Strong Might Not Mean Fit

What does it mean to be fit? What is "good shape"? Does it refer to a weight range? (Can you be fit and also overweight?) How far or how fast you can run? (Can you be fit if you are wheelchair-bound?) How much you can bench press or squat? Your ability to execute certain movements like pull-ups or the Turkish get-up?

I believe fitness refers to a combination of factors including speed, strength, flexibility, balance, agility, and coordination. Fitness is also about how healthy your body is on the inside. You can't be fit if you're sick or injured all the time, anorexic or bulimic, obese, or significantly overweight or underweight. Fitness implies a readiness for action. An ability to respond to physical challenges. You cannot be fit without taking care of your body and mind: eating well, sleeping enough, resting when needed, healing the places that are injured or stressed. Fitness is a commitment.

What about those gym rats who can bench press three times their weight? Are they strong? Definitely. But are they fit? Not necessarily. Huge biceps from curling massive dumbbells might look impressive, but those over-developed muscles are usually inflexible and prone to tears. Unless a weightlifter spends equal time stretching those muscles, he or she is going to end up with very tight, short muscles that are not particularly functional due to a reduced range of motion.

Does your fitness routine focus on only one aspect of fitness? Are you stretching your muscles/tendons/ligaments to the point of instability? This is especially common in ballet, yoga, and acrobatics, where the range of motion at the joints (the hip, in particular) is pushed way beyond the normal limitations. Many dancers end up with reduced stability, serious balance issues, and pain thanks to this extreme flexibility training. This is the opposite of the above problem where only strength is emphasized.

For me, fitness has to be well-rounded. It is far better to be able to do A LOT of different activities somewhat well than to be able to do only one thing, but to an extreme. Strength is great, but only if it is balanced with flexibility. And stretching is a fabulous thing to do, but not to such an extent that you destabilize your joints. Running is a fantastic exercise, but there is a reason that marathon runners tend to drop dead of sudden heart attacks. Running is very stressful on the body. A little goes a long way. Hours and hours of running creates too much wear and tear on all the body's systems.

We were built to walk for hours per day, then sprint for a few minutes here and there, then climb a tree, then crawl through a cave, then go for a swim. We should be able to leap over rocks, to duck under tree limbs, to sprint up a hill, to crawl down that hill, to hang from our hands for at least a minute, to jump up onto a bench, to lift at least our body weight and possibly a lot more. We should be able to squat with our butts below our knees and our heels on the ground. We should be able to execute a full push-up and pull-up. Maybe many!

I consider all of the above functional fitness: the movements you were designed to do. If you watch a toddler or a young child play, you will see all of these movements seamlessly executed. We were all born to move well.

How many of these things can you do? How many would you like to learn how to do? Getting fit can be, and should be, fun. Try a dance class. Get outside and go for a walk. Play with your kids or your dog or your spouse. Get down on the ground and back up again. Ride a bike or a skateboard or a horse. Try something new and different. Go kayaking or paddle boarding. Do a ropes course. Climb a rock wall. Challenge yourself! It's never too late to get fit!

During the month of December, when my Howard County Rec and Parks classes are on hiatus for the winter break, I'll be back in the park for a few bootcamp classes. Maybe you'd like to try it?