Fitness Lessons from the Ultimate Coach

If I were going to be stranded on a desert island and could only take one book on exercise and fitness, it would be an easy choice -- The Ultimate Fit or Fat by Covert Bailey. That's a high compliment because I have a pretty good collection of books on those topics.

In the case of Covert Bailey, you really can't judge a book by its cover. They sometimes have a cartoon or a goofy picture of him wearing a tie, a stark contrast to the present day fitness books with Photo-shopped shots of sleek super-bodies and bulging muscles. Don't be fooled: he knows his stuff.

Now retired and in his late seventies, Covert Bailey made his book debut in 1978, around the time the aerobics movement was quickly gaining strength. He had a graduate degree from MIT in biochemistry and learned his first lessons on diet and exercise from lab rats. He went on to sell over 6 million books and had a show on PBS (though I never saw it). And he did it in a light-hearted, straightforward style that is accessible, inspiring, and devoid of scientific jargon (though he once expounded on the Krebs Cycle and ATP with a raw display of expertise that would stand with any PhD).

The Ultimate Fit or Fat, his last book, was published in 1999. That may seem so, like, last century, but Covert Bailey set forth all the enduring principles of exercise for health and wellness that are still valid today. I reread it recently and realized how much my guiding principles were influenced by him. Here are some lessons he taught me:
  • The best exercise for you is the one you like to do best. No one exercise size fits all because of differences in age, genetic makeup, injuries and a host of other factors.
  • Fitness is a lifelong endeavor that is health and wellness, not competition.
  • Muscle metabolism, not just diet, controls your weight, and it's exercise that controls metabolism. If you focus on developing a conditioned body, weight takes care of itself.
  • Forget about body image. Exercise to strengthen your bones, improve your immune and cardiovascular system, and improve your brain function and nervous system.
  • Aerobic exercise must be mixed with sprints, strength training, and recovery.
  • Exercise is for people of all ages.
  • Keep exercise fun like play is for a child. If you get too intense about it, you steal the joy and increase the odds of injury.
  • As you age, exercise longer, but more gently than you did in your youth. And don't do the same exercise two days in a row.

There's an insightful poem that Covert wrote when he was sixty-seven years old:

I'm in training!
For what?
Oh, just training.
I'm thinking about
the mountains I'm going to climb,
the rivers yet to be paddled,
the square dance that lasts half the night.

Read it a second time because this might be his most important lesson of all.

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