What it means to be healthy
People often confuse health with fitness and assume if they are physically fit they are healthy. There is a big difference between the two even though both are important.
Fitness can be defined as a quality to perform a physical task, for example, running a set distance. However, health is a state of complete mental, social, and physical well-being. Poor health can be seen even in elite athletes who push themselves to extremes, beyond the point of appropriate stress levels both physically and psychologically.
It seems like a paradox when we think of an athlete as unhealthy. The aesthetically pleasing physique and display of physical prowess by most athletes are perceived as the pinnacle of health. But in order to be healthy one has to have all the bodily systems (hormonal, nervous, immune, circulatory, digestive, and so on) to be working in harmony.
In addition, the psychological and social aspects like stress that can negatively impact health are often ignored when discussing health. We sometimes tend to look at and try to solve a health problem (driven by psychosocial factors) using a fitness lens. For instance, it is easy to advise a person to lose weight by providing the best exercises and diet plans even though there is enough evidence suggesting both exercise and diet are influenced by behaviour and motivation (psychosocial factors).
Fitness can play an important role in overall health, but it will never be able to compensate for the shortcomings of the psychosocial factors of health. If, say, a man runs 5km in less than 20 minutes regularly, it can be considered reasonably fit for most people. But if he leads a very stressful life at work, does not get enough sleep, and does not treat his family and friends well, do we consider that person to be healthy even though he has a good fitness level? Probably not because we cannot outrun the other aspect of health.
Yes, a robust physical condition can positively influence our psychological and social state of health but will never be able to completely change it. There is plenty of quality research reporting the positive effects of exercise (fitness) on several factors affecting health, such as depression, obesity and heart disease. It is important to note that in order for exercise to do the job, it is vital that other factors affecting health are in harmony.
Furthermore, it is important to note that fitness has a dose-response effect on health. If the dose is not enough, then there may not be any meaningful changes in health, and if the dose is excessive then there can be a negative impact on health.
If an individual performs high-intensity exercises regularly without proper recovery and nutrition then the body goes into a catabolic state (negative state with side effects such as fatigue, sleeplessness, cramps). Excessive amounts of hormones such as cortisol (stress) are secreted in a catabolic state that can have a negative effect on overall health and well-being.
Today’s idea of fitness is about quantity over quality. Most people like to lose weight and become athletic as fast as they can and believe the more they do something the better they can get. Unfortunately, what most of us do not realise is that fitness and health have long-term implications. Therefore, sometimes going a little slow is the fastest way.
Kaushik Talukdar is the founder and CEO of Athlete Institute. He tweets @CoachKaushik