Basic Ideas: Defining Fitness, Health, & Levels

"How do all these Hollywood guys have six-packs all the time while our heroes look like this?" was something I used to think all the time. I used to wonder why actors in India never seemed to take care of their bodies. I would (stupidly) speculate that "It is our genes, we are just gonna inch slowly into being a fat guy. That's just us - Indians". A more serious thought on that is explored here. Except for a lucky few who just manage to stay thin - but they are just exceptions. Then, along came Hrithik Roshan, John Abraham, and Surya and these guys made it accessible and main-stream. This has certainly influenced a large amount of people taking a look at their physique. But are they fit? Are they healthy? And what about you - how healthy are you, how fit are you? To figure this out, we need to establish some terminology. What is fitness? I like the CrossFit framework for defining fitness. It basically says one should be balanced in the ten general physical skills (cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy), rather than being skewed towards one or two. It also says you should be able to deal with any task thrown at you, even if you've never trained for it - because that's the way life is. And it also says you should use all three metabolic pathways, rather than training in only one .

The motivation for the three standards is simply to ensure the broadest and most general fitness possible. Our first model evaluates our efforts against a full range of general physical adaptations, in the second the focus is on breadth and depth of performance, with the third the measure is time, power and consequently energy systems. It should be fairly clear that the fitness that CrossFit advocates and develops is deliberately broad, general, and inclusive.

I like this definition of fitness, it is a lot more balanced and broad than most other ones. The rest of the world of CrossFit is irrelevant (their love of metcons, the insane tasks at the Games etc.) - this is solely about the definition of fitness. Maybe a lot of you do not agree with CrossFit's definition of being fit but I believe it closely maps the "being healthy" from a physical activity standpoint. What about health? The World Health Organization defines health as > a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

Let's refine that a bit further - your blood work is fine, your blood pressure is normal, your body fat is in the normal range, your body composition (amount of muscle vs fat) is good, you don't fall sick often, your organs are in good working order, your hormone production is good, your memory and mental alertness are good, you are not in a bad mood all the time. That's a bit better. Is there a difference between health and fitness****Fitness and health, while seemingly related, are different as well. You can be fit, but not healthy. You can be healthy, but not fit. And of course, you can be fit and healthy. I think fitness ("General Physical Preparedness" ) is one component  that contributes to overall health, and the others could be diet and sleep. If you look at the various things listed in the previous paragraph, overall health is determined by how well we are at the three factors that determine it - exercise, diet, and sleep (Stress is certainly another component that affects us, although it is a bit harder to quantify). And the quality and quantity of these factors determine our overall health. Balance and moderation are key. Now that we've established some terminology, let's try and figure out where we stand, by using levels. [caption id="attachment_601" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Yes, Levels."][/caption] Levels****Let's use a scale of 1-5. Obviously, these definitions are a bit fuzzy but such is the nature of the idea. In some cases, there might be an overlap - a person who does the things in level 2 might actually be in level 3. And so on and so forth. At level 1, exercise is non-existent and diet is pathetic.

- These people are outliers and exceptions (unfortunately, not as uncommon as they used to be). Extremely fat and obese people are certainly groups of people that are categorized in this level.

  • A few other groups that I can think of are anorexic people, people with bulimia etc.
  • Broadly speaking, if you haven't exercised in a few months or years, eat fast food or random crap, work 12+ hour days, are constantly busy and think sleep is a luxury - you are here.
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At level 2, we move up the ladder a bit.

- Levels 2 and 3 are where most of us lie.

  • You are moderately active (your ass is not glued to the couch), you eat 'normally' i.e. whatever diet you are used to. But you do eat fast food and unhealthy snacks reasonably often. Your sleep pattern is probably not settled.
  • I was here for quite a good portion of my college life. My waistline slowly started to grow, my face became rounder and I was in pretty bad shape.
  • This is a horrible level coz you are unhealthier than you think. A lot of times, bad things are creeping just below the surface, especially if you are older.
  • I was lucky that I was in my early-20s, but even then undoing this damage is taking me time. If you are in your 40s or above, you are speeding up the deterioration process in your body.
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At level 3, we have people who have taken a more active interest in their health and fitness levels. You were at level 2 and decided that enough is enough! Well, good on you, for taking initiative.

- You probably workout at a gym, doing some variation of 3 days of working on the machines and 3 days of cardio. Or you are one of those runners - clocking up 20+ miles a week. Or maybe you just walk, go on hikes, play a sport whenever you can.

  • You are trying to eat right, at least according to the dietitian at your gym or a friend who 'knows' what he is talking about.
  • Again, this is a dangerous level because it is a pseudo-healthy phase. I've been here - I went to a big gym in Madras, did the prescribed workouts 6 days a week, ate according to the prescribed diet (not dissimilar to this), while working at my full-time job. I felt good for a while but thankfully my vanity came to my rescue - if I was 90% compliant with what I was supposed to do, I should be seeing a lot more results. That was my first spark, except I did not do much about it then. I will write a follow-up post about this issue, as it is a HUGE one.
  • What about runners who run 20+ miles a week - well, I've been one of those too. Let's put the framework to use, shall we? When you are running (a lot), your stamina and endurance are pretty good. But what about the rest - negligible! And you are working only one metabolic pathway. Not to mention the insane amount of stress you are putting on your legs. Let's not even get to the static stretching before running, or those heavily-padded shoes. My first CrossFit workout, I was done before the warmup ended. And I thought I was in shape. This doesn't apply only to a CrossFit workout - try any reasonable length high intensity piece and you will be wasted.
  • But don't let me bring you down too much. You guys are awesome. You've decided to take control, and to do something about your health and fitness.
  • You probably get a lot of exercise but are injury prone.
  • It is not your fault that the jackass at your gym doesn't know what he's talking about.
  • It is not your fault that a high-carb, low-fat diet is touted as the best diet in the world.
  • It is not your fault that shitty food is available all around us, all the time.
  • It is not your fault that they sell fancy shoes that will magically make you a better runner.
  • It is my goal to help you level up though, through this blog.
  • It is your fault if you continue doing the same thing over and over again. Moderation is the key. The more you do of one thing, the less you are doing of another. This is normally a good barometer. If you run too much, reduce that and add in some resistance training. If you eat too much carbs, balance it out with other macronutrients.
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Moving on, at level 4, we have people who are doing the 'correct thing' most of the time. - Your workouts are well-rounded, focusing on not just one area but across a lot of the domains mentioned.

  • For example, someone who does a long run over the weekend, resistance training and/or yoga 3x a week, and gets sufficient rest could be at this level.
  • Injuries do not happen much, and you recover pretty quickly.
  • It does not mean an awesome, ripped body. But it does not exclude it either.
  • Nor does it mean they are doing something extra-ordinary. They are doing ordinary things, but doing them well most of the time.
  • Their diet is well-rounded, they get all the macro-nutrients in moderate amounts.
  • Maybe they eat Paleo, or the Perfect Health Diet, or the Zone Diet - you get the drift. Their diet is nutritious, low in toxins, and balanced.
  • Update: This means your grain intake is close to zero; you eat a lot of high quality meat; a lot of vegetables; no sugar of any form.

At level 5, we have the elite. - These are people who are in great physical and mental condition, have a great workout/exercise pattern and a diet to go along with it. Their stress is well under control.

  • These people are doing the ordinary things extra-ordinarily well.
  • Again, remember - we are talking about overall fitness and health.
  • This does not mean they are doing 10 times more work than people at level 4. Remember, too much work is also bad for you.
  • Nothing extra-ordinary or out of the world - no insane feats or anything. Sure, people like Jack Lalanne did amazing things (like towing 70 boats for 1 mile, aged 70) but for us regular folk, it is still possible to be here without doing extra-ordinary things.
  • Update: But in all probability, you are gonna look ripped. And fit as f**k. And you probably don't remember the last time you went to a doctor.
  • I realize this might be a bit controversial but hey, this is my theory. And it is not set in stone, am hoping to use this framework for quite a while and will make small edits as I learn more and interact more.

****I know a lot of us have an obsession with a six-pack and the like. So, back to my introductory paragraph. Where do we think the actors lie? Not at level 5, as you might think. These guys put their body under immense stress, doing a lot of unhealthy things to rapidly lose/gain weight for their roles. Likewise with even elite marathoners - they are specialists in their sport and the amount of stress their legs handle is immense. That's the thing - most of the time, specialists are not at the pinnacle of fitness, but that's a price they are willing to pay to excel at that one thing. For the rest of us, we should be looking at a broader perspective, a balanced and moderate perspective. Another thing to remember is, some of these people are freaks, and I mean this in a good way. They are just plain lucky and get away with things most of us cannot - do not be fooled by them. At the same time, a lot of people are classified as freaks, when in fact, they just work their asses off! Does this mean we cannot have a six-pack? Or try to qualify for the Boston Marathon? Oh no, we most definitely can. My point is that all of this is possible with a more balanced approach. Open up your mind to other methods and modes of training, of diets. Most of all, figure out what works for you. Your health is not a simple variable - it depends on your fitness routines, eating right, and getting enough rest. Think of this like a video game - you need to move on to the next level. My goal here is to help you do that. My point here was to establish a common framework. I will get to the levelling up shortly. But I do not want to leave you without a tangible task you can do today. Go and get your blood work done. And pay attention to your triglycerides, as well as HDL, and their ratio. You want your HDL to be high, your triglycerides to be low - and the ratio to be as close to 1:1 as possible. I have a lot of ideas for following up to this post, focusing on problems at certain levels, getting in-depth, and most importantly - how to level up! Post comments about what you think, what you disagree with, what you would like to read about next. Update: Where do I think I lie? Hmm, at the lower end of the scale in level 4 is what I would estimate. I can dial-in my nutrition a lot more. My workout right now is strength-focused, but I am reasonably good in all the other modes. My sleep, rest, and recovery are pretty good. The biggest advances I can make are in nutrition, and in improving flexibility, which is what my current focus is, apart from my workout. My current back squat is 215lbs for a 5RM; I can run 7-10 miles without much stress; I can play a game of Ultimate savage. And I eat clean about 80% of the time. My body fat is probably around 12%, although it was better a few months ago, before my current bulking programme.

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