What does it mean to be fit? Finding a discrete definition is somewhat difficult. According to the dictionary, fitness means: “the quality or state of being fit."  (The definition of “fit” is: “sound physically and mentally.") If you find those words somewhat vague, you’re not alone.

And that’s sort of the point, according to exercise experts. Fitness doesn’t have to mean that you’re an ultra-marathoner or that you can perform one pull-up or one hundred. Fitness can mean different things for different people.

“For me, fitness is first and foremost about feeling good and being able to move without pain,” says the certified strength and conditioning specialist Grayson Wickham, a New York City–based physical therapist and the founder of Movement Vault, a mobility and movement company. He explains that true fitness is about feeling healthy and being in sufficient shape to do the activities you want to do and live the lifestyle you want to live. Can you play with your kids or grandkids? If hiking the Inca Trail is on your bucket list, can you do it? Do you feel good after a day spent gardening? Are you able to climb all the necessary the stairs in your life without getting winded or having to take a break?

Michael Jonesco, DO an assistant professor of internal and sports medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, agrees. “Since medical school, I've learned that physical fitness is simply defined as your body's ability to perform tasks. Nowadays, there are more tools available than ever for fitness enthusiasts to track, measure, and follow.”

For example, you’ve got body mass index (BMI) , resting heart rate, body fat percentage, VO2 max, 5K or marathon personal records (PRs), 100-meter-dash times, and bench-press maxes, he says. “These are all objective measures we use to gauge progress (or measure ourselves against the guy or girl on the metaphorical squat rack or treadmill next to us).” 

But physical fitness should not solely be measured with any one of these or other tests or evaluations, he adds. It's much more complex. You wouldn’t, for instance, use one factor (such as blood pressure) to measure someone’s overall health, Dr. Jonesco says. Blood pressure is a useful test to monitor for cardiovascular disease, but it doesn't indicate whether or not someone has cancer or dementia.

“Physical fitness should be considered a balance of many of the aforementioned measures, but also many more intangible measures, too,” Jonesco explains, including “your outlook on not just your body, but your attitude toward your own health and wellness.”

Traditionally, experts have defined five key components of physical fitness: body composition (the relative proportion of fat and fat-free tissue in the body), cardiorespiratory or aerobic fitness, flexibility, muscular strength, and muscular endurance,, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. But you can’t discount the impact of nutrition, sleep, and mental and emotional health on fitness either, says Jeffrey E. Oken, MD, deputy chief of staff at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois.

That means looking fit doesn’t mean you actually are.

“Some individuals obsess on their physical appearance and numbers but are motivated by low self-esteem and criticize the flaws of their physical appearance. Some sacrifice rest and sleep in order to achieve further success but, in turn, drive their body into illness or burnout,” Jonesco says. “Fitness is a truly a spectrum of physical well-being that must balance our physical and emotional motivations.”

When all of the components of fitness are balanced, physically and mentally, we get the most benefit.


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