I asked this question because I think about it everyday, and it is important to me that I have a clear definition of fitness, since I am a fitness coach. When I tell people I am a career fitness coach, the assumption is often that my job consists of teaching people how to do bicep curls, but I know, and the people I work with know, that there is a lot more depth to fitness, or at least there can be.
So, I wanted to get a variety of opinions on the matter to see if the definition that I have been formulating hits the mark, or not. As the responses piled in, a lot of great wisdom came to light, and I learned a lot. Thank-you to those who took the time to respond. I was lucky to get responses from 4 different countries and an age-range of people in their 20-50's.
I have re-visited all the answers to see if any themes, words, or ideas popped up more than others. And, indeed, some did.
Here is what stood out...
Physical Health & Capability
Mental Health x Clarity x Balance
Confidence x Body Image
Challenge x Mastery
Community x Social Health
Now, I guess it goes without saying that fitness is multi-faceted. As you can see the themes that popped up cover almost every part of a persons life. What is also interesting is that each of these definitions changes when applied to a different person. It is relative to the individual. I'll speak briefly about each of the five areas that stood out, and give a bit of insight into what I think each of them can mean.
Physical Health & Capability
This is one of the more obvious facets of fitness; being physically healthy and capable.
Physically capable can mean many different things to many different people. It is relative to the individual and what is needed in their life. For example, physically capable might simply mean being able to go on hikes for some, or sit on the toilet without pain. It may also mean a high level expression of physical capability like a double body-weight back-squat, a 3 hour marathon time, or improved flexibility for a sport like Jiu Jitsu. What also came up in the responses was aging with physical capability. This means maintaining or improving ones physical strength and ability as one ages.
Physical health is perhaps a bit more objective. Fitness should improve or maintain ones physical health across the board taking into account body-fat percentage, cardio-vascular health, muscle-mass, heart-rate, blood-pressure, mental-health, etc. If someone is competing in a sport, and the demand is so high that there physical health is decreased (increased stress, damage to joints, loss of social life, etc.), then I would argue that they are currently on a journey of fitness, but rather competition. There is a lot of overlap there, but these are two distinct paths despite their obvious intersections.
Lastly, doing the things it takes to experience physical health and capability are hiding in between the lines here. This includes, sleep, nutrition, exercise, etc.
Mental Health x Clarity x Balance
You don't have to search very hard to find mountains of scientific evidence in support of the mental health benefits of exercise of any kind. I will not belabour the point here because it is a rather objective fact by this point in the scientific community.
But, there is a caveat...
Like most things, there is a potential dark-side to fitness. From personal experience as an athlete, and a coach, it is worth mentioning that the path of fitness is not without its dark alleys and caverns into which one can be pulled. The path of fitness can also lead to bouts of perfectionism, over-competitiveness, body-image issues, social sacrifice, and I could go on. Ideally these problems can be avoided by a positive coach, or community.
Confidence & Body Image
The path of fitness can greatly improve one's confidence. If you can learn the life of fitness who says you can't achieve anything else you want to in life. Feeling good about your physical body changes how you interact with the world around you, and also how others interact with you. It is hard for me to describe the relationship between fitness and confidence, but perhaps a personal coaching experience may illustrate it better..
As a young coach in my early twenties, the first time I felt really proud of being a coach, was seeing a gym member change in her first month. When she walked in she was hiding her body, her smile, and her face from the world with her gaze downcast upon entering the gym and leaving as well. After a couple weeks her training clothes were more form fitting. The next change was that she got a new hair-cut. The after about a month, I distinctly remember her walking out of the gym with her chin up, and eyes forward rather than downcast. She looked proud to be herself. And, the coolest thing is that it had only been a month, and her body had barely changed, if any. But, the act of working on her fitness brought her back to life.
Challenge x Mastery
Fitness (which can also include competition or competitive spurts), is a rock against which one can sharpen his or herself. This sharpness once learned can be applied to any area of life. If you want to cultivate discipline, find flow, and continue widening your mind, then focus on mastering your fitness or a physical craft. The depth of value here is having a goal, and then focusing on, and finding joy, in the things it takes to reach that goal.
In stoicism, one should live their life trying to become a Sage (ideal, virtuous human). But, one is not meant to find despair in never reaching that ideal. The stoics count Socrates as a true Sage, and make it clear that few if any will ever truly reach that level. The value comes from finding joy and beauty in doing the things a Sage would do, while forgiving oneself when the best efforts fall short of the proposed ideal.
Community x Social Health
Fitness does not exist in a vacuum. If you have a 3:00 Fran time, but no friends (me at 24), then you are not fit, sorry. Fitness should improve one's social life, not take away from it. If you are sacrificing too much of your social life to uphold a certain standard of fitness, then you are no longer in balance, and less fit.
The community aspect of fitness is powerful and for many this is the reason they keep coming back. Community can mean many different things to many different people. The most recent example of the power of a community oriented around being fit is Crossfit. The power of community and group think has led to thousands of people finding their fitness. This is my favourite part of Crossfit, but also one of the more puzzling for me. The puzzling part is why everyone has to do the same thing for it to be community. If 12 people work out together, but are all working on their own individualized programming which fits their needs, is that not also a community experience. I think that making everyone do the same thing is treating adults like kindergarteners. But, hey, that is just my opinion.
Lastly, the value of training partners is profound. If you train with someone multiple times a week for months on end, you can develop an amazing bond with someone, even if you never hang out outside of the gym. Many of my closest and longest lasting relationship have started by training together.
There were a couple comments that really stood out to me and touch on some of the less tangible facets or feeling of fitness. I will not try to explain them, because as they are, I think they help round out the sentiments of this blog. I will leave them for you to consider on your own.
"Sharp mind for the dumb, strong body for the weak, and soft and warm heart for the hard." This comment came from a Norwegian Crossfit Coach, and military nurse, in his twenties.
"Fitness is more than the sum of its parts". This comment came from an Australian Crossfit Coach in his thirties.
"Fitness can also be nothing. Like watching the grass grow in the summer". This comment came from a Norwegian woman in her thirties.
[Fitness is} "The "holy" trinity of exercise, good nutrition and good sleep." This comment came from a Canadian woman in her forties.
To bring this altogether, I would want to introduce an ancient Greek term that I believe sums up what fitness means to Seneca Strength. It is a term often dumbed down by modern translations to mean happiness but that is not quite the whole story. The word is Eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is not a state, or a goal, but rather the process of human flourishing. In other words it is all those things it takes for you to become your best self. Looking at all of the different answers people gave when asked what is fitness, the majority of them fit the concept of Eudaimonia.
I do believe that if Eudaimonia is the goal, that one would be hard pressed to find a better avenue for starting that journey than their physical self. We live in a world where we have freedom, but little control. If you ever feel like you have no control over your life, you may be right, honestly. But, you can break that cycle. You can start taking control where you can. And, guess what, you govern over your body as it governs you. You choose how to use it, you choose what goes in it, and no matter what, it is the only conduit through which you will ever be able to experience the world around you (barring likely technological advancements). Why not start changing your life, by learning how to live Eudaimonia.
So, to sum it up simply, at Seneca Strength, fitness is Eudaimonia, or more accurately the things it takes to live Eudaimonia. It is not just about physical appearance, it is not just about physical ability, it is not just about results. Results and accomplishments are the side-effect, not the focus. It is about cultivating a life that is aiming at your individual greatness. It is about taking control of, and empowering, oneself.
As a coach, on the surface my aim is to bring my clients physical results. However, for the majority of my clients that physical goal is simply used as the rock against which we sharpen. By sharpen, I mean learning the many processes involved in living a virtuous life, Eudaimonia, or what I call The Way of Fitness.
I don't claim to be a sage, or have all the answers, but I have been learning and living The Way of Fitness for over a decade, and have dedicated my adult life to learning how it all fits together. If you think you would benefit from having a guide to help you find your way, then please reach out to me. Starting this January, I will be taking up to five individuals on an intimate and individualized year long journey towards Eudaimonia and their own version of elite fitness. If you want to learn more, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org