This may come as a surprise to you, but the way you look does not prove how fit you are. Watch a reality show where the contestants have to do an endurance challenge. Most people will assume that the most muscular individuals will win the challenge. But, most of the time, it is the “least fit” looking people. For example, a person who hardly seems to have any muscle mass is more likely to win an endurance challenge than a heavily muscled person. Does this seem strange to you? Well, if you actually know anything about fitness, it won’t seem strange at all.
Richard Simmons Memes Expose a Central Misconception
Judging by the meme of Richard Simmons below, and so many like it, many people know nothing about fitness.
Richard Simmons probably is fitter, by many standards, than a lot of people who will read this article. He also overcame a huge weight problem, and has kept off this weight for many, many years, while inspiring millions of others to do the same. The man deserves some respect. Yet, since he doesn’t match the cultural idea of fit, he doesn’t get that respect. He has a lot of haters in the fitness industry, which should not be the case.
Fit and Strong vs. Muscular
Let’s think about muscular strength. Most people assume that they can spot the stronger between two people. The stronger one is the one with the biggest muscles. They’d be wrong much of the time. Ironically, the more muscled one might win in an anaerobic endurance challenge, for example squatting for reps, but lose in an absolute strength challenge. You can’t tell just by looking. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
Fitness is Specific to the Task
Yet, those muscular guys who lose to their skinny counterparts on long endurance challenges? They are not as “fit” for the challenge. Those large muscles are more suited for short bursts of high-intensity anaerobic activity. The smaller muscles of the “skinny” person are more suited for extended aerobic activity. This does not mean that it is impossible to have big muscles and tremendous endurance, but most people sacrifice a bit of the one for the other.
Richard Simmons is Fitter Than Most People In America
Fitness is specific to the activity, or the task. Richard Simmons is not an Olympic athlete, but this does not mean he is not fitter than most people in America. Our idea of what fitness looks like is a cultural illusion with little basis in reality. The person who made this meme, thinking they were proving a point, was only proving they were a cultural dupe, like most of us. The idealized “healthy body” is nothing more than the image of healthiness.
Looking Fit Doesn’t Equate to Being Healthy
We also, of course, equate fitness with health. A ‘healthy’ body is one that has very low fat, is muscular, and toned. Ironically, however, a body that is too muscular, and approaches the muscularity of a professional bodybuilder, is also seen as unhealthy by many, including some physicians. As authors Michael Atkinson and Lee F. Monaghan state in Challenging Myths of Masculinity: Understanding Physical Cultures, this is congruent with “longstanding concern with illness, disease, or potential disease rather than positive health, well-being, and vibrant physicality.”
You Can Be Muscular But Still Unfit by Many Standards
Yet, it is quite possible for a bodybuilder to look fit but actually be quite unfit by some parameters. I’ve known bodybuilders with tremendous muscularity who always took the elevator! Otherwise, they’d huff and puff their way up the stairs. They’d still out-rep you in the gym, though.
As I pointed out in Health Versus Fitness, we equate fitness with health yet we rarely consider if and how fitness is the same as health:
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.
In reality, general health-related fitness may not be evidenced by how your body looks, at least not to the extent you expect. When we are sold ideas about how to achieve a better body, we assume that this means a body that will match the cultural idea of muscular athleticism. We also assume that in this state, our body will be more healthy than it otherwise might have been. Although it is true that putting on some muscle does have health benefits, this does not mean that a person with the “ideal” amount of muscle mass is automatically more healthy than a person with less. Many people who fit the cultural idea of a beautiful body have dangerously low body fat levels, for example. If we were to compare two equally muscular men, one with a deeply etched six pack, and the other with less visible abs, most of us would assume that the man with the six pack was more healthy and more fit. It is possible, and actually probable, that the equally muscular man with a bit more body fat is both more fit and more healthy.
Achieving a better-looking body is an aesthetic consideration. Achieving a better body goes beyond appearance, and encompasses not only health but function. The good news is that physical activity of any kind is almost always better than none!