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What is Fitness?

A while back, I wrote about how GPP is basically just overall physical fitness. That may or may not be a helpful clarification; it leads to another question. Have you given any thought to what it means to be fit?

A dictionary definition of the word fitness may be something like, “the ability to perform tasks” and is, in my opinion, perfectly adequate. So physical fitness would by extension be nothing more than the ability to perform physical tasks. An adequate definition, but not exactly an earth shattering concept. Knowing a definition is not understanding.

The folks at Crossfit have probably thought as long and hard on this subject as anyone. They have a free issue of their Crossfit Journal, titled What is Fitness? which fleshes out that definition quite a bit. Their concept of fitness involves identifying ten key components of fitness: “cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.” You are as fit as you are competent in these categories – according to Crossfit.

Of course what qualifies for “competent” in any of these categories is subjective, a value judgment. A person with a powerlifter’s sensibilities may not consider, say, agility a very important aspect of fitness. Some will argue whether accuracy even belongs on the list, and whether the list is complete. If you read through the texts of the former Soviet strength coaches, they identify at least 10 types of strength alone! The point is, semantics and nuance aside, this definition makes it possible for Crossfitters to understand what they are trying to do.

You don’t have to adopt the Crossfit definition of fitness (although you could do a lot worse). You can determine what you consider the aspects of fitness you are interested in, and have a clearer idea of what you want to achieve.

The next logical step would have to be establishing standards based on these aspects of fitness. If you don’t have a meaningful measure for your objectives, you have no real way to know how well you are doing. For example, let’s say you consider cardiovascular endurance an important aspect of fitness. Excellent. So how do you decide whether your endurance is up to snuff? Do you just declare victory if you can take the stairs up two flights without wheezing like an asthmatic rhino? Not a very ambitious place to set the bar, but more importantly not a very thought out standard.

Cardiovascular fitness is generally what exercise scientists refer to as aerobic power, the ability to burn a lot of energy with oxygen. By measuring how much oxygen a person breathes in and converts to carbon dioxide, a scientist can see how effectively the lungs are absorbing oxygen from the air, how well the circulatory system is transporting that oxygen rich blood to the muscles, and how fast the muscles can take up that oxygen and use it to burn fuel. (That is actually an oversimplification but you get the gist.) Lab geeks make a person actually run on a treadmill wearing a mask that captures the gasses they breathe and measures the content of oxygen and carbon dioxide. They measure how much oxygen, in liters, a person can burn per minute when working at their peak capacity.

This number, your VO2max, shows how much oxygen you can burn. Now since bigger people should be able to burn more oxygen at a similar level of fitness, this numer is usually divided by bodyweight to quantify an individual’s level of cardiovascular fitness. A score of under 35 is generally considered low, between 35 and 45 is considered medium, and above 45 high.

Great, but so what? Not likely many of us are going to make periodic trips to a laboratory and get hooked up to see how we rate. So VO2max is a good measure in the abstract, but a useful standard needs to be concrete and readily measurable.

Fortunately, there are dozens of tests that you can do yourself to estimate your cardiovascular fitness. If you can run, you can test yourself. The encyclopedic ExRx site has an online calculator for a running test here. Play with the calculator a little and you’ll see how simple it is.

Now we can really make a standard for ourselves. Let’s say you’re the average musclehead that would like to be fairly fit all around, but aerobic capacity just isn’t that big of a deal to you. You’d like to be in the high range, or at least at the high end of medium, so you’d like to see your VO2max in the range of 40-45 as a minimum standard.

Fool around with the calculator a little bit and you’ll see that running 1.5 miles in 12 minutes gives you an estimated VO2max of 42.66, right in the range you want to be. Now you have an easy to test standard. As long as you can periodically test yourself and you can make a 1.5 mile run in 12 minutes, you can be satisfied that whatever you are doing for aerobic fitness is doing the job.

Funny thing with the calculator. Plug in 1.5 miles and your gender, and put 20 in the age, and hit calculate. Note the VO2max, percentile score, and rating. Now change just one thing, the age, to 50, and hit calculate. Note that V02max stays the same, but the percentile score and rating change. There is an important message there. Even without training, young people have decent cardiovascular capacity, but without training it will diminish with age. Keep this in mind and know that what works when you’re young may not work when you’re old.

Obviously this test is only of use for people that can run safely and with at least a little athleticism. If you haven’t run much in recent years, you may find yourself hobbled by shin splints in less than a quarter mile and unable to complete the test. Now since running is such a fundamental skill, that raises some questions about your fitness in general, but it does not preclude you from testing aerobic capacity. There are plenty of other tests of aerobic capacity available that do not involve running – you can find more on ExRx.net, and in many other places.

All this geeky science talk, calculation and measurement getting you down? Not really up for all the mental effort involved in setting your own standards? Not a problem, I can suggest a plan B: Adopt someone else’s standards.

Some people in the Crossfit community are in the process of developing standards for the aspects of fitness they focus on. Their standards are complex and a work in progress, probably most suited to people that have signed on for the whole Crossfit experience.Again, you don’t have to adopt their standards, but you could do a lot worse.

Want something a lot more basic? You’re in luck. Few organizations have tested and measured more people’s fitness than the US Army. They test time in a two mile run, situps, and pushups to evaluate physical fitness. Hardly a comprehensive test protocol, but it is easy to administer and covers some basics. They have age-adjusted ratings if you are interested. Their standards are tabulated here and many other places on the web. If you want to be a little more ambitious, try on the Marine Corps Standards for size.

I suspect most people will take the trouble to come up with some standards of their own, and I think that’s how it should be. The main thing is, if you consider fitness important to you, set some standards and test yourself. As they like to say at Parris Island, “Every day you don’t test yourself, that’s a wasted day.” OOH RAH and Happy Birthday to the USMC.

14 Responses to 'What is Fitness?'

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  1. ldraper said,

    on November 11th, 2006 at 8:15 am

    Nice, Byron. I didn’t know how VO2 Max was determined.

    Good reminder to us. I fear too many of us let physical fitness — cardio fitness, that is — slide in favor of tough weight workouts. I’m happy that we’re shifting back on the side of BOTH.

  2. Art V said,

    on November 20th, 2006 at 11:40 pm

    Good one Byron, as I age fitness has become more important that a nice set of guns. I’ve moved in the direction of marathon canoe racing and have found my fitness to be sub standard. Part of that is due to the knee problems I have had and the inability to run anymore. But, rowing and paddling I have found can be a real challenge to my cardio fitness.

    Good info you have supplied.


  3. regina said,

    on September 17th, 2007 at 9:28 am

    thanks for all the help

  4. Ben said,

    on November 29th, 2007 at 9:24 am

    Pretty fun how you seem to be against crossfit. Most bulking muscleheads are.
    Thats why there is body building and fitness two totally different roads of strength training.

    I realize this was written a year ago however, since then I hope you know that both the Army, Marine and Navy Seals use Crossfit as there training techniques.

    Even though the crossfit style is becoming more popular it has been around for a while.

    I trained hard for 4 years doing the basic text book gym routine of reps and sets. If I wanted more size I ate more.

    4 months of crossfit and all my strenght numbers are higher than ever I’m much better shape than I could ever imagine.

  5. ccrow said,

    on March 19th, 2008 at 3:15 am

    Just saw this. Pretty funny how you assume I’m a bulking musclehead, and how you assume I am against Crossfit.

    Crossfitters are always acting like it is the official fitness program of a bunch of military people they have never met, also funny.

    Anyhow, I can probably best you in any of the girl workouts, any day, chief!

    If you think Crossfit WODs are good for strength, you’re probably not very strong.

  6. f4tune81 said,

    on March 19th, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    Good blog piece. I think that’s something I’ll do maybe every 6 or 12 months. I didn’t sense any antipathy in your blog toward crossfit, which has a very cool website and their workouts are far out of my league (though they talk of scaling down if you like etc). Most of their constituents look like they are in their 20’s and 30’s. I don’t think it was around then and if it was I would have never heard of it when I was that age.

  7. Hayden Scott said,

    on June 30th, 2008 at 8:05 pm

    yeah my physical fitness has dropped over the last few years, as i have stopped playing football but reading this you have given me a few ideas on how to get my physical fitness back and maybe start playing football again.

  8. Anonymous said,

    on June 2nd, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    this is to long

  9. on June 15th, 2009 at 2:40 am

    halo my physical fitness is very nice when i was playing soccer i like this website.mwwwwahhh

  10. molly said,

    on June 26th, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Ge great website what is fitness

  11. Sadie Green said,

    on August 4th, 2009 at 4:13 am

    Thank you for this worthwhile reliable information. You have told me alot about what it is like being fit.

    Love your site!!! Love you!!!

    Sadie Green

    4-8-09 New York

  12. randy smith said,

    on September 7th, 2009 at 4:23 am

    Hello Dave!!!

  13. on July 24th, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Awesome article!
    It’s definitely a good idea to set your own criteria for what fitness means to you, and strive to improve on them again and again.

    A lot of long term injuries happen from people not balancing their criteria, balance between agonist/antagonist muscle groups and flexibility are two key areas that every athlete, particularly people who do a lot of weight need to pay close attention to.

    Or else they end up injured, unable to train and massively pissed off! I know, cos I’ve been there myself haha not cool!

    Thanks for a good read man,

  14. john b. said,

    on January 7th, 2014 at 6:04 am

    well written. thanks for your comprehensive ideas on fitness. keep posting!

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