The following is adapted from Free for Life.
Most people see the Navy SEALS as the epitome of strength and discipline. As a society, we’re raised to idealize their level of discipline and to prioritize achievement, to always work hard and push past our boundaries, no matter the cost.
Approaching life at full steam can make you strong, but as I experienced during my time in the SEALS and after, when I threw myself full-tilt into competitive track and field, it can weaken you in other ways. If you’re pushing yourself to extremes, you may want to reconsider if the rewards are worth the damage you’re doing to your body and mind.
We Have a Capacity for a Reason
At twenty-two, I was a Navy SEAL in my prime. I was at a sleek 1.8 percent body fat and could run three miles in under fifteen minutes. I worked out all day long at a very high level. I could outperform professional athletes.
During SEAL training, they taught us there’s only one path to success: you work hard and you benefit to that degree. You push your limits and put out what is beyond your capacity. You mentally ask more from your body than it is currently capable of delivering, and your body adapts and rises to the challenge every time. However, your body can only handle this level of abuse for so long. Eventually, it will fight back.
Pound for pound, I was one of the strongest people on the planet. In terms of sheer fitness, I was the dictionary definition of peak condition. Yet after six years of being in the Naval Special Warfare Community and going through that intense training and performance, there was one problem: I was terribly unhealthy.
You may wonder, how could a person who exercises rigorously be unhealthy?
The answer, I discovered years later, is that we have a physical and mental capacity for a reason. When we blow past that limit, we damage our bodies and minds by stressing our systems.
Hidden Pain and Consequences
For years, both during my Navy SEALS service and in my athletic pursuits afterward, I suffered for my overexertion. When I was the poster boy for fitness, I had pain in every joint, in my feet, knee, shoulder, wrist, lower back, and neck. I needed a full-blown hip replacement at age thirty-three. I was reading lips because my hearing was shot, and my vision was rapidly going, as well. On top of that, I was getting up five to ten times a night to pee and was a zombie-like insomniac.
These are all consequences anyone living a typical life in an industrialized country has experienced at one point or another. Mine were just exacerbated by the intensity of my SEALS experience. I ran on adrenaline rather than the proper energy my body should have been creating from nutrients. I taxed my adrenal glands, which wore out my joints and exhausted my nervous system.
Everything I had done in my life to get stronger was now weakening my body. I’d been so deeply entrenched in the all-or-nothing mindset that I wasn’t ready to recover until the pain grew unbearable. At that point, I knew I needed to change my lifestyle or it would kill me.
Balancing Ambition With Your Boundaries
Changing my ways took years, but through trial and error, seeking help, and a lot of self-reflection, I learned that the best approach to health and fitness involves training just under your capacity, then resting, relaxing, and recovering.
I found happiness from within by focusing on self-improvement to become a more honest, compassionate, and thoughtful person—more happiness than I ever gained from my achievements in the SEALS or athletics.
If you’re pushing yourself past your limits, whether as an athlete or workaholic, know that your pace will catch up to you. Stress and strauma build up over time, so the longer you wait to slow down, realistically gauge your capacity, and give your body time to recover, the worse your health will deteriorate.
Take it from someone who has suffered the consequences of overwork: you need to slow down, recalibrate, and balance your ambition with your capacity before you make yourself sick.
Recalibrating your life pace and the intensity of your work or training to prioritize your long-term health over your next big win is the true path to strength and success.
For more advice on self-improvement and healthy living, you can find Free for Life on Amazon.
Christopher Lee Maher is a former Navy SEAL who endured intense amounts of physical, mental, and emotional stress as a child and during and after his military career. He has taught himself how to free his energy, body, mind and emotions from pain by developing the emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of being. Christopher studied Traditional Chinese Medical Practices at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and at Yo San University, then continued his studies at The Universal Healing Tao System. He is a student of Grand Master Mantak Chia at the Universal Tao Master School in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and is currently pursuing his Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Traditional Chinese Medicine.