What is Genetic Potential Fitness? How do you apply the concept to your favourite hobbies? Did you know it need not have anything to do with your physical fitness? Can you possibly measure it accurately? How could you estimate it? How does it vary through your life? What is an optimal level for your performance target? What should you do to ensure that your performance stays optimal?
In a recent media interview when I made reference to Genetic Potential Fitness, a term I coined when proposing a framework for lifelong assessment of progress, I meant for it to be relevant for all your dimensions of existence. Although, at first, because of the word ‘fitness’ in the acronym, GPF appears to be relevant for sporting activities, it is applicable for just about every dimension of human endeavour. Or even where you are not consciously making an effort.
Your performance at anything you do, whether it be playing a game of chess, writing poetry, painting or running a marathon is a combination of the genes that came from your parents and the nurturing of that aspect of your life. You cannot do better than your genes will permit – a fast tortoise will never overtake an average rabbit – but how good can you get? As good as your genes will permit!
It is important to note that I am not saying that only your genes solely determine your actual performance. As a matter of fact, I live my life believing and professing quite the contrary. What I am referring to is an upper bound on your actual performance – and if your actual performance is 50% about your genes, then the other 50% is driven by all those parts that were in the roots of the Wellness Tree.
Your GPF has nothing to do with what others are doing
When I first had an IQ test about 30 years ago two things became clear to me around that time. One was bad news, the other good. The first was that deterioration was guaranteed (bad news) but the second was that the rate of deterioration was significantly under my control (good news). From that time on, just being smarter than over 99% of the population in a very narrow dimension of existence was not what was all important for me. My own performance relative to myself is what matters. I made direct reference to this when I spoke to you about what you could do regarding Competing and Comparing, Targeting Happiness Maximization.
What therefore became more relevant for me three decades ago was the need to have a strategy to maintain that specific measure of (mental) fitness as close to what was genetically possible for the next 80 years ahead. And the same for all the other parts of my Wellness Tree. This theme also appeared when I told you why I do not care much about your podium finish (or mine)!
I spoke a few days ago about the Wellness Tree but what about achievable targets for those many branches of wellness? Your fitness levels in physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health are all equally important. From those branches, even if you pin-point a very specific leaf e.g. controlling anger, you can have a quantifiable measure that can be improved upon. Perhaps the measure chosen for a specific leaf is open for debate – for instance, what measure correctly captures how mindful you are? Having said that, it should be possible for you to focus on ways to work on your performance in that dimension.
Because you can think of GPF being applicable to anything you do, there are literally millions of versions of it depending on the granularity you decide to look with. For instance, you could have your GPF with respect to muscular endurance, or specifically running, and even more specifically, running marathons, and to be yet more specific, running long distances uphill. In summary, the concept of GPF can be used to focus-in with depth, or it can be used to zoom-out to look at your life from a broader perspective.
I do not believe that you can measure your true GPF exactly. Because you are typically so far from your genetic potential in most things, and perhaps a little closer in a few that interest you, you rarely ever have a precise measure of it. Perhaps if you are competing at an elite level e.g. Olympic swimming, you can have a narrower estimate range for your GPF in that specific sport – in fact specifically for the stroke that you specialize in. For the rest of us, non-Olympians, GPF is a measure that we are typically very far from. In fact, even the Olympic athlete is likely to be close to his GPF in only a specialized set of activities that her focus is on e.g. 50m backstroke.
Although you cannot measure it exactly, what you can do is estimate your GPF. If you work really hard on your squash game for 12-24 months you could get to a level that is very close to (but lower than) your GPF for squash. Because you are close to it, estimating your GPF is likely to be more correct. However, if you have never played water polo, during that same period of squash training, you are likely to be very far (much worse) than your GPF in water polo. And, because you are far from it, confidently estimating its level within a narrow range is difficult.
So, if your GPF is something that is far from your current ability and is difficult to estimate anyway, what use is it?
Each of the three individual terms provide clues to answer that question. One of the benefits of giving serious thought to the concept of GPF is that it allows you to think about what you might be naturally capable of, given your genetic foundation. The other benefit is that it allows you to think about your potential and thus it can be a realistic motivating factor in your practice. And, finally, to the extent that the term fitness focuses your mind on the various branches of wellness, that is a good thing too.
You will have gathered by now that your GPF is a useful benchmark about where you could get to given your genetic material. Your GPF will change throughout your life for various reasons and depending on the activity or measure you are considering. Some physical fitness measures e.g. muscular endurance peak in the second or third decades of our lives. Typically flexibility is highest closer to birth. Some skills based measures deteriorate faster than health based measures of fitness. Your IQ (as measured by standardized tests) will have peaked in early adult life. Some measures of emotional health can get stronger as we age. Perhaps some measures of spiritual health continue to strengthen as we go through life all the way up to the point of death. And, it may be that something like wisdom necessary increases through life, almost by definition.
If you examine the roots in the Wellness Tree you will see that many factors feed into the branches. Because life is typically path dependent, your GPF will also be altered by what you feed the roots for the branches to flourish. At a microscopic level, your body literally turns genes on/off based on the exposure it faces. So, you can think about the various factors (roots of the Wellness Tree) and how they might turn certain genes on/off.
Although I said earlier that your GPF has nothing to do with others, there is of course an environment that is created by others too that affect your life and possible gene expression. This could be as sinister as second- hand smoking or even third-hand smoking, or as benevolent as a best friend with an excellent sense of humour.
Depending on what you are measuring this ought to vary considerably. For instance, if you enjoy playing your piano for recreation, perhaps being far from your GPF is desirable or at least not a problem. On the other hand, if your interest is in performing for others then perhaps you will want your performance at the piano to be pushed closer to your GPF. Or it might simply be that taking your playing closer to your GPF is precisely what makes you happy, even though you play for no one other than yourself.
The largest constraints we typically face are those of ‘time’ and ‘money’. And for most of us, the constraint that is typically binding is ‘time’. So, with constraints of this nature and many different areas of interest, it is natural to think of a portfolio of interests and trade-offs between them in terms of proximity or distance to their respective GPFs.
And as you go through life, your interests and preferences will change, as will your constraints. If you think of your basket of interests, the decision for each constituent in that basket will also vary. Perhaps running marathons is of less interest to you now that you have taken up Latin dance and bread-baking. Approaching these changing interests in a structured manner will allow you to be at greater peace with the decisions you make. Even Olympic athletes cannot simultaneously maintain fitness close to their GPF in more than a few areas.
The simple answer is “it is complex”. If you look at the Wellness Tree again, you will see the myriad pathways to the roots of the tree. To ensure that any branch flourishes will require you to engage as many of the paths in some optimal manner. I shall explain this in more detail in future conversations. For now, the key thing to remember is that your GPF is your GPF, that your GPF varies over your lifetime, and you can do things to get yourself to get closer to it at any age – but only if that is your wish. There is no compulsion!
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.