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What does not being fit have to do with ‘Outliers’?

October 4, 2009

Did it ever dawn on you that the fact that you are overweight and out of shape is actually explained in the book ‘Outliers’ by Malcom Gladwell?  This came to my attention the other day, let me explain:

I was going for a run the other morning with Jason my across the street neighbor, as those of you who have read, ‘You Are Not A Fit Person’ know, he is also my injury prevention coach.  So we were running along and talking.  It was a nice gentle run, nothing hard so we were able to talk the whole way.  We were running along and we were talking about becoming more efficient with our time by listening to ebooks.  He was suggesting that he should be listening to some advanced texts on radiology on his drive into work to make the most of his time.  I was pointing out that listening to certain types of detailed oriented ebooks might not be very effective (I had been listening to ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and I have been finding it harder to get by listening to than “Freakonomics”).  That got us onto a conversation about how awesome a book “Freakonomics” is.

In one of those strange, I was just reading that in the Freakonomics blog kind of things, Jason asks what the author’s name is.  I remembered because I had just been reading this blog entry by Steven Levitt about how he is often confused with  Malcolm Gladwell, the author of “Outliers”.   I told Jason that Steven Levitt is the author of “Freakonomics” and he says, “Yah, that is it, I always get him confused with…” at this point, I already know that he is going to say Malcolm Gladwell, and sure enough if he had remembered the name of the author of “Outliers” he would have said that, but he could only get, “hmmm… that guy…his name is Malcolm something I think…”.

So, this got us into a discussion of “Outliers” (and yes, the story is getting to the point right about now).  I had heard and discussed at length, the 10,000 hours to expertise that Malcolm Gladwell is famous for sharing in the book, but I wasn’t entirely aware of many of the other arguments about expertise.  The one that struck me on this morning’s run was the skewing of the birthdate’s of the best hockey players to the first 4 months of the year.  As soon as we were talking about it, it made perfect sense.  Although 10 months isn’t much of an age difference to a 40 year old, to a 4, 5 or 6 year old it is a huge difference.  People with an almost year advantage in age will be bigger, stronger and more coordinated than others born later, will get more attention, more playing time and will therefore perform better at the end of the day.  It is a great argument and it makes a lot of sense.  It also explains why some people are fit and others aren’t.

The book, ‘You Are Not A Fit Person’ spends the first 4 chapters explaining that fit people are different from the rest of us and that we shouldn’t try to learn how to get fit from them.  They are poor teachers for us because they haven’t experienced the problems that we have.  They don’t love the fast food we do, they shun it.  They don’t like to stay up late and sleep in, they go to bed early and get up early.  The idea of laying on the couch all day watching TV would bother them deeply, to us it is a holiday.

I think most people will hear this and say, ‘Yes, he is on to something here, I have seen this in people learning mathematics, and english, and the challenges that they face.  How the best teachers are the ones who have also struggled with learning these subjects’.  So it does seem pretty basic when you look at it from this perspective.But what I hear all the time is, ‘Why do you think some people are fit and others aren’t’.  Quite often people ask me if I think it is just genetic.  Is it something that we can’t really do anything to change?

My answer to that is that one thing I am sure of is that it isn’t genetic.  Anyone can be a fit person from an early age, there is no magic combination of genes.  After awhile of not living the fit life, like say 40 years like me, odds are pretty good I am never going to be a fit person.  I will never be able look at a McDonald’s and not want a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.  If you don’t learn the habits of being fit at a young age, then odds are pretty good you are going to have to learn some new habits like me.  Habits and behaviors that I have outlined in ‘You Are Not A Fit Person’.  So, it is pretty clear that fit people aren’t like us, but why is this?

One very good explanation of why some people are fit people and others aren’t lies in the hockey player explanation of ‘Outliers’.  In this book, Malcolm Gladwell is interested in why people stand out distinctly from the crowd.  The top 99 percentile of the top 99 percentile.  What about the rest of them, in the case of fitness, the non-professional athletes, the almost made it’s and also rans, the 98 percentile, 97 percentile, etc?  These are the people who were very good at sports, outplayed most of the competition, but never made the show.  What about them?

You would be surprised to know that they are the fit people amongst us.  The thing that Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t talk about very much, the thing he doesn’t delve into is the joy that people get when they are good at something.  It is implicit in the hockey example, just not stated.  You knew the fit people in highschool.  They were good at the sports that they did.  They enjoyed being good at them.  They kept doing them.  Every single fit person that I know excelled at a sport in their youth and in turn enjoyed playing them.  Every one of them is great at a sport, almost good enough to be pros, but not quite.  I think of Siobhan who excels at running; Bree who is a great swimmer; Josip who was on the way to play professional soccer until his knee injury; Chelsea who was on the national rock climbing team; Meyrick who was excellent at rugby and now excels at everything, including nearly qualifying for the Canadian paralympic cross country ski team only 6 months after taking up the sport; Justine who finished 3rd in the largest 10k run in Canada; Sharon who was the national aerobics champion.  All of these people are the fit people around me.  You don’t need to be that successful to be fit either.  All that you need to do is enjoy athletics as a child and stick with it.  It really is the thin edge of the wedge.  If your parents put you into a sport or your school had a sport, and if you found you were good at a sport or activity, you were just simply much more likely to do it more often.  As you continued to do it more often, you got better, and you enjoyed it more.  Repeatedly performing high levels of fit activities is pretty much the standard of a fit person.  This is simply the recipe of a fit person.

On a side note, I played baseball, soccer and football as a child.  I was terrible.  I have a hundred humiliating stories of my terrible sports experiences.  I didn’t enjoy sucking at sports at all.  I stuck with it quite awhile, but still, it was a no brainer to finally quit and get down to other interests.

Honestly do you have any doubts that you would be fit if you enjoyed exercising?  It certainly is possible to not be fit and exercise, but boy is it ever harder.  Trying to get fit when you don’t enjoy exercising….  well that is the crux of the challenge for many of us.

Obviously this isn’t the only factor of a fit person.  There is a quality of organization and a number of other features that make fit people fit.  This is just one example of how they come to be.  Some things that follow directly out of exercising more though include a delay in age of drinking (shown in numerous studies including this one, and this one), eating more vegetables, not smoking, and reduced drug use (here).  In fact, in most sports, keeping your weight down and your muscle mass up results in a significantly better performance.

By the way, what makes ‘Freakonomics’ and ‘Outliers’ such fantastic books is that the authors took issues that were long held and not questioned and approached them from an entirely knew point of view.  By looking at these issues with fresh eyes,  these authors are able to bring out answers that are extremely cogent, clear and obvious.  After you saw these issues in this new way, they were so obvious.

I owe a lot to Steven Levitt because his book helped me to approach my weight problem with a fresh perspective.  I owe a lot to many people, but right now I would like to point out that ‘Freakonomics’ almost begs you to look at regular, every day events, and approach them from a dfiferent angle.  Thanks Steven.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2009 4:10 am

    WOW this seems so simple, but at the same time, it’s like lightbulbs just went on!

    Me–I was in dance for a short while as a kid. Enjoyed it, but got too expensive. And from there on, I was never in any kind of sport.

    Compare this to my sisters, who were always in sports, and good at it. They are thin, I am not (neither are my parents, though my dad had played football in high school).

    Fastforward to starting my family. Both hubby and I are overweight. We don’t want the same for our kids, so as early as they could, they were in some kind of exercise activity. Now, at 7 and 14, they LOVE to exercise and my eldest excells at it (hopes to make it to the 2016 olympics for judo).

    I think there is some “nature” involved, but a whole lot more nurture.


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