HEALTH THROUGH STRENGTH: A mindset and a mission

"Health Through Strength." Is it a catchy phrase that makes you think, or just an unnecessary mouthful of buzzwords? I'd argue it's probably a little bit of both, but also so much more. Let's start out with defining #HealthThroughStrength. First, what is "health?"  Oxford defines it as "the state of being free from illness or injury," but I find this to be woefully inadequate. One, if we define health this way, it's a near-impossible goal for the overwhelming majority of human beings. How many of us have chronic medical conditions, aches and pains, or mental illnesses? Saying that health is the absence of any disease reserves it for a fortunate few, creates stigma and judgment towards those who are "unhealthy" in this sense, and drives a wedge between these two groups of people. We have enough division in our world, and as healthcare professionals, it is unethical for us to perpetuate this. Control, rather than absence, of illness or injury is a more realistic endpoint and allows for more individualization of health goals. Paradoxically, although Oxford's definition sets a stigmatizing and nigh-unreachable standard for health, it also falls short of encompassing the type of health to which we should all aspire. Simple absence or control of disease is only part of the picture. Though this definition encompasses both physical and mental health to a degree, it neglects existential or spiritual health. Feeling truly fulfilled and that you are living the life you want are also hugely important aspects of your personal health journey. Having perfect labs and vital signs is great, but if you're not living a life in line with your values, experiencing a sense of purpose, or feeling joy, who cares? That is not an existentially healthy life, which will ultimately lead to the deterioration of your mental health, physical health, and the measurable biomarkers I mentioned before. Social health is part of this as well, since humans, like other primates, are highly social animals and will actually die if left in isolation for too long. This is why I personally ascribe to the Ayurvedic definition of "perfect health," which is becoming widely, though likely unintentionally, supported by modern medical literature: a balance between body, mind, spirit, and social wellbeing.

So we surely can't achieve that type of comprehensive health just by lifting weights, right? That's absolutely correct, but it can help in a multitude of ways. The physical strength achieved through proper resistance training is just one of those, but there are benefits to picking up the iron far beyond a bigger set of biceps or a heavier deadlift (though I'd take both of these too). For many of us, the physical strength we cultivate in the gym helps us to feel strong again after times in our lives where we've felt weak or powerless. There is a wealth of literature showing the psychological benefits of exercise on mental health, even in cases of severe mental illness. Though lifting is not a substitute for therapy or medication, it can be incredibly helpful as an adjunct or preventive measure. Additionally, group exercise or sports like Crossfit and strongman help to foster a sense of community and social wellbeing, especially in those who feel isolated by other life circumstances. On top of that, the direct positive impacts on prevention and treatment of physical illness provided by the iron are vast and varied. From reducing fall risk in the elderly to improving blood pressure and metabolic biomarkers, among many other benefits to physical health, strength training is arguably one of the best things you can do for yourself!

 

"Strength" comes in other forms as well. It takes a tremendous amount of strength to be vulnerable enough to ask for help, and this is an absolute necessity if you want to achieve your health goals. As I mentioned, we are social animals, and strict self-reliance through isolation can actually be highly detrimental to your physical and mental health. Though we have been socially conditioned to believe that the need for help from others is a weakness, in the words of Brene Brown, "Vulnerability is not weakness; it's our greatest measure of courage." After all, if you're "too strong" to ask for assistance from a healthcare professional, how do you know that your current path is leading towards health and happiness, or if you're walking the dark road towards illness and death? There is nothing stronger than admitting that you can't do it all on your own, and nothing that leads to future strength more than accepting your faults so that you can improve upon them.

This is why #HealthThroughStrength has become more than just the name of a company, but also the mindset through which myself, as well as many of my patients and colleagues, approach our lives. More than just a mindset, though, getting people on the path to health through finding their strength has become my mission. Let's face it. The current incarnation of healthcare, especially in the United States, is a mess! We are so focused on advanced diagnostics and treatments for diseases that we have forgotten how much our daily actions shape our current and future health. There is little emphasis on prevention and even less on positive lifestyle changes we can each make. Instead, we use a reactionary approach to treat illness rather than a proactive approach to promote wellness. This needs to change, especially since the main causes of death in all developed countries are the results of preventable, or at least delayble, chronic noncommunicable diseases. Getting weights in the hands of as many humans as possible is a great first step! Unfortunately, few healthcare professionals are educated about strength training, with many still considering it dangerous. This is a tragic disservice to our patients. It is my hope that educating both the public and clinicians about the immense positive impact of cultivating strength through the iron will begin to correct this.

Lifting and medicine are my passions, and I want to show you all how closely connected the two can be. Just as I use my knowledge of functional anatomy and physiology as a strength coach, I bring in all aspects of strength and conditioning to use in the treatment and prevention of disease. If you have a body, you're an athlete, so let's all get out there and achieve #HealthThroughStrength together!

ABOUT DR. MEATHEAD

From LinkedIn: "I am a board-certified family physician, trained leader, and US Navy veteran with diverse procedural skills and varied experience in comprehensive primary care, military medicine, telehealth, emergency medical services, and mind-body medicine. I am also an NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialist providing personalized online coaching for athletes of all levels. I believe that every human deserves equitable and inclusive access to the most effective and evidence-based methods for improving their health, strength, and happiness. As such, I have a passion for providing high-quality care and vocal advocacy for underserved populations, especially BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ populations. Even individual health and wellness is a team sport, and we're all in this fight together!"

That all sounds pretty impressive, right? But let's get real. Anybody, including myself, can post a fancy statement on their LinkedIn   profile and look great. A list of qualifications and buzzwords doesn't tell you a whole lot about who I am as a person, though, or how I got here. As a science super-nerd from an early age who was raised to value service to others very highly, the path to practicing medicine seemed a pretty natural fit. Once I actually got into the field in med school, both my desire to help and passion for science developed further by studying a painful amount and seeing the difference I made, however small, in the lives of my patients each day. To be honest, I still get excited about this stuff!

Though this is hard lesson for many of us to learn, being a doctor isn't everything. There is a life beyond medicine, despite what many of our preceptors told us in medical school. I remember this vividly. On my second rotation of my third year, my general surgery attending asked what I did on the weekends. When I told him about my involvement in strength sports, he told me to "not tell any of my other attendings about that. You don't want them to know you're doing anything besides studying, and you really shouldn't be." Fuck. That. If I wasn't iron-obsessed, Dr. Meathead would just be Dr. Larsen, and he sounds boring. Weights have been a part of my life since my early teen years playing football, and I can't remember a time in the last 20+ years that I haven't been doing some kind of lifting! To be totally honest, honing my body in the gym and the lessons athletics have taught me have made me a better physician and person. Whether it's competing in strongman and the highland games or just hitting the gym for health and enjoyment, I'd prefer not to imagine my life without lifting.

When I'm not hitting the weights or taking care of patients, you'll typically find me spending time with my wife and our four wild rescue dogs. We are big lovers of the outdoors, traveling, live music, museums, and all types of delicious food. As I said, there is a life beyond any job, even medicine, and I recommend we all cultivate that. I hope this gives you a little more insight into what I'm all about, and if that's not enough, my instagram feed (@paging.dr.meathead) and CV are below.