find Your Way

Navigation might seem like an odd trait to include here. It is certainly something I need to work on myself. But this is also a fundamental human capacity and one that was once crucial to our survival. The structure of our memory is tied very closely to this crucial ability. As seen in the “method of loci,” a mnemonic memory technique that actually relies on our ability to remember routes.

Breath of the WIld

There are countless modern situations, too, where survival hinges on navigation. We can’t always rely on our phones – which may actually dull our internal compass like an atrophied muscle.

Thankfully, this is once again something that can be trained! Interestingly, increasing testosterone may even enhance our internal compass (study).

Also fascinating is the possibility of in-built magnetoreception in humans: the ability to sense direction based on the Earth’s natural magnetic fields (study). It is hypothesized that many of us lose this ability due to lack of use.

Remember Details

Likewise, the ability to retain and retrieve information is often fundamental. Forgetting that crucial detail can be the difference between life and death. Are you capable of being in the moment? Of thinking clearly?

What’s often just as important as recall is prospective memory: remembering to remember. This becomes especially difficult if you are in a rush, or under a lot of stress.

Sherlock Mind Palace

Prospective memory can be trained. We can train this by setting ourselves arbitrary tasks for the day and then grading our performance. This has been demonstrated in a number of studies (study).

Communicate, Negotiate, and Lead

Soft skills such as persuasion, negotiation, building trust, and blending in are likewise called upon in countless scenarios. These are useful in everyday life, when discussing your salary or trying to make a strong first impression. But they could also be critical in a hostage situation, or when trying to talk down an assailant.

Soft skills

These skills are coveted by the CIA and are trained with drills like “perfect stranger.” According to The Big Breach, by ex-MI6 agent Richard Thomlinson, this exercise involves trying to get the name, contact details, and passport number of a random person in a pub simply by talking to them.

Could you do it?

See also: CIA/MI6 Soft Skills – Training Like Bond and Bourne

Of course, leadership is another soft skill that becomes extremely important in a crisis. As is empathy, kindness, and generosity.

Remain Focussed (Psychomotor Vigilance)

Focus is a critical gateway to many of the traits we’ve explored so far. Focus is crucial for reactions, for balance, for memory, for emotional control, and so much more. Again, focus can be trained like a muscle but is overlooked by many.

Ultra Instinct Goku

Once again, we can train focus with meditation. Focus can also be heightened in the moment if we can achieve a state of flow: calm-yet-aroused attention that employs all faculties toward the task at hand. This is not a panacea but simply the result of being able to focus 100%. It may correspond with reduced dynamic functional connectivity – meaning that the same networks of brain areas are employed without deviation over time (study).

This becomes more difficult as we become more tired. In a real-life or death situation though, you can’t afford to let your attention wander. This is psychomotor vigilance.

Learn Quickly

Someone who can learn quickly can gain the abilities they need for a given situation. This means not only learning new concepts and gaining new knowledge, but also learning new physical skills.

Accelerated Learning

Learning is a product of your way of thinking. Specific tools and strategies can be employed to improve the process, so called “accelerated learning techniques.” But we can also work to develop our plasticity: our brain’s ability to reshape itself and encode new information. The best way we do this, is by continuing to learn.

See also: The Digital Polymath – Absorbing the Web With Accelerated Learning Techniques

Problem Solve

Creativity can be weaponized if you think quickly. Likewise, systems thinking can help to find solutions to problems and even entirely new goals and options. Again, problem solving becomes more difficult when you are under pressure, which is an example of how many of these traits go hand-in-hand.

See also: Think Like Tony Stark With Big Idea Thinking

Problem solving is a trait that is made from many other attributes: creativity, open mindedness, focus, soft skills, systems thinking, and more. Many of these ares can be trained.

Overcome an Opponent

If you can negotiate, run, and traverse your environment, you can hopefully avoid a physical confrontation. However, there will always be the possibility that you need to defend yourself or others. Does your physical toolkit provide the traits that will improve your odds of coming out on top? Can you throw a punch or a kick? Can you grapple?

Grant Awesome Dodge
How sweet is this dodge??

This requires strength that is useful in all planes of motion and that can be coordinated for fast, powerful movement.

Aim, Throw, and Catch

Hand-eye coordination and the ability to propel objects over distance was crucial to survival during our evolution. And it is still important to be able to track a target, predict the trajectory of an object through space, and arrange yourself around that accordingly. Again, this can be trained with practice – by tracking objects in the visual field. We should also expose ourselves to as many physical interactions as possible, to develop the in-built “physics prediction model” we keep in our premotor cortex.

Medicine ball slam best ab exercises

Actively Recover

Active recovery is an overlooked ability that can enhance performance in nearly any physical task. The ability to quickly recover from a punishing experience is what allows you to consistently perform your best.

Recovery

This is another distinguishing feature of the very top performers in the military and athletics. Coach JC Santana, from the Institute of Human Performance, even talks about how he helps his fighters to get strategic rest during a fight. This way they learn to maintain the aforementioned vigilance necessary in an MMA fight.

Closing Comments

Using these traits in isolation is not enough. We must be able to dynamically shift between them and apply them in countless combinations. Perhaps we need to help an injured friend to swim across water, or maybe we need to navigate our way out of a pitch-dark cave: relying purely on our internal compass, shut off from our senses while trying desperately to maintain our balance on slippery, treacherous ground. You never know what life has in store!

This is what I believe it means to be truly “fit.”

If you can excel in the areas I’ve listed here, you will be extremely adaptable to a wide variety of unpredictable scenarios. This is what Georges Hebert described as being “strong to be helpful.” This is being ready for anything. And this is what I believe it means to be truly “fit.”

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

2 Comments

  1. Danny says:

    What do you think of height as a functional quality? is it possible to build a post talking about this topic?

    It has always interested me. Personally, I am not dissatisfied with my height, but as a martial artist I see that it is an advantageous factor in fights (along with strength). And not to mention dangerous situations in real life.

    That is why I have investigated to see how possible it is to influence your growth. It is well known that it is totally genetic, but I want to know your opinion, can genetics be overcome?

    See the case of rustam akhmetov, who grew 23 cm whith a method that he created. Or the Or Lance ward’s youtube channel, The grow taller guru:

    https://www.youtube.com/c/TheGrowTallerGuru/videos

    I always see everything with a critical eye, and I stick to the data. But I’m interested and I want to know what you think.

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