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One Small Change

It’s Time to Redefine Fitness

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If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’m in an exercise quandary. I work out for at least an hour daily but for the rest of the time, because I’m a writer, I’m as sedentary as the late John Updike. In fact, the pedometer I’m wearing as part of this month’s One Small Change experiment confirms this on a daily basis. After talking with fitness experts, it’s become obvious that I need to stop thinking of exercise as something to squeeze into my day and instead start making my entire day one big workout. But how does an exercise Jekyll and Hyde such as I (and maybe you?) go about doing that? Here’s the three-step plan:

1. Level your thinking.

Russell Pate, Ph.D., is a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina and the author of a thought-provoking paper entitled “The Evolving Definition of Sedentary,” which I blogged about earlier. He suggests viewing physical activity on two levels.

“The first level is the broader one,” he explains. “It’s the composite of all the movement you do during the day. If we look across the months and years of a person’s life, it’s this cumulative physical activity/energy expenditure that predicts many health outcomes. The second level is beneath this broad umbrella. It consists of the many individual things you can do for specific health and fitness outcomes.” For example, if you’re a woman with a family history of osteoporosis, then weight-bearing, bone-loading activity is important. Or if you have a part-time job as a soccer ref, then cardio conditioning is necessary. There are countless relationships like these, and it’s up to us to prioritize them for our individual needs.

Overall, Pate is suggesting a more holistic approach to physical activity. He's reminding us that being active in life is really our ultimate goal (that’s level one), but there's still plenty of room to train for performance in whatever facet of it we choose (level two).

2. Measure in order to manage.

The challenge with achieving broader, first-level fitness is that it’s difficult to know where we stand. Ask a few people how active they are throughout the day, and they’ll give themselves a vast benefit of the doubt. I did. So it can’t be left to individual perception. Rather, we need some way of quantifying it. To paraphrase management consultant Peter Drucker: “It has to be measured before it can be managed.” And that’s where the pedometer comes in.

Frankly, I don’t know how I got this far in life without ever using one of these things. I guess it’s because I assumed they were designed for blue hairs in Boca and held no benefit for real athletes. But, believe me, I’m becoming convinced that they’re nearly as indispensable as a hard cup.

Do me a favor. If you’ve never used a pedometer, either borrow your Nana’s or buy one. (They’re cheap.) Then see how active you are outside of the gym—how robust your first-level fitness is. Like me, you may be surprised (and embarrassed).

“A pedometer does two things,” says Paul Robbins, a metabolic specialist for Athletes’ Performance. “It makes you aware, and it makes you accountable.”

3. Define what fitness means for you.

This is the challenge of level-two fitness. As trainer Alwyn Cosgrove points out, you don’t have to bench-press your body weight or run a 5-minute mile to be considered fit. If the demands of your life do not require you to be that strong or that fast, then why waste time, energy and money trying to achieve it? Although we’re taught otherwise, fitness is as individual as our DNA; we just never think of it that way. So step back, consider your life and your goals, then settle on what you need to do to be comfortably functional. To show you how it’s done, here’s what I’ve decided on:

  • I want to protect my heart: My father died of a heart attack at age 62, and heart disease is rampant in my family. So if I’m to live long I need to do lots of cardio to keep my ticker strong. (Plus, I enjoy good food, and aerobic training is still the best way for me to burn calories.)
  • I want to stay limber: The older I get the more I realize that a major part of aging gracefully is just maintaining flexibility. Most seniors don’t shuffle and hunch due to disease, but rather because of the Vise-Grips effect of contracting tissue. That’s why I’ve recently gotten serious about yoga. It stretches that connective tissue at the same time it strengthens muscle. Staying limber also means leaving behind some of the activities I once enjoyed, such as distance running. Cycling, swimming and walking are far less abusive.
  • I want to keep my mind nimble: If I’m to continue making a living as a writer I have to stay creative and insightful. I’m convinced that Variety, Change and Learning are the holy trinity of brain function. So I play golf, baseball, basketball, and lots of other fun stuff. Any sport that’s new to me, is social, and requires quick thinking I consider worthwhile. It works my muscles and my mind in fresh ways.

These three things define fitness for me. If I work diligently at each one, they’ll keep me functional for my job, my life, and even the occasional touch-football game. Notice that there’s no “break 90 minutes for a half marathon” or “ride a sub-6-hour century” on that list, because that’s traditional thinking. Although there’s nothing wrong with having goals like those, keep in mind that they are largely other people’s goals. Unless they’re helping you achieve what you need, they're probably not worth the effort.

So there’s your homework for this week. Take these three small steps and see where they lead. In many ways, it’s a whole new exercise paradigm.

“When we first started researching exercise some 30 years ago, the focus was on vigorous activity,” says Pate. “Then we came down the continuum a bit and looked at moderate activity. Now we’re dropping down even more and examining light activity and it’s potential health benefits…We should probably no longer assume that being sedentary and being active are the inverse of one another.”

How do you define fitness for yourself? Leave your answer in the comments section below.

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About The Author

Joe Kita – Joe Kita is a noted writer, editor, motivational speaker and teacher. He authors the blog "One Small Change" for CorePerformance.com.

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Tags: Gear, Longevity, Health