Being fit contributes to buoyant health, including feeling good, looking good and enjoying life – in effect keeping you more youthful and upbeat as you age. But does being fit automatically mean that you are healthy; and, conversely, can you be healthy without being fit?
Cardiovascular stamina, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility and body composition are the aspects of physical fitness that are most closely related to health. Each of these characteristics is directly related to good health and to your risk of developing certain types of disease – notably those that are linked to inactivity.
A fit cardiovascular system is associated with a stronger heart muscle, slower heart rate, decreased chance of heart attack, and a greater chance of surviving if you do suffer a heart attack. Regular aerobic exercise can reduce your blood pressure, improve your cholesterol levels and enhance circulation. It also decreases your risk of some cancers (colon and breast) and of obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression and anxiety.
Muscular strength (the ability to exert force) and endurance (the ability of muscles to exert themselves repeatedly) allow you to work more efficiently and to resist fatigue, muscle soreness, and back problems. As you work the muscles, you simultaneously stimulate the bones to build and maintain bone density, decreasing the risk of developing osteoporosis.
Flexibility, the ability to stretch your muscles and maintain range of motion in the joints, is another aspect of muscular fitness. Stretching helps improve posture by correcting the tendency of certain muscles to shorten and tighten. It counteracts the physical stressors of our daily activities and discharges tension from the muscles.
Body composition is the “quality” of your weight as opposed to the “quantity” of your weight measured by a scale. With optimal body composition, including a high ratio of lean body mass to fat, you minimize your risk of developing diseases that are associated with obesity and other diseases that are related to how your body fat is distributed. Studies show that a large waist circumference signals a greater risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes than ample hips and thighs. Being over-fat is also a risk factor for breast cancer.
Even though the relationship between regular physical activity and good health is well established, it is important to understand that health and fitness are not always synonymous. Just because you score well on a test of aerobic fitness does not mean that you don’t have heart disease. It is possible to have good aerobic endurance and still have heart disease. The only exercise test that can give you information about the health of your heart is a graded exercise stress test, administered under the supervision of a cardiologist.
Conversely, just because you score poorly on fitness assessment tests does not mean that you are not healthy. Only your doctor can determine your state of health. If your clinical measures – such as your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and bone density – are within the normal range, then you are considered to be healthy. However, even small improvements in your fitness level can have significant health benefits.