What Does the Word “Fitness” Really Mean?

 

The word ‘fitness’ is a bit of a catch-all, seeing as there are no less than three distinct components to fitness: cardiovascular fitness, strength, and flexibility. Summing those rather complicated topics up in one word is a bit reductionist, to say the least. If you look up the word “fitness” in a dictionary (pick a dictionary, any dictionary will do!), you will find a plethora of definitions, depending on what category (medical, historical, or biological) you choose.


These are the definitions that resonate well with me, and work best for our purposes here:

  • The capability of the body of distributing inhaled oxygen to muscle tissue during increased physical effort
  • The state or condition of being physically sound and healthy, especially as the result of exercise and proper nutrition
  • The degree of adaptation of an organism to its environment, determined by its genetic constitution

Interesting that none of the definitions include 6-pack abs, the ability to run 42.2 km (or 26.1 miles) in a herd, or having less than 6% body fat as criteria. Personally, I am happy and relieved to see that. If being fit required looking like the Photoshopped model on the cover of a Shape magazine, well I would hang up my coaching hat right now.

As a way of unearthing the truth, let’s examine each of those definitions to see how they apply to us mere mortals.

Definition #1

First, the most clinical of definitions: “The capability of the body of distributing inhaled oxygen to muscle tissue during increased physical effort.“


This definition refers to that fact that when you exercise, your muscles move vigorously and that causes their metabolic rate to increase. When that happens, your muscles need more energy so they produce more of the chemical energy molecule called Adenosine triphosphate (ATP). You need oxygen to produce ATP, so the more ATP you produce, the more oxygen your body requires.

Using this definition of fitness, we can say that as our fitness increases we become more and more efficient at the process of using oxygen to produce energy. We can also say the direct and measurable result of this process is that we become more comfortable exerting ourselves at higher levels, can go faster, move heavier objects, or last longer at certain activities.

That definition is certainly straightforward but I think it lacks the nuance that we are looking for. Surely there is more to the concept of fitness than just a biological process.

Definition #2

The second definition: “The state or condition of being physically sound and healthy, especially as the result of exercise and proper nutrition” is a little closer to what I am looking for but is also a little more sticky.

This definition uses words like “sound, healthy and proper” that fall squarely into the subjective category. This definition also requires that we as a population have some opinions or ways to measure what it means to be “physically sound” and “healthy”. Not to mention the use of the phrase “proper nutrition,” which I am sure would make even our very own Nutrition Diva shake her fists at the sky.

Sure, we can test for things like VO2 Max, Blood Lactate Threshold, Body Mass Index (BMI), and even Resting Metabolic Rate to give us an idea of whether or not someone is “physically sound” but each one of those tests and measurements carries with it its own set of subjective issues and judgement calls. We can often determine when someone is unhealthy but there is much more debate when we try to differentiate between what is normal, average, and (especially) healthy.

Definition #3

The third definition is the most interesting to me: “The degree of adaptation of an organism to its environment, determined by its genetic constitution.” As convoluted as that may sound, I think it comes the closest to defining what I believe is at the root of our quest for fitness.


The idea that the most important aspect of our fitness endeavours is that we must become (and remain) fit enough to adapt to our environment, to the extent that is possibly based on our genes, sounds perfect to me. Now don’t get me wrong, if you want to go beyond simply adapting to your environment, I am right behind you (after all, I have been seen at the start line of an Ironman triathlon or two) but as a baseline, this is an extremely noble goal. Let me explain.

If we first focus our fitness goals on such activities as:

  • Walk, run, or cycle to our workplace or perform errands
  • carry a heavy load of groceries, a child or supplies home
  • get around our office building or apartment without the need for elevators
  • stay on our feet for an entire work day without the need to sit down
  • move large pieces of furniture to clean behind
  • (as strange as it sounds) squat or sit on the ground without the need for a pillow or lumbar support

If we are all able to perform these environmental activities, we would raise the national fitness average considerably—plus none of these activities require a gym membership, an expensive outfit or a coach chasing you around a park with a stopwatch.

Now, I don’t want to go all ‘survivalist weirdo, living in a bunker’ on you but just to put it in a little more perspective, let me ask you this: if a particularly un-cute dog was chasing you, would you be able to lift your own bodyweight over a fence to avoid getting your shoes nibbled? If your home was on fire, would you be able to lower yourself off of your balcony or roof to safety? If your car broke down in the middle of nowhere (with no cell service), how far could you powerwalk to get help? Not to mention the all important question: in a zombie apocalypse, could you outrun one of those fast moving Zombies from the movie, 28 Days Later?

Not to mention the all important question: in a zombie apocalypse, could you outrun one of those fast moving Zombies from the movie, 28 Days Later?

All joking aside, there have been many reports of people actually losing their lives in emergency situations (such as building evacuations) due to a bottleneck being created in a narrow exit or stairwell. All it takes are a couple people who don’t fit this definition of fit to jeopardize the safety of the group at large.

Adapting to our environment as opposed to finding, purchasing or inventing tools to help us avoid our environment is a perfect place to start in our quest for fitness. Then, once that basic level of fitness is met, we are free to layer on the chiselled pecs, thigh gap, revolved triangle pose or other feats of physical marvels. Let’s just view those as what they are – outliers, bucket list items and personal goals that while undeniably cool, exciting and admirable are well above and beyond the minimum effective dose of what I would suggest that we refer to as ‘fit’.

Now, please don’t take this diatribe as an indication that this friendly neighborhood Get-Fit Guy is going to stop talking about cutting edge fat loss research, wicked new workouts to make you shredded or the best new devices on the market to assist you in your athletic goals. Simply take this as a quick reset of our collective mindset and cause you to take a minute to reevaluate your desire to sculpt your glutes or blast your abs… at least until you are willing and able to climb the stairs to your office, lift yourself over a fence, or simply get off the floor without using your hands. Seriously, try it! You may be surprised how easy or hard it is.


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