Health and Fitness…Health vs. Fitness?

What do health and fitness mean to you? They often go together in a discussion, but are they the same thing? Not quite. Allow me to explain.

Let’s take a look at health first. Health can be defined as optimal function in all of our systems and the absence of illness or disease in these entities. This sounds like a very clinical perspective, as we consider even a short list of the body’s systems: musculoskeletal, endocrine, integumentary, gastrointestinal, cardiorespiratory, vascular, cerebral, neurological, reproductive…and the list goes on. In reality, health (as in “good” health) is really the ideal status of all the body’s systems, or our being’s functions, including the psychological, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual components of our makeup. Our whole is greater than the sum of our parts and in its truest form, health cannot exist unless every one of these interdependent and inseparable parts are “right.”

Health can be measured. We can look at our heart rate, blood pressure, skin tone, comprehensive bloodwork, and many other variables that give an indication of the status of not only one specific parameter, but usually how everything is working together. And we can also describe health as feeling good, having energy, being at peace and satisfied, and so forth.

Next we should consider fitness, which is the ability to produce output. In its most familiar presentation, fitness is exemplified not just in our ability to run, jump, lift, carry, and endure, but in our capacity for physical work, mental concentration, and most measurable tasks.

Fitness is quantified by recording our output in terms of weight, speed, distance, volume, and various test performances. How much? How far? How fast? What’s your max? We sometimes evaluate fitness further in a submaximal fashion when we compare a given output against an identifiable parameter, such as oxygen utilization, or lactic acid production. For example, if Runner A runs the 5k in the same time as Runner B, but Runner A is able to do so at an average heart rate of 75% of her maximum, while the same time required Runner B’s effort to equate to 90% of her maximum, we would conclude that Runner A was more “fit” than Runner B.

Being healthy gives us a baseline level of fitness for some, or maybe even most, of our daily requirements. But that will only get us so far down the road of life. And being fit can enhance our health…at least to a point. Here’s where things get a little sticky. Health and fitness are both complementary and contradictory. They exist in a curvilinear relationship that is known as the “health-fitness curve.” We can visualize this as an inverted “U” (this shape can vary between individuals and even within individuals over time) with health on the vertical (y) axis and fitness on the horizontal (x) axis. To create a conventional scale, let’s put increments from 1-10 on each axis of the graph. Depending upon any given person’s exact curve (inverted “U” shape), there is a sweet spot, actually a fairly broad range, across the top, where health is near max and fitness can be quite high. However, go a little too far toward the precipitous edge on the right hand side (in pursuit of max fitness), and health is at risk of taking a nosedive. And looking at the left side, we can appreciate how if health is absent or “poor”, it limits our upward climb to fitness and must be addressed. I’d like to clarify this relationship, so please allow me to explain a bit further.

First, the left side of the curve demonstrates how we need to have baseline health before fitness will “take.” This point will seem fairly obvious if you consider what illness or disease does to exercise capacity. When you are sick, you know you need to get healthy before you really dig into working on fitness. But that right side of the curve depicts an area of contention, and I want to get into the debate. Except in extremely rare circumstances, you can’t have 10/10 health and 10/10 fitness, at least not for sustained duration. Why? Because the effort required to achieve absolute maximum fitness represents a stress load to the body which puts perfect health in a tenuous place. This is where I want to give some examples.

I’ve worked with a lot of people who were under the mistaken impression that 1.) fitness and health were the same thing, and 2.) that getting superfit would automatically make them maximally healthy. This is just not true from a biological perspective. The amount of exercise and training necessary to obtain actual maximum performance capacity is so powerful that it’s extremely challenging to stay healthy at that level for any significant length of time. And let me be clear here by throwing out some arbitrary numbers. Sure, I’ve seen a few people who carefully managed their diet, sleep, training, travel, work, relationships, etc. to hover for a few weeks per year at 9.6 for health and 9.8 for fitness. But everything had to be perfect or a major collapse of either health, fitness, or both would ensue if the delicate balance was disrupted. So I’m not saying that you can’t obtain, and maintain with much diligence, very high levels of health and fitness simultaneously, but it is extremely difficult. And when I say 10/10 for fitness, I’m talking about the absolute wringing out of every last drop of one’s genetic potential, not just getting reasonably close. And I have never, ever met a single athlete who would self-rate fitness at 10/10. The athletic mind is not geared to accept limits nor does it readily envision perfection.

Some of the specific examples I’ll provide will be of clients and then I’ll conclude with my own so that you can laugh with, or maybe even at, me. Here’s one on that 10/10 mindset in the athlete. I was coaching a guy who ran a flawless race, took first place in the event, set a personal best, and won a championship medal. Living in the moment, I ran up to him at the finish line, slapped him on the back and waited for his celebratory response. “Ugh, I should have went earlier, I lost focus in the homestretch, and probably could have trained harder last month!” Dilbert Downer! But I got it, and I get it…10/10 will always be out there, on the horizon, just out of reach. Next up was the dude who wanted to lose weight, gain muscle, and really get after his gym routine. Problem was he had type 2 diabetes, ate a very poor diet, and never got his health to baseline so that his fitness pursuits could be of maximal benefit. And then we have the story of me, which will require the next paragraph or two.

I hate it that I am sometimes a slow learner. And regarding this particular topic it looks to be about 3 decades. I spent 30 (yes 30) years pursuing fitness over health and thinking I was doing the right thing. I loved training, I had athletic goals, and I deeply believed that the path to achievement and even righteousness was through hard (intense and purposeful) training. Believing incorrectly that more was better and I just needed to be tougher, I’d push myself often in training, even when I was tired. This generally resulted in chronic fatigue and inflammation, susceptibility to colds and infections, and fairly lackluster performances. I would overtrain and underrest, and sometimes would squeak my fitness up to a self-rating of 9.3, only to see my health crash to about 6.5 (these are my personal estimates). Ironically, as an athlete and a professional in the health and fitness industry, I wasn’t quite the role model I should have been. I may have been a poster-child for the condition of motivation overriding instinct, if I dare say. My overly aggressive training was ultimately putting me at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and type 2 diabetes. I staggered through three decades feeling fatigued and achy more than I’d like to admit. I was definitely in the pursuit of fitness, but I also thought my actions were in the name of health.

Fortunately, over the last decade I wised up a bit. I still like to train intensely, but I make it more brief and less frequent, with much more attention to recovery between those major efforts. I’ve cleaned up my diet and do a better job in the sleep and stress departments. Now, based on both objective measures like bloodwork and absence of colds, etc., and subjective considerations like energy and attitude, I’d rate my health at 9.7 with fitness being about 8.5. By emphasizing health over fitness, I feel great all the time. I’m still capable of fairly high athletic output for a guy my age, but now that I know what feeling amazing on a nearly constant basis is like, I’m not willing to trade that for a tiny bit more sports performance, which is transient at best. The risks don’t outweigh the benefits. It’s possible I may be one of those people who is a little fragile, or delicate (hate to admit that) with respect to inflammation management and recovery ability. I’ve had some genetic testing done that indicates exactly that phenomenon. It’s possible that you might be one of those people who can hang out closer to 10/10 in both health and fitness, but I can’t and I don’t think most of us can. That’s been my experience working with thousands of clients as well as studying the literature intensely.

Hopefully this gets you thinking about your health and longevity, as well as your fitness and performance pursuits. Where on a scale of 1-10 would you rate your health? How about fitness? Be honest here. I just want everyone to feel as good as I do on a daily basis, and I wish I knew then (in those past decades) what I know now. I fully realize that the mixology of lifestyle is going to be a little different for each and every one of us. Let me know what you think of this message. But most of all, get, be, and stay HEALTHY!

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