Skinny people aren’t necessarily healthy. In fact, underweight body mass has a statistically significant shortening of lifespan that is WORSE than overweight body mass risk: https://www.thelancet.com/.../PIIS2213-8587(18.../fulltext. Overweight people aren’t necessarily unhealthy. None of those is fitness. Elite athletes aren’t necessarily rounded in their fitness, and oftentimes ARE NOT healthy. Many researchers have shown that there are VERY fit people who are MORE unhealthy due to excessive stressors: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4882373/ . This is unsurprising to those of us who are in the field. But the general population needs to know.
In 2019 I had the pleasure of performing a gait analysis at the Biomechanics Lab at Northwestern Health Sciences University. It’s pretty involved. You have motion cameras, the reflector pads which they use for big movie actors and video games, etc. The computers are pulling billions of metrics.
Afterward, as I and the researchers chatted, they showed me some findings with Olympic athletes they’ve measured. I asked what corrective protocols they use for such high level athletes once the specific imbalances are uncovered. You see, even the most elite athletes have MALadaptations. Unsurprisingly, the director told me that these OLYMPIC athletes fail at even some very basic core exercises.
This is unsurprising to me, because I’ve been assessing movement patterns professionally for 17 years. Ask anyone with a serious background in movement and biomechanics and they can give you ample examples of people who have superhuman performance in a few domains but fails completely at being a well-rounded fit person.
This is important for the public to understand. Marvel at high level physical prowess. But don’t get confused. That doesn’t mean they’re totally fit. Usually it means they AREN’T.
And that’s just one distinction.
Another which is critical is the fact that physical fitness can have 5 big headings:
- Strength (force production)
- Muscular Endurance (capacity to repeat moderate-to-high force efforts)
- Cardiorespiratory Capacity (O2 to CO2 exchange, peak VO2, average VO2, spectrum of bpm, resting bpm, HRV, anaerobic threshold, lactate threshold, aerobic base, etc.)
- Mobility (how close active muscular range of motion aligns with theoretical skeletal ranges)
- Composition (bone density, lean mass, body fat percentage, overall mass, hydration percentages)
Even this is an oversimplification. However, often people see skinniness or small body mass as equating to fitness. I want you to look closely at those five categories. PART of the last one people are equating with ALL of all five. That’s not smart. That’s not right.
Furthermore, these categories are intended as fitness in a strict sense of the word “fit,” meaning CAPABLE of doing a task. Thus, your body mass has no objective value to fitness. If your task at hand is pushing a car, more mass makes you more fit for the task. If you have incredibly high body mass accompanied by incredibly high lean mass, you are more fit for a lot of activities.
If I wanted friends to help with landscaping, I am not going to elect waify, little, light, skinny people. They aren’t FIT for the job.
Can you pickup a Boulder? You’re pretty fit, regardless of your waistline.
If we are referencing the capacity to hang from a bar, low lean mass with high body mass means you’re less fit. Low mass and low strength is just as unfit. These are relative statements.
I didn’t mention emotional fitness, or psychological well-being, or mental acuity. They, along with physical fitness, can inform health to be better OR worse. You can starve yourself, be addicted to narcissism, and take amphetamines, and you will appear more fit. Are you more fit? No. Are you healthy? Absolutely not. Are you better at one piece of something we may put under the headings of physical fitness? Maybe.
And so this is a substantial problem. Extreme unhealthiness can purport to be fitness. And if we conflate fitness with healthiness, we reinforce that people ought to risk health to showcase “fitness.”
If, instead, we can keep a clear mind, remembering that these are all very different things, we can appreciate an overweight runner, an underweight yogi, a muscular athlete. Appreciate must be where it ends. The next step, the step of connecting that appreciation with “SHOULD” is misleading. Connecting a small mode of physical ability with an overarching theme of health is wrong. It is dead wrong. It is not even close to being not-wrong.
I’ve heard the statement, “the picture of health and fitness,” and people apply that statement to a photo of a single person by himself or herself posing. Think the cover of Sports Illustrated. Think the cover of a New York Times Best Selling book on health or fitness. Now, stop. Think about this. To me, the picture of health and fitness is an unposed picture with my kids, my friends, my family. The picture of health and fitness is a candid shot of people gathering together. The picture of health and fitness is not a single idol standing alone showcasing one piece of composition at most likely the cost to deep human connection to others.