By Dave Rael December 7, 2015

Your Fitness Goals Are All Wrong

It is important for all humans to take care of themselves. Often, we experience a nagging feeling that we should be doing better for ourselves: getting regular exercise, eating the “right” things, avoiding harmful foods and activities.

There are people who take their fitness seriously, who even preach about fitness. It’s something that impacts everyone.

What is often left out of conversations about fitness, though, is an understanding of what it means to be fit. Those interested in fitness often forget to articulate why it matters.

What Is Fitness?

When applied to a person, animal, plant, or other object, the term fitness means that that object is suitable to fulfill some need. Being “fit” as a person means that you are able to perform some task.

This points out an obvious flaw in asking if someone is fit. There is a part of the question missing.

In fact, the correct response to “Are you fit?” is another question:

“Am I fit for what?”

Fitness goals are often expressed in terms of losing a certain amount of weight, or achieving a certain body composition as measured by body fat percentage.

These things, though, are not goals; they are metrics. Make no mistake, metrics are useful, but to make them goals, they need some relevance to what you want in life. A number on your bathroom scale can only be a goal given the proper context that makes it matter.

The Utility of Metrics

Man Measuring Weight With Doctor Noting On Clipboard

Weight is extremely easy to measure, and it tells you something about the condition of your body. However, the information it gives you is incomplete. It says nothing about what you really want from your body.

Using your weight to determine the condition of your body is like using your bank account balance to tell you the condition of your happiness. It will offer a piece of useful information measuring something of importance, but it does not give the context necessary to determine anything specific.

I like to think about measuring the condition of your body in the same way Agilists like to think about the amount of work a team can allocate to an iteration.

Using metrics like velocity in a software project is a useful exercise. It tells you something about the project and how to estimate work items to plan for a sprint.

It says nothing, though, about the fitness of the team for the tasks they face. Doc Norton uses the term “lagging indicator” to describe velocity and its utility when managing a project. He makes it very clear that “velocity is not the goal.”

Velocity tells you only one piece of where you have been and what you have done. It does not predict the future, but is useful in planning for the future because it is an indication of past performance.

Like in programming and in team management, context is king, and to know whether your body is optimal and fit for the activities in which you endeavor, you need to consider those activities. You need to consider your history, as well as your desires.

Your Fitness Needs to Align with Your Goals

Before and after weight loss

It’s easy to look at the body of someone with washboard abs and say, “Yep, that’s it. That’s fitness.” But is it?

Does a ripped midsection make you closer to what you want to accomplish? Maybe it does. If you want to be an underwear model, it almost certainly does. For most readers of the Simple Programmer blog, I imagine the goals are a little different than those of most underwear models.

If your goals are specific, measurable, achievable, and timely, you’re on your way. They are still one short of the SMART criteria, though. Goals need to be relevant to what you want. If you want to reach a certain number in the measurement of your body fat percentage, you need to have a reason why you want that number. Without a context, there’s no meaning.

Why Does Fitness Matter to a Programmer?

It has been said that a programmer is a device that turns caffeine into code. The technological devices we use in our daily lives, especially those with which we interface as software professionals, are sophisticated machines made of both hardware and software.

You are a device. You are made of hardware and software. The parts of your body and your psyche come together to form the machine that is you.

In order for this machine to operate adequately, it needs to be in adequate operating condition. In order for it to operate optimally, it needs to be in optimal operating condition. Do you want to be adequate or optimal (hopefully you don’t want to be something less than adequate)?

To live your life and get from it what you need and desire, you need a body that supports what you want from life.

If writing software is one of your main activities, that means your mind is of primary importance. The mind is software that runs on hardware known as the brain. The brain is responsible for processing, storage (long and short term), and controlling other hardware and software. The rest of your body provides support for the operation of the brain (among other things) by offering services such as power, maintenance materials, mobility, heating and cooling, and protection from the elements, collisions, or other trauma.

You are not simply a machine for creating software, though. You are a general purpose device with other functions. Each of us has different priorities among what other functions matter to us. It may be that playing with children is of great importance to you. It may be that running is something that gives you great joy. Both of these activities require a body fit for participation.

What being fit means is different for every activity and every person. Therefore, your fitness goals need to be tailored to the activities for which you want to be fit.

If you’ve thought it through, and you’ve decided that looking like a magazine cover model is something that makes your life better, is worthy of your dedication and effort, and is a priority to you, then taking action to support that goal is right for you.

Even if that is of value to you, though, you still need to ask yourself why. Maybe you believe your appearance will attract a desirable mate. Maybe you believe it will open new avenues for a career apart from software. There are valid reasons for wanting to look good.

Be careful, though. Is looking good really in support of the things you want from life? Is achieving a certain look really worth the effort it takes to obtain it and, more importantly, the time required to get there?

I don’t think it’s bad to look good, but I think an appearance that’s considered attractive to potential mates or dates or whatever you seek is more a side-effect of a machine in optimal operating condition than it is an end in and of itself. As a programmer, you are more concerned with function than with form.

What Are Good Goals?

Geeky hipster posing in sportswear with dumbbells on grey background

I can’t speak for everyone. I can make some broad generalities that apply to many software developers, but probably not to all. I can share my values and my goals. Perhaps they will resonate with you. I hope, most of all, that you are thinking through why you do what you do. Mindless exercise for the sake of an undefined fitness goal is not, to me, an act of being an optimized programmer.

I’d like to share my priorities in order to give you an example to consider when deciding what you need from your body.

My first priority is that I stay alive long into the foreseeable future to share the experience of life with my family. This includes provision, protection, and education for my children. Helping them to become the most awesome adults they can be is the most important job.

Beyond and in support of that, my goal involves delivering value to people and receiving value in return. In my case, this takes the form of building software and teams and creating content in the form of the written word and audio podcasts.

Following those, my most important of priorities, I value the joy I get from participating in athletics, both in coaching my children and playing myself. I am especially fond of playing basketball.

Also, exercising a healthy sexuality is a priority. I expect this is more important to most people than they would say publicly. There are few things in life as enjoyable. It should be experienced with a body capable of such activity on a regular basis.

My most important priorities mean I need a body supporting longevity, survival, and the optimal use of my mind. Fortunately, these concerns are aligned. I find that maintaining a body fat range of 12-16% for men and 20-25% for women yields the best balance of performance in the ways I desire and a life I can sustain and relish.

These numbers are not important, though; they are merely guideposts. What matters is that you feel good and you are able to participate in the life you desire.

A body with more fat than desired leads to a life of discomfort, a body that seldom feels good, clothes that don’t fit, and a lack of energy.

A body with less fat than I desire can shorten lifespan, risks sexual dysfunction, requires too much sacrifice of social engagement, and requires too much dedication of time. If you desire a lean body and want to go lower on body fat than 12% for men or 20% for women, please carefully consider the reasons for that desire. There may be good reasons driving you in that pursuit: it could result from vanity, or perhaps even a mental/eating disorder. Please live consciously and know your motivations.

A Software Geek’s Approach to the Body

Nutrition and weight loss

If your goals are reasonably approximate to mine, what you want is to get your body into optimal operating condition without dedicating a lot of time to it. This means using tactics that leverage activities you are already doing to find optimal methods to train your body and improve your condition.

The most important part of taking care of yourself is how you feed the machine that is you. Programmers are keenly aware that with garbage as input, the output is inevitably garbage. For this reason, an optimized programmer eats for performance. The most important things to consider here are that your brain needs adequate fat to function properly, and that micronutrients are of critical importance.

You must eat vegetables, and lots of them. You also need lots of Omega-3 fatty acids. A complete diet requires a lot more than these, but these are the most important components of someone using their mind for their work.

It is well known that active bodies are healthier than sedentary ones. You need to get active. Spending your precious time on activities dedicated only to getting active, though, is not an optimal approach. Life has too much to offer and too many fun and rewarding things you can do to spend your time on treadmills or running just for the sake of running (unless you enjoy running for the sake of running).

If you are going to spend time with your children, play with them actively. Know that playing physically with kids is good for them, and this is true for both genders. You need recreation, so also consider playing a sport, hiking, or doing something else you enjoy that involves movement.

I play basketball and racquetball regularly. Knowing that activity is important for my body is part of the why factor, but it’s a small factor. More than that, it’s a time I get to enjoy myself, experiencing some healthy competition, and fostering relationships with people other than my family. The fact that I am being active is a welcome addition to the many other benefits of doing these things.

I also lift weights. This is the one activity I recommend to enhance your physical condition. It’s also enjoyable to an extent, but it’s not something I would do for that reason alone. In truth, it is the best way, outside of your diet, to take care of your body. Lifting weights applies to both genders and for people of all ages. You should be lifting weights.

Given that weightlifting is an activity typically intended for the enhancement of your physical condition, it is ideal to do it in the most efficient manner possible. My routine is modeled after the advice of John Little and Dr. Doug McGuff in a great book called Body By Science. It’s a deep dive into how muscle fibers and nerves work, how resistance training helps, and a program that achieves great results in 12 (incredibly intense) minutes in the weight room per week.

What Are Your Goals?

Fit man pointing front

Please comment with your views on what you expect from your body and optimal ways enhancing its condition to serve your purposes.

If you think looking good is important, please say so and why.

Just because I believe it to be a mere side-effect and not an end doesn’t mean you have to agree. I want to hear what you think.

About the author

    Dave Rael

    Dave Rael is a dedicated father and husband and a seasoned software professional. He specializes in building distributed systems and understanding problem domains, especially via Domain-Driven Design and Behavior-Driven Development. Outside work, he's usually playing with kids, playing basketball, lifting weights, coaching youth sports, and enjoying dirty jokes. He blogs at optimizedprogrammer.com about writing software and getting the most out of life and is the host of the Developer on Fire podcast at developeronfire.com, where he extracts inspiring stories from successful software geeks.