So, what does it mean to be fit? We asked doctors and personal trainers how they define physical fitness, specifically, plus what they find more important than the label.
What being “fit” means (and doesn’t)
“If I have to define ‘fitness’ now, I think of cardiovascular efficiency, endurance, exercise capacity, flexibility, strength, ease of movement—and I also like to remember that none of that is a moral or social obligation for any individual,” says Maggie Landes, MD. “And you will notice that none of the criteria of ‘fitness’ would be evident by simply looking at the physical appearance of a person.”
While fitness can be measurable in some ways, it’s time to rid our minds of the idea that fitness equals a certain body type. “There are many thin people who are not fit, and many larger-bodied individuals who are fit,” adds Katherine Hill, MD, FAAP, a board-certified pediatrician, eating disorder expert, and vice president of medical affairs at Equip. “Body size should not be part of the equation.”
Fitness also looks different for each individual—and being seen as “fit” isn’t as important as being able to live your life fully. “Your goal should be for your body to be able to function as effectively and efficiently as possible to support you in work and leisure your whole life,” says Nicole Chapman, a personal trainer and creator of the Power of Mum workout program. “For example, you may be able to run five miles in under 20 minutes, but if you struggle to lift your child in and out of the cot or put the shopping away without aches, pains, or lack of strength, then would strength training be more beneficial to your life than stamina?”
Dr. Hill feels similarly. “I like to think of fitness or wellness in terms of: ‘Is this person able to do the activities they need to do or enjoy doing to live a full life?’” she says. “Can they go for a bike ride with their family and mostly keep up with their kids? Do they sleep well most nights and feel rested in the morning? Do they have positive, meaningful relationships with friends and family?”
As with anything, it’s about balance, though. It’s vital to note that overdoing it can be straight-up harmful for your body. Chapman explains doing high-intensity workouts without rest days can lead to higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in your body—which can lead to fatigue, poorer sleep, burnout, anxiety, and more. “Then, are you really ‘fit’?” she says.
How to pursue fitness healthily
Even though diet culture often encourages people to take it too far, it’s okay to have fitness goals, enjoy moving your body, and desire being able to get things done with ease. So what’s the best way to go about that?
1. Pick exercises that address your specific needs
“In practice, I think the best way for an individual to pursue ‘fitness’ is to decide what aspects of fitness, like the ones I’ve mentioned, would improve the quality of their life,” Dr. Landes says.
For grandparents, this may look like working on flexibility so they can play on the floor with their grandchildren, she adds, while people who have to walk a lot for work may want to focus on endurance training.
“For example, the deadlift mimics the movements of lifting things up and putting them down, reducing the chance of injuring yourself when carrying shopping, objects, or picking socks up off the floor,” Chapman says.
You can learn how to do a deadlift the right way below:
2. Engage in physical activity to feel good, not compulsively
Moving your body can be a great thing—as long as you’re listening to it, too. “I’m a big believer that physical activity, when performed in reasonable quantities and for the right reasons, can positively impact health and fitness,” Dr. Hill says. (Just look at the benefits of TikTok’s hot girl walks!) She lists a boost in mood, increased concentration, extra energy, better sleep quality, less anxiety, and improved body image as some of those positive effects.
Look out for how you frame exercise, though. Phrases like “I have to” and exercising when you’re hurt or missing out on other things can be red flags. “Exercise can become compulsive, and there are many people who would be considered ‘fit’ by society but spend so much time in the gym that they feel guilty when not exercising and are missing out on things like relationships, sleep, and general enjoyment of life,” Dr. Hill explains. “That is not fitness, nor wellness, in my book.”
3. Set sustainable goals that include rest days
And of course, set realistic, sustainable goals—using the SMART method can help—so you can stay consistent and avoid overexerting yourself. “Find an exercise routine that you can consistently do week in and week out that fits into your lifestyle and [is] achievable,” Chapman says. “This may be two 30-minute home workouts a week…there is no point trying to train four to five times per week if it is unsustainable.”
Lastly, let rest days be rest days—without guilt. “I am a huge advocate for rest days being just as important as training days,” she adds, explaining they can help your muscles and central nervous system recover and allow you to perform at your best.
The bottom line
Ultimately, focus on living your best life, not changing what you see in the mirror. And if fitness isn’t a value of yours, that’s okay, too! Dr. Landes encourages you to stick with your personal goals, knowing you deserve respect regardless of your fitness level or ability. “The pursuit of fitness, if that is desired, customized for the individual, has the opportunity to positively impact physical, mental, and emotional health, even if it has no impact on the physical appearance of the body.”