You know how you can hear a word so many times that it starts to lose its meaning? In the case of some words, like “freedom” and “democracy,” the core meaning of the word is lost beneath piles of cultural baggage and connotations, until the word is no longer used to mean a specific thing, but instead to signify a whole mess of other ideas that may or may not be tangentially related to that initial thing.
I’m starting to feel that way about “fitness.”
I read a lot of blogs and tumblrs and magazines focused on fitness, and for the most part, they seem to define fitness as eating well and exercising and being slender and/or muscular. There’s a lot of stuff out there about looking good in your bikini or having a shapely ass or building your delts and what you need to do to make these things happen.
But over the past week, while I was on vacation – which is why I didn’t update this blog at all – it occurred to me that this commonly accepted idea of fitness is just another way of defining our bodies based on what they look like and not what they do.
My husband and I tend to be pretty active vacationers. We do our share of lounging around by pools and sitting on the beach, but we aren’t good at doing that for hours on end. Take this past week for instance. We went for runs on the beach and we rode bicycles around Hilton Head Island and we swam in the Atlantic Ocean and we took long walks around Savannah. He played golf and tennis. I hit the weights hard a couple of times.
Our vacations usually go this way. We raft down rivers and run races and ride bikes and snorkel and kayak and sometimes even scuba dive. For us, vacations do not mean sitting on our butts for fourteen hours a day. It means we have more time to do the things we love, and for the most part the things we love to do are things that are physical. But we wouldn’t be able to enjoy doing these things if we weren’t physically active all the time. Instead, it would seem dreary and painful and agonizing and it would suck and we would probably not do any of it.
Think about the word “fitness” and what it means aside from all of this diet-and-exercise rhetoric. It means to be suitable to complete a given task or role.
Isn’t that what all of this is all about? It’s not about looking hot in a bikini or being able to wear short shorts or anything like that. It’s being able to do things with your body, and I don’t just mean running half-marathons or kayaking for fun. I mean being able to ride a bike with your kids or walk up flights of stairs without feeling winded or any number of the day to day tasks that require our bodies be in reasonably good working shape.
I think about how things used to be back when I used to give no thought to my health, how I used to smoke and eat garbage and drink a ton every night, and how I would struggle to walk up the stairs to my apartment or how I tired very easily when going for a while or how I didn’t really ever feel like doing much beyond laying around. (For what it’s worth, I was also at my thinnest during this period of time, which is why the idea of thin=healthy has not taken hold in my mind. I know first hand how unhealthy a thin person can be.)
I had a body that could have worked well if I wanted it to, but instead I was deliberately disabling myself through my lifestyle choices. I totally took what health I did have as a given, as if I would always have a functional body no matter what I did.
Now I recognize the hubris inherent in this way of looking at things, and the arrogance, too. Not only is it possible to wreck my body through my own willful neglect and abuse, but there are about a million other ways in which my health can fall apart with no help from me. I’m talking chronic illnesses, cancer, injury, immune disorders.
I’ve learned that a healthy body is a gift; it’s not a given. And this is the only body I’ve got, the only one that will carry me through miles of running and will help me hopefully deliver babies in a few years and will allow me to take pleasure in the world. It will fall apart and die soon enough – why on earth should I help that process along?
This is the core of why I care about fitness and health. It’s not because I want to meet some externally-imposed standard of beauty, but because I want to make the most of the only thing that will be with me for my entire life – my body.