Does Fitness Equal Health?
Does Fitness Equal Health?
In a perfect world with unicorns and puppies frolicking in a field of daisies, humans would move for the love of moving. And we would also move to fulfill our needs, thereby receiving all the movement types and amounts required to maintain optimum health. Well, you may not have noticed, but there are no unicorns and puppies in that field (and that’s corn, friend, not daisies.), and we humans don’t move much these days, for love or necessity. And what movement we still do is exercise to promote fitness, yet we are more diseased and injured in chronic ways than we’ve ever been. So can we truly say that exercise is the equal of movement, and that fitness equals health?
Our collective slide into sedentarism is both old and new. Really it all began when we shifted from a hunter/gatherer society to agricultural. We raised beasts for meat and planted seeds for the rest, and we didn’t have to go roaming around looking for it. That happened a really long time ago. Next, there was the Industrial Revolution, which began to mechanize the work we humans were doing with our bodies. This is far more recent, but there is nobody around today who experienced the dawn of it first-hand. And then there’s the Technological Revolution, the age of computers, Internet, and Amazon. Or as I like to call it, the rise of the machines. Now a days we can collect everything we need with the click of a mouse. We can roam the Earth without ever leaving our chair. All our necessities can be delivered or acquired online. We have never moved less as a species and there’s not much to indicate we’re turning that trend around. We can see how, step-by-step, we’ve removed the necessity of movement from our lives.
This may seem like progress, but there’s a cost. In the grand scale of time, all this has happened too quickly for our bodies to deal with it through evolution. Humans still need movement to maintain healthy function all the way down to the cellular level, but our lives are no longer providing it.
You have to hand it to us – we see the problem. We’ve figured out that our lack of movement is creating trouble. But we didn’t simply replace the missing movement we had systematically removed over the course of generations, probably because it happened so gradually we didn’t really notice. Instead we created something new called exercise. Exercise lives outside of our normal life, and it’s become like a vitamin supplement we take to make up for a deficit in our diet. And while this can be helpful, it can’t do what a healthy, balanced diet can do. So too movement has lost its original context and while we have the vague notion that movement is supposed to be providing us health, our expectation of movement is now influenced by the only movement role models we have today– sports and athletic performance.
Sports are great! Martial arts are great! Dance is great! I’m a fan of all. But the requirements necessary to be successful at these particular activities are not necessarily the same thing as what your body requires to function optimally. And the term fitness comes from the fulfilling of requirements these particular pursuits demand. How far can you run? How fast? How much can you lift? How many times? How skillfully can you kick or catch or hit that ball? How many goals can you make, how many points? These are specific goals, and the mastering of these skills can mean negative consequences to our overall function and health. Think about it – the career of athletes is short and for good reason - our bodies can’t withstand the abuse! But somewhere along the line our profoundly sedentary culture mistook our admiration of athletes and performers for good role models of natural, health producing movement.
And so our own attempts at movement have begun to mirror the activities that live outside our health requirements. And in our increasingly busy but sedentary lives we keep trying to make discreet but intense bouts of repetitive movement sufficient activity for our otherwise overwhelmingly sedentary habits. The equation doesn’t balance, but we keep trying to find the next new thing that promises to do just that. Our media and gyms are choked with examples of these.
In light of this, our confusion and frustration is understandable. So I find it helpful to clearly define our terms, thereby more clearly defining our motivations and goals. Health is what is required to produce and maintain optimum function of all systems and keep us free from pain and disease. Fitness (and I include sports, athletics, and performance here) is the attainment of particular skills used to perform a task.
Fitness is good, necessary even, but the trouble begins when we confuse one with the other. It is absolutely possible to pursue fitness and not achieve health. And it is possible to be healthy and not fit, depending on what measure you’re using. For instance, I enjoy more whole body health then I ever have to date, and yet I am completely unfit to run a marathon because I’ve not been training my body for that task. And I’ve worked with marathon runners who struggle to continue their chosen sport because injury and disease are outpacing any positives they receive from running. They are very fit to run, but their body is struggling to survive.
What I’m saying is we need both, but it makes sense to put health before fitness. If you add fitness training to a healthy body, you’re living the dream! But if you’re under the impression that fitness goals will produce health, you’re in for a disappointment. And moving just to get our heart pumping or our muscles burning can overlook the misalignments and imbalances that cause us harm, inadvertently strengthening the dysfunction that our artificial environment and sedentary habits created.
So we need to move, that’s for sure. And we need to move more than we do. But we also need to be able to assess and apply the movement that is needed to make and keep us well. We need to move better, then more of us, and then move more.
Next time, we’ll look a little deeper at what whole body health means, and what movement has to do with it. (Did anyone else just hear Tina Turner sing that last bit? Just me? Oh well).