Fitness Topography – your pool of health


Too often we pull out our hair trying to help people understand the parts of fitness which significantly support health. While there is nothing wrong with focusing on how you look and ‘feeling fit’ it is too often an avenue which distracts you from sustainable changes. These superficial markers of health and wellness can be manipulated through wasteful even unhealthy practices. Consequently you can flip from motivation to personal sabotage in the blink of an eye. Just consider how obsession over scale weight can both drive someone to reduce body fat and stay on track yet just as easily shame and discourage the same individual.

We think analogies, metaphors and graphic modeling can help provided they avoid over complication as well as over simplification. Recently we came across an interesting paper (


In a nutshell it is a way to view a complex condition without over compartmentalization. It is highly useful for clinicians in general to better handle the systemic, interactive elements of health issues. If you watch the short video ( you discover that it doesn’t negate any underlying specific scientific investigation. It allows further breakthroughs to be better fit back into the overall governing elements of the entire organism. Fitness as with any aspect of healthcare is multifaceted.

As Fitness Clinicians this topographic model allows us to illustrate two major things.

  1. Fitness is far more than play, looks and sports it is extremely important relative to health.
  2. Fitness contains a wide expanse of interactive and interdependent parts of human physiology.

You see where we get hung up trying to explain our approach to exercise and nutrition is in the density of considerations with physiology. It tends to sound like we are reverse engineering our method where we use science(y) sounding bites to justify things. This is unfortunate because though we are science geeks we never intend to hide behind it. Our full intention is to show how exercise science is just an infant and that we must look to physiology and fundamental biology, chemistry, physics etc. If we glaze over governing factors fitness will remain superficial and unsustainable rather than being integral to preventative medicine.


It matters that we can communicate and translate if only to help our clients stay focused. Lets look at the MS model and apply it to your fitness. You have a pool full of water and problems are bumps rising up off the floor of the pool under the water. Now the water here is your body’s inborn ability to sustain itself. The water is your immune system and such and it’s ability to repair damage and adapt to different stressors throughout the years. The bumps are things like accumulation of excess fat, bone/joint wear and tear, weakening connective tissue, fading stamina and strength and weakening cardiovascular/cardiopulmonary function.


As you age and as the bumps grow the water drains slowly out of the pool. When a bump breaks the surface this is a critical point where that particular issue seriously impedes health and function. You don’t necessarily see or feel many of the underlying bumps and it isn’t always their growth which breaches the surface but simply the draining of the water.   Your body is highly adaptable however when the surface is breached full or even partial reversal is not always possible. At a certain point even best case scenario you may be simply trying to keep the bump from growing too high above the surface by reducing it at the same rate as the pool empties.

This type of model really comes alive when you picture it in 3D. Consider the common condition of Sarcopenia (age related skeletal muscle loss as a slow growing bump but with a very wide base. This base as it grows up and out pushes on the other bumps at a point causing them to rise at a greater rate without itself showing nearly as much height growth but rather increased girth. From a topography point of view this is somewhat like how two tectonic plates push against each other and give rise to a mountain ridge. Possibly above the surface you see joint weakness where possibly only surgery can possibly help all the while the lack of muscular support was the catalyst to joint failure. Additionally, you may have a peak of impossibly stubborn to lose excess body fat. All the while muscle loss lurks beneath degrading your metabolic rate (the rate you burn energy from food and body stores) as well as reducing desire if not ability to produce energy burning physical movement.


You start to see that spending too much time just trying to reduce one fast growing bump like fat gain can backfire. The other bumps are growing and the pool is draining. Perhaps a lack of cardiovascular endurance leads to reduced movement and lowered intensity of movement. This increases muscle loss and decreases energy store utilization. You respond by taking up running, aerobics etc. however the fat bump doesn’t shrink and may continue to grow unabated. You just don’t have the muscle strength and over all stamina to burn an amount of energy which influences fat reduction. If you work very hard you may slow the process of becoming ever more overweight but the bump still grows and the pool continues to drain.


Perhaps your excess body fat bump nears or breaks the surface so you repeatedly cut back calories to a daily deficit level (less in than put out in daily energy). You suffer from a lack of easily useable sources of energy (fat burns slow and is not nutrient dense). Your system slows from lack of immediate sources of fuel and is forced into a slow burn like coals in a fire rather than fresh dry wood. You try to choose nutrient rich food sources so as not to suffer lack of phytochemicals but still a slowed burn because of a lack of raw fuel energy sources. You try to rev up your system with aerobic activity however you can’t produce much effect because your muscles are under fueled and weak. And of course you can’t strengthen let alone build muscle while restricting calories because body fat just doesn’t mobilize quick enough as it is stored for slow long-term anti starvation use only.


The point of the topographical model in analyzing physical condition to formulate interventions and predict outcomes is to better measure not just individual parts but gauge the overall interaction as they unfold over time. The big picture and the forward movement of time do not go away when you zero in your attention on your most glaring symptom of lack of physical fitness. In fact, although one very large and above the surface bump may be life threatening and require life saving medicine this may lead the wrong way. If for instance the medication and/or surgical intervention required lowers your water level then you may have reduced a bumps size but expose other bumps near the surface.

Hopefully all this provides you a practical way to consider the toughest aspect of health and fitness which is seeing yourself objectively. One rule of thumb we like to push is simply looking at the full situation as it is without judgment and asking yourself…literally asking yourself and demanding a full honest answer:

If a loved one were displaying my topography what would I think should be done?

It is odd we feel that compassion for our loved ones condition(s) is a high value yet the same compassion directed towards ourselves can seem awkward and uncomfortable. Being tough, self-effacing, humble and so forth can all be twisted by denial. View your present health and fitness topography as simply being what it is. This is the best way to traverse it and yes – it can be reshaped.

Until next post be well,

Andrew and Tierney


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