‘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:
[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.
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:
|PERSON WHO PURSUES ‘HEALTH’ AT THE GYM||PERSON WHO PURSUES ‘FITNESS’ AT THE GYM|
|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|
|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:
I am a bit confused here; are you not stronger and more capable now that you are not depleted and “dieted down”? Doesn’t fitness mean you are capable of performing more strenuous activities? Surely the increased level of body fat you have right now enables you to recover more quickly from hard workouts, no? Being comparably “fatter” is relative here – you have not relegated yourself to the ranks of “toned” skinny-fat cardio queens!
Do you feel stressed-out by your weight gain? Does part of you feel wistful that you could not stay “competition lean”? I’m certainly inspired by your attitude to build muscle in lieu of beautification, but most figure/fitness blogs seem to have an underlying sense of striving for a level of leanness that is not sustainable, which seems absent from your blog. I like this aspect of your blog very much!
Thanks for your questions JMS. It is true that I do not intend to (nor do I think it is possible to) remain stage-ready lean. I am more interested in strength and muscle growth than leaness. However, it is difficult to walk around with a protruding stomach, as I am now, after having had a flat one for the previous five months or so. You are correct to sense ambivalence in this post, especially as I try to explore the conflicting messages about health and fitness. On one hand I now look softer and therefore healthier, adhering to cultural norms of the proper female body. On the other hand, I am now fatter than an athlete or even a fit person really shoud be (by say 10 pounds). So in that sense, my health has decreased. I am caught between different expectations, conforming to neither. I should learn to enjoy this uncertain state.
Thanks FFG – this post made me think a lot about who decides what is “fit” or not. Body fat percentages seem skewed all over the place, depending on the source (i.e. health magazines, CDC standards, etc). “Fitness” levels of 18-21% are considered high by some, and very low by others. BMI is also confusing; nobody seems to be able to tell me – conclusively – what the lowest weight/bodyfat level is that is also sustainable for the long term. Anyhow, that ice cream cake looks pretty damn good. I’m so glad you’ve continued to blog. This has to be my favorite fitness blog ever! I love the fact you don’t strictly relegate your treat choices to packaged junk food. Your gourmet cooking looks and sounds phenomenal.
As a gay man who often works out in “gay gym” I am surrounded by the male version of the “toned” pretty girl. The gym is full of men that strive for an ideal shape, big shoulders, chest, arms, flat abs, bubble butt… The truly big guys are rarely seen here, they would stick out like a sore thumb. Most of the guys do the same 2 dozen exercises, concentrating on what they can see in the mirror. Now are they striving for health? For fitness? I think if asked most would say both but probably favour their version of fitness – maintaining sub 32 inch waist size etc. This run counter to the “fitness” that you speak of – one that strives for gains (muscle and strength), never satisified with the status quo.
My own notion of what it means to be “fit” seems to shift. After being sick in the spring and losing 15 odd pounds of both muscle and fat I am trying to gain back the lost muscle and keep the fat at bay. That is the macro outlook. The micro is seeing how deep I can go when I squat and feeling superior to those pretty boys who load up the weights but only go half as far down. For some reason being strong at the very lowest point in the movement makes me feel fitter and healthier too.
Can one be too healthy? Seems unlikely. Too fit? Maybe.
I was nodding my head all the way through this post. I love that your blog always makes me really think! I think definitions of health and fitness are incredibly subjective. It is astounding to think of the number of people I meet who swear that they are fit and healthy, even though they are overweight, can’t lift heavier than 5 pound dumbbells or run for longer than 2 minutes. As I sit here reading this while eating my chicken and green beans, I know that many people would look at me and classify me as very fit. However, in my eyes, I have a long way to go and my idea of being fit is a lot more unattainable than most people would aspire to be.
Of the competitors I know, some say they feel their healthiest during comp prep while the majority agree that the unvaried diet is not exactly nutritious and doesn’t allow maximise potential to be reached fitness-wise. Quite ironic, really.
I couldn’t stop laughing as I read your list about health vs fitness training. So, so true. It is disappointing to see how the distinction is gendered. I’m a member of the largest gym in Sydney, Australia, and when I work out in the morning, I’m the only woman in there training seriously. All the other ladies come in, do their hip adductors and 5 pound tricep kickbacks and leave. It’s hard to push away the stigma that tells me I’m pursuing a traditionally masculine goal. I think weight training for women will gradually become more popular over time when more hot women like Erin Stern get out there.
PS. That icecream cake looks awesome, and I love the way you snuck a Snape reference into this post!
Thanks Tara. Just remembered that I forgot to mention S Colbert. Snape is hotter anyway.
Just chiming in to say that FFG, you make me laugh out loud. Here I am sitting at my desk spewing raw beef and spinach greens all over my laptop while reading. The comparisons were right on. 🙂
Thought of two more while working out this morning:
Pursues Health/ Pursues Fitness
Tones / Tears (as in rips up muscles, not boo hoo)
Sissy / Sissy Squats
I am extremely strong and my body is very functional. I hike and rock climb. Last year I did a difficult trek in the Andes. Oops, I can’t be an athlete because I am a housewife! I just have to laugh at just one more stab at the worth of those of us who don’t work for money. I was a die-hard feminist in my youth and was weaned on my mother’s copies of Ms Magazine. There are aspects that I still hold on to, but the denigration of women who choose not to work for money because liberated has been defined as doing all things that were historically male, offends me deeply. I have dedicated that last 20 years to raising my kids and taking care of our home. I am as smart as anyone and far more up on current events, economics, and a myriad of other subjects than many women who spend their lives working for money, yet I get the snide comments. Our lives should not be defined by earning money, nor should we be defined as weak due to our professional choices. Any woman can be strong. I am strong enough that if you believe the BMI charts I am borderline obese, but I wear a loose size 10. BTW when you do those lat pull downs, if you do them from a low horse stance (wide, low squat) you will work out far more muscles at the same time. When your weight gets too high for that, move on to pull ups. My Holy Grail is the one legged squat.
Hi Li, Thanks for your response. I hope it is clear that feminists have often fought for respect for women’s work, arguing that domestic labour and childrearing shoudl be considered part of the GNP. Very few feminists have defined their political practice simply in terms of doing things that are traditionally male—perhaps some Americal Liberal feminists, a small fraction of the longstanding historical and international feminist movements that have existed and continue to exist. I agree that BMI is not a useful measure of strength; I also agree that one legged squats kick ass. I am off to the gym for leg day right now!
The whole health vs. fitness continuum is an interesting subject. The Body by Science folks have some very definite points to make about that; they would argue that much of what we do for “fitness” is actively detrimental to health. e.g. “chronic” cardio, and that athletes are not necessarily healthy: http://www.bodybyscience.net/home.html/?page_id=165
And then there’s the performance continuum discussionat TtP: http://theorytopractice.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/chasing-performance-at-the-expense-of-health/
I feel that you need to add another category: aesthetics. To me, body builders are not achieving fitness in the same way that an athlete would be. Athletes strive for fitness by fueling their body so that they can maximize performance. Body builders deny and deprive their body so that they can maximize a specific aesthetic. When on stage during a competition nobody cares if you can lift more or run fast or do more squats. Performance is moot category and your level of “fitness” is actually based purely on aesthetic which is assumed to signify fitness. However, it does not necessarily signify fitness because by they time competition rolls around your body is starving and weaker.
This is where I see a connection between the “house wife” and the body builder. The dieting, the striving for a certain look at the expense of health is something that they share although the body builder is more dedicated and determined whereas the house wife will give up, start again, give up, lament her physical appearance.. start again ect. You don’t see athletes obsessively weighing every grain of rice like a figure girl or a dieting wife. The work out is all about performance.
It’s true that the competition itself may promote a state of weakness, but bodybuilders are in fact quite strong most of the time and eat a ton of protein both on and off season. I think some ‘housewives’ may want to respond to this comment and if so, please feel free. Any athletes who think about their appearance and diet (MMA fighters etc.?) might also like to respond!
You are my hero. After having read about you in 3 different newspapers (along with reading today that the US Surgeon General is trying to encourage women to forego the hair appointments in favor of the gym), I had to see this blog – and was not disappointed. Thank you so much for being a kick-ass, witty, strong feminist role model!
Thanks. Though I don’t see why women can’t have nice hair and fit bodies too. Is the Surgeon General implying that women are superficial and make bad choices? If so, then f-you Surgeon General.