Being classed as physically fit holds both social and personal value to people. That’s why the fitness industry is one of the largest in the world and is valued at around $100 billion. With links to health and wellness, being physically fit has become a huge aspiration to people. We’ve all heard of and eyerolled at #fitspo.
As with anything, there are both positive and negative impacts that come hand in hand with fitness culture. The positives are drilled into us. The benefits of exercise are widely documented with an unrivalled body of research behind them. There’s an overwhelming list. Reduced risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, joint pain, and cancers for a start. Not to mention the positive impacts on mental health and sleep. It’s pretty much undeniable.
We’re stating the obvious here, but its important to set the scene before mentioning that amongst all the positive impacts of the fitness industry and it’s brilliant effects on people’s health and lifestyle, there are problematic pockets.
Fitness culture can motivate, be rewarding, and bring confidence. But not everybody feels that way all of the time. Fitness culture can also be really intimidating. Measuring progress against others and not ourselves. Seeing exercise as a punishment rather than a reward. Basing success on only the number of calories burned or the amount of sweat on our foreheads. These normalised approaches to exercise can nurture unhealthy comparisons, feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and guilt. At the extreme end, it normalises dysfunctional relationships with exercise and food.
Fitness fads may come and go. But what is consistent is an appearance driven notion of fitness ideals. We’re only fit if we look a certain way, right? At one point it was all about the #thighgap but now it’s #bootygains. We fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve made societal progress because we’re now championing #strongnotskinny. When really, the notion is the same. Reducing fitness and exercise to just the aesthetics and ignoring the individual. And although women feel this pressure disproportionately, men can feel it too. It becomes all about the #gains.
We tend to define fitness with a global glance and reduce it down to what we look like. And whilst body composition does come into it, it’s only one part of what fitness involves and is more to do with internal ratios than what size clothing we need.
So, what really is fitness? What does it mean to be fit? How can we find a definition and a value that suits us, encourages us to get involved, and plays the perfect role in our lifestyles?
The different types of fitness
A good place to start is acknowledging that when we talk about fitness, we’re often referring to physical fitness. But there are other types too. Skill related fitness, nutritional fitness, mental and emotional fitness. A good reminder that our wellbeing isn’t solely made up from our bodies ability to do squats.
In terms of physical fitness, our capabilities can be put into four categories. Cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility/mobility. (Body composition can also be seen as a component of physical fitness but isn’t linked to a particular exercise and describes your body fat/bone/water/muscle ratio). With physical fitness, you can excel in one type and struggle with the other. Another reminder to help broaden our perspective a little. People can have different levels of fitness in different categories.
Cardiovascular fitness is our body’s ability to deal with oxygen. In particular, the efficiency with which our lungs and heart can take it in, transport it, and use it to fuel our movements. Activities that test and develop our cardiovascular fitness, or cardio as we like to shorten it to, are things like running, swimming, cycling, and most sports.
Often, when people think about their muscles, they think about strength exclusively. But it’s not the only type of muscular fitness. Muscular strength relates to the amount of force a muscle can exert. It requires a certain type of muscle fibre. As our strength grows, the amount of these types of fibres increase, and our muscle mass will increase with it. Strength lets us lift heavy.
Muscular endurance, is another type of muscular fitness. It relates to the amount of time our muscles can work for without getting tired. The force here is less relevant, and it’s more about the prolonged demand our muscles can deal with. Muscular endurance requires a different type of muscle fibre. As your endurance increases, these fibres will too, but they’re less likely to cause huge growth in muscle mass like strength fibres might. Endurance lets us go for longer.
In real life, you need both muscular strength and muscular endurance. The type of exercise you do will determine which type of fitness you’re testing more.
Flexibility and mobility are a grossly underrated elements of fitness. They get neglected a lot. But without them, we’d be unable to do all our bodily movements. Flexibility is the ability of our muscles to lengthen. Mobility is our range of motion within a joint. Maintaining good levels of these is integral to keeping active and injury free.
In reality, exercise doesn’t improve one element of fitness exclusively. Activities, exercises, and workouts will probably test more than one type of fitness at a time. A Yoga session will probably test your muscular endurance, a bit of strength, and your flexibility. A HIIT class will likely test your cardiovascular fitness, your strength, and your endurance. A weightlifting session will probably have a go at your muscular strength and endurance.
The point of this isn’t to get overwhelmed with all the things we need to consider regarding fitness. We don’t need to have a checklist that we tick off to make sure we attend to every element equally and frequently. It’s just about understanding the reductive view we’ve developed of what fitness looks like. Fitness means more than just how long we spend at the bench press.
Defining fitness levels
At what point can we say we are fit? As with most things, the answer to complex questions like this is usually the same. It depends on the individual. Quantitative measures of fitness will differ between men and women. Between old people and young people. Between parents and people without children. The list goes on. The NHS guidelines suggest that people aged 19-64 need to do 150 minutes of activity a week that is moderate in intensity. Or 75 minutes that’s vigorous in intensity. What classifies as intense will be very different depending on the individual and their current fitness levels. Still vague.
Stripping it back, fitness is a physical state of health and well being that means we’re suitable to fulfil a role or task. So, what determines if we’re fit or not is what we need to be physically suitable and fit for. Fitness for professional athletes means being fit enough to qualify for the Olympics. Fitness for a first-time marathon runner means being fit enough to finish all 26.2 miles. Fitness for Melanie from Herne Hill means being able to stay on her feet all week at her job as a retail assistant and play netball with her friends at the weekend.
You know when you say a word so many times it loses all meaning? We’ve done that with fitness.
We can always be motivated to do better, but that doesn’t mean we’re not enough right now. Remembering that fitness is defined by the individual and not by the appearance of abs is a good start. It’s time to re-calibrate our mindsets and understand what fitness means to us and the role it should play in our lives.
Finding out what fitness means for you
Finding the right role for fitness and exercise in our lives is rooted in understanding and being motivated by the benefits it can bring us.
That doesn’t mean shaming those who want to embark on weight-loss or appearance driven journey. It’s okay to want to look a certain way. It’s okay to use exercise as a tool to do that. But at the same time, we need to understand that it’s not the sole purpose for exercising and it’s not a long-term reason to keep it in our lives.
Exercise so that your body feels better. Exercise so that your mind feels clearer. Exercise so that you’re able to do something. Exercise so that you’re able to maintain energy, keep up with your demanding lifestyle, and stay healthy. Motivations to exercise span far beyond what lots of us reduce them to. They go way beyond ‘blasting belly fat’.
There’s a movement that’s increasing in momentum about intuitive fitness. It’s born out of a troublesome relationship that many people have experienced with exercise. When the drive to go to the gym is fuelled only by pressure, guilt, and an unsustainable expectation of ourselves, it becomes toxic. The true reasons for exercising take a back seat. Ironically, in pursuit of peak physical fitness, mental and emotional fitness suffers.
Not all of us need to have experienced this relationship with exercise for intuitive fitness to be relevant. Intuitive fitness is grounded in the approach that exercise and activity should be led by what our bodies want to be doing. Letting go of pressure from our self, our society, social circle, or Instagram feed. Focusing only on what our individual body can and wants to do in terms of activity and exercise. Not feeling that you need to conform to stereotypes and wear certain clothing. It’s not an excuse to be inactive. It’s a road map for fitting fitness in. Not thinking, just doing.
Running because we have energy to burn and raising our heart rate feels good. Weightlifting because getting stronger is helping our bodies in our everyday life. Doing yoga because our muscles and joints need some attention. Resting because we’re tired and a little bit sore.
Humans are naturally intuitive creatures. We know what we need. But we’ve gotten very good at drowning our intuition out.
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FITNESS BOUNDARIES – I’m curious, where do you think you’re at right now? I have been all 3 at some time in my life. I went from one extreme on the left growing up, to another extreme on the right when I first discovered fitness and became a PT. Discovering the framework of Intuitive Eating and subsequently intuitive movement in recent years – I feel like I’ve finally got to a sweet spot in the middle. Fitness is a part of my life and part of my tool kit to feel good, but not my whole life or my only tool. SWIPE RIGHT 👉🏻 to see FOOD BOUNDARIES. As you can see my post was directly inspired by the work of my friend Maria @holisticallygrace who created this excellent post on our relationship with food. Once again I can relate to all of the post at different points in my life. Where are you now? #Trainhappy #intuitivemovement #boundaries #intuitiveeating #ditchdietculture #fitness #workout
Exercising for enjoyment
Even after understanding its benefits, exercise doesn’t just become an easy part of our lifestyles. It sounds obvious, but when exercise is something we’re not enjoying, we’re much less likely to make it a regular and sustainable thing.
It’s way easier to commit to do something you enjoy, than something you don’t. If going to the pub counted as exercise, we’d all be competitive champs. Updating our Strava every time we went. Hannah just had 7 pints at The Wellington Arms! Well done, Hannah.
Exercise doesn’t have to be something that fills you with dread and makes you want to avoid it. There are thousands of activities that count as exercise, ones we might not have considered.
It can seem as though fitness is only measured by how many miles you can run on the treadmill and how many kilograms you can lift. Not the case.
Group badminton classes. Dance workshops. Boxing bootcamps. Yoga. Barre. Zumba. Swimming. Cycling. Hiking. There are thousands of options. Ignore the fads. Find your thing.
Fitting fitness in
This is without a doubt the hardest part. When surveyed, most people believe that their fitness would be improved if they had more time on their hands. Relatable right?
Fitness has a different value for different people. For some, it’s integral to their weekend. It’s part of their plan and they enjoy dedicating most of their free time towards their exercise of choice. For others, it’s something they will allocate 30 minutes for, but no more. There are things they enjoy more to be getting on with.
Find your flow. Make it flexible. Make the most of those pockets of time you do have.
We’ll let you in on a little secret. Using Hussle’s Monthly+ pass and getting access to gyms, pools and spas at thousands of different locations across the UK helps. You’re not bound by one gym. You can use whichever one you like in a location that suits your day.
Plus, if things get weird, which they often do because life is unpredictable. Just pause your pass. And come back to it when you’re ready. We’re all about that anti-contract life.
So, when the gym feels like a place for only the most elite athletes. Remember that it’s not. Fitness is for everyone. It’s inclusive. And it’s individual. At Hussle we offer the flexibility and variety that lets everybody get involved and get as ‘fit’ as their own definition dictates. What is fitness? It’s up to you.