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Everything You Need to Know About Fitness  and Why It's More Than Just Going to the Gym

Everything You Need to Know About Fitness  and Why It's More Than Just Going to the Gym

What does it mean to be in good shape? It's not easy to come up with a discrete definition. The dictionary defines fitness as "the quality or state of being fit." (The term "fit" means "physically and mentally sound.") " You're not alone if you find those words a little hazy.

According to exercise experts, this is sort of the point. Fitness doesn't have to imply that you're an ultra-marathon runner or that you can do one or a hundred pull-ups. For different people, fitness can mean different things.

"For me, fitness is first and foremost about feeling good and being able to move without pain," says Grayson Wickham, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the founder of Movement Vault, a mobility and movement company based in New York City. True fitness, he explains, is about feeling good and being in good enough shape to do the things you want to do and live the life you want to live. Are you able to play with your children or grandchildren? Can you hike the Inca Trail if it's on your bucket list? Do you feel rejuvenated after a day of gardening? Are you able to climb all of the necessary stairwells in your life without getting tired or stopping?

Michael Jones co, DO, an assistant professor of internal medicine and sports medicine at Ohio State University's Wexler Medical Center in Columbus, concurs. "I've learned that physical fitness is simply defined as your body's ability to perform tasks since medical school." Fitness enthusiasts now have more tools than ever to track, measure, and follow their progress."

Body mass index (BMI), resting heart rate, body fat percentage, VO2 max, 5K or marathon personal records (PRs), 100-meter dash times, and bench-press maxes are just a few examples, according to him. "These are all objective measures we use to track our progress (or compare ourselves to the guy or girl next to us on the metaphorical squat rack or treadmill)."

But, he adds, physical fitness should not be judged solely on the basis of any of these or other tests or assessments. It's a lot more complicated than that. According to Dr. Jonesco, you wouldn't use one factor (such as blood pressure) to assess someone's overall health. Blood pressure is a good way to check for cardiovascular disease, but it doesn't tell you if you have cancer or dementia.

Jonesco explains, "Physical fitness should be considered a balance of many of the aforementioned measures, but also many more intangible measures, such as your outlook on not just your body, but your attitude toward your own health and wellness."

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, experts have traditionally defined five key components of physical fitness: body composition (the relative proportion of fat and fat-free tissue in the body), cardiorespiratory or aerobic fitness, flexibility, muscular strength, and muscular endurance. But, according to Jeffrey E. Oken, MD, deputy chief of staff at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois, "you can't discount the impact of nutrition, sleep, and mental and emotional health on fitness." That means that just because you appear to be in good shape doesn't mean you are.

"Some people obsess about their physical appearance and numbers, but they're motivated by low self-esteem and criticize their flaws." Some people sacrifice sleep and rest in order to achieve greater success, but this leads to illness or burnout," Jonesco says. "Fitness is a spectrum of physical well-being in which our physical and emotional motivations must be balanced." We get the most benefit when all of the components of fitness are balanced, both physically and mentally.

Being physically fit improves your energy, mood, sleep, and immune system.

Because fitness is defined as being physically capable of leading the happy, fulfilling life you desire, the first and most obvious benefit of achieving fitness is improved quality of life.

Fitness has been linked to:

  • Increased levels of energy
  • According to a study published in the November/December issue of the journal Human Resource Management, there is a better work-life balance
  • Increased resistance
  • More restful sleep 
  • According to some studies, increasing your fitness through exercise may be just as effective as medication in treating mild to moderate depression.

Physical activity has also been linked to increased productivity and focus. According to a study published in the journal Psychophysiology in May 2015, this is because exercise increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain.

Physical fitness's mental and emotional health benefits are among the most important — and often have the greatest impact on someone's quality of life, according to Jonesco. "Pushing your body and seeing how it responds breeds not only a stronger, faster, and leaner body, but also a more peaceful, satisfied, and confident mind." When you're physically fit, you realize what you can achieve when you put your mind to it, and you gain the confidence to achieve your personal, professional, and relationship goals.

Furthermore, the importance of fitness in assisting people in achieving (and maintaining) healthier weights cannot be overstated. Increasing your fitness level through physical activity not only burns calories, but it also builds metabolically active muscle. And, according to Wickham, the more strong, healthy muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest every day. A fitter body equates to a faster metabolism, which equates to a healthier weight.

Sleep and exercise have a very close relationship. Here's how they contribute to overall fitness.

Consider this: Even a marathon runner who squeezes in multiple strength-training workouts per week can jeopardize his or her fitness by eating a diet high in saturated fats and sugars and low in nutrients. Similarly, even someone with excellent workout and diet habits can jeopardize their fitness by failing to get a sufficient amount of sleep each night.

W. Christopher Winter, MD, president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine in Virginia and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It, explains that sleep is critical to keeping your body functioning at its best. Your fitness goals may be jeopardized if you don't get enough sleep.

What are the advantages of balancing sleep and physical activity? Staying active helps you sleep better, and getting the seven to nine hours of sleep per night recommended by the National Sleep Foundation will give you the energy you need to stick to your workout plans and stay active.

Staying fit has a significant impact on long-term health.

While the immediate gratification of fitness is fantastic, keep in mind that many of the greatest benefits of fitness may not be apparent for years, if not decades. (Patience, patience, patience.)

Physical fitness, for example, is consistently linked to increased longevity in studies. According to a study published in the Lancet Oncology in October 2013, as your body gets fitter, it lengthens the protective caps on your chromosomes called telomeres. Telomeres are responsible for determining the rate at which your cells age. That means that keeping them in good shape (being fit) can help you live longer.

Furthermore, increased fitness significantly lowers the risk of chronic diseases that develop over time, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer. Fitness may also help prevent dementia, according to a growing body of research. "Fitness is the one thing that can help prevent almost any disease," Wickham says.

In addition to all of these advantages, fitness can help you live a longer and healthier life. According to data published in the November 2014 issue of the journal Age and Ageing, one out of every three adults aged 60 and older suffers from severe muscle loss, known as sarcopenia. According to additional research, the condition contributes to fat gain, decreased mobility and function, falls, and even death in older adults, but that exercise can help to counteract these effects of aging.

"It all boils down to evolution," says the author. Wickham explains that our bodies and genes have evolved to be active and mobile. "When you give your body what it requires, it returns the favor by performing at its peak."

Why Is Being Fit Beneficial When It Comes to Chronic Disease Management?

Regular exercise and maintaining a healthy body reduces your risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. But what about the persistent issues that do arise? Physical activity and maintaining fitness are generally beneficial.

According to the Mayo Clinic, depending on your symptoms, you may need to modify your exercise routines or take special precautions. (Before beginning a new exercise program, consult your doctor and discuss any limitations or modifications you should be aware of.)

Regular exercise, on the other hand, can help most people with conditions like heart disease, diabetes, asthma, back pain, arthritis, and cancer. Maintaining your fitness also helps you avoid developing additional illnesses that you might otherwise develop.

Here's an example of how much physical activity you should engage in.

So, how do you incorporate fitness into your daily routine and achieve your personal fitness goals? Jonesco advises that you begin by following the federal physical activity guidelines.

Adults should aim for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). More than those amounts of activity, according to the HHS guidelines, will provide additional health benefits. Adults should do muscle-strengthening exercises (of moderate or greater intensity) for all major muscle groups at least two times per week, according to the guidelines.

Aerobic exercise has been shown to be beneficial to cardiovascular health in studies. (The intensity you choose should be determined by your current fitness level and the advice of your doctor.) Walking, running, cycling, and swimming are some examples.

Strength training also has other important health benefits, according to other research. Resistance exercise, compared to cardiovascular exercise, is more effective at preventing the accumulation of abdominal (visceral) fat, which is linked to the development of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, according to a study published in the February 2015 issue of the journal Obesity. Individuals who regularly strength trained had a lower risk of heart attack, stroke, or death related to heart disease than those who did not strength train, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise — and these benefits were independent of whether or not they regularly did aerobic exercise.

One or more of the body's basic muscle groups, such as the legs, core, back, hips, chest, or arms, should be targeted during these strength workouts. Lifting weights, using resistance bands, or doing body-weight exercises are all viable options that should be used to complement and improve your current fitness level.

"There's no shame in gradually implementing these guidelines over the course of a month or so," Jonesco says. Also, keep in mind that the guidelines allow for a lot of personalization. This is done on purpose because the most important part of any workout is to keep going. "If you want to stay motivated to do something on a regular basis, you have to enjoy it," he says. It's fine if you don't enjoy running. Take a swim or an indoor cycling class.

Importantly, the HHS physical activity guidelines emphasize that any movement is better than none, and that any amount of activity, no matter how brief, can contribute to your weekly goals. The bottom line is that adults should move around more and sit less throughout the day.

That may sound daunting, but it isn't if you broaden your definition of exercise beyond time spent in the gym, according to Wickham. Instead, consider all of your movements to be exercise. "Even regular exercisers don't always move throughout the day," says one expert.

According to a study conducted by Northwestern University researchers, women who meet current activity guidelines sit just as much as those who do not.

Wickham recommends incorporating movement and activity into your day-to-day life rather than focusing on getting all of your day's (or week's) activity in one sitting. Break up long periods of sitting with any activity that allows your body to move through its full range of motion, feels good, and allows you to return to whatever you were doing with renewed vigor.

Also, don't forget to stretch. Stretching throughout the day is a great way to ease tight muscles, relieve tension, and promote the flexibility you need to perform both in the gym and in life, according to Wickham. While experts are currently debating the benefit of stretching after a workout (stretching before exercise is no longer advised),

Fitness is all about providing your body with the nutrients it requires to thrive. Just remember to pay attention.

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