The fitness centers are filling up with folks bursting with holiday stuffing and New Year’s resolutions. It’s a good time to ask: Just what is this thing called physical fitness?
Some people, like our governor, Angus King, boast they have genes that keep them thin, but that doesn’t mean they are fit.
Muscular strength doesn’t necessarily mean fitness, either. This I gently suggest to some of my friends at the YMCA weightlifting room. As I watch their biceps balloon, I wonder if hearts and lungs are keeping pace.
But one is not necessarily fit even with a well-conditioned cardiovascular system. Think of that Russian figure skater who recently died. Highly conditioned athletes occasionally drop dead from clogged arteries.
Well, then, what is fitness? The word “fit” basically means “suitable” or “qualified.” Qualified for what?
True fitness cannot be having what it takes to lift heavy weights, run 10 miles, or look good. Those are mere secondary goals.
True fitness has one primary goal: to live as long as you can as well as you can. To attain this goal, a variety of healthy activities and choices is required.
I am not a doctor, and what I write here is based on my own experience and amateur research over the years, but for me eating correctly comes first.
Fatty foods are so dangerous to the heart (and can cause cancer and other diseases) that athletes who eat whatever they want because of their ability to burn off calories do themselves a potentially fatal disservice.
Even if they stay at a good weight, which is a predictor of a long life, and even though athletic activity builds a stronger heart, they may be clogging their arteries and otherwise hurting themselves by consuming a lot of fat, especially if they have genetic dispositions to heart and other diseases.
And often people who are just beginning to work out see little weight loss because, stimulated by the exercise, they consume even larger quantities of fatty food.
Next in importance for me in being fit is limiting stress. This means not smoking, of course; not drinking too much alcohol; and getting enough sleep (and having weekly periods of rest, if one is an athlete).
Limiting stress also means limiting it environmentally and emotionally. If you live in a polluted environment, your body is going to be abused no matter how well you eat and how much you exercise. People interested in physical fitness should all be environmentalists.
If your job gives you high blood pressure, well, quit it! Does that sound too stressful? Consider the alternative. Would you rather be dead than have fewer material things?
Next on my list is cardiovascular (aerobic) exercise. Since I write frequently about its benefits, let me just point out that the predominent scientific theory is still that only three half-hour sessions a week in which your heart rate is raised will give you most of the cardiovascular benefits of regular exercise. But evidence increases that the more you do the healthier you will be.
Running, vigorous walking, cross country skiing, bicycling, swimming, rowing machines at the gym – there are many choices. Delightful choices.
With cardiovascular workouts you can’t help but exercise a lot of muscles. Specific muscle exercise is optional but very beneficial to some areas such as strengthening a bad back or correcting imbalances such as the upper-body atrophy that some runners develop.
Don’t forget flexibility. In my coverage of various sports I see a lot of stiff older athletes, although I see a lot more of stiff nonathletes. A few mild, daily stretching and balancing exercises – yoga, ballet, gymnastics – can erase the visible consequences of age faster than anything.
The key to fitness: Pay attention to this variety of healthy activities and choices. With a little luck you may “qualify” yourself for a lchoices. With a little luck you may “qualify” yourself for a long and enjoyable life.
This column was written New Year’s Eve. It is an expression of my wish for a Healthy New Year to my readers.
Lance Tapley of Augusta is publisher and editor of Maine Running & Fitness magazine.