What is physical fitness?
You will receive some very different answers depending upon who you ask.
- To a person with a medical condition, physical fitness may be a day without pain or a day where they have the energy to walk down to the corner store.
- To the weekend warrior, it is being able to compete with his friends and still be able to go to work on Monday.
- To an Olympic calibre gymnast, physical fitness is performing an Iron Cross.
- The flexibility of an accomplished yoga practitioner is a display of physical fitness.
- As is the endurance of a triathelete.
- Or the power of an Olympic style weightlifter.
- Or the speed of a sprinter.
- Or the agility of a badminton player…
They are all right and they are all wrong.
For their particular needs, there is an appropriate level of adequate fitness. The weekend warrior has no need to perform an Iron Cross. Or a gymnast to run a marathon.
According to Olympic folklore, the decathalete / heptahalete is supposed to represent the ultimate of physical fitness. While the other athletes are specialists, these multi-sports athletes train to develop the ultimate combination of the different components that make up physical fitness.
So that is where we will go. By breaking down physical fitness into it’s components, we will arrive at a better understanding of physical fitness.
The 5 Components of Physical Fitness
This component of physical fitness deals specifically with the performance of the body’s skeletal muscles.
Your skeletal muscles contract and stretch in order to produce movement. Simple.
How they produce that movement is less simple. Your body’s muscles are highly adaptable. They will react to the stresses that you place upon them. Sit on the couch and they will atrophy. Try and run fast and they adapt to produce faster contractions. Lift heavy objects and they will increase their ability to produce maximum strength.
One way to organize these different types of strength is in relation to time.
Maximum muscular strength is the ability to produce the most amount of force regardless of time. That big guy at your gym that is ALWAYS bench pressing may have a high level of maximum strength. He can produce a large amount of force (to move that heavy barbell) but he does it relatively SLOOOWWWLY.
Maximum muscular endurance is the ability to produce a smaller amount of force, but do it for a long time. A marathon runner has a high level of muscular endurance. His bodyweight requires less force to move than a heavy barbell, but he is able to move that weight for 2+ hours non-stop.
Maximum muscular speed is the ability to produce muscular movement very quickly. A hummingbird’s wings are the epitome of speed.
Muscular power is a combination of maximum strength and speed. An Olympic weightlifter is a great example of power. So are high jumpers and sprinters. Another way of looking at power would be to use our weightlifter friend from the gym.
If he bench presses 300 lbs but takes 3 seconds to perform the lift, his power output is 100 lbs. per second. However, if he drops the weight to 200 lbs and performs the lift in 1 second, his power output shoots up to 200 lbs. per second.
If that wasn’t confusing enough, different types of muscular strength rely on the development of the 4 other components of physical fitness.
This component of physical fitness deals with the communication between your brain, nervous system and your skeletal muscles.
While an in depth analysis of the nervous system is far beyond the scope of this post, I can break it down for you like this:
Your brain issues a command to your muscles. That command is carried via the nervous system (technically, the brain is part of the nervous system) to the muscles. The muscles perform the action if possible. Your nervous system relays the movement to the brain. The brain receives this feedback and issues another command. And so on and so on.
This is a highly trainable skill. Highly desirable as well.
A baby learns to walk by seeing others walk, processing this information in it’s brain and then issuing a command to the muscles to get up and walk. Initially this command will fail as the muscles do not yet have the ability to perform this action. However, the feedback is delivered from the muscles to the brain via the nervous system. The feedback is analyzed and another command is issued and another attempt by the muscles to walk is attempted.
Eventually, the baby will walk.
This neuro-muscular co-ordination is required when learning a new skill or improving a current skill.
Neuro-muscular co-ordination is usually described as agility or balance or simply co-ordination.
If your body is out of alignment in one place, there will be adaptations elsewhere. Whether those adaptations will result in pain and injury depends on factors that are largely out of your control.
Energy system fitness refers to the ability of the body’s three sources of ATP (the main source of cellular energy) to produce that ATP.
A common misconception about your energy systems concerns the dreaded “fat burning” zone. Many people are of the belief that if you stay well within your aerobic or fat burning zone, your body will burn fat instead of sugar. If you spped up and move out of the aerobic zone into the anaerobic, you will instantly stop burning fat. Not true.
These systems do NOT turn on and off. They are always on. Depending upon your demand for energy, one system may dominate over the other, but they are all working to provide energy for movement.
The ATP-PC system is most efficient for short bursts of activity. The Aerobic system is designed for longer duration, lower intensity activities. The Anaerobic sits in between these two systems. It is best designed for explosive activities of relatively short duration.
Basketball is an anaerobic sport as it alternates short duration, high intensity sprints with periods of lower intensity movements around the basket. These lower intensity activities allow the anaerobic system to recharge. This sport would improve the functioning of the anaerobic system at the expense of the development of the aerobic system. The same could be said for hockey and football.
An excellent illustration of different sports & how they rely on different energy systems can be seen here.
Overall health refers to your mental health, emotional health, body composition & lifestyle. While outside of the scope of this post, these aspects of physical fitness will affect you on a systemic level.
The most physically fit athlete in the world will not be able to perform if his anxiety prevents him boarding a plane to fly to the Olympics in China. A lifestyle choice like smoking will have an negative effect on a triathlete’s performance. And it’s highly unlikely that you will be able to maximize your physical fitness carrying around 20 extra pounds of body-fat.
In future posts, I will be delving deeper into the 5 components of physical fitness along with suggesting exercises and training programs designed to maximize your potential