Fitness is a quality that is context-dependent. Our notion of fitness (thanks to the work of Kenneth Cooper, father of the modern aerobic movement) is the marathon runner, the endurance athlete who is ultra lean, purged of any mass which is not directly responsible for propelling the body forward.
“Fitness models” proliferate in the popular press, and this suggests that fitness should be evaluated by how one looks in a bikini, and perhaps a willingness to splurge on cosmetic surgery. We see little evidence of ostensibly fit people performing actual tasks (though they may indeed be able to do so).
And yet, the more legitimate definition of “fitness” is a readiness or level of preparation to be able to perform a desired activity/activities. Every time I watch a “fitness competition” I wonder why we waste time judging women in evening gowns. If they are fitness models, let’s see them run an obstacle course, or jog three miles through the forest while carrying a loaded backpack. Let’s see them do some pullups, or swim laps in a rough ocean. Let’s see them throw some freshly baled hay on to the back of a truck, haul a full wheelbarrow, or help their buddies move a couch.
If this were the case we would quickly find that looking fit (whatever we perceive that to look like) and being fit are two different things. We would also find that being fit is a highly specific condition. Both sprinters and marathoners are fit, for their respective activities. Yet, a sprinter would not likely be fit for the marathoner’s activity, and vice versa. You might also notice that the bodies of sprinters and marathoners look much different.
So the issue of whether someone can be fat or fit raises the question, “Fit for what?”
A good starting point is fitness for real life challenges. For example, if you lived in eastern and central North America in the summer of 2003, you probably experienced at least a few hours of the blackout. I was at work when it happened. Normally I commute home using the subway. I managed to find a bus that was going in the general direction of my house. Though it got me in fairly decent proximity to my neighbourhood, I still had to walk briskly for an hour in the heat. Luckily I was wearing sensible shoes (thank heaven for such a fortuitous choice that morning!) and more importantly, I was in good enough physical condition to execute this task on demand. I met many people along the way who were not so lucky. They were sitting down, out of breath, wiping sweat from their brows.
Oh, and that event also correlated with the scheduled outage of the elevator for six weeks in my building. I work on the seventh floor. You would not believe the bitching from non-disabled people who had to climb the stairs to the third floor. Quelle horreur!
It’s clear to me that one can indeed be fat and fit. Yet along with asking “fit for what?” we might also ask, “How fat is fat?” Many strength athletes, particularly in heavier weight classes, do not worry too much about staying lean, because they feel that carrying a bit of bodyfat helps their performance. They can eat more and put on more lean body mass, without suffering the possible strength loss from dieting.
However, past a certain point, that bodyfat becomes extra weight to move around. They end up hauling 400 pounds of barbell plus 100 pounds of bodyfat. Moreover, many superheavyweight strength athletes are discovering that even their regular activity has not prevented health problems such as cardiovascular disease.
In other words, some fat helps them. But too much fat detracts from performance and health. The key, then, is to find an optimal level of bodyfat that takes account of one’s chosen sport needs, one’s individual body makeup, and one’s performance overall.
the concept of the “natural” body
One thing I hear a lot of in feminist circles is the notion of the natural body. The concept of the natural body is that we all have a predetermined body shape or size to which we all eventually gravitate. The foundation of this concept is sensible. For example, genetics clearly plays a major role in determinining whether one will be tall or short, what the colour of one’s skin will be, and so forth. Genetics is what controls our skeletal and muscular structure and to give us many permanent attributes: the width of our pelvis, the length of our legs, the thickness of our joints, the shape of our muscles and where they attach to the bone (so don’t buy that crap about Workout X changing the shape of your muscles or making them longer, unless Workout X involves ripping the tendon off the bone and reattaching it). Many of these things cannot be altered.
Patterns of fat deposition–where you put on bodyfat–are also largely genetic, although they can be altered in large part by hormones. For example, women tend to put on bodyfat on hips, thighs, and belly. This is known as the gynoid, or female-pattern, fat distribution pattern. Were a gynoid-pattern woman to start supplementing testosterone and taking estrogen blockers, over time the areas of bodyfat deposition would shift to her midsection and lower back. Testosterone is one factor responsible for the android, or male-pattern fat distribution.
It appears to be the case that genetics also affects one’s body composition. Some folks are simply, by virtue of what mom and dad gave them, leaner or fatter, more or less muscular, than others. The reasons for this are complex and involve a host of factors, many of which are not yet fully understood. These factors include resting metabolic rate, fat setpoint, and control of appetite. However, the human body is also subject to the laws of physics and thermodynamics.
One of the most changeable factors in determining our body composition is energy balance or energy availability. In other words, calories in versus calories out. No matter what your genetics, in large part, it comes down to this simple equation. Under experimental conditions where intake and output were controlled and monitored, with subjects cloistered in a measurement chamber, nobody has yet defied this rule, and believe me, they’ve tried.
The problem with using the “natural” body as a standard is that we live in a profoundly un-natural world. Our bodies evolved for constant activity and scavenging for food. They did not evolve to sit at desks, in cars, or in front of TVs. Our bodies also evolved to find fatty and sweet foods appealing, and to hoard nutrients in case of possible famine. As such, the thrift mechanisms which would be a survival advantage in a foraging society can be a significant detriment in a sedentary society where food is as close as the nearest Dunkin Donuts.
Moreover, we deliberately alter our natural bodies all the time. In order to write this article, I need to wear glasses. I had a shower today and thankfully for everyone around me, I used deodorant. Were it not for medical intervention, including immunization, at several points in my life, I probably wouldn’t be here today typing (another un-natural activitiy!).
Thus, it’s for these reasons that I am uncomfortable with the idea of a laissez-faire approach to the body and the assumption that the body will just sort of find its own individual groove.