Surprisingly, there's no universally agreed-upon definition of the word. Dictionaries are no help; most tautologically call it “being fit.” (Some dictionaries also define the term to mean “good health or physical condition,” but this doesn’t ring true to me; after all, “health” really only describes a state in which there’s an absence of illness or physical decline.)
In “Body by Science,” Doug McGuff and John Little use the word “fitness” to mean “the bodily state of being physiologically capable of handling challenges that exist above a resting threshold of activity.” Under this definition, fitness is the ability to engage in physical challenges -- a definition I can get behind.
CrossFit, of course, has its own definition, which incorporates three separate but related standards:
- Proficiency -- through training -- in each of ten general physical skills: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy;
- Competency in all three metabolic pathways for physical activity: phosphagenic, glycolytic, and oxidative.
- The ability to perform well -- compared to others -- at any and all physical tasks, including unfamiliar and unforeseen ones.
What do these definitions share? An emphasis on one’s ability to use his or her body to DO STUFF.
They're silent, though, about what fitness looks like. And with good reason: We all know that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Just ‘cause someone looks the part doesn’t mean they can actually deliver the goods.
Still, as an article in today's edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer points out, “many of us wrongly associate fitness with a certain look or physical trait.”
"Many people look at [fitness] magazine covers and think that's what they're supposed to look like," says Heather Nettle, an exercise physiologist at the Cleveland Clinic's Sports Health Center.
Fitness models, however, often can’t do the very activities they’re hired to demonstrate. As Slate Magazine’s Josh Levin wrote:
Every booker has a story about a [fitness] model who looked the part but couldn't do a squat, or a guy who lied about his max bench press. It can be especially challenging to find women who can do pull-ups. In some cases, a trainer holds the model up, then runs away quickly so the photographer can snap a shot before she falls.Contrast that with 26-year-old Jillian Neimeister of CrossFit Cleveland, who was profiled in the Plain Dealer article:
At 5 feet 5 inches and 170 pounds, the former rugby player doesn't have the lean, sculpted look of an athlete or a stereotypically "fit" physique. Her body mass index (BMI, a measurement of the relationship between weight and height) falls at the upper end of overweight, just a hairbreadth from obese.
But anyone who saw Neimeister in action would undoubtedly describe her as fit and athletic. At a recent CrossFit fitness competition, Neimeister blew away even the most ripped of competitors by dead-lifting 345 pounds and doing 27 pull-ups. Last year, she ably completed a half-marathon run with only minimal training.
"I don't feel obese," says Neimeister. "I feel fit. I do get jokes about having a big butt. I'm not a small girl. But I know I could probably beat anyone. I can go out and do whatever I need."
Fitness isn’t about being stick-thin -- it’s about being able to “perform a broad variety of tasks”:
To be fit, in other words, you don't need to be skinny or buff so much as healthy and able to perform a broad variety of tasks. You can also be more fit in one category than another.
Most professional football players, for instance, would fail the weight test instantly. No one questions their fitness, though, because they're so obviously athletic and muscular. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the trim person who never exercises and whose body composition is in fact highly fatty.
"There is such a thing as a skinny fat person," Nettle says. "Looks can be deceiving."
A while back, Krista Scott-Dixon of Stumptuous posted a link to awe-inspiring photographs of elite male and female athletes who look nothing like the fitness models in most magazines. The photos show a wide spectrum of sizes and shapes -- but the one constant is the confidence visible in their faces. As Scott-Dixon wrote: “These are folks who know their bodies have the power to do things -- which is what ‘fitness’ truly is.”