Fitness and health are not the same exact thing; unfortunately this mistake is made too often. Fitness is a component of health. This past weekend I worked at the Virginia Beach Rock N Roll Half Marathon. Two distinct situations caused for alarm. First a person died during the half marathon after they collapsed, and were rushed to the hospital1. That is the 5th person in the races history, which seems alarmingly high considering it’s not an extraordinarily difficult event and the emergency services are top notch. Second I was astounded at the sheer number of overweight and obese runners/walkers participating in the event. Being able to run or walk a half marathon, is a great accomplishment, but that does not mean you are healthy or event fit.
This brought me back to a conversation I had recently about CrossFit. I was describing what CrossFit was to an old classmate, and then he said something peculiar to me. “Oh well that stuff sounds like it’s for health not fitness.” That was a profound statement coming from someone whom in 4th grade our teacher told “Gary your brain is as smooth as a pealed onion”. We had just learned that the more wrinkled your brain the more intelligent you were. So the question I’ve been pondering is what fitness would be most beneficial to our health.
The way I define health is maximizing both longevity and the quality of that time duration. The quality of our life is made up of how we feel physically, our ability to move, remaining injury/disease free, our mental/spiritual state, and social wellness. All these determinants of health are interrelated and you can’t have one without the other. However many of them are not clearly measurable. As fitness relates to health we can measure all of those aspects. CrossFit defines health directly as your fitness, specifically your maximum average power output and volume of fitness under the curve2. CrossFit claims to be the sport of fitness, yet also the way to maximize your health. However CrossFit has also gotten a bad name because of some extraordinarily high injury rates, specifically serious injuries with respect to the spine, knees, and shoulders. Plus sports can often be a detriment to health.
Maximizing health through fitness is achieving a balance between training all of our energy systems, having adequate mobility, good movement patterns/skills, balance, strength, power, and coordination. This is very similar to CrossFit’s and MovNat’s approach3,4. Movement skills are a priority over conditioning. Fitness needs to be very specific to address your individual needs, and designed to build you up, not tear you down. CrossFit has people lifting maximal loads, and maxing out energy systems often multiple times per week. This is great for competing in CrossFit but the juice is not worth the squeeze strictly in terms of health. The health gained from deadlifting 350 lbs instead of 300 lbs is very small, while the risk or injury is greater.
If you want to train to maximize health, and fitness is not a competition to you there is never a need to truly max out. Failure during lifts risks injury, while also degrading movement quality. In fact submaximal training allows for a quicker recovery so you can train again faster. This also applies to running and endurance sports. Running submaximal efforts where good form can be sustained will yield greater benefits and lower risk of injury. This will not allow you to run the fastest you possibly can. Competing in a sport means a degree of specialization; yes even CrossFit, and constantly toeing the red line. The goal in sports is to train as hard as possible and come as close to the line of injury without ever crossing over and actually getting hurt. Optimal health is achieved where additional training yields exponentially smaller returns in gains but before your risk of injury gets exponentially larger. Athletic competition means riding that fitness as high as possible squeezing the last few percentages of gain right before you run into the wall in injury.
The question becomes are you training and working out to compete in a sport, or are you working out to be healthy and live a quality life. If so your training should directly reflect that. This means educating yourself and designing your programming so that each element is helping you to achieve you goal. If you are working with a personal trainer, going to CrossFit classes, running, or anything else it will involve letting them know your goals and how you can work together.
Stay tuned for articles about all aspects of health and what you can do. Please comment and give your opinion on fitness in terms of health.