The Conflation of Health and Fitness

By Myron Getman / 01.01.2013
New York State Department of Health

conflate:  \kən-ˈflāt\, 1) to bring together, 2) to confuse

How often have you heard someone exclaim, “Boy are they fit”?  Perhaps you’ve heard people talk about how someone might be “diesel,” “built,” or “put together”?  Depending on where you live, there are countless slang terms for someone who, generally speaking, is lean and/or muscular.  What those terms are describing is a generic concept of physical fitness.  You might have interpreted this physical fitness as an indicator of someone’s health and you may be correct in this assumption most of the time but this is not always the case.  You see, fitness and health are two different things and, yes, it is possible to be physically fit but not healthy.

Broadly, “fitness” refers to an organism or population of organisms’ ability to interact, survive and reproduce in a given environment.  When applied to sports and exercise, this concept is altered to indicate how effectively one’s body had adapted to the increased or specialized physical activity.  So, someone who is “physically fit” has a physique that has developed in response to the demands of their exercise and lifestyle.  Consequently, it is possible to have a continual spectrum of people who are physically fit that runs from marathon runners — (who are often extremely lean and wiry) to sumo wrestlers (who can be extremely obese and strong).  Both are well adapted and, therefore, physically fit for their respective sports but are they healthy?

Health is a combination of multiple factors.  Physical health includes many things related to muscular strength, cardiovascular fitness, as well as neurological fitness — not to mention genetic make-up.  Of course there are endocrine and other factors that go into consideration and, often overlooked and not easily communicated through glossy magazines, mental health and lifestyle choices.  In order to assess health, a skilled and reputable physician will examine these and other factors to determine someone’s health.  You’ll notice that physical fitness is only a portion of what is taken into consideration.

So, it is possible for a marathon runner, body builder, or sumo wrestler and everyone in-between to be unhealthy.  For example, there is evidence that marathon runners exhibit symptoms similar to those of heart attack victims within 24 hours of running a race — potentially putting them at risk of a heart attack.  A body builder may choose to use anabolic steroids to develop the physique that may give them an advantage over their competitors — thereby potentially doing permanent damage to about every system in their body.  Sumo wrestlers are often obese and it is unlikely they get enough cardiovascular exercise.  As I’ve highlighted before, muscular strength and mass do not replace or equate to a healthy cardiovascular system.  Any one of our examples might drive drunk or engage in other risky behaviors that would would never be considered healthy.

Do you want to improve your health?  See your doctor — it’s their job to help you improve your health.  Talk to them and decide what you need to improve.  Speaking as someone who suffers from hypertension and who knows of physically fit people who have suffered heart attacks and who have died from drug overdoses, I can honestly tell you that you can not really assess a person’s health just by looking at them.  Just because some svelte hottie is strutting their stuff doesn’t mean they’re actually healthy nor should you think that, because you don’t look like someone in a magazine, you aren’t.  Being fit and being healthy are different but related concepts.  Just remember not to judge the book by it’s cover or the person by the body.