What does it really mean to be ‘fit’?

i amIn our society, there is a focus on being “fit”. Some people joke that they are “out of shape” or “out of shape” when they feel short of breath after climbing the stairs, but this can be perfectly normal and healthy. In magazines and advertisements, we see “fitness” portrayed as people with abs who go to the gym regularly. But as TikTokers Ella Halikas and Laetitia de Caruffel share, being “fit” and exercising regularly doesn’t mean you look a certain way.

So, what does it mean to be fit? We asked doctors and personal trainers how they define physical fitness, specifically, and what they think is more important than labels.

What “Fit” Means (and Doesn’t)

“If I had to define ‘fitness’ now, I think cardiovascular efficiency, endurance, exercise capacity, flexibility, strength, ease of movement—And I also want to note that none of this is a moral or social obligation for any person,” says Maggie Landes, MD. “And you’ll notice that none of the criteria for ‘fitness’ will be evident simply by looking at a person’s physical appearance.”

While fitness may be measurable in some ways, it’s time to rid our minds of the idea that fitness equates to a specific body type. “There are many thin people who are not fit, and many larger-bodied individuals who are fit,” adds Kathryn Hill, MD, FAAP, a board-certified pediatrician, eating disorder specialist and vice president of medical affairs at Equip. “Body size should not be part of the equation.”

Fitness also looks different for each person—and being seen as “fit” isn’t as important as being able to live your life to the fullest. “Your goal should be to make your body as functional and efficient as possible to support you at work and at leisure throughout your life,” says Nicole Chapman, a personal trainer and creator of the Power of Mom workout program. “For example, you may be able to run five miles in less than 20 minutes, but if you struggle to lift your baby in and out of the crib or put the shopping away without aches, pains, or lack of energy, then strength training is more important to your life than stamina. Will be beneficial?

Dr. Hill thinks the same. “I like to think about fitness or wellness: ‘Is this person able to do what they need to do or enjoy to live a full life?'” she says. “Can they go cycling with their families and mostly stay with their kids? Do they sleep well most nights and feel rested in the morning? Do they have positive, meaningful relationships with friends and family?”

As with anything, it’s all about balance though. It is important to remember that overdoing it can be directly harmful to your body. Chapman explains that doing high-intensity workouts without a rest day can lead to high levels of cortisol in your body, the stress hormone, which can lead to fatigue, poor sleep, burnout, anxiety and more. “So, are you really ‘fit’?” she says.

How to pursue fitness healthily

Although diet culture often encourages people to take it too far, it’s okay to have fitness goals, enjoy moving your body, and want to be able to do things with ease. So what’s the best way to go about that?

1. Choose exercises that meet your specific needs

“In practice, I think the best way for a person to pursue ‘fitness’ is to determine which aspects of fitness, as I mentioned, will improve their quality of life,” Dr. Landes said

For grandparents, it might look like working on flexibility so they can play on the floor with their grandkids, she adds, while people who have to walk a lot for work might want to focus on endurance training.

“For example, the deadlift mimics the movement of picking things up and putting them down, reducing the chance of injuring yourself while shopping, carrying items, or picking up socks off the floor,” says Chapman.

You can learn how to deadlift the right way below:

2. Engage in physical activity to feel good, not compulsively

Moving your body can be a great thing—as long as you listen to it. “I’m a big believer that physical activity, when performed in reasonable amounts and for the right reasons, can positively impact health and fitness,” says Dr. Hill. (Just look at the benefits of walking TikTok’s hot girl!) She lists mood boosts, increased concentration, extra energy, better sleep quality, less anxiety and improved body image as some of those positive effects.

Watch for how you frame the exercise, though. Phrases like “I have to” and exercising can be red flags when you’re injured or missing other things. “Exercise can become compulsive, and there are many people who would be considered ‘fit’ by society but spend so much time at the gym that they feel guilty when they don’t exercise and miss out on things like relationships, sleep and general enjoyment. Life, ” explains Dr. Hill. “That’s not fitness or wellness in my book.”

3. Set sustainable goals that include rest days

And of course, set realistic, sustainable goals — using the SMART method can help — so you can stay consistent and avoid overexerting yourself. “Find an exercise routine that you can do consistently week after week that fits into your lifestyle and [is] Achievable,” says Chapman. “It could be two 30-minute home workouts a week… There’s no point in trying to train four to five times per week if it’s not sustainable.”

Finally, let rest days be rest days—without the guilt. “I’m a huge advocate for rest days being just as important as training days,” he adds, explaining that they can help your muscles and central nervous system recover and allow you to perform at your best.

Bottom line

Ultimately, focus on living your best life, not changing what you see in the mirror. And if fitness isn’t your thing, that’s okay too! Dr. Lands encourages you to stick to your personal goals knowing that you are worthy of respect no matter what your fitness level or ability. “The pursuit of fitness, if it is desired, customized for the individual, has the opportunity to positively affect physical, mental and emotional health, even if it has no effect on the physical appearance of the body.”

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