You have more Control over Your Health than you might Realize


This post is inspired by a book excerpt I recently read in the February 2010 issue of Wiredmagazine. The excerpt is from a new book titled The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Era of Personalized Medicine and it is primarily about using decision trees to help you make better choices when making health related decisions. While the decision tree information was somewhat interesting and could be very useful to some people, it was the introductory information that really struck a nerve and made me want to write about this topic.

Towards the beginning of the excerpt, the author discusses health as we age and states, “because the stakes are so high and the options so dizzying, we may stop engaging with our health altogether. We let doctors and insurance companies decide our care, and we focus our energies on what we can control – our bank accounts, our relationships, but not, alas, our health.” He then goes on to explain that health is really determined a combined sum of our genetics and all of our actions, or in his words, “All of these inputs create one primary output unique to us alone: our health, for good or ill.”

In truth, I wanted to write about this because the thought that it is common for people to think their health is out of their control is very bothersome to me. For the vast majority of my life I have always taken the viewpoint that we have control over virtually every aspect of our health and fitness. While genetics and life experiences (accidents, injuries, etc.) certainly affect our situations, we almost always have the power to determine if our body improves or declines from its current state.Then the following sentence, which really got my attention is, “This means we have more control over our health than we might have thought.” First I want to say that I certainly agree with the author’s statements as I have encountered numerous people who stopped taking care of their health and others who believed it was just too much effort to live a healthy lifestyle. However, I have been immersed in health and fitness for so long that I sometimes forget that many people don’t realize how much their daily actions really do affect their health and overall quality of life.

For me this realization came early on in life when I was 7 and developed a bad hip infection that ate away the ball of my femur and left me with a fused hip. At that time I was told that I had to work really hard during rehab and keep up with my exercises if I wanted to avoid spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair. This was all the motivation I needed to work hard and as a result I regained the ability to walk and I was eventually able to participate in almost any activity I wanted. This experience showed me how much influence we really do have on our health and our future.

It seems that some people, however, don’t fully make the connections between their everyday actions and the way their body looks and feels. I believe that in some cases this is the result of not experiencing serious physical challenges or health related adversity while growing up. I say this because most people I meet, who experienced problems when they were younger, tend to have a higher level of body awareness and pay more attention to how their behaviors (nutrition, exercise, stretching, etc.) affect the way they feel.

Athletes also have a high level of body awareness, because so much of what they do involves making very specific or controlled movements with their muscles, but they still may not necessarily make the connections between their actions and their health. For example, many overweight people are former athletes who gained weight simply because they stopped being active. It is not uncommon for these people to blame their weight gain on aging or complain that their metabolism is the problem.

However, in many cases, their weight gain is not simply due to aging or a sluggish metabolism, but rather changes they made in their lifestyle. Most notably, when people stop participating in sports, or stop being active altogether, they don’t realize that they need to make changes in the way they eat. Many competitive athletes burn 500 to 1000 calories or more per day through activity. Naturally if a person is burning a lot fewer calories per day, they need to decrease the number of calories they consume, otherwise they will gain a lot of fat.

The reason I bring this up is because this is just one of many scenarios where people inadvertently contribute to their own health decline as a result of not realizing how their actions affect their body. It is human nature not to worry about problems until they come up, but if you really want to be healthy, you have to work to prevent problems from starting in the first place. It takes a lot more time and effort to recover from or reverse a health problem than it does to prevent it.

With the above example of former athletes gaining weight, I wonder how many cases of obesity could be prevented if these athletes were educated about how to change their eating habits as they transition from a life of sports to working at a typical sedentary full-time job. Even though people most likely realize that nutrition and activity (things they control) have a huge influence on their body, once their behaviors change and they start gaining weight, they frequently look towards their age or genetics (things they can’t control) as the source of their problems.

It is not until people learn to make the connections between their daily choices and the way they look and feel; that they will realize how much control they really do have over their health and fitness. Unfortunately this is much easier said than done, because it is also human nature to find ways to accept, make sense of, or rationalize their health problems instead of looking for causes or solutions for them. It is also common for people to talk themselves into believing they don’t have a problem, which means there is no chance they will work to improve their situation.

I do realize that many health problems can be overwhelming and they are often very unpleasant to deal with, but doing nothing or ignoring them is never a good solution and you should always try to find out if there is anything you can do to improve your situation. Many health issues are very challenging to deal with and it is certainly easier to ignore them, but I believe that looking for solutions and putting forth the effort to improve your health is always worth the effort.

The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Era of Personalized Medicine is written by Thomas Goetz and you can find out more information and read the first chapter (28 pages) at:

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About Ross Harrison 14 Articles

Hi, my name is Ross Harrison and I am a personal trainer in Austin, TX. I have been a certified personal trainer (NSCA) since 1996 and I am also a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), nutritional consultant, and I have completed numerous other courses and certifications over the years. I also have a degree in psychology from Grinnell College. Over the course of my career I have been an independent personal trainer working with  clients in their homes or various other locations, as well as a trainer at a large gym. I also have experience working in a privately owned health food store  and a large chain supplement store.

After almost a decade in the health and fitness industry, I became frustrated and discouraged by the way many personal trainers and gyms were so focused on making money, even at the expense of their client’s success. As a result, I decided the only way for me to feel good about being a personal trainer would be to start my own business. That way I could create my own policies and make sure I stayed true to what I believe a personal trainer should  be. Then in 2005, I did just that when I started my personal training business called Precision Health & Fitness.

I chose to name my business Precision Health & Fitness, because it accurately reflects the approach I take as a personal trainer. I believe personal training should be completely focused on the client and since every person is different, every program should be precisely designed to reflect that individual’s specific goals, needs, abilities, and lifestyle. I know many
personal trainers say this, but more and more trainers are just repeating the same programs with numerous clients or using tools, such as computer programs,  to self-generate “custom” workouts or nutritional programs for their clients. In my mind these are examples of mass-produced training programs, not personal training.

I also feel that many conventional personal training practices, such as making clients sign contracts, not allowing refunds for purchased sessions, and even paying by the hour, ultimately take the focus off the client’s needs. Therefore, I made the conscious decision to stay away from any policy or practice that I felt detracted from focusing on my clients, even though other people have told me I am limiting my income or discounting the value of my services too much.

For example, my clients pay session prices instead of an hourly rate. This may not sound like a big difference, but it means I can spend more time with my clients when they need it. Many of the people I work with are just starting to exercise or have never been taught proper exercise technique. By having a set time limit on my sessions, I can take the extra time to ensure my clients learning to perform exercises correctly. This not only ensures their safety, but also leads to more effective workouts and better long-term results. Of course, if a client has a set schedule or a limited amount of time, then I will make sure the workouts I create fit those time constraints.

Another benefit of not having timed sessions is it gives clients the opportunity to talk or ask questions about health and fitness or their workout routine. I have never been a big fan of trainers who take the “do it because I said so” approach to health and fitness. I encourage clients to ask questions and I believe that becoming more educated about exercise and nutrition and
learning how your actions affect your results is an important component of health and fitness programs. By making a link between your actions and your results, it will help motivate you to stick to your  program.

This is just one example of how I my business is focused my clients, but there are also other ways Precision Health & Fitness stands out from other trainers and gyms. For instance, I do not have clients sign contracts and they are free to discontinue their training program at any time. I even let my clients determine their own payment plan, which they can change at any time.
Some clients pay for a number of sessions in advance, some pay after each session, and some pay after they have completed a number of sessions. It is all about trying to make things as easy and convenient for my clients as  possible.

That is not to say the workouts themselves are easy, because every workout is designed to be challenging, so it will create a stimulus for improvement. At the same time, I never design workouts that are designed to make  people stiff and sore for a week or have trouble walking up stairs. I know some  people like those workouts because they think the harder they work, the better  their results will be, but that is only true up to a point. It is definitely  possible to exercise too hard or too much and excessively challenging workouts  are almost always counterproductive over the long-run.

When you really think about it, shouldn’t long-term health and fitness improvements be the goal of a personal training program? I believe that it certainly is, although I know there are people who would disagree with me. However, for the people who just want to push themselves as hard as possible regardless of the long-term consequences, there is not shortage of personal trainers who are willing to do just that. My background and personal experiences  have made me believe that long-term health and success should never be sacrificed for short-term gain and that is the philosophy I apply to my personal  training programs.

Speaking of my background and personal experiences, exercise and nutrition have both been very important parts of my life since I was young. When  I was seven, I developed a serious hip infection that destroyed the femur head  (ball that connects to the hip) in my right leg and left me with a fused right  hip. At the time I was told there was almost no chance that I would ever
walk again, but by working hard and keeping up with my exercises, I was able to regain the ability to walk and eventually allowed to play most sports and participate in almost any other activity I wanted.

However, even with continued exercise, I still experienced hip pain that increased over the years. Then when I was 30 I was finally old enough to get a total hip replacement, which resulted in an almost complete reduction in my pain, but I was also left with a new set of restrictions. Since hip replacements  wear out over time, it means the more stress I put on my hip by doing things  like playing sports or running, the sooner I will need a new hip replacement.  Needless to say, my activities have drastically changed since my hip replacement  and I no longer play sports, but I still exercise regularly to remain healthy  and stay in shape.

As for nutrition, it has played an equally important role in my life. When I was younger, I had very unhealthy eating habits, was overweight (or husky  as my clothes were called), constantly felt run down, and got sick frequently.  By the time I was 18 I was trying to eat healthier, but I had already caused my  body and immune system enough distress to be hospitalized for
pneumonia and I  developed a bad case of ulcerative colitis, which is an incurable intestinal  condition where treatment involves just trying to keep it in remission. Simply  put, I had a lot of health issues for a teenager.

Fortunately for me, I became more educated about nutrition and I made eating healthier a priority in my life. My improvements were not immediate, but over time my energy level increased and my immune system improved to the point where I rarely ever get sick anymore. Also I have been able to keep my ulcerative issues to a minimum just by eating healthy (it is generally kept in remission through medication) and by working on managing my stress level. Due to  my improved nutritional habits, I can easily say that I am far healthier and feel much better in my mid 30’s than I ever did as a teenager.

The reason I included all this information is because it explains what motivates me as a trainer and why I care so much about health and fitness. My personal history has also shaped my training philosophy and it is the reason why I always focus on the long-term outcome of a training program, instead just thinking about short-term improvement. It is also why I try to get people to shift their priority from what they can do to look better and think more about what they can do to make their body feel better throughout their lifetime.

If you eat healthy, exercise properly, and do other things that make your body feel better, you will be doing the same things you need to make your body look better. On the other hand, if your sole focus is on making your body look better, it does guarantee that your training program will make your body feel better years down the road. Workout programs that cause you to perform
exercises incorrectly, use poor posture, or develop muscle imbalances can still result in you looking better, but they can also lead to premature muscle and joint aches and pains years later.

It is completely natural to be focus on the present and the immediate future, but people frequently do not think enough about how they want their body  to feel in 20 or 30 years down the road, at least not until they start developing some health related problems. Personal training success is often measured my how much weight is lost or how much muscle is gained, but I believe that is not the best way to think about success. Even if you lose fat, if you are frequently sore or in pain, I would not consider that to be successful, except maybe if you are a competitive athlete or someone who is required to push  your body to the limit.

Personal training and health and fitness in general, should be about creating a better overall quality of life and not only about looking better. Of course, looking better is almost always a primary goal, but it should not the only focus of a program. I know from first hand experience how much of a positive impact a well-designed exercise and nutrition program can have on virtually every aspect of your life. All too often, people accept aches and pains as normal consequences of aging, but in most cases you can make a significant improvement in how you feel.

I want to leave you with a final thought, regardless of your current situation, you are capable of improvement and you probably capable of achieving much more than you might think. I wish you success in all your health and  fitness endeavors and please contact me at  or (512) 537-3377 if you have any comments or questions.

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