The Meaning Of Fitness

Fitness is a word that is part of our every day verbiage. It’s a word that most people probably think they understand the definition of. But when I look at how people are training (and the eating they do to support this training) I’m unsure if people accurately understand what fitness is truly about.  

Now the way we think about fitness will differ depending on the reason that someone is training.

If you’re a professional athlete or attempting to become a professional athlete, the idea of fitness is more narrow in its definition. It is about training in a way that makes you better in your chosen sport.

The end goal is winning a gold medal or winning the league or breaking some world record. In this instance, there are lots of sacrifices that this individual is prepared to make to reach a high level of fitness, some which may even be damaging to your long-term health. But for athletes in this position it’s a trade off they often make.The Meaning Of FitnessFor the rest of us, fitness should be viewed from a very different perspective. Fitness for every day folk should be about doing exercise (or movement) that enhances all aspects of our lives.

So while we may want to be able to improve our 100m freestyle, increase our dead lift or be able to beat our best time for a 10km run, these improvements should have the knock on effect of enhancing our lives at the macro level.

One of my favourite definitions for fitness is by coach Scott Abel. He defines fitness as ““the ability to meet the demands and vicissitudes [changes] of daily life, with relative ease, with some extra energy available for emergencies or unexpected situations.”

As part of this definition I would add that it is not just about the physical body, but about mental and emotional strength, and how this helps us to better cope with everything life throws at us.

So fitness should enhance your ability to do your job. It should improve your resistance to stress and give you the strength to better cope with it. It should allow you to have better relationships. It should give you a body that helps create and ultilise energy effectively to make it through the day.  

One of the biggest reasons that this is so important is because fitness, much more than weight or body fat percentage, is a key determiner of health and longevity. Someone who is heavier but has good fitness has a much better outlook than someone who is lean but lacks fitness.The Meaning Of FitnessThe sad thing, from my perspective anyway, is that what is presented these days under the guise of “fitness” often has very little to do with the definition that I have been describing.

Fitness has come to be associated with a particular look. It is someone who is lean, often they will have visible abs or if not, at least a very low body fat percentage. They are typically attractive based on our societies narrow definition of beauty, something that was bestowed on them through birth and has little to do with any “hard work” that they have done.

Fitness in a sense has become this aesthetic goal that large chunks of the population have no chance of achieving. And for those who can achieve it, only a small percentage can do it while keeping their health (and sanity) intact.

There is nothing wrong with vanity. There is nothing wrong with setting goals and working towards them.

But there is a problem with someone training in a way that impairs their ability to concentrate at work. Or it leaves them cranky and short tempered with their partner. Or where it starts to create symptoms – trouble getting to sleep, irregular periods, or irrational thoughts about food or what will happen if they miss a training session.

This pursuit of aesthetics under the guise of fitness also leads to people shunning healthful activities. They believe it’s not enough because they aren’t dripping in sweat or completely exhausted afterwards.

If we are to look back to 50 or 60 years ago, formal exercise was something done by a much smaller percentage of the population. This is especially true if we are thinking of women. The idea of a woman going to the gym was nearly unheard of. Even just going running or cycling regularly as a woman was a rarity and something not done by most.

Fast forward to today and in most circles this phenomenon has been reversed. Huge chunks of the population are going to the gym, or doing circuits or participating in some form of sport of exercise.

(Obviously I am generalising here and speaking to those who are more affluent and have the means to exercise. Those living in poverty aren’t this fortunate but I’ll leave that topic for another time).

But what has changed in the last 50 or 60 years is the reduction in low-grade movement that used to characterise people’s day-to-day life. We have had such changes in labour saving technology around the home that we forget how much of a difference this makes.

This kind of movement is referred to as Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. It is all the movement that we do that is not exercise based. While we still do incorporate some of this in our every day life, like the movement to have a shower, walking to station or to catch up a bus or the fidgeting that is instigated by unconscious brain processes. But so much of what used to take up lots of time in this NEAT category have almost totally disappeared from our life.

Now when you look at the research around fitness (and health) NEAT has a much more significant impact as opposed to formal exercise. And while this definitely doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t exercise, because they should, it means that including more walking or gardening should be thought about as part of someone’s fitness routine (rather than useless because it doesn’t cause them to sweat enough).

Diet is also an integral part of proper fitness. This is because what someone eats provides them with the nutrients and nourishment that the body needs to complete the movement and exercise they are doing, plus the repair and adaptions that need to happen after this activity.

And in the same way that the idea of fitness has become skewed, what someone should eat has suffered the same fate. Rather than being about supporting the almost endless tasks the body needs to do on a daily basis, it’s become viewed as the tool to keep someone lean or thin regardless of their body’s real needs.

I see this procession of young, attractive wellness bloggers “advising” the public about health and fitness. The way they talk about food is dripping with judgment and morality. They use pseudoscience masquerading as real science, typically to fear people away from certain “toxic foods” or whole food groups because they are “dangerous”.

Restrictive eating then becomes the norm and what we do to achieve our “health” and “fitness” goals is based on cookbooks with dubious science or Instagram pictures of food from the wellness bloggers feed.  

I really feel for people, as it’s completely confusing. Every day we see conflicting messages about what we should or shouldn’t be doing. People are normally trying their best, following the ideas that seem most sensible to them (even when the idea is the complete opposite of sensible, the “science” used to back it up can make it convincing for those who have no reason to suspect it’s not true).  

Probably the biggest factor in all this is the conflating of losing weight with both increased fitness and increased health. That if I’m lighter I therefore must be healthier and fitter. But as much as this goes against the common narrative, this isn’t the case. And whether weight impacts on these things in a positive or negative way, will be determined by what methods someone uses to lose weight.

At the end of the day, I want things to become simpler and easier for people. To return to a place where achieving fitness was something that was part of every day life, not some monumental and overwhelming struggle.

Fitness isn’t about a look but about keeping up habits that are both sustainable and that actually enhance your life. Not just the moments in the gym when you can lift heavier or swim further, but all aspects of your life.

So please take a broader approach when defining fitness. Make movement a regular facet of your life, doing things that you enjoy. Cut through the façade of health and fitness as a particular type of look. And eat in a way that is simple and provides nourishment and pleasure, not a list of arbitrary rules. If you can do this, the goal of improving your fitness will happen naturally.

This article originally appeared on the blog Trained By Eleanor here.

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Chris Sandel is the founder of He is a nutritionist, working with clients on a one-on-one basis, as well as creating online trainings and products about health and nutrition. He is the author of The Health Trap: Why "Healthy" Eating Isn't Always Healthy which is available on Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Chris has three free emails series. One is on how to quit dieting. One is on simple tests you can do at home. And the other is his take on the world's healthiest foods.

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