What is “fitness”? (Part 3)

If you’ve read parts 1 and 2, your patience will now be rewarded.

(If you haven’t read the previous posts, well, too bad, but before judging this one, perhaps you should read the others.)

In the first two posts of this series, I covered some definitions of fitness that I feel should be rejected as inadequate for today’s reality.

We remain animals, but the measures of fitness that come from biology are probably not the best we can use given all that we’ve done to ease our lives, mostly by changing our immediate environment and the conditions of our lives.

Training too hard, which I feel is in compensation for feeling like something is wrong with our current lifestyle, is fraught with perils. It may work for a small portion of the population, but not for the majority. Also, all too often it focuses on the visual aspect of our bodies, which in itself is a bad idea. Those forms of obsessions are damaging to our health.

So my key point, the conclusion I’m proposing, is that we need a new definition of fitness. One that makes sense today, and for everyone. Let me give it to you without further ado:

Fitness = Sustainable Activity

Think of it this way: Fitness should be about our ability to go about our regular activities without undue difficulties. It should be about being able to handle the variable demands placed on us by life. It should also be about being able to do so for a good long time. You know, as in living a healthy, active life, well into Old Age.

In essence, we need to do enough physical activity, train ourselves through movement, to enable our bodies to be healthy without negative consequences. If our occasional exercise regimen causes us to have problems functioning through the rest of our daily activities, we are not really being fit: We’re being extreme once again.

It is a fine balance, but one that is well worth seeking. And one that requires constant vigilance, not just the occasional bout of intense training and/or dieting as compensatory measures for too much time spent watching TV and eating nachos…

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that physical activity is the key to health, both physical and mental. This is a topic we will explore at length in No-brainer Fitness. For now, please accept it as a factual premise.

Incidentally, the sustainable level of activity that is fitness is highly individual. Some can, and will, do more than others. You like running marathons, and are doing so in such a way as to remain healthy, then by all means, go ahead! In fact, and I’ll come back to that in other posts, you’d be surprised at what each and everyone of us is capable of.

Some, therefore, will be very active; others, less so, yet much more than they currently are. Some will lose a lot of weight, over time, while others may lose less. What matters most is to seek one’s own balance, without falling into the trap of obsession and extremes.

In fact, the only obsession that makes sense, is that of seeking balance.

How do we get there? How do we build this fitness we’ve just defined? That will be the subject of my next post, and probably many more after that, outside of this series, which is now at an end…

What is “fitness”? (Part 2)

In part 1, I talked about two definitions of fitness that are based on biology. I argued that they are no longer valid, or at least not entirely satisfactory, in this day and age.

The basic premise for that conclusion is that our environment is radically different from what our bodies have evolved to handle. For a large portion of the population, that’s fact.

In part 2, I’d like to focus on the following: we all have a kind of intuition that something about our lifestyle is wrong. I referred to that as a kind of understanding that we are all unfit, in the biological sense, for this modern environment we’ve created. And that makes us less than optimally healthy.

With this starting point in mind, I’d like to offer that we have seen the rise of another definition of fitness:

Fitness = Training Hard

Indeed, the response of a portion of the population to the malaise of being unfit has been one of intense activity, as illustrated by the popularity of endurance events like marathons and triathlons, extreme body workouts like cross-fit, P90X, and so on.

For many, what I would qualify of knee-jerk reaction to not being fit has become a quasi-religious fanaticism to working out hard. (Accompanied, incidentally, by a lot of driving around to get to the gym, and sitting on our behinds the rest of the time.)

All too often, it is focused on the visible aspect of fitness: lean, muscular bodies. Attractiveness has become part of the equation, but along a specific kind of esthetics that brings about its own slew of problems. This suggests:

Fitness = Looking Good

Oh, and on the diet side, there’s just as much intensity in the response, and yet the fundamentals of our modern food supply are not being addressed. But that will be the subject of another post…

When training becomes training hard and intensity becomes obsession, the door is wide open to injury. Anecdotally, even to death. We are far from thriving in our environment when we provoke our own injuries and precipitate radically negative consequences.

Accompanied by slogans like “no pain, no gain”, focusing on weight loss as a measure of success, and giving rise to an industry dedicated to coaxing you into their tailor-made fitness crazes, it should be clear those definitions, while accepted by many, fall short. Why? Because they are too extreme, and focus on external characteristics, not deep capabilities, of our bodies.

My contention is as follows: we need to make ourselves fit our new environment in a smart and adaptive way, not through extremes of over-compensation. And we need to focus on what matters most, ultimately, for our overall health, not what we look like.

That’s why I suggest to adopt a new definition that includes fitting in the environment we’ve made for ourselves, being able to reproduce (yes, even that still matters, in small quantities), and if at all possible, thriving in today’s reality. A new definition that is intimately linked to health, in the sense of being able to function at optimal levels for a good long time.

And that will be the subject of part 3…

What is “fitness”? (Part 1)

That’s perhaps not a question you’ve asked yourself, but like so many things we take for granted, it is worth taking a step back and thinking about.

That’s why my first post is dedicated to this simple question. As will be the second, because there’s too much to explore for a single post.

First this first part, a bit of travel back in time is on the menu.

In the somewhat strict biological sense, fitness is the ability to exist, survive, and reproduce, in a given ecological niche. (I’m paraphrasing, of course, since I’m not a biologist.) In essence, the individual “fits” with the conditions and environment that prevail at that time. So:

Fitness = Adapted to one’s environment

More often than not, biological fitness is measured by the transfer of genes from one generation to the next. This “success” at reproduction is what leads to the notion of survival of the fittest. It does not mean the individual has beaten up all competitors (that may happen as well, but not as often as popularly believed); it is a simple indication that the individual has given rise to a sizable portion of the next generation. Thus:

Fitness = Reproductive Success

We’ve come some way from our origins as struggling animals. We’ve distanced ourselves from the hardships of the environment through clothes, fire, housing, agriculture, machines of all kinds, etc. Some might argue we’ve completely detached ourselves from the grips of evolution. They’d be wrong, of course; we’ve only changed our environment, modified it much faster than we’ve modified ourselves through natural (or otherwise) selection.

In that respect, our reproductive success is amazing, but our bodies may no longer fit the environments in which they now live. This leads to lots of health problems. Those among us who are overweight are only the most visible aspect, a symptom really, of this. (Careful: overweight does not necessarily mean unfit. The correlation with many health issues, however, is undeniable.)

I would go as far as to say that our current way of life makes us all unfit to a great extent. We have facilitated our lives to the point of taking cars everywhere instead of walking, taking escalators and elevators instead of stairs (yes, I’m aware there were no stairs in the African Savannah, but bear with me), eating our fill pretty much every single day (for a large portion of the population, pun intended), etc.

Our bodies are not prepared for that, and it will take time for evolution to compensate. But I don’t think we should let evolution take its course in this case. It would simply take too long, and too many would suffer needlessly in the process.

That’s why those definitions are not entirely satisfactory anymore. The first one still has value, as we’ll see later, but it demands that we consider a bit more what our environment has become.

As to the second definition, I think we should reject it altogether. We have developed technologies that compensate for nature in guaranteeing reproductive success. At any rate, overpopulation and the footprint of humanity on our only planet are already problems that demand a lot of attention. Let’s not focus on adding more of us as a measure of success.

So we must look elsewhere for a current, useful, definition of fitness.

That’s what I’ll continue doing in the second post on this topic.