What Is “Fitness”?

April 10, 2016


What is fitness? Is it the numeric quality of a certain percentage of body fat, how many steps you can do in a minute, your VO2 Max or how far you can reach to your toes?

If you fit into those numeric qualities, what does that mean exactly? Does it mean that you are also healthy? Not necessarily.

If you are “fit” and healthy, does it mean that you have achieved wellness, too? Again, not necessarily.

I have been involved in fitness since 1980. I starting taking aerobics classes in college and had a job as an aerobics instructor in the evenings and weekends. When I wasn’t instructing, I took classes whenever I could because they offered me aerobic conditioning that was complementary to my anaerobic dance training.

Over the years I have seen many trends come and go and always with the promise of a beautiful body, the subtext of which is that one will also have a lifetime of happiness, youthfulness and never-ending desirability. One thing that they didn’t – and couldn’t – offer is health and wellness.

We have been conditioned by the fitness industry to believe that low body fat equals healthy. We have also been conditioned to believe that this trait is somehow equated with a high moral character and an almost godlike quality. The fitness industry has become a special kind of sick. Are we really supposed to admire someone who brags about how long they worked out on any given day?

I believe that the fitness industry has tapped into the deepest American fear of all: getting old. To battle that fear, we are told that we can fool Father Time and outrun the Grim Reaper.

The more interesting thing to me is noticing how many of these so-called “fit” people are ill or suffering from chronic issues of pain and strain. How imbalanced they are in their overall physical health – perhaps they run a lot but never worked their leg strength; perhaps they’re really good at throwing kettlebells over their heads and think that this is enough for core work (but still suffer from a “bad” back); or they believe that the only fitness work worth doing requires grunting and force.  Chiropractic care and massage are considered “maintenance” rather than a rare medical necessity and a nice luxury.

I would suggest that such people are often not healthy. A healthy body is a vital one; it has enough energy to get through the day without special supplementation. A healthy person has what I call “juicy” muscles. Juicy muscles are ones that are not dried out or stiff. They slide against the bones as they contract and release with activity and they don’t hold their victims hostage with bad, inflexible posture. Juicy muscles are strong when they need to be but can relax when effort is not needed.

Juicy muscles are not only conditioned muscles but also well-fed muscles fed with real food and proper hydration.

A healthy person has a strong immunity, sleeps well and has good digestion. Many “fit” people do not. Personally, if I lack the qualities of “healthy,” I don’t give a hoot how I rate in VO2Max.

When we bring “wellness” into the equation, we begin to take in the health of the mind (this is my opinion). A person has wellness when they have the resilience to move through the ups and downs of life; has a supportive and nurturing environment and can be a nurturing and supportive environment for someone else; and is able to see the difference between stressful (or painful) events that just happen and those that we may create through their own patterns of behavior.

If we consider our “fit” person again who perhaps is suffering from a pulled hamstring but refuses to adjust his workout regimen, would you say he is “well”?  We are all aware how this story will end. All of us except the “fit” person, that is.

My hope is that the fitness industry will one day embrace health and wellness in actuality and not just in promotional literature. As usual, it is all about balance – a balance of working out with rest, a balance of flexibility with strength exercises, a healthy weight and body fat range and more realistic goals. Let’s get away from the “more is better” mentality (If I am 18% body fat, then I will be better if I am 10%. If I exercise an hour a day, I will be better if I increase it to two). Let’s stop making people afraid to eat (but not afraid to pop pills and drink supplements with ingredients twenty-six letters long!). Let’s stop using grunting, forcing and straining as markers for whether one is getting a good workout or not. That kind of child’s play might work for the twenty-somethings but a lifetime of that is going to lead to nothing but regular consumption of pain relievers and orthopedic surgery (or quits which is probably why the creator of CrossFit doesn’t do CrossFit).

     Let’s teach people that if they are not sleeping well, getting sick a lot or taking antacids on a regular basis then their exercise program might be adding to the overall stress that their body is going through. It’s true – while exercise can yield huge benefits it can also add stress. Again, it will come down to a balanced approach. Let’s teach people that movement – not exercise per se – can improve overall health. Face it, not all of us are going to love to “work out.” I’ve met people who hate to “work out” but love to move and I encourage them to do so in any manner that they enjoy. Dance to your iPod, walk the trails, or bike around your neighborhood. It counts.  Not only are they connecting with an activity that they enjoy but they’ve also connected to themselves because of that enjoyment. That part is important for stress reduction.

If “fit” is just numerical data then I am willing to forego “fit” in pursuit of wellness and health, although by no means do I suggest that body fat and weight ranges are not important. I just think the whole “fit” thing is overblown and based on whether you believe the body is a machine composed of parts. I don’t. Humans are much more because of the complexity of their minds, personalities and spirit making them much harder to simplify and quantify. Yet these factors must be taken into consideration if we in the fitness industry are also concerned with helping our clients become healthier and achieve optimum wellness.