Fitness vs. Health – Are You Fit, Healthy, or Both?

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Cross Training For Runners
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David Dack

In our fast-paced modern world, terms like ‘fitness’ and ‘health’ are often used interchangeably.

We hear them on the news, read about them in magazines, and even use them in our daily conversations.

At a glance, they might seem synonymous, reflecting a state of well-being. However, diving deeper, one realizes that while these concepts intersect in many ways, they are distinct entities.

Would you like to get the full scope on the difference between the two? Then you’re in the right place.

In this article, I’ll dive deep into the main differences between fitness and health and teach you one or two about how to get the most out of both worlds.

Sounds great?

Let’s get started.

Fitness Demystified

At its core, fitness revolves around the body’s ability and efficiency to carry out physical activities. Whether it’s sprinting, swimming, weightlifting, or just daily chores, fitness measures how well our muscles, lungs, and heart work in tandem to accomplish physical tasks.

Think of it as the body’s performance metric.

If you’re fit, you can run faster, lift more, jump higher, and endure longer. It’s the body’s physical prowess and readiness for action.

How Do We Measure Fitness?

To put it simply, there isn’t a single yardstick that fits all. Fitness is multi-faceted:

  • Agility: How nimble-footed are you?
  • Speed: How quickly can you run that 100m sprint?
  • Strength: How much can you deadlift or bench press?
  • Explosive Power: How high can you jump or how hard can you punch?
  • Mobility: How well can your joints move?
  • Cardiovascular Conditioning and Endurance: How long can you run without losing breath?

Sport-Specific Fitness

Here’s where the plot thickens. Being a top-tier runner doesn’t automatically qualify you to be an excellent swimmer or a pro basketball player. Different sports and activities demand unique fitness attributes.

Consider this:

  • Runners: Need exceptional cardiovascular endurance to keep going mile after mile.
  • MMA Fighters: Require a blend of strength, agility, explosive power, and cardiovascular fitness.
  • Mountain Bikers Need leg strength, balance, and endurance to tackle those tricky terrains.

Cross-Training: Blurring the Lines

While it’s true that specific training will optimize performance in a particular sport, it doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from other forms of exercise.

Cross-training can provide variety, reduce the risk of overuse injuries, and improve overall fitness. A runner lifting weights might improve their leg strength and endurance, making those uphill climbs a tad easier.

Tests and Benchmarks for Runners:

Understanding one’s current fitness level is not just about measuring how fast or how far one can run. It’s about gauging where you stand today so you can set realistic goals for tomorrow.

Assessing your fitness helps in optimizing training regimens, preventing injuries, and tracking progress over time.

Here are a few to test your physical fitness and know where you’re currently standing.

  • VO2 Max Test: As previously mentioned, this test measures the maximum volume of oxygen you can use during intense exercise. It’s an excellent indicator of cardiovascular fitness.
  • 1-Mile Run Test: A simple yet effective way to assess your cardiovascular fitness. You run a mile as fast as you can, and your time gives an insight into your aerobic fitness level.
  • 400-Meter Dash: This test assesses your anaerobic capacity, which is vital for sprinters or those looking to improve their finishing kicks in longer races.
  • Lactic Threshold Test: Determines the exercise intensity at which lactate starts to accumulate in your bloodstream faster than your body can remove it. This threshold can be crucial for setting training paces.
  • Vertical Jump Test: While primarily used for other sports, a vertical jump can provide insights into a runner’s power and strength, which is especially valuable for trail runners who tackle steep terrains.
  • Flexibility Tests: Incorporate the sit-and-reach test to measure the flexibility of your lower back and hamstrings. Good flexibility can improve stride length and reduce injury risk.
  • Strength Tests: Simple bodyweight exercises like push-ups, squats, and lunges can be used to gauge muscular strength and endurance. Stronger muscles support better running form and endurance.
  • Resting Heart Rate (RHR): A lower RHR often indicates better cardiovascular fitness and recovery. Monitoring changes over time can also highlight if you’re overtraining or if other health issues might be present.
  • Gait Analysis: While this might require specialist equipment or professionals, understanding your running form can help in selecting the right shoes, improving efficiency, and reducing injury risk.

Fitness as it Relates To Health

While there’s no denying that physical fitness plays a pivotal role in health, it doesn’t encompass it entirely.

Imagine this: An elite athlete who trains rigorously but struggles with mental health issues or has poor dietary habits. They’re fit, no doubt. But are they holistically healthy? Maybe not.

Let me explain more.

Health Explained

Health, on the other hand, is a more encompassing term. It’s the holistic state of physical, mental, and social well-being, and not just the absence of disease or infirmity. It’s about how you feel when you wake up in the morning, your emotional balance, the clarity of your thoughts, and how you relate to others in your community. While fitness is a component of health, being healthy means your body and mind are in harmony, and you’re free from ailments, both visible and hidden.

In simple terms, while fitness is about the body’s performance capabilities, health is the overall quality of life and well-being. You might be able to run a marathon, but if you’re constantly stressed or battling a hidden ailment, you might be fit but not necessarily healthy.

Conversely, you might be in a state of excellent mental and emotional well-being, free from illnesses, but you may not be fit enough to climb a flight of stairs without losing your breath. Both are crucial, but they serve different aspects of our well-being.

The Holistic View: Endorsed by WHO

As highlighted, the World Health Organization goes beyond the traditional notion of health. It emphasizes the importance of well-being in all areas of life, not just in the absence of disease or infirmity. This broader and more comprehensive perspective is a testament to how evolved our understanding of health has become.

I couldn’t agree more.

Measuring Health

When we talk about health, the metrics might sound clinical and detached, but they give us a clear picture of where we stand.

Let’s dive into understanding these metrics and the broader factors that shape our health.

  • Insulin Levels: Often associated with diabetes, these levels can indicate how well your body manages sugar.
  • Blood Pressure: A crucial indicator of cardiovascular health, consistently high or low blood pressure can indicate underlying conditions.
  • Cholesterol Levels: There are good and bad cholesterol. Balancing them is essential for heart health.
  • Oxygen Intake: Measures the efficiency of your respiratory system.
  • Hormonal Metrics: An imbalance can affect everything from mood to metabolism.
  • Cardiovascular Fitness: How well can your heart and lungs supply oxygen-rich blood to the muscles during sustained physical activity?
  • Basic Mobility: Being able to move freely without pain or restriction indicates good joint and muscle health.
  • Skin Health: Often a reflection of your overall health, as well as exposure to environmental factors.

The Main Things to Check for

Venturing into the world of running? That’s fantastic! But, as with all things, it’s crucial to ensure you’re in good shape before you begin, not only in a figurative sense but also quite literally. Here’s a handy checklist of things you should evaluate before you get started:

  1. Heart Health: Are You Cardio Ready?

Your heart is the engine that’ll power your runs. Especially if you’re over 40 or have a family history of cardiovascular diseases, it’s wise to have a doctor assess your heart’s condition before you start. Remember, your heart’s health is paramount!

  1. Injury Assessment: Strong Bones & Muscles

Running is a high-impact activity. Ensure your body—particularly your bones, joints, and muscles—is up for the challenge. A chat with a physical therapist can help you understand your body’s readiness and potential weak points.

  1. Current Health Conditions: Running & Illness

Do you have a chronic illness, or are you currently sick? Some conditions may interfere with your ability to run, or running might exacerbate them. Always consult a physician if you have concerns.

  1. Blood Pressure & Cholesterol: Two Vital Numbers

A healthy circulatory system is essential for runners. Get a reading of your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. They can be good indicators of potential cardiovascular risks.

  1. Age: A Number, But An Important One

Age impacts physical resilience. While running is beneficial at any age, knowing your body’s specific needs and limitations as you age is crucial. It’s also essential for determining factors like the maximum heart rate during workouts.

  1. Resting Heart Rate: A Beat of Fitness

Your heart rate when you’re completely at rest can offer insights into your overall cardiovascular health. A lower resting heart rate often signifies a more efficient heart.

  1. Weight & BMI: Starting on the Right Foot

Being overweight can add strain to your joints when running. Knowing your weight and BMI can help in designing a balanced and progressive running plan that suits your body’s needs.

  1. Sleep: Nature’s Recovery Tool

Sleep isn’t just about feeling rested. It plays a crucial role in muscle recovery and overall well-being. Ensure you’re clocking in those essential hours to give your body the rest it needs.

  1. A Strong Support System: Your Cheer Squad

Lastly, surround yourself with a good support network. Whether it’s family, friends, or fellow runners, having people to encourage you, run with you, or even offer a listening ear can make all the difference.

The Health Assessment

Here is a long list of some of the health assessments you need to answer before you proceed to the fitness tests.

  • Do you smoke?
  • Do you have diabetes?
  • Is your total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol ratio greater than 5 to 1?
  • Do you have a history of high blood pressure?
  • Do you have a history of cardiovascular problems?
  • Do you have a family history of chronic diseases before the age of 50?
  • Are you taking any heart-related prescription drugs?
  • Do you have any chronic injury?
  • Do you eat a lot of junk food?
  • Do you have any joint, bone, or any other health issue that limits your mobility when performing physical activity?
  • Have you had chest pain while performing physical activity?
  • Are you (clinically) obese?
  • Do you take any medication on a regular basis?
  • Are you under a lot of stress?
  • Have you had a recent surgery?
  • Are you sleep deprived?
  • Do you have a supporting family? Friends?
  • Are you currently pregnant? Or have you given birth within the last six months?

Scoring Your Health

Your health assessment serves as a foundation to guide you into a fitness journey that is safe and effective. Your answers can provide a snapshot of your current health status and any potential risks. Here’s a scoring guide:

Your Score

Yes to 3-5 questions or more:

  • Implication: You have some significant health and lifestyle concerns to address before you embark on a running program.
  • Recommendation: It’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional to gain insights and advice tailored to your specific situation. They can help devise an appropriate plan to safely increase your physical activity levels. Immediate high-intensity workouts, like running, may not be suitable for you right now.

Yes to 1-2 questions:

  • Implication: While your health status seems mostly stable, there are certain areas you might need to tread carefully.
  • Recommendation: It might still be beneficial to discuss your intention to start running with a healthcare provider, especially if your ‘yes’ answers relate to crucial areas such as cardiovascular health or chronic injuries.

No to most or all questions:

  • Implication: It appears that you’re in relatively good health and might not have major concerns preventing you from taking up running.
  • Recommendation: While you may be good to start your running journey, always listen to your body. Begin gradually, allowing your body to adapt to the new physical demands. It’s also always a good idea to do a routine check-up with your healthcare provider before starting any intense workout regimen.

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