athletes · fitness

Fitness, yes but fit for what?

Happy New Year!

For many of us, one of our goals for 2013 is to get more fit. But what do we mean by ‘fit’ exactly?

I’m just home from the Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association held in Atlanta where I took part in a panel sponsored by the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport.

Defining fitness was one of the topics we discussed. Michael Brady, a philosopher at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale,  gave a great talk called “Crossfit: A Pragmatic Philosophy of Sport” which examined Crossfit’s pluralist account of fitness, of which I’m quite fond.

Writing about Crossfit, here’s what Tony Leyland has to say: “Our program delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. Our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.” (Crossfit Journal)

Crossfit has a nice list of the elements which make up fitness:

1. Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance

2. Stamina

3. Strength

4. Flexibility

5. Power

6. Speed

7. Coordination

8. Agility

9. Balance

10. Accuracy

I’m asked a lot, in the context of this “fittest by fifty” campaign, what it means to be fit. I agree that ‘fit’ and ‘fitness’ have a few different meanings and maybe it’s not the most helpful concept. Some people think there’s only ‘fit’ in the sense of ‘fit for a specific task or event.’ But I like the Crossfit list approach.

The people who think there is only ‘fit for a particular activity’ within sports point to the wide range of abilities that athletes have.

In cycling, hill climbers aren’t sprinters and a really fit hill climber will look different and perform differently than a sprinter. The sprinters in the Tour de France struggle to make it up the mountains. They’re built for explosive speed, not climbing.

When you move between sports, it gets harder still. You can’t train for a marathon and build very much muscle. Body builders limit their cardio. You can’t weight train and build muscle and then compete in events that penalize weight.

What I’d like is to achieve is a kind of base level across activities that allows me to try new things without worrying about a fitness barrier. Marathon runners who can’t lift and weight lifters who can’t run have limited functional fitness.

One of the things that’s appealed to me about Crossfit is the ‘cross’ part, I like the mix of strength and speed workouts.I like the talk of General Physical Preparedness.

That’s part of the appeal of triathlon too. The extremes don’t interest me. No marathons in my future though I’d like to get good at what my friend Laura terms the middle distances, 5 and 10 km.

You can read more about Crossfit and fitness: and also “What is Fitness? in the Crossfit Journal

So yes, individualized fitness for specific sports but I still think there is a cross-sport account of fitness we can give. And in the new year that’s what I’m aiming for.

How about you?

6 thoughts on “Fitness, yes but fit for what?

  1. Most people lean toward what they excel at by nature. Some people will definitely excel at a crossfit-type exercise regime. For medical reasons, I am being forced to train contrary to my inclinations and to become just such a “generalist”. Am not particularly drawn to it, perhaps because this was all I ever was growing up. Fair to good at most everything; great at not much anything. Still, it’s what’s best for me, and I’m trying real hard to be balanced in my approach to life these days.

  2. It seems the best applied principle that can derived from this is “generalist fitness” is for basic living, trying out new things and not being limited by physical weakness to perform basic things in a new activity but “specialised fitness” for competing and being the best (not merely good) at a physical activity. For example, i’ve always thought of rock climbing as a physical acitivity that has an extremely high physical barrier to entry that prefers both upper body strength and a light body weight. A person who can bust out a good number of pullups (10+) is going to find relative ease getting into the sport but until he or she specifically develops the tendons and muscles in their fingers (no one trains that except climbers), they aren’t going to be able to hold onto the slopers and crimps and conquer the seemingly smooth natural walls.

    Rock climbing may also be one of the sports that may not actually benefit from crossfit – there is no need to build more muscle than necessary because every pound of extra muscle not used in climbing is an extra pound to lift, an extra pound of pressure being supported by the tips of a climbers fingers on a crimp. Squats and any sort of heavy leg work seem to be anathema to climbers.

    Thus, I’m not that happy with crossfit’s account of their sort of fitness is rewarded by X, Y, Z. There’s a lot going on in combat besides physical fitness that you specifically need to train for. Ditto for survival skills… And life? Let me go out on a limb and say that earning enough by winning competitions to go pro is a very good reward, and if not being extremely competant at a skill is life-defining.

    Finally, i think that there is a baseline physical ability threshhold for all people – but its extremely low. We’ll have to take into account that not everyone is privileged enough to be able to pay for crossfit classes, or have to time and money to dedicate to cultivating an athelete’s lifestyle (what more if there’s no possibility of turning pro to lift their families out of poverty). Isn’t it once said that for some people, surviving daily is their form of feminism? So fitness exactly has to be that – it should be what enables people as much as they want to conduct their intend physical activities – whether its a lowly paid construction worker in a developing country (which essentially is to carry heavy things and arrange them to form a building and is the person who probably would derive the greatest utility from weightlifting), a professional basejumper, a stay at home mom with dad working two jobs, or someone lucky enough to have a job to be able to try many different things at once.

    And for city-dwellers to train for “natural” survival — well that just strikes me as vanity. I say training for natural survival should be agriculture and animal husbandry.

  3. Thanks for this. Food for thought.

    Road cyclists are like rock climbers. Beyond a certain level of general fitness, it’s sports specific training and muscle development that matters. Have you seen the animated movie, The Triplets of Belleville? Cyclists just need muscular legs. Upper body muscles just weigh you down on the hills!

    One thing we discussed at the philosophy of sport panel, after the Crossfit talk, was whether you could be pluralist by counting all the elements of fitness, across persons, and not requiring that anyone has all of them. We compared this to list theories of human well being, like Martha Nussbaum’s.

    But for the average person concerned about fitness, I still like the Crossfit approach. Not for ‘urban survival’ but for being able to claim stairs, get out of chairs unaided, chase small children, carry groceries etc well into one’s old age…

    I love this story of the Crossfit Grandma,! And yes, it can be expensive but most Crossfit style exercises and training can be done at home.

    Thanks for the comment!

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