The Other Fitness

The dictionary does not distinguish between fitness and health; using them synonymously. In fact, Webster’s lists health as the definition of fitness. It’s true because one cannot exist without the other. Ironically, Webster’s offers no usable definition of the word “health” but, thanks to this material, you now know what that is. And, in a double irony, knowing what that is means that there is in reality no need for the word fitness at all…. except to mislead.

You see, the dictionary truth of fitness is not how it has come to be used and talked about in common conversation and marketing. While the official definition of fitness begs the question of why we need a second word, usage in actual practice makes any clinical definition a moot point. The way the word “fitness” is actually used in modern life is to refer to something with a goal other than health. There is no need for the concept of fitness in a world where health is the primary goal. Fitness goals always produce something less than the goal of health.

There is no need for the concept of fitness in a world where health is the primary goal. Fitness goals always produce less health that the goal of health.

With that as a backdrop, what is this stuff that we talk about when we say “fitness”. Everywhere you hear talk of “setting fitness goals”. The first question you are asked when you hire a personal trainer is, “what are your fitness goals?” If fitness and health are the same thing, the only logical answer would be, “health”. (You want to watch a personal trainer squirm just for fun, interview him/her and answer the question just that way.)

At best, the modern rendition of fitness is assumed to represent some functional if not athletic prowess. At its worst, it is simply referring to the cosmetic cues that mimic the look of athletic ability. In both cases, there is an assumption that it also represents health and other quality-of-life markers, spoken or unspoken. This presumption of health is pervasive, and also false.

The facts suggest that our modern interpretation of fitness often comes at the expense of health, rather than in support of it. But there is something for which you can be fit that always produces the maximum levels of actual health, of the kind that creates an exceptional quality of life and equally exceptional longevity.

Technically speaking fitness is always about being fit for something; some specific function in which the person wants or needs to be exceptionally capable. An ultra-marathon runner and an Olympic weightlifter are both fit for their respective tasks, but they embody entirely different capacities and physical states. It seems unlikely that they could both be ultimately healthy also? The same goes for the amateur versions of those, and all other, sports. There is no such thing as “generic” fitness; that is a ship without a rudder.

Health will reliably produce both quality of life and longevity when you are fit for one specific thing: maximum interaction with the natural world. In other words, survival in the natural elements with no outside assistance or intervention other than what nature provides. What I’m suggesting is uncommon in both type and degree. It is a rare modern-day human that could actually accomplish this. 10,000 years ago, you were fit for this or you died. Pretty compelling. And your health is the natural result of that fitness.We know this is true because it served that very purpose for many thousands of years. We would have never survived as a species if it didn’t.

Many people want to talk about health, and many want to talk about fitness. But tragically few want to talk about them together. Even fewer want to talk about them as synonyms.

How does this differ from the modern interpretation? When you think about becoming a healthier you, does your mind go immediately to the thought of “hitting the gym” or getting involved in some competitive sport? This is a common modern-day approach. Challenging yourself physically will obviously be a part of anyone’s quest for health, but for most of us, it will not be the first—and certainly not the only—step. And how well do you think your gym or your sport is preparing you for maximum interaction with the natural world? That would be a hard case to make.

Your search for the health that makes fitness something less will also be a long slow process for most of us; even those who have been recently active. True health requires patience; fitness does not.

So let’s be clear on what health is not: health is not weight loss; health is not competition; health is not a look; health is not a number on the bathroom scale. Fitness can be any of those things.

You, of course, are free to pursue any flavor of fitness that you choose. Just about any gym or health club will offer you multiple versions in any one place; proof that even they are not willing to define it. My only mission here is to insure that you are not under the popular illusion that they all contribute equally and significantly to your health. At least now you know that all fitness is not created equal.

Bottom line: be very wary of the word “fitness” if health is your goal. Chances are the speaker has something else in mind.

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