Health versus Fitness

‘I’m back!’ I greet the lovely young woman at my gym as she swipes my card, for the second time that day. ‘You look more alive every time I see you,’ she sing-songs in response. ‘Do you mean that I look fatter every time you see me?’ I inquire, unplucked eyebrows raised. ‘Well … yes,’ she admits somewhat sheepishly, like that towel-wearing locker room guy on TV who makes fun of his teammate’s volumized hair. I’m not sure why, for I like long hair on a man. Let me specify that I mean scampish, carefree, tousled hair on the verge of needing to be cut, not greasy hair in a ponytail draped down the sloping spine of an otherwise bald man. So you will no longer be surprised to hear that in Quizzaz I chose Severus over Lucius: 

His menacingly alluring hair fills me with a desire to obey.

Even a  threatening cane can’t save Mr. Limp Locks.

[This one’s for you, G-Smash, even though your Lelo is named Ralph.]

Returning to the matter at hand: my post-competition weight gain has transformed me into the picture of lively health, while at the same time rendering me less fit. Are health and fitness at odds with each other? Is it unhealthy to be fit?

The World Health Organization would clearly say no, for it defines health broadly, as ‘a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (1948). Fitness is often understood as a subset of health, and equated with such physical capacities as cardio-respiratory endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, or defined in practical terms as ‘the ability to carry out daily tasks with vigour and alertness without undue fatigue, and with ample energy to enjoy leisure-time pursuits and meet unforeseen emergencies’ (USDHHS, 1996). When I first read this account from the United States’ Health Department, a range of emergency situations rushed through my mind, from the tragedy of discovering an empty coffee tin on Monday morning, to a sudden avalanche while yodelling in the Swiss Alps, to a grasshopper plague that demolishes seed crops in ninteenth-century Portage la Prairie. With a little shoulder and tri work, any desperate farmer would be able to follow the advice so usefully provided in 1881 by botonist G. M. Dawson: ‘drive the young insects together by converging circles, and destroy them with flat wooden shovels.’ [Aside: Are mature hoppers more wily and able to evade this complex anti-bug technology?] Perhaps I should consider a more commonplace example, including an emergency recently witnessed in my own home: an ambush dermabrasion. Although unpleasant, it is rarely fatal. If this ever happens while you are asleep on the couch after a long day at the office, please try to remain calm and avoid squealing like a tiny piglet.  

Maybe that salmon pore-tightening mask was not such a good idea, after all.

So far, this discussion probably seems obvious, but what do people really think about fitness and health? How are the categories used and distinguished from each other in everyday life? That is a different story, and while I have already written about the shifting historical and cultural understandings of health (see the posts ‘Vibrant Physicality,’ and ‘Healthy but Abnormal’), I have been specifically thinking about the relationship between the two concepts since enrolling in my Can-Fit-Pro course, ‘Foundations of Professional Personal Training,’ taught by Dean Somerset. Check out his blog! First let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed this course—except the group presentations; I am not a team player—and my observations are not directed at Can-Fit-Pro or its instructors. Indeed, the ideas discussed below were not part of the textbook or any course material; they surfaced in spoken responses from participants, from examples given, from details that ‘don’t matter’ but actually reveal important assumptions that shape the way people think and live. It all started when we were asked to imagine and design workout programs for two different kinds of client: one would be interested in health, the other in fitness. What kind of person would fall under the first category? ‘A housewife,’ shouted a male voice from the back of the classroom. Suddenly afflicted with Tourette Syndrome, the words ‘I object!’ sprang from my lips in a growly voice that defied Hélène Cixous. ‘Can I approach the bench, your honour?’ ‘Okay, then, a house husband,’ he self-corrected, as if the sex of the example was the issue. Wrong. The issue was gender, and the example of house husband was no better than housewife. In both cases, the fictional character was linked with a domestic dedication to ‘household homeostasis’ instead of intense athletic goals. After a few more incidents in which home was associated with feminine comfort and distinguished from sport —I will save the ageist comments for a subsequent post, though my angry thermometer popped when a 35-year-old-woman was called middle-aged, and a 44-year-old man was described as ‘an old guy who probably doesn’t care anymore’—I started to collect all the statements, jokes, and off-hand remarks made about levels of fitness, paying special attention while at the gym. I have arranged them into a tidy chart below: 

Housewife/House husband Athlete
Princess Pirate
Giggles while exercising Grunts while training
Does high volume light weight workouts 2 times per week Does high volume light weight workouts on rest days or when injured
soft, skinny, skinny-fat, curvy tight, lean, ripped, pissy
Zumba Whoop ass
Wears fancy pants Wears non-fancy pants at gym; no pants at all at home
Uses one week free pass at Spa Lady or Curves Fantasizes about fire bombing Curves, hoping that Valerie Bertinelli will be inside at the time
Watches soap operas while walking at level 3.5 and incline 2 on the treadmill Stares into the ether while doing 1 on/1 off, 14/7 increasing intervals on the step mill. Except for  bodybuilders, in which case soap operas at 3.5 and level 2
Cries over broken fingernail  Feels great shame when non-institutional shampoo cache is discovered 
Reads while using recumbent bicycle  Starts petition to ban both reading and recumbent bikes from the gym (okay so that was me)


To return to my introduction, fitness and health go hand in hand in theory but not necessarily in practice. Culturally speaking I look healthier now because I am softer and more ‘feminine’ looking. Yet I am actually less fit because of my increased body fat and worsened BMI. Luckily, I am now educated enough to think rationally about the precise physiological causes of my recent weight gain, and in good scientific fashion I have ranked the top five culprits below:   

#1: Home made ice cream cake