That question seems so easy to answer until you try to utter the first few words. Various images come to mind. Usain Bolt bolting down the track. Nadia Comaneci doing the scissors on the balance beam. Wayne Gretzky splitting two defenders as he scores a goal. But those images quickly become contrasted with images of 6’0 tall 330 pound sumo wrestler Asashoryu Akinori raising his hands in victory, as he became the first wrestler to win all six major sumo wrestling tournaments. Babe Ruth’s stomach bulging over his belt during his home run trots. Kirby Puckett taking short, quick steps around those bases. In spite of his weight, Puckett could get around those bases and fast. Ruth hit enough home runs that he rarely had to do anything more than jog. Sumo wrestlers are now required to undergo body fat calculations and must go on a diet if they are judged unhealthy, although no criteria for unhealthy has yet to be set. Akinori, Ruth, and Puckett had exceptional athletic careers, but Ruth and Puckett died young, and Akinori is still fairly young. Although Ruth may have lived a normal lifespan, considering when he was born, he was a boozer, a gambler, a tobacco chewer, and rich. He likely would have lived longer had he practiced better overall self-care. Perhaps all of that information offers us a clue. Maybe physical fitness is more about overall health and self-care and less about appearance, since it doesn’t appear to be a physical trait that can be glimpsed.
Here are three definitions of physical fitness that are provided by freedictionary.com. The first two come from their medical dictionary; the last one, from their general dictionary.
- Physical Fitness– a state of physiologic well-being that is achieved through a combination of good diet, regular physical exercise, and other practices that promote good health.
- Physical Fitness– the ability to carry out daily tasks with alertness and vigor, without undue fatigue, and with enough energy reserve to meet emergencies or to enjoy leisure time.
- Physical Fitness– good physical condition; being in shape or in condition.
Great! So now we know that if we get regular exercise, can do daily tasks with “alertness and vigor”, and are in good physical condition, we are then physically fit. I don’t know about you, but I can’t do much with that. None of it tells me how to tell if I am physically fit, when I’ve arrived, so to say.
Exercise physiologists and health practitioners have been trying to find that holy grail – a precise and cost-effective method of measuring physical fitness. The criteria for measuring it are in constant flux. Measuring BMI (Body Mass Index), which is largely a measure of how proportionate we are, is presently the most popular method, because body mass can be indexed across populations and charted. Since charts are very visual, they are quick and easy to use. The idea is that physically fit people are height and weight proportionate. It’s an idea that the examples I provided of the exceptional abilities of obese athletes Akinori, Ruth, and Puckett and one which a number of studies have debunked.
BMI charts underestimates the body fat of elderly people and overestimates the body fat of bodybuilders, for instance. Beginning at about age 50, muscle loss accelerates to a rate of about 1% per year. Bodybuilders carry a much higher amount of muscle than most people. Although muscle is not fat, it still weighs and can tip a scale to record “obese”.
Still all of that tells us something, that doctors and exercise physiologists consider the percentage of fat that we have to be an aspect of fitness. So sometimes body fat percentage (BF%) is measured using a number of other methods. You can find a wonderful list of those methods in this body fat testing article.
One other popular method of measuring body fat is via calipers. Since they are invasive, they are losing favor, however, at least among personal trainers. To use them, we have to touch and tug at the skin of our clients.
Although hip-to-waist ratio is not in the article referenced above for measuring body fat, it is sometimes used. This method has a number of limitations, too. The biggest one is that we do not control our basic body shapes, our frames. Our genetics do, and our bones fuse during our teenage years and that is that. Unless you undergo plastic surgery, the shape that you have is the one you’ll have for life.
Our bodies tend to be one of three basic types – endomorphic, mesomorphic, or ectomorphic, although it can be a mixture of all types. To tell the types apart while glimpsing, I look at the more obviously markers – fat distribution and shoulder-to-hip ratio. Some of the other markers, such as fast or slow metabolism, big or small bones, muscular or not, are difficult to glimpse and can be highly subjective. Or at the very least, what is true cannot be immediately known.
Here are some of the more common traits of each body type.
|Low Body Fat||Strong||High Body Fat|
|Long Limbs||Fat evenly distributed||Difficulty keeping fat off|
|Small shoulders and Hips, Ruler Shape||Broad Shoulders, Hourglass Shape||Small Shoulders, Broad Hips, Pear Shape|
|Fast Metabolism||Medium Metabolism||Slow Metabolism|
All except for the characteristics that are in the last row are easy to glimpse. But the last row is probably the most important, because it tells us what it will likely take to lose or maintain weight and body fat. The reason why I say “weight” and “body fat” is because a bodybuilder, for instance, may be carrying a high amount of weight, but low body fat.
Among bodybuilders, too, it is well-known that some people are easy gainers and others are hardgainers. Muscular hypertrophy (muscle enlargement) comes easy to easy gainers, while hardgainers struggle to put on muscle. Many hardgainers, however, are as strong as, if not stronger than, many easy gainers. That tells us that there is very little relationship between muscle size and strength. Strength is more associated with muscle fiber (cell) density and use. Use causes the recruitment of certain types of cells depending on the intensity and duration of the exercise. So we cannot even always tell how strong someone is just by looking.
And it’s not even clear that body fat percentage is a good measure of fitness, either. Yes, it’s not good to carry a high amount of body fat, because its negative effects can catch up to us. Many ailments do not show up until we are in our middle to late 40s. But while young, at least, some of us can carry a high amount of body fat and still be healthy. Some older people can carry high amounts too and be fit. What researchers do not know is what amount of body fat is too high? A study that came out today concluded that people who are slightly overweight live longer. So the weights listed for various heights on the BMI charts may be too low.
Since I am also a diabetic who controls my blood sugar level via diet and exercise, I also know that diabetes does not differentiate between muscle and fat. The issue is overall weight.
According to wikipedia, physical fitness comprises two related concepts: general fitness (a state of health and well-being), and specific fitness (a task-oriented definition based on the ability to perform specific aspects of sports or occupations). Physical fitness is generally achieved through correct nutrition, exercise, and enough rest.
The wikipedia definition seems to be more in line with what is known about physical fitness. It tells us that physical fitness is related to being able to do the things we need to do and the things that we want to do. Even when the various elements of physical fitness are assessed separately, it isn’t any easier to arrive at a general measure of fitness for each category or overall, because perhaps we’re barking up the wrong tree. Perhaps there is no one measure of physical fitness, since no measure works with everyone all of the time. To determine our level of fitness, maybe we should ask, “What are we able to do when we’re physically fit?” For our genders and for our ages? We may not have the answer, but we may already have the right answers.
We know what the elements of basic physical fitness are:
- Body Composition
- Cardiovascular Endurance
- Muscular Strength
- Muscular Endurance
We also know that there are some sports or activity related aspects of physical fitness as well, such as coordination, balance, power, agility, speed, quickness, and reaction time. So what we know is that physical fitness is activity specific and goal-related. Our body composition seems to be an absolute factor only when it impedes our abilities to effectively and efficiently do the things we need to do and want to do. If we need to climb three flights of stairs when our building elevator goes down, but find that we cannot, we probably need to reassess our level of fitness, since we are not fit to climb three flights of stairs. If we want to play basketball and find that we lack the power to jump, we need to do a fitness assessment. At the very least, we need to be able to do the activities of daily life (ADL). We have to be able to move forward and backward, up and down, and rotationally. That means that we need to be able to walk forward and backward. We need to be able to squat and lunge and go up and down stairs. We need to be able to bend and twist. And we need to be able to do it all without pain and with ease.
If increasing your physical fitness is intimidating to you, try to visualize the end result, the finish – not the process. You as a sweaty athlete pumping your fist looks a lot better than you as an exhausted workhorse huffing and puffing. Either hire a personal trainer to design the process, or approach designing your exercise routine methodically. How would you design one for your best friend? If you need ADL training, design it around functional exercises. Here is a great article on functional training.
Do not go over the exercises again and again in your head. Not with you as the actor. I’ve found that doing so can cause us to wear ourselves out before we start. And few of us average Janes and Joes want to run two 5ks in a day. Think in terms of managing the process, not the result. Put together the best routine that you can while taking into consideration your limitations and while thinking in terms of exercise progression. Start with a modified push-up if you have to. As you progress, do them while in a regular toe plank, and eventually as plank rows with a light dumbbell.
I purposely used the word “manage”, not “control”. I ain’t big on “control”. I’ve found it to be discouraging, because it rarely works. What does work is influence and management. Asking for what we want, changing our attitudes if we must, increasing our knowledge and our skills, not trying to rope a bucking bronco. Attitudes and beliefs are closely related and, therefore, they are related to thoughts as well, to thinking. Substituting negative experiences with positive ones can get that process of changing attitudes started.
To do so, try challenging yourself by preparing reasonable goals. If you don’t know what is reasonable, find out. Factors to look at: your physical condition, gender, age, past experience, constraints. Be willing to make mistakes. Rarely are they fatal. Do what you can, but take what you get. Physical fitness results from a customized plan.