The Most Important Factor in Exercise, Physical Fitness, and Health

When we think about health and fitness, most people would tend to believe that they are one in the same. More often than not, the terms health and fitness are used interchangeably. Yet in reality, they have distinctly different meanings and applications.

However, there is one area of commonality between the two. Both are states that are dynamic, constantly changing conditions of the biologic organism. Health and fitness levels can vary from one moment to the next.

Health, simply speaking, is really just the absence of disease. Yet because of the dynamic nature of the human organism, there must be a relative balance between the catabolic state (anything that results in the breakdown of the organism) and the anabolic state (anything that results in the growth and differentiation of the organism). This balance must be maintained and is what defines optimal health.

From conception until we stop growing (usually between the ages of 18 and 25), the anabolic state is slightly ahead of the catabolic state. Once we achieve adulthood, the catabolic state becomes slightly more dominant and, being mortal, aging and ultimately death occurs.

Muscle wasting as a result of HIV is an example of higher than normal catabolism. Tumors are an example of accelerated anabolism. Despite the obvious negative effects, life extension and nutritional research has shown that the vast majority of DNA repair occurs during catabolism. And with the proper stimulus, through the anabolic process, muscle and bone tissue can be maintained and grow right up until the day we die. So the proper balance must be maintained throughout life to achieve optimal health.

Fitness, on the other hand, is the ability to withstand, adapt, or recover from environmental challenges that act upon the body. Physician and exercise expert M. Doug McGuff, MD defines fitness as “the bodily state of being physiologically capable of handling challenges that exist above a resting threshold of activity”.

Dr. Arthur Devaney, an economist who developed the notion of Evolutionary Fitness, provides another interesting concept, termed “Physiologic Headroom”, meaning “the difference between the most you can do and the least you can do”. This could also be a definition of aging. Dr. Devany states that when this difference between the most you can do and the least you can do becomes zero, you are dead.

With the above definitions in place, it is easy to see the distinctions between health and fitness. It’s possible to be healthy, yet not particularly fit. Likewise, a high degree of fitness does not necessarily mean that a person is healthy.

We are counseled by the fitness and medical communities to be more physically active as a way to become healthier. And while sports and recreational activities may require a certain level of fitness, they may not be the healthiest way to obtain that fitness. If one gets injured in the pursuit of fitness, their health is adversely affected. Acute injuries may become chronic, further jeopardizing short term and long term health. Most often, it is not a matter of if you will get injured, but when.

Physical Activity vs. Exercise

Another distinction may be necessary to differentiate between generalized physical activity such as sports and athletics and specific exercise for the sole purpose of improving generalized fitness and health, increasing our “physiological headroom”. Dr. McGuff defines exercise as “a specific activity that stimulates a positive physiological adaptation that serves to enhance fitness and health and does not undermine the latter in the process of enhancing the former.”

The Most Important Factor

Exercise, for the purpose of physical conditioning, must be safeSafety is the most important factor to consider when designing and performing an exercise program for the purpose of improving both health and fitness.

So it would seem that adding the 'safety' qualifier would pretty much exclude all sports and recreational activities for the purpose improving fitness AND health. What do we do now?

Fortunately, medical and exercise research & development has advanced so that we can improve and enhance muscular strength and endurance, cardiovascular efficiency, bone density, flexibility, metabolic efficiency (fat mobilization, insulin sensitivity, etc.) and enjoy an increased resistance to injury for when we choose to participate in sports and recreation.

In subsequent articles, I’ll talk more about how to make your workouts safe and productive. In fact, by applying physics and engineering principles to human biomechanics, the safer we make exercise, the more productive it becomes.

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