Fitness, as a concept, means different things to different people. For some, it could be about gaining strength, while, for others, fitness could simply mean staying in shape. However, true fitness is much more than our physical appearance; it’s all about equipping our body to live a longer, disease-free life.
Over the years, fitness has taken on a commercialised meaning of looking a certain way. Busy routines have also led to the rise of extreme regimens that promise aesthetically-inclined results in a shorter time. Needless to say, these methods are not sustainable in the long run and may even cause injury and health hazards. In fact, according to a study, modern fitness trends led to 3,988,902 injuries between 2007 to 2016 .
Weighing the long-term impact of anything we do for/with the body is always a good idea, especially for beginners or people with any pre-existing health condition.
In this article, we’re going to explain what it actually means to be fit, and how to achieve your fitness goals in a sustainable and truly ‘healthy’ way. Let’s start with answering the basics:
What is fitness?
‘Fitness’ is, simply put, our ability to do daily activities comfortably. This means we are able to perform everyday tasks without losing our breath or any physical discomfort, and our body is able to endure these activities for an extended period of time, with the strength to perform them again.
- Cardiovascular endurance
This refers to our ability to endure physical activities that require constant cardiovascular support - jogging, cycling and swimming are some examples. These activities need our heart and lungs to work together to provide constant oxygen and fuel throughout the body.
How to identify yours:
Being able to brisk-walk for 30 minutes without getting breathless is a sign of good cardiovascular endurance.
- Muscular endurance
The ability of our muscles to move continuously to perform physical activities without any fatigue defines our ‘muscular endurance’. For example, long-distance cyclists who pedal a bike for a longer duration, and in different terrains, have to work on their muscular endurance to sustain their movements.
How to identify yours:
You have a healthy muscular endurance if you’re able to climb more than a flight of stairs (usually a set of 10 stairs between floors) without tiring your calf muscles, or carry a heavy bag of groceries from the car to the house without much strain.
- Muscular strength
This simply refers to the force that our muscles can exert (to pull, push or lift anything). We need muscle strength for several everyday tasks, like lifting a bucket of water or grocery bags, moving furniture at home or even opening a heavy door.
How to identify yours:
Our definition of ‘muscle strength’ can depend on our daily requirement of strength; for example, a construction worker would need more muscle strength than a person with a desk job. That said, if you’re able to walk with a big bucket of water or with a suitcase while travelling without feeling short of breath, you have reasonable muscle strength.
This refers to the ability of all our joints to stretch and move in their available range. Some extreme examples of flexibility would be performing a full split or lunge for an extended duration.
How to identify yours:
You can call yourself flexible if you can do a shoulder stretch (here’s how), a ‘trunk lift’ or a ‘sit and reach test’.
- Body composition
This is determined by what our body is made of - fat, bones, water and muscles. There’s an ideal balance of all these elements in a fit body (although it can vary based on our age and gender).
Of these, we usually measure our body fat percentage, to get an estimate of our overall composition, given that it translates to our muscle mass and body water content as well. (Measuring our bone density requires medical help and is generally only done to identify any health conditions).
How to identify yours:
The ideal body fat percentage for women and men between 20-39 years of age is 21-32% and 8-19%, respectively. For ages 40-59 years, it’s 23-33% and 11-21%, respectively .
Our fat percentage can easily be measured by a Body Composition Analyser (the machine that’s used at gyms and fitness centres to measure our body compositions) or one can opt for a DEXA scan or an MRI at medical centres to get accurate measurements of all the components.
For body muscle percentage, an estimated healthy reference for men and women of the age 18-35 years is 40-44% and 31-33% respectively. For ages 36-55, it’s 36-40% and 29-31% respectively . The ideal body water percentage for women is between 45-60%, and 50-65% for men .
Fitness = weaving these components into a lifestyle
Balancing these five components and being able to efficiently perform the activities within them efficiently is what true fitness is really about. Achieving this improves and optimises not only our health and life span, but also our quality of life by reducing the risk of chronic diseases.
Getting there requires exercising, consuming the right nutrition and consistently taking incremental steps towards increased physical activity as we age. This doesn’t necessarily mean performing excessive exercises or completely changing our lives. It’s all about the smaller, progressive steps that we can sustain, while maintaining our lifestyle.
The ‘Blue Zones’ serve as an ideal example of this. These regions are inhabited by some of the oldest (above 100 years old) and healthiest people in the world - and, yet, they do not exercise purposefully. Their physical activities are built into their lifestyles (walking, daily chores, climbing stairs, etc.), making them inherently sustainable, which contributes to their longevity [7, 8].
Moulding our lifestyle into a healthier version of itself is pretty simple as well - especially when we follow a few, basic steps.
Steps we can take to move towards a fitter lifestyle
1. Move more, sit less
Sitting has become a huge part of our adult life; most of our daily hours are spent sitting and working (exacerbated by the current pandemic).
Our sedentary time impacts various health aspects, including, but not limited to, our vascular function, blood pressure, blood glucose, blood flow to the brain, and inflammation. It can even counteract the benefits of exercise.
The idea of sitting less and moving more simply means consciously trying to choose active forms of things you do in your daily life over their sedentary counterparts. For example, taking the stairs instead of a lift, trying to move or stretch between work hours, etc. It is about finding achievable and more sustainable ways to increase our daily physical activity.
To begin, allocating even 30 minutes of our sedentary time to light physical activity can eliminate our cardiovascular risk factors by 2-4% , reducing the risk of early demise by 17% . When this light activity is upgraded to moderate or vigorous intensity, these numbers improve in significant proportions (from 2-4% to 18-42% for cardiovascular risk factors, and from 17 to 35% for risk of early demise) [10, 11].
A few ways to stay motivated to sit less and move more:
- Turning everyday exercise into a game/challenge, and making the workout more entertaining [12, 13]. A great example of this is the 30-day plank challenge, which involves doing a plank every day for a month, and increasing its duration to achieve the goal of a 5-minute plank by the end of it.
- Finding a type of physical activity or movement that you personally prefer or enjoy - whether it’s dancing, yoga or even kickboxing, as examples.
- Working out or playing a sport with a friend; this has been shown to increase a workout’s duration and improve its results .
A great way to think about this: we, psychologically speaking, view joyful movements as a positive experience that we want to experience again - so anything that makes you enjoy being active can motivate you to keep coming back to it, eventually forming a regular routine.
2. Sleep for 7-9 hours every night
Sleep is essential for our general wellbeing and recovery, which dictate our physical and mental performance .
Good sleep quality and consistent sleeping patterns are associated with greater muscle strength, better hormonal balance and longevity [16, 17, 18]. On the other hand, lack of sleep (less than 6 hours a day) may lead to decreased muscle strength, poorer cardiovascular performance, reduced muscle mass and hormonal imbalance, and impaired decision-making, while also affecting our body composition [19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24].
Sleeping between 7 to 9 hours every night is necessary for us to properly recover from and process our daily functioning. This duration may vary depending on the exercise intensity of an individual; for example, individuals who perform intense training (like elite athletes) may require up to 10 hours of sleep per night .
3. Eat a balanced diet
Nutrition directly affects our performance, recovery, strength and body composition. Protein helps increase muscle mass (by supplying the amino acids that help build our muscles)  and omega-3 helps preserve it (by preventing muscle breakdown) . Carbohydrates help fuel our movements, which is made possible by the vitamins and minerals that turn this fuel into energy [28, 29].
Eating an adequate amount of macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) is essential for anyone trying to improve their fitness levels.
Here’s a daily nutrient checklist that can help you with the nutrients you need on a daily basis and their ideal sources.
Here’s how to eat a balanced diet that’s also followed by the world’s longest-living populations:
- Fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables (anything apart from potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes)
- Fill a quarter of your plate with starch or grain (potatoes, rice, rotis), and
- Fill the remaining quarter with protein (paneer, yogurt, legumes, beans, meat)
This is a simple way to ensure you’re consuming adequate nutrients from commonly accessible food sources, while also staying conscious of your portions.
4. Walk and track your steps
Walking is a type of cardiovascular physical activity that increases our heart rate, and has multiple benefits (like improving aerobic fitness, reducing body fat, reducing waist fat, improving bone health and our overall health) [30, 31, 32, 33, 34].
The benefits of walking have proven to increase with the total step count of the day - which explains the popular goal of hitting 10,000 steps a day. There are a wide range of benefits associated with completing this daily count, including better body composition, blood pressure and lipid profiles [35, 36].
Research suggests that tracking our steps may help us increase our daily count . On average, a person walks 4000 steps in a day - it’s a good idea to gradually build up to 10,000 steps by starting with a target of 7000 and increasing it over time [38, 39].
5. Add yoga to your routine
Yoga incorporates several elements of exercise that help improve our balance, endurance, flexibility, posture, and strength . This wholesome form of exercise even comes with benefits beyond physical fitness (click here to read more on the evidence based benefits of yoga).
One of its main draws is being an easily sustainable exercise especially in India. It doesn’t need a lot of space or expensive equipment, and some forms of yoga can even be performed by people who aren’t physically completely fit.
Although there are many asanas that we can add to our fitness routine (depending on our goals), Surya Namaskar, or Sun Salutation, is the easiest way to begin while still reaping major fitness benefits. It’s excellent for strengthening muscles (performing one set requires sustained contractions of almost all muscle groups), and alternates between putting pressure on versus stretching our entire body in a way that can be compared to resistance training .
Performing Surya Namaskar for just 30 minutes a week can increase our flexibility as well as muscle strength over time .
To increase the efficacy of these benefits in the long-run, we should gradually aim towards practicing all three forms of yoga - asanas (positions), pranayama (breathing exercises) and dhyana (meditation), in synergy. Each of these forms are intuitively beneficial in their own way but together they are believed to be exceptionally helpful for all aspects of our health.
As with anything else in life, getting fit gets easier once you begin. It may help to think of it as the first step into a journey that you get to map out, based on what works best for you and your lifestyle - because, ultimately, improving our fitness levels is all about improving our quality of life. That’s something we get to define, on our own terms and at our own pace.
We hope this blog helps you find your path towards true fitness!. If you have any questions, do share them in the comments below, we’d love to answer them for you! Until then, keep moving :)