Fitness and physical activity. One would think these two go hand in hand. Because of course you can’t get in good shape without being active. The two are closely related but not the same and that’s why fitness is important as much as how active you are.
While physical activity is a behaviour defined as any bodily movement, fitness is a characteristic generally defined as the ability to perform physical work. Now that can be anything from changing the channel on your TV to running up ten flights of stairs. Of course, these two tasks require different fitness levels.
Fitness and Physical Activity: Different but Equal?
When it comes to health, fitness and physical activity are also not one and the same. Both are important, but they are also independent of each other. Meaning, the least fit person who is active is healthier than a person who isn’t fit or active. The same is true when it comes to fitness; being in better shape even if inactive is better than not being in shape and not active. And when the two are compared, fitness seems to win over physical activity. People who are fit but not active fair better than people who are highly active but not fit.
This may be due in part to how the two are measured. When assessing physical activity, we often ask people to report how much they did over a given time. This could be a week, month or day. The assessment relies on the person remembering and self-report. But we know that self-reporting activity is not accurate and people tend to over report how much they do.
More sophisticated ways include the use of wearable devices such as accelerometers. Even though accelerometers are considered the gold standard to measure activity, they have limitations in that they can’t be used for water activities and don’t pick up non jarring activities such as cycling very well.
In many studies, fitness is measured in a lab setting usually using a treadmill that progressively increases in speed and incline until the person is exhausted. A longer time on the treadmill means a higher fitness level. More involved tests use a mask to measure the amount of oxygen the person uses to exercise.
Compared to assessing physical activity, measuring fitness is far more robust. It’s an objective measure that can be repeated with a high level of accuracy. This may be one of the reasons why fitness is superior to activity when it comes to health. Being much more reliable means there’s less error and noise in the measurement.
The Most Important Measure of Your Health?
There are also physiological underpinnings to the benefits of fitness. When exercising at a level that increases your heart and breathing rates, you’re making your heart, lungs and muscles stronger. Your body becomes more efficient and capable of handling physical work. Climbing the stairs is no longer as hard as it used to be. Your resting heart is generally lower. As a result, you’re at a lower risk for heart disease and early death.
This is why the guidelines for physical activity emphasize the need to do activity at a moderate or vigorous level. It’s in that range where your fitness will improve.
So we know that fitness is superior to physical activity when it comes to health, but what about compared to other health measures. If you’re over forty years of age, most likely your doctor has measured your blood pressure and weight, tested your blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and maybe even asked about your physical activity. But has he/she measured your fitness? Unless you have symptoms of heart disease, most likely not.
Compared to having diabetes, hypertension or high cholesterol fitness is a far better indicator of one’s health, suggesting that increasing your fitness is as good as getting your blood pressure down. This is not to say to choose one over the other, just to recognize that a key component of health is often overlooked.
Fitness Testing as Part of Your Next Exam
It’s not clear why doctors don’t measure fitness in their patients regularly. Perhaps the time and resources needed to do it? Getting someone on a treadmill and testing them requires space and staff. Although, this isn’t much different from what it takes to conduct a set of blood tests.
Treadmill testing may not be the only way to measure fitness. The notion of using push-ups to assess fitness has been suggested. This is because the higher the number of push-ups one can do, the less chance of getting heart disease. Plus, push-ups can be done right in your doctor’s office. While push-ups don’t necessarily measure fitness, they do measure strength. And since the resistance is against your own weight, it can be a function of how much excess weight a person has or doesn’t have.
However, push-ups may not be for everyone. People with upper body limitations may have challenges doing them but it doesn’t mean they’re in poor shape. And for people who are frail, doing even one push-up may be a problem. A more favourable measure may be hand-grip strength. It’s simpler than a push-up, it’s associated with lower chances of early death and there are also tables of ideal values by age and sex to compare to.
This doesn’t mean all you need to do is sit around and increase your grip strength, and your fitness will increase. There’s nothing magical about a stronger grip. It’s more likely a marker for fitness, health and general wellbeing.
So next time you’re considering your personal health and health goals, don’t forget to include your fitness level. Increasing your fitness doesn’t require a prescription from your doctor or any medications, and you can start right away with helpful blogs such as this one and this one.
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