"Health and Fitness" - What's in a word?

Those two words are couched together so that they are often presumed to be synonymous, but I don’t believe that’s always the case. On the simplest level, if you’ve got a cold or the flu, how fit do you feel? (I’m sure a lot of us can relate to that one right now). And can you demonstrate or display your fitness in any way while you are unwell? If you were tested in that moment of illness your fitness would be found lacking, and yet you are not really ‘unfit’ are you, you’re just lacking in health. Fitness - Noun

"The condition of being physically fit and healthy. Disease and lack of fitness are closely related"

And if you’re ‘fit’, does that mean you’re automatically healthy? Not necessarily. We all know that for the most part attempts to improve physical fitness will improve a good number of health markers too, but if both health and fitness matter to us how can we be sure we’re respecting both?

H is for holistic

For me, this is where the H word comes in. A word I’ve been warned off many times by sports professionals in particular, but one which I encourage you to keep in mind when considering your health and fitness goals.

Holistic - Adjective

"PHILOSOPHY characterised by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole

MEDICINE characterised by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease"

I consider myself a holistic coach, and the word itself doesn’t look too threatening does it. Yet for some reason it pushes a lot of buttons, as if by taking a holistic approach to fitness I might subject my clients to all sorts of quackery, perhaps lighting hopi ear candles as they lay unsuspecting on the exercise mat, or forcing them into some strange dietary cult where they must replace their favourite coffee with a green sludge smoothie. And in spite of a growing awareness about mental health, the ‘mental and social’ aspects of our fitness often take a back seat when we are focused on physical performance. Sadly, there are still many exercisers who feel threatened by something as simple as a visualisation, or who fear that using the Sanskrit word for a yoga pose might mess with their chakras and align them with an Eastern belief system that might be incompatible with their competitive goal orientation.

Holistic coaching for me simply means not only considering the interconnectedness of the various parts of the physical body (muscles, bones, organs etc.), but also acknowledging the psychological and even spiritual nature of a person too, and recognising how that might impact on their exercise plan and sense of progress.

Our reluctance to think about our physical selves as connected to our emotional and mental state is reflected in new trends in the fitness industry that represent a backlash to the ‘health’ orientation that has dominated since the noughties. Sports clubs transitioned into ‘health clubs’ touting wellness, as almost grander than, or distinct from sport and fitness. But these trends are being met in the opposite direction with no-nonsense businesses like ‘The Gym’ that challenge this snobbery, with a streamlined, parred down approach that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it says on the tin. Without a pool, Jacuzzi or relaxation area, these gyms cater for the busy capitalist exerciser, who wants to get in and out, and ‘work-out’ with that focussed mentality that makes training part of the work day; Part of the suffering that we all have to endure if we want to achieve our goals and move unerring towards greater things. The simplicity of this approach is very appealing, and for many of us it helps us stay on track with a fitness schedule. By seeing training as business we keep ourselves fit for function, whether that’s being active with the kids, playing a sport, or simply maintaining a healthy weight.

S is for Suffering

Sometimes holding us back in balancing all this ‘work’ with some healthy recovery are long held ideas about the mythology of pain and suffering as being an essential struggle on the road to glory. Often in the sport and fitness landscape trying harder, and pushing yourself further has been glorified in the pursuit of excellence. In the fitness industry it’s still not uncommon to find personal trainers who make a living punishing their clients into submission. Clients who are exhausted from working long hours who pay their hard earned cash for the privelage of being beaten up, believing that if only they could push themselves to vomitous levels they too could achieve greatness. Not surprisingly, its rare for the desired results to come easily in many of these cases.

In my own sport of cycling whole brands are marketed on pain as if it’s a badge of honour, and a sign of class. With technology king and sports science that used to be limited to the laboratory now accessible to the ordinary rider in their garage at home, riders are in danger of becoming robotized, plugging into the game to sweat it out and earn their suffrage points. Training is now often data driven with wattage and power outputs the currency of choice, and predictive algorithms plotting progress of the ‘athlete’ with a machine-like precision. But we are not machines, and I believe that ‘hard work’ needs to be balanced by a greater appreciation and value attached to recovery; Recovery that can include different kinds of exercise or lower intensity work outs, or dare I say it, some actual fun! For many of us finding practical and enjoyable ways to unwind can be much harder than finding ways to suffer, but it’s an experiment worth doing, and one that ultimately will lead to greater performance.

J is for Journey

Journey - Noun

"An act of travelling from one place to another"

Finding the right balance between the business-like business of fitness, and the more hippie holistic aspects of your health is something that each of us has to discover through trial and error. Many coaches will naturally tend attach to one school of thought or the other, depending on their training, their experience, and I suppose their own ‘journey’. Clients looking for guidance in regard to their health and exercise goals will naturally be drawn to someone whose approach seems the closest match to what they are looking for at any given time.

With my background firmly in sport science and ‘training’ I only really became interested in ‘health’ in and of itself when my own started to diminish in my mid 20’s. Inspite of my apparent ‘fitness’, at that time I was unhealthy and my fitness was being affected. I was experiencing the consequences of a performance focussed few years, eating a diet unsuited to me and my nutritional needs, and ignoring the signs and signals of the hormonal disruption I was experiencing. By the age of 23/24 I was fat, tired, had all sorts of digestive problems and no menstrual cycle. Not surprisingly I failed to respond to all the typical fitness training at that time and the tools I had were not going to get me out of that hole. Many of my clients in those early days were also making little progress. I was about to embark on what I can only describe as the second phase of my education.

Thankfully I’ve come a long way in nearly 20 years in the industry, and with experience, knowledge and greater emotional wisdom I've been able to  unravel and align my own health and fitness as well as apply what I have learnt to the people I coach and train. I haven’t forgotten my sports background, and I understand how to apply effective physical training for improved performance. The difference is I can recognise and adapt that training by taking into account factors outside pure physical fitness and adapting to individual needs. This helps me identify barriers to progress and move them aside so that goals can be achieved more easily and more consistently.

P is for People

My client base is peppered with examples of people who each have their own priorities with varying degrees of health and fitness across the full spectrum. Many are trying to improve their fitness AND their health and are using exercise as just one of the elements in a holistic plan that is moving them towards where they want to be. Losing weight whilst tackling secondary onset diabetes. Getting stronger whilst improving bone health and combating osteoporosis. Working around injuries and issues whilst developing strength and fitness in other areas. Getting fitness back on the bike whilst rehabilitating multiple fractures. You can do all these things at once with a holistic outlook, and most people feel more complete as a result. They are not separated into boxes marked by a medical condition, or their fitness status, or their emotional state, but are aware that they are all these things together.

M is for mindfulness

Mindfullness - Noun

"The quality or state of being aware of something"

And this brings me to another buzz word of our time - Mindfullness. Being mindfully engaged in your physical health and fitness seems to be the key to finding it empowering and enjoyable, and that in turn can lead to the consistency in exercise and health habits that leads to success of all kinds. For me in my role as coach, knowing what makes my client tick is really important in tailoring their exercise program to their needs. It’s true that I have some clients who actually like the suffering, who find that paradoxically relaxing, and in many ways I fall easily into this camp too. But equally there are others who actually don’t like exercise very much but want to be healthy, and they really need to find something enjoyable or engaging about an activity to stick with it long enough to reap the rewards.

For the most part my sporting clients put fitness and performance ahead of health, whilst many of my (often older) home-based personal training clients would prioritise their health and ‘wellness’ over any measure of ‘fitness’. Having a holistic approach helps me train both effectively and meaningfully, as well as changing my focus as their priorities change, such as when pain and injury diminish and performance becomes a focus, or when health becomes a priority so fitness may need to just be maintained.

F is for Failure, but also for Fun

Best about this more fluid approach is that really and truly there is no such thing as failure. Sometimes we cling onto a goal because we are frightened that we will fail if we let go, but with a mindful and holistic approach success can be measured on multiple levels at multiple times, and there will almost always be something positive to focus on. Physical fitness then becomes a more integrated part of your chosen lifestyle, and it can be fluid and changing, just as you are. You can review your sports and fitness goals and consider what they do for you as a whole person. Why are YOU doing it? What do YOU want to get out of it? Taking a step back can help you see how your fitness fits into your life, and this holistic approach can make it all the more enjoyable and engaging*.

Together with this global review of your health and fitness goals I would encourage you to ensure that your plan includes aspects that enhance and favour recovery, elements that perhaps push your fitness in different areas, but also support your health. These don’t have to involve meditating in a darkened room, and if you use yoga for calisthenics rather than spiritual practice, who cares when the result is that you breathe deeper and come away feeling both rested and energised?

I suppose my point (if I have one) is that people don’t fit into exclusive boxes any more than the concepts of health and fitness do, and you shouldn’t try to either. So as we approach the festive season don’t beat yourself up in January because you’ve behaved so badly in December. Don’t see New Years resolutions as a way to drag yourself kicking and screaming towards greater fitness. Instead, strive for health and fitness together, in your own unique way.


*On this note I'd like to share cycling friend Lesley Pinder's recent blog on a similar theme: