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What Health And Fitness Mean and How They Differ

I have been interested in fitness since 2003 and in health since 2013.

Although I am not a doctor and I don’t have any formal health or fitness credentials, I hope to share some of what I have learned about these topics on the blog in the past several years.

Given this disclaimer, please don’t misconstrue any health or fitness related content on the blog as medical advice.

As always, consult with your physician before making any health or fitness related lifestyle changes.

What Is fitness?

Fitness is category specific.

Someone who is fit to run a marathon isn’t fit for body-building.

And someone who is fit for power-lifting probably isn’t fit for yoga.

Furthermore, no matter what physical activity or sport you are fit to do,  your fitness level doesn’t necessarily mean you’re healthy. 

I think this incorrect assumption occurs most frequently in the realm of cardiovascular fitness.

While cardiovascular fitnesss can contribute to a healthy cardiovascular system, it doesn’t necessarily mean your heart is healthy.

Dr. James O’keefe has thoroughly documented the phenomenon of endurance athletes dying prematurely of heart related issues.

Conversely, you can also avoid “working out” in the western sense of lifting weights or running your entire life and still be totally healthy as long as you maintain an active, mobile lifestyle among other things.

This is apparent when considering “blue zones,” or areas of the world with a disproportionate number of happy, healthy centenarians.

Blue zone inhabitants have in common frequent walking, spending time outdoors, gardening, completing household chores, and other mild exercise habits.

Although they don’t hit the gym or run regularly, they are happy, healthy, and often live longer than those who do exercise regularly in the western sense.

To clarify, I’m not against weight-lifting or cardiovascular endurance exercise.

In fact, I think evidence supports the idea that a certain amount of strength and cardiovascular training contribute to a healthy lifestyle.

However, neither strength nor cardiovascular endurance necessarily mean you are healthy, and too much training for either can result in negative health effects.

So remember that physical fitness simply means you are physically prepared to perform a certain activity, not necessarily that you are healthy. 

It’s tempting to believe physical fitness means you are healthy because fitness has many attractive qualities.

Here are some of them.  

A moderate fitness level doesn’t have to be very time intensive. 

With a few hours a week or less over a relatively short period, you can become fit for weightlifting, gymnastics, running, or whatever physical fitness pass-time interests you. 

A moderate fitness level doesn’t necessarily require radical life-changes to work.

For example, in college I hit the gym for an hour three to four times a week and added noticeable muscle (and definitely fat) to my physique after about a month and a half.  

Other than that, I didn’t do anything else for my fitness goal except eat a lot of unhealthy food. 

I found increasing strength and adding predominantly muscle mass to my physique fairly simple without making many life changes.

Fitness is almost universally respected.

You typically get props from friends and family for working out. 

Why?

When people see you jogging or weight lifting, they respect your self-discipline. 

Fitness results are tangible.

Whether it’s a physical transformation or increasing the distance you can run, the visible progress of fitness is exhilarating and encouraging. 

The first step in fitness is about doing more, not less.

When you’re transitioning from not training to training, step one is simple: 

Just add ABC exercise regimen to your routine.

Unfortunately, people often use the “do more” fitness mentality to justify unhealthy habits. 

They think something like, “I can eat this donut as long as I hit the gym later.”

While that donut may not affect your fitness training all that much, consistent donut consumption can affect your health.   

What is health?

Western healthcare seems to indicate that health is the absence of disease. 

However, if I had to define health, here’s how I’d do it: 

Health is about maximizing functional longevity, cognitive performance, fertility in fertile years, and minimizing the likelihood of disease or injury while pursuing your dreams, good relationships, and spiritual truth. 

I know.

It’s a mouthful.

And it’s still not perfect or complete. 

But it does capture the physical, mental, reproductive, disease-free, injury-free, relational, and spiritual aspects of health. 

As you can probably tell, the pursuit of health given my personal definition is more difficult than the pursuit of physical fitness.

Here are a few qualities of the pursuit of health that make it a difficult endeavor. 

Health questions are constant and cannot be relegated to discrete chunks of time.

While fitness is about what you do in the handful of hours that you train, health is about what you do in all the rest of your time.

Health questions like the following are almost constant.

Do I eat the donut?

Do I go to bed early?

Do I have a beer?

Do I need to drink more water?

Should I stand instead of sit? 

Health is such a commitment because you must choose it over ease and comfort so many times every day. 

Good health sometimes requires radical lifestyle changes. 

Whether it’s changing your diet or getting to sleep earlier, health affects every part of life and therefore requires a holistic approach.

This approach may appear radical especially to those who don’t share your convictions. 

For instance, If you don’t drink alcohol or don’t eat gluten in the name of health, many will marvel at your “radically” different lifestyle.

And being radical, different, or outside the social norm isn’t easy.

This is why so many sink (or rise) to the habits and norms of those around them.

The pursuit of health doesn’t seem to be as universally respected as the pursuit of fitness. 

This is particularly true with dietary restrictions or special dietary requests.

Many people perceive special dietary requests as high maintenance and even emasculating for men. 

Health improvements are often not visible or tangible.

Improving your health (like sleep hygiene) just isn’t as apparent as improving fitness often is (like getting six-pack abs or completing a marathon).

As a result, you will hardly ever receive a congratulations for improving your health unless it manifests itself in outward appearance (like weight loss).

Better health often involves breaking more bad habits than starting new habits. 

We all know bad habits form more easily than good habits.

And unfortunately, bad habits seem to have a disproportionately large effect on our health.

Imagine if you ate an abundance of nutrient-dense vegetables but also smoked a pack of cigarettes every day.

Consuming even more vegetables probably wouldn’t improve your health.

But giving up smoking would radically improve it.

Although this is an extreme example, I think most people could improve their health significantly by quitting or reducing certain habits like drinking alcohol than by adding new health habits.

It’s often the things you don’t do that make the most difference for your health.

Conclusion

I find it helpful to have definitions in place for terms like health and fitness that are discussed frequently but rarely defined.

And although my definitions for these terms are far from perfect, they provide a starting place for discussion about them.

How would you define health or fitness?

Let me know in the comments.

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