Originally published on December 15, 2014
I saw a fitness post the other day that said, “If there is no progress there is no health benefit.” I replied that this is not necessarily true, but the author of the post decided not to engage me on the subject. The message that you must continue to progress in order to “be healthy” is erroneous. It is no surprise to me that the author did not choose to defend his assertion.
Also, as I began considering this article, I was reminded of a statement I read about older folks lifting weights in the gym. They were being seen to always lift the same weights, and this was seen as non-progressive and so to have no benefits. I thought I could fairly easily counter the view that exercise of any kind without progress does not mean there are no benefits. After all, I laid the groundwork for this in the article Exercise Has Immediate Benefits: Countering Exercise Myths that Keep Us Unfit. I figured I could expand on some of the statements in that article, and put this myth to bed, in the journalistic parlance.
But then, I began considering the root of the problem. I couldn’t settle on one root, but I quickly targeted a big one. One I would call a grandaddy. The greater fitness industry equates fitness with progressive exercise. And, it equates fitness with health. Then I had it. The question. Does fitness equal health?
What is Fitness and How Is it Different Than Health?
We have to define fitness, of course. And we define it based on, in large part, intention, or overall effect. Often, fitness professionals define all fitness as “overall fitness,” and this is what is considered to be general physical fitness. Unfortunately, due to trends and marketing in the fitness industry, and demand creation, physical fitness has been conflated with athletic or skill-related fitness, giving rise to many health myths, and unrealistic prescriptions. There is even a notion that you can be generally advanced in your fitness, and this is, to put it plainly, poppycock. Advanced fitness is specific.
This means that in order to become truly advanced you have to focus on certain performance goals or tasks and in order to be truly exceptional within these parameters, you must compromise in other aspects of fitness. Many people might view IronMan competitors as among the fittest people, but they are not as ‘fit’ for each specific event as a person dedicated to those events alone. To be truly advanced, for example, as a swimmer, you have to focus all your energy on swimming and its related training.
Fitness is Not Health Itself
Fitness is a component of overall health, not health itself. There are many other factors that determine a person’s state of health, after all. Many fitness professionals, therefore, instead of focusing on greater skill-related fitness, try to develop programs related to health but also give counseling on other lifestyle aspects that may contribute to health. Not all of them, of course, are qualified to dispense advice of this kind.
Often, we hear the term “fitness and health.” Since so much of fitness has become centered on ever-progressive skill-related fitness, the public has been led to believe that ever greater fitness in this regard equals to ever greater health. After all…”fitness and health.”
The reality is much different. As someone who has been dedicated to training for maximum strength for many years, I’ve had to compromise my ‘health’ in some ways. For example, my joints do not always as happy as a person who focuses on general exercise for fitness.
We can loosely identify two different broad fitness goals: Health-related fitness and skill-related fitness. As stated, the fitness industry tends to conflate these two broad categories of fitness.
Health-related fitness encompasses physical fitness. This is the ability to meet the demands of daily living — to perform the tasks related to it, plus deal with the unexpected, within reasonable levels.
The expectation of physical fitness is not that you will be hyper-fit, then. It is that you can meet the demands of life without undue fatigue. Think of it like gas in your car — you have enough gas to get you back and forth to work every day, plus a “healthy” reserve for unexpected or irregular trips. With physical fitness, comes certain expected health benefits, especially lower risk of cardiovascular disease, but also other very important benefits, including psychological ones. By this definition, physical fitness does not equal health, but greater health comes with greater physical fitness.
If you try to counter this, you’d have to abandon the definition and come up with an alternative that adequately explains how fitness could be viewed as health. After all, a person who can maintain the activities of daily living is “fit” for these activities. This person may also receive a clean bill of health. If you say that greater health equals greater fitness, you have left behind our definition of fitness, and perhaps, put the fitness industry out of business. Based on this equality, a person deemed extremely healthy would also be deemed very fit, regardless of their exercise status. This is clearly nonsense. However, we can say that health-related fitness is fitness that helps us be free of diseases related to a sedentary lifestyle.
Since exercise is specific, different types of exercise can have specific health benefits. For instance, resistance exercise combats sarcopenia in older adults.
Skill-Related or Athletic Fitness
Skill-related or athletic fitness is fitness that meets further demands than what is needed in our daily and “normal” lives. This may mean strength, power agility, balance, coordination, reaction time, and speed. Of course, programs meant to increase skill-related fitness will increase general physical fitness, and so have the same health benefits, if not somewhat greater health benefits.
How are skill-related fitness goals different from health-related fitness goals?
The differences between skill-related fitness goals and health-related fitness goals are quite simple. Skill-related fitness goals, or athletic fitness, are concerned with enhancing factors that make you a better athlete. More specifically, skill-related fitness concerns those factors which directly involve your ability to perform at a specific athletic task. If you are into strength training, then, in reality, you are into skill-related fitness.
Health-related fitness is only concerned with those factors that enable you to perform the activities of daily living and to be healthy. The components of skill-related fitness are generally unneeded to live a healthy life. Fitness professionals may have varying views of what constitutes health versus skill, and many of them overstretch general fitness, in my view. However, it should be clear that skill-related fitness is more particular than general health-related fitness and requires more practice and dedications to quite specific activities.
Not All Skill Related Adaptations are Positive Ones
The idea that greater and greater fitness means greater and greater health is an erroneous view of health-related fitness and tells us why we should not conflate this general type of fitness with advanced athletic skill. Athletic training is associated with a halo effect that is unwarranted. For one, not all adaptations related to performance and skill, especially at the extreme end, are positive ones. With ever-increasing and specific fitness comes certain maladaptations. Also, in order to achieve very great levels of specific fitness, training must be specific to an adaptation, so, at extreme levels of performance, certain virtues of general physical fitness must be de-prioritized. Health is not the purpose of athletic pursuit.
This is not meant to create fears of a “slippery slope.” It is quite possible to enjoy progressive and specific skill-related fitness pursuits while deriving the many health benefits possible from these pursuits. Research has consistently shown that more benefits are derived from exercise of greater intensity, volume, or both. These greater benefits, however, have created a culture of more equals better, in which individuals are led to believe that they are ‘wasting their time’ if they are not engaging in a sustained, highly vigorous, and progressive program of exercise.
All Exercise Has Health Benefits
This is absolutely true. All exercise has health benefits. All fitness greater than an individual’s baseline fitness at the start of using exercise is beneficial. Also, the benefits of exercise can be maintained even without a program of ever-increasing fitness.
Many of the marketing statements made by the fitness industry, with its focus on doing more, being dedicated or disciplined, is harmful to the public health, in that it intimidates people rather than inspires them. As well, the idea that increasing all of the aspects of skill-related fitness is necessary for maintaining health is mistaken. Of course, to reach a specific fitness goal, you must be dedicated and disciplined, and these must increase as the goals become more advanced. However, to say that without discipline there is no reward is just untrue. Exercise in any dose is healthy.
For Health, Sticking To It is the More Important Concern
The problem is not how much exercise you need to be healthy. The problem is that any benefits derived from the exercise are lost if you stop exercising! Some immediate benefits are lost more quickly than some long-term benefits. So, we need to find ways of sticking to it, but even so, even exercising regularly without a plan is much much better than not exercising at all! Consistency is better. Progression better still. But exercise is always good! Even exercise that looks like playing. Not everyone must use the same tools to find their “stick-to-it-ness.”
Many experts, erroneously, in my view, separate physical activity from physical exercise, in terms of its benefits to health. In other words, they draw a line in the sand and say “physical activity is just being physically active, while physical exercise is being physically active for a purpose.”
Think carefully about the vagaries of that statement. If I pursue the activities of daily life, does this make me physically active? Surely not. I am, of course, moving my body. If my job entails it, I may be moving my body quite vigorously. Yet, I might still be termed “sedentary” by the fitness industry. I am not moving for the purpose of physical fitness. Keep in mind, that a person studying kinesiology might, in turn, define physical activity as movement for a purpose in order to differentiate it from mindless involuntary movement or non-purposeful movement, such as tugging on your earlobe, or twiddling your thumbs.
While exercise is, indeed, a planned, structured, and repetitive movement activity that is intended to improve or maintain physical fitness, the same experts who draw this line do not recognize that our culture does not view being physically active as “just moving your body.” If that were true, every single person in America would be said to be physically active. “Active” does indeed have the connotation of a “fit” lifestyle.
So, what is being active, if it is not exercising? Well, if you go out and play soccer twice a week, is this being physically active? Of course. Is it exercising? We are engaging in a semantic pursuit! Soccer, if it keeps you physically active, will have the same benefits, of course, as planned and structured exercise! What if you also go for regular walks or hikes, but without a “plan or a structure?” Are you exercising?
Does it matter?
The answer is that it does and it does not. The reason that planned and structured exercise can be better is that it creates a routine of physical activity. It also creates opportunities for progressive improvement of fitness in a sustained and regular program, which can result in more intense and vigorous exercise, which may be more beneficial to health (although not necessarily for every individual).
However, that does not mean that it is impossible to perform what would appear, to any reasonable individual to be vigorous and sustained exercise but without a plan or structure. In other words, while “exercise” may be better, physical activity is the actual ingredient that public health messages should be talking about. The details of that physical activity are the recipe. Start by getting them to shop for the ingredients. Any physical activity is better than none and all physical activity has health benefits, both immediate and sustained.
When it comes to the benefits from exercise, we are talking degrees of benefit, then. There is no demarcation between “no benefit” and “benefit.” I could even go so far to say that the idea that fitness equals health is a bit deluded.
I like messages, such as this one by Dave Hargreaves, that say if you decide you’ve gotten to the point you want to be at, something you view fit and healthy, it is OK to say, “now I’m going to just keep this.”
The problem is, everyone is deluged with messages about how extreme you need to be in order to be fit and healthy, and these are integrated into extreme messages about body composition or achieving a certain “look” which is considered ideal. I discussed these types of messages here in Gym Intimidation and the Ideal Female Body.
It is kind of hard to decide for any one individual what is good condition, and it is certainly not proper to tell people that a certain ideal and “athletic” body is a healthy body. I think the fitness industry would do well to separate messages about physical fitness and health, or “general fitness” and specific skills fitness. The two have become intertwined to such a degree that health messages are over-stated and confusing, leading people to think that if you don’t go all the way on something, you are wasting your time.
The irony is that the further you go toward any one type of skill, the less general your fitness becomes, and if you ever hope to hone that skill to its ultimate potential, you’d have to leave behind such general conditioning, and realize that it is no longer a goal, but only a part of your potential for realizing said “elite” skill. Once you’ve said you want to be advanced, you have left behind “general fitness” because you cannot be “generally advanced” relatively speaking. In fact, there comes a time, when an athlete has reached a very extreme level of skill, that some of the adaptations that occur, generally speaking, could be considered maladaptations. There is certainly a greater risk to benefit involved the more advanced you get.
Keep in mind that most sensible fitness professionals, when they say “advanced” are speaking in terms of individual training status. They are saying that a certain person is advancing, or that this person has reached a stage that, based on the knowledge the trainer has about their ability and, perhaps, even potential, is advanced. The idea that there is a certain training status, such as a 1RM, that is advanced for all individuals is a concept in the strength training world that really should not matter to you as an individual.