Health and wellness professionals tend to use terms like “physically active” and “physically fit” interchangeably, but there are big differences between the two not only just in how you live your life, but in your overall level of health.
Someone can accurately claim that they are physically active merely by doing things like going shopping, walking the dogs, and cleaning their house, but none of that determines their actual level of fitness. It doesn’t account for their weight, their diet, or the intensity of any of their activity. All of those things play a vital role in a person’s level of physical fitness and overall health and wellness, so it’s important to discuss the specific differences.
Active Means Just That – Engaging In Activity
As mentioned above, there can be a huge disparity in what defines physical activity. People who shower are technically physically active, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that showering keeps you fit and healthy (though it certainly doesn’t hurt!).
In fact, depending on your body type and other factors, such as diet, age, and so on, you can be quite “active” without ever achieving true physical fitness. Even people who walk several miles a day and seem to be in good overall health may not be truly “fit” in the ways that matter for your health and wellness.
A great example is that of an “active” man in his 70s who seems the picture of health. He engages in regular activities such as gardening, walking, cleaning, and even playing golf. All of these things serve as great ways to keep him active, and he’s been able to maintain his weight and get good bills of health from his primary care physician for years.
Now let’s say that this man has a heart attack. What went wrong? How could that have happened? These questions play into the very heart of the difference between being physically active and being physically fit.
Fitness Means Pushing Your Body to New Limits
Here’s the thing. If our bodies just do the same thing all the time, they become stagnant as they get used to only exerting that level of energy. Sure, we can walk for miles at a slow speed, but what happens if we try to go significantly faster one day? Almost without a doubt, this change will wreak havoc on our bodies because we’re suddenly asking our organs to change up what they’re used to – we’re asking them to adapt as we push against their limits and demand that they keep up.
This, in a nutshell, is how health and wellness experts recommend that you become physically fit – by participating in planned activities that increase in intensity, length, and frequency over time. That means raising your heart rate and keeping it at that level for a sustained period, as well as increasing your oxygen intake. Obviously, it’s not smart to push yourself extremely hard all at once. Your goal should be to start slow and continually build by engaging in bursts of activity that raise your heart rate for short periods.
Essentially, you’re teaching your body how to operate during a time of high exertion, which is another way of saying that you’re increasing your exercise capacity. In layman’s terms, this means that you’re getting your heart to pump more nutrients into your body at times when you need them, and showing your muscles how to burn this excess fuel when it’s provided to them. Doing this regularly over time helps you to remain fit by continually pushing your body to its limits. It also does things like improve body composition and muscle flexibility.
Health and Wellness: The Need to Keep Pushing
At its most basic, physical fitness is about continuing to push, because once our bodies get used to a particular kind or level of exercise, that exercise becomes less beneficial to us. Studies have even been conducted that show people with great exercise capacities when they are younger (like athletes) tend to have increased risk of heart attacks as they get older. Why? Because they feel like they don’t need to continue to push their bodies after a certain point, preferring simply to maintain.
As you know from this article, that can be a big mistake. Once our heart, lungs, and other organs don’t have to adapt to higher levels of energy use, they tend to treat all levels of activity the same. This means that they will be working harder while at rest and in light activity, even if you consider yourself a physically active person.
What this translates to is a need to not only get out and do things, but to participate in activities that will force you outside of your physical comfort zone by increasing degrees that will improve your overall level of fitness.
Can You Be Physically Fit Without Being Physically Active?
In some cases, people may seem physically fit, falling into the recommended ranges for things like weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol level, without being physically active on a regular basis.
Studies have found that lying down or even sitting for long periods of time every day, as many people do for their jobs, can have a negative impact on your health, even if you are otherwise physically fit.
A study in the UK found that people who sat longer every day had a two-fold increase in the risk for diabetes, heart disease, and sudden death. Another study, published in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases, noted an increased risk of kidney disease, particularly for women.
Think you can counteract long periods of inactivity by exercising more later? It’s not as easy as you think. A study followed 27 Finnish men and women over the course of two days. The participants exercised on the first day but not on the second. Researchers found that they burned calories after the physical activity, but they didn’t increase overall muscle activity.
Is It Better to Be Physically Fit or Physically Active?
So bottom line: what’s more important? Of course, being physically active can help you be physically fit. And conversely, being physically fit can make it easier to stay physically active. But the truth is both are key to your health and wellness, which is why it’s so important to have regular medical check-ups, eat a healthy diet, and participate in a regular exercise regimen.