Fitness is Not Health
In writing my fitness book and thinking about how I want to explain my views to others, I’ve realized that I was never really comfortable with fitness as we normally conceive it.
Fitness is a confusing term these days. It has become so confusing, in fact, that you can have Fitness without Health. You can be very good at the Fitness thing, exercising religiously, following the right diet, wearing the right $70 Yoga pants, and be completely miserable. Originally meant to be a means to promote our holistic health, Fitness has taken on a life of its own.
To define Fitness, I want put aside dictionary definitions and focus on what most people mean when they talk about Fitness. I’m concerned with ideas and conceptions, not academic or scientific definitions that have little to do with how people interact with the term in their real lives.
For most, fitness is synonymous with athletic performance: the better your fitness, the better athlete you are. It is also synonymous with health: the better your fitness, the healthier you are. So, the assumption is that athletes are healthy, meaning their bodies express the full range of human function, painlessly, and for a long time.
The Unhealthy Athlete
But we know that not all great athletes are healthy. The standards of a sport do not always require holistic human health to perform well (think golf), and sometimes the requirements of excellence in a sport actually favor adaptations that cause health problems. When an elite runner dies of heart failure, what do we make of it? How do we reconcile the awe-inspiring performance of gymnasts with the spine and shoulder problems that come with the intensive practice?
Distance running is known to promote loss of muscle mass. Since muscle helps us retain functional independence as we age, being a distance runner does not seem like a good way to ensure a long and healthy life. The extreme spinal flexibility demanded of female gymnasts, and the loads placed on the shoulders of gymnasts of both sexes, sometimes results in joint problems in later life as well (by ‘later’, I mean post-college). Competitive weightlifters suffer knee, elbow, and spine problems. Clearly, high performance in a sport does not necessarily translate to fitness, if fitness is means health.
Perhaps a more moderate view of competition would eliminate these problems, but in our fast-paced world, if you aren’t competitive by college-age, you simply aren’t competitive. This rush to be the best may lead athletes to sacrifice their health for their performance, a trade-off they might not need to make if they let it develop organically over time. They have made the conscious choice to sacrifice health at times for performance, and stories of athletes inflicting overuse injuries in pursuit of a trophy are very common, and even admirable to some.
The Unhealthy Exerciser
So perhaps we should divorce our idea of fitness from athletics. Athletes are a special population, after all, who must mold their bodies to the requirements of their chosen sport.
But if fitness is not related to athleticism, what is it? It would be very difficult to conceive of a fit person who didn’t do anything remotely athletic, wouldn’t it?
Actually, the dominant image of fitness in our culture has nothing to do with real athletics anyway. Most people considered fit get that way by going to the gym and performing movements that aren’t seen in any sport other than running (and even that on a treadmill).
For most of us, fitness means a certain spandex-clad set of body proportions, sculpted on a certain program, in a certain environment. Fitness is what you do at the gym for an hour every day, or more if you are serious about it. Fitness is gained through exercise, and those who are good at exercising will have lots of fitness. If you exercise enough, you accrue lots of fitness, and you are rewarded with a tight butt, toned muscles, and the attention of the opposite sex, as well as the self-satisfaction that comes from knowing you are doing The Right Thing for your health, according to popular taste and government recommendations.
This mentality of fitness gave rise to the extreme exercise trend, characterized by the popularity of CrossFit, P90X, bootcamp fitness, and HIIT-style training. Extremism has come to characterize the fitness industry and, combined with pervasive body-hatred, led us to gleefully perform hundreds of pushups and tear ourselves apart lifting weights we had no business handling, basking in the pain we brought on ourselves, salved by the reassurance that ‘pain is weakness leaving the body’. The worse a workout felt, the better. (Incidentally, this has nothing to do with how athletes train. For an athlete, a workout is not judged on how bad it feels, but on how it improves sports performance).
Having done my fair share of extreme, self-destructive exercise, I know how easy it is to rationalize pain as a good thing. I spent almost two full years, from the end of 2009 until the end of 2011, with chronic injuries that limited my function in daily life: a stress-fractured foot and shin(s), a strained shoulder that made it painful to take books off a shelf or enjoy kayaking with my girlfriend, back pain that prevented me from leaning forward more than 5 degrees, wrist injuries and forearm stress fractures from hundreds of burpees, damaged knees, and bleeding hands from torn calluses. All these I wore as badges of my commitment to fitness, and I was rewarded with respect for my unwavering dedication.
This isn’t to say nobody experiences benefits from these sorts of programs. Depending on where they start, gym-goers’ health may improve to a point–they may lose weight, gain muscle, and improve their stamina–but when you start in such a bad place, it isn’t surprising that any change will cause improvement. In much the same way that veganism improves the health of those accustomed to pizza and beer but eventually leads to problems, poorly balanced exercise programs will create improvement until their start to tear you apart.
So, Fitness, as we commonly understand it, does not equal Health, and I came to be uncomfortable with the term Fitness. It has been mangled by the profit-driven Health and Fitness Industry, and it had lost its true meaning. What is even worse, it has assimilated all exercise. Now, even if you are talking about running around in the woods as the best way to be healthy, you have to call it fitness for anyone to understand, and fitness comes with a lot of expectations. To accurately describe what that is, you would have to create a whole new vocabulary.
The Healthy Mover
Even as a trainer in the most popular fitness movement around, which claimed to promote a new kind of exercise that was functional, useful and really did promote health, I couldn’t have conversations with other trainers. We were looking for different things. When I said fitness, it meant something totally different than what they did. For them, the goal was sexiness, weight loss, profit, and entertainment. For me, the goal wasn’t even physical; fitness was one part of the journey to total human growth and was inseparable from concerns like diet, sleep, family, intellect, and spirituality.
Since fitness is used to refer to the part of our health affected by movement and exercise, I say we free human movement from that confusing term and just call it what it is: Movement.
I can’t take full credit for this idea. When I first began learning about the development of human physicality, I read an article about the Methodé Naturale and its modern counterpart, MovNat. In Men’s Health, it was called fitness because there was no other term to encompass what it was, but I could tell right away that it was as far from our idea of Fitness and exercise as the ultra-running lifestyle of the Tarahumara in Born to Run (incidentally, the article was also written by Christopher McDougall).
We all want to be healthy. That is why people exercise. I wanted to be healthy so badly, I was willing to make myself sick to achieve it. However, Fitness is no longer what we need to be healthy.
Movement, on the other hand, has always been necessary for good health. Neglecting to use any part of the body always results in its atrophy, so of course we need to move, and move well. The quality of movement matters; how graceful, coordinated, efficient, and powerful is it? If you can move well, you have a healthy body. As our society has become tamed and corralled, our standards for ‘moving well’ have seriously declined to the point that being able to squat correctly is beyond most people’s capabilities.
To move well requires that you eat well, sleep well, think freely, find emotional balance, and enjoy nature. Each of those things also requires that you move well. Movement cannot be divorced from the rest of who we are, so categorizing life into things like “Work”, “Fitness”, and “Relationships” doesn’t really work (another reason I don’t like the term Fitness). Perhaps the benefits that come from our practice of Fitness are really the result of the fact that it does involve some movement. If that were the case, maybe we could just move correctly and skip all the overpriced, stretchy clothes, the glossy health magazines, and the vomit-inducing workouts.
So, if you can move well, in relation to your true capabilities (not relative to most people in our zoo-human society, to borrow a phrase from Erwan LeCorre), you will have a healthy body that will last a long time and serve you well in an adventurous, fulfilling life.
I’m working on a handbook to explain my take on movement, exercise and the role I think it should play in our lives. I have seen too many people who find themselves at war with themselves over their own health. I have also become really fed up with the fitness industry misleading people to make a profit. I’d like to clear away some of the myths and the lies, and present a vision of health that does not involve self-destructive exercise or starvation. My goal is to explain the movement and diet aspects of health in a way that lets you make your own decisions. If anything in this article resonated with you, and you’d like to be notified when the book comes out (later this summer), please click here and sign up for e-mail notifications.
Inspired? Incensed? Please let me know in the comments below or on Twitter. If you liked the post, please share it with your friends using the links below.