Health first. Always.
I have been asked a great deal recently about what my priorities are, and how they differ from other groups of people involved somehow in the fitness industry. By fitness industry I mean everyone from bodybuilders to runners to dancers to strongmen, to average people looking to just improve their health & wellbeing, to competitive crossfitters - everyone! I find that my priorities differ from many because of the ORDER I place them in; we probably all have similar priorities, we just place a differing degree of importance on each of them.
My priorities: 1. Health 2. Longevity 3. Capability / Performance
Many people's priorities: 1. Aesthetics 2. .... (not much else)
Caveat: This is a vast generalisation, before you get your panties in a twist, but it still remains true of many, many people. If you find this angers you at all, perhaps you should critically question which demographic you fit into, and whether you fit that stereotype... before you direct your anger at anyone else.
My immediate concern is today's health, above all else. If you are not healthy today, that is your primary concern to be resolved if you want to have a tomorrow. If you are healthy today, then be concerned about being healthy tomorrow, and your ability to continue to be be healthy and to thrive for the rest of your life - that is LONGEVITY. Longevity is being able to continue to have a healthy, happy, fit & active lifestyle for as long as possible; which means engaging in activities that lend themselves to longevity. You need to question if your current activities have a long, or a short shelf-life. How long can you see yourself continuing to perform the same activities? 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? The rest of your life? Some activities can be scaled as you age, some can evolve into something similar but different, some are just unsustainable not matter how you try and justify it. Those unsustainable activities are generally going to unhealthy and or detrimental in some way. So if you have your immediate health in check, you've ensured long term health and the ability to sustain your habits long term, next comes CAPABILITY or PERFORMANCE. I use both terms although there is a difference: Capability is more encompassing, including things like the ability to stand up unaided, to run, to swing a kettlebell or even to walk in a handstand. Performance is a little more limited, referring to how high your output capacity in those capabilities is - like how fast you can run, how heavy you can swing, etc. Performance may drop with age, but capability continues and can even improve with age, as it is a SKILL.
There is a potential 4th priority - aesthetics. Who doesn't want to look better as a result of their efforts? But here is the good news: if you get your priorities into the right order, aesthetics will happen anyway, as a natural consequence, a side-effect of your training, nutritional and lifestyle choices. If you live right, eat right, and train right, you body will reflect your choices. Likewise, if you live badly, eat badly, train badly or not at all, your body will reflect that too.
My issue is when people decide to prioritise aesthetics first: Most often this means a complete reversal of my priorities; Aesthetics comes first, performance comes in at a close second, capability is third, longevity slides down to fourth, and health is often discarded completely, leaving it in fifth (last) place.
Another caveat: It is perfectly possible to have a primary training focus on aesthetics and still have a health-first approach, but I am not talking about those people. They exist, but there's not that many of them!
By having aesthetics as the first priority, almost everything else is willingly sacrificed to achieve that "look"; and by look I mean the "appearance of health & fitness", and not the actuality. If the main goal is build a (tiny) bit of muscle, and get as shredded as possible, it is very likely that health & sustainability have been sacrificed. Unhealthy eating habits which often cycle between being hugely restrictive and then binging are very often the case. Exercise is often used almost exclusively as a calorie burner, with a small hopeful side effect of carving out some muscle (good luck doing that in a deficit). Starving yourself to achieve an extremely low and unnatural body fat percentage, for weeks or even months, then intentionally dehydrating yourself, just to create a look on a single day... followed by the inevitable binging, emotional turmoil... is unhealthy. That's health blown completely out of the water. Longevity too, as there are only so many times you can go through that cycle before you burn yourself out completely, left with nothing but metabolic, emotional and psychological damage. Capability? Who cares so long as you look good right? Capability isn't a requirement for the appearance of capability...
In the heat of the moment, the idea of looking like a cover model is enticing and exciting. Whilst you are doing it it can even be occasionally enjoyable (I say occasionally, because that road is always fraught with many unpalatable times, things you will literally hate), and then there's our human need for the admiration of others, that is fed excessively in a world that rewards appearance above all else.
This is just my opinion. However, I justify my position by arguing that your health is infinitely more important than a visible six pack. I argue that being able to live a long enjoyable life is way more important than the brief admiration from those who purely objectify you. I argue that being able to look after yourself unaided, and still be able to run, jump, climb & crawl well into your 80s is more important and benficial than a spray tan and a gun show in your 20s.
But maybe I am wrong? Do you think health is a worthwhile sacrifice for a brief moment of adulation?