Published: Tuesday, April 05, 2011, 6:00 AM Updated: Thursday, April 07, 2011, 8:13 AM
Think hitting a fastball or catching a touchdown pass is tough? Try settling on a definition for the term "fit." Now there's a moving target.
In truth, fitness is an exceedingly slippery concept, one whose meaning varies from person to person and doesn't rest solely on firm, quantifiable standards. Some pin fitness to athletic ability, holding up the likes of Lance Armstrong, while others equate it to overall health.
Yet for all its vagueness, it's also widely linked to appearance, in that many of us wrongly associate fitness with a certain look or physical trait.
"Many people look at [fitness] magazine covers and think that's what they're supposed to look like," says Heather Nettle, an exercise physiologist at the Cleveland Clinic's Sports Health Center.
"I think that's a misrepresentation. Fitness doesn't mean you're excelling in performance. It means you're doing what you're supposed to be doing."
Consider Lakewood resident Jillian Neimeister, 26, a fund development manager at the Visiting Nurse Association of Ohio.
At 5 feet 5 inches and 170 pounds, the former rugby player doesn't have the lean, sculpted look of an athlete or a stereotypically "fit" physique. Her body mass index (BMI, a measurement of the relationship between weight and height) falls at the upper end of overweight, just a hairbreadth from obese.
But anyone who saw Neimeister in action would undoubtedly describe her as fit and athletic. At a recent CrossFit fitness competition, Neimeister blew away even the most ripped of competitors by dead-lifting 345 pounds and doing 27 pull-ups. Last year, she ably completed a half-marathon run with only minimal training.
"I don't feel obese," says Neimeister. "I feel fit. I do get jokes about having a big butt. I'm not a small girl. But I know I could probably beat anyone. I can go out and do whatever I need."
Another athlete used to taking people by surprise is Craig Ihms, 37, of Rocky River, communications director at Enspace Inc.
At 5 feet 11 inches and 200 pounds, with substantial shoulders, Ihms more closely resembles the soccer player he used to be than the hard-core cyclist he is today. Like Neimeister, too, he's "overweight" in BMI terms, and he admits to a fondness for beer.
But when he rides with guys who'd easily blend in at the Tour de France -- with big legs, thin arms and small chests -- he has no trouble keeping up. Sure, he'd be faster if he dropped a few pounds, but on flat roads, he's almost unbeatable, and for him, covering 60 miles in under three hours is routine.
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"I'm more like a diesel locomotive," Ihms says. "Some people hate the way I ride. But the place I really pay is on the climbing. I get harassed a lot."
Partial blame for such apparent discrepancies between size and fitness belongs to the BMI equation. Nettle says she believes the measure is only marginally useful.
"It would misrepresent probably half my patients," she says.
And forget looking to the dictionary for clarification. All you'll find there under "fit" and "fitness" are relative benchmarks.
Several things factor in
That's not to say it's impossible to measure fitness. On the contrary, there are multiple standards for determining whether or not a person is fit, and an array of physiological tests, including body-fat percentage, resting heart-rate and aerobic capacity, can be especially revealing.
It helps to think of fitness as a composite of several factors. To be fit, in other words, you don't need to be skinny or buff so much as healthy and able to perform a broad variety of tasks. You can also be more fit in one category than another.
Most professional football players, for instance, would fail the weight test instantly. No one questions their fitness, though, because they're so obviously athletic and muscular. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the trim person who never exercises and whose body composition is in fact highly fatty.
"There is such a thing as a skinny fat person," Nettle says. "Looks can be deceiving."
Nettle says she prefers to define fitness in terms of functional ability. In her mind, a person is fit if they're logging at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, or three 30-minute sessions that are more vigorous.
Additionally, they're doing some basic resistance training twice a week and taking steps to maintain flexibility and balance. This person would meet most of the benchmarks set by the American College of Sports Medicine.
"If they've got all those components, they're doing pretty well," Nettle says. "To have overall fitness, you need all those things."
Some factor in emotional measures. Cortney Myer, a physical therapist at Akron Children's Hospital, says she considers happiness and confidence part of the fitness equation, especially for older adults, for whom athletic performance typically matters less than overall wellness.
"Fitness to me is a good balance," she says. "It's about psychology as well as exercise."
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Developing competence in several areas
But just as the fitness realm is broader than many people realize, it's also full of room for error and mistaken beliefs.
Endurance athletes, for instance, are prone not only to dehydration and stress fractures, but also to high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Burning tons of calories keeps them skinny, but if they eat poorly, they'll still suffer adverse consequences.
"They assume because they run so much they can get away with unhealthy food," Myer says.
Others are deluded by physique. Myer says she regularly encounters athletes who appear fit but in fact haven't developed what their activity truly requires. They may have large pectorals or biceps but weak abdominal muscles or rotator cuffs.
Bill Russell, co-owner of CrossFit Cleveland West in Lakewood, says many at his facility begin believing they're in great shape but fail the second he introduces a movement they're not used to.
That's why CrossFit promotes "multimodal" fitness. Rather than working to excel at a single sport, CrossFit trainers aim to develop competence across the 10 so-called "fitness domains." Their goal is to enable people to do everything from move a couch to defend themselves.
"People stay away from things they're no good at," Russell says. "And you can't tell just by looking at someone what they don't do well. It's about life. We always say we train in the gym to be better outside the gym."
It's worth noting here the difference between fit and conditioned. Everyone should try to be fit, according to the measures outlined above, but only athletes striving for distinction have reason to aim higher.
Then there's the issue of comparing fitness. Think of children debating which superhero or arch villain would win a battle: Is it possible to name the world's fittest person?
Not really, Nettle says, mostly because there's no one standard applicable to all the world's elite. "You have to make sure you're comparing apples to apples."
Still, for the rest of us, it's possible to draw a few broad conclusions and piece together a working definition of fitness.
Weight is certainly a factor, but it's not the only one, and it may not even be the most important. Don't define yourself by your BMI. Neither is athleticism alone a fair measure.
No, being fit means being happy, widely capable and physiologically sound. It's not a contest or a question of resembling models. Furthermore, it's a goal without end. There's almost always room to raise the bar.
"Appearance plays no role," Myer says. "A little insulation isn't necessarily bad. If people are wondering about their fitness, and reflecting on how they're incorporating it in their lives, that's a great thing."
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