Redefining Fitness

Redefining Fitness

Ditch the scale, ditch the measuring tape, and focus on something real. Fitness is not about taking a perfect mirror selfie; it is a set of physical capabilities.

People so frequently talk about fitness – and the process of attaining it – and yet definitions of that term vary widely. I often hear people talking about “getting fit” and reducing their caloric intake in the same sentence. People often talk about their appearance and their “fitness” in the same sentence. The list goes on. So this begs the question…

What does fitness mean to you?

I describe it as a diversity of well-honed physical capabilities. As in, I am fit when I can run, swim, climb, hike, backpack, lift, and do various other activities with relative ease and competency. Gaining fitness, to me, is a process of becoming more physically capable.

A corrected fitspiration image. I can certainly attest to the fact that, yes, there are bad workouts. When I was a young athlete, I sometimes pushed myself too much and paid for it. I am much wiser and more cautious and methodical now, and I taught my athletes accordingly as a coach.
A corrected fitspiration image. I can certainly attest to the fact that, yes, there are bad workouts. When I was a young athlete, I sometimes pushed myself too much and paid for it.
See what I mean? This was one of the first images I came across with a Google image search for fitspiration. Ew.
See what I mean? Ew. This was one of the first images I came across with a Google image search for fitspiration. Sounds like a thinly-veiled exhortation to develop an eating disorder.

This may sound straightforward, but it took me a long time to arrive at such clearly-defined terms.

Our society has such strange attitudes about body image, fitness, weight, and more. This is an especially fraught issue for women, and women athletes. I invite you to read about female athlete triad and to think about all the damaging “fitspiration” bullshit that circulates around the fitness world. It’s hard not to get sucked in.

Fortunately, sports have been (mostly) a positive force in my own life. From an early age, athletic endeavors encouraged me to look beyond my appearance and to take pride in my abilities. In particular, I have always prided myself on being physically strong, a trait that my awesome dad has encouraged me in. He taught me how to lift weights safely and healthily, in our little basement workout room. We still sometimes do push-ups together and arm wrestle. He has always complimented me on my strength, and has always meant it.

I have always felt proud, too, of my body’s ability to put on muscle. When I’m strong, I look it and feel like it. I also have jokingly said many times that I am dense – physically, that is. That of course is because muscle weighs more than fat.

Even when I have looked thin, I have not weighed as little as some of my friends who wore the same sized clothes. I was often told by doctors that my BMI was too high, including when I was running track in college (pictured). But many times when my BMI said I was borderline overweight, I was strong, I felt good, and I don’t think I could have lost any more weight without causing myself harm. Professional athletes often face this problem as well. I have learned, slowly but surely, not to worry about the number on the scale for these reasons.

But all of this is easier said than done.

Fitness?
A photo of me competing in college. I may look thin and “fit” here, but I was severely anemic and battling other medical issues. © Naomi Denekas

Although I have always been proud of my strength, and although I (slowly) learned that BMI was a stupid and incomplete method of measuring health, I also have always worried about my weight. More accurately, I have always worried about my APPEARANCE, i.e. looking thin enough. Our society all too frequently correlates the two. I just caught MYSELF correlating the two. It’s hard not to in our society. It’s also hard not to worry about these superficial things in our society, especially as a woman.

And when I look back on my old track and cross country photos, I lament that I was so concerned.

For one, I looked fine. More importantly, worrying about my appearance was such a waste of time and energy – non-renewable resources that would have been better spent enjoying meets with my teammates instead of worrying about how I looked in my uniform. And MOST importantly, my health is much better now than it was when I was in college. At the time the above photo of me running track was taken, I was struggling with undiagnosed endocrine issues, I was severely anemic, and I was developing allergy-induced asthma. I may have looked thin and “healthy,” but my health was taking a nose dive, albeit a hidden one.

The irony is that my weight is much higher now, but other numbers indicate that I am much healthier. My iron levels, thyroid levels, blood pressure, and everything else are well within the normal range now. What’s more, I am not suffering bizarre symptoms these days. It’s pretty cool to not get exercise-induced migraines every time I try to run, I have to say! I’ve also healed from multiple severe injuries, including a concussion from a thirty-foot fall and a torn ACL, both of which I successfully rehabbed. I’d say that’s a success story in and of itself, and yet there is no good “before and after” picture that can capture those changes. Oh well. *insert sarcastic sigh*

The most important thing is that I feel grateful for how far I’ve come.

Baker Beach Friends
A much more beautiful photo: My friends and me while I trekked the Oregon Coast Trail in spring 2017. I am proud of my determination and strength, and thankful for my good health and the meaningful relationships in my life. Better things to focus on, right? © Joe Dudman

However, I will readily admit that I have felt frustration about my weight/size/shape in the past few years. My self-image took a hit when I first began gaining the weight (during my concussion and exercise-induced migraine days), but my concerns have been tempered by ongoing personal reflection. Chiefly, I know that I want my life to be about more than my looks, and I have worked hard to make it so. Dumping a superficial ex, surrounding myself with supportive people, and dating someone who actually likes how I look have all helped me to build a more meaningful life. Additionally, my experience coaching athletes – and thus being privy to a lot of other folks’ body image issues – has prompted me, time and again, to question my definitions of fitness and to ensure that what I am saying and modeling is healthy and helpful to those around me.

Indeed, it is important to remember that body image issues can be contagious. Correlating your own fitness and appearance can negatively influence others. If redefining “fitness” for your own well-being is not a compelling enough reason, perhaps the impact it has on others will be a stronger incentive. I know that has been the case for me, as a coach and as a friend.

Fitness?
I know what you’re thinking: She’s hot, right? I’m thinking: I can probably knock her down easily. WordPress Stock Photo.

It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve gotten even stronger in the past few years. In fact, I believe that my increased strength is partly related to my increased mass. I have more “oomph” behind my lifts now. When I’ve attended self-defense classes and dabbled in kickboxing, I’ve found myself capable of moving even a really heavy punching bag, and easily knocking over an opponent.  That makes me feel powerful and proud.

I am not saying that I’m complacent; I want to regain my running fitness. I would ideally like to shed some of the weight that I have gained. BUT I am content for now. I am not sweating those details, especially because I feel fit in some ways that I am very proud of. I also am well aware that my worth is dictated by far more than the number on the scale or the size of my pants.

Bottom line: I want to remind you all to consider deeply what you define as “fitness,” why, and whether it’s really serving you – and others.

I think it is vital for us to remember what we were always taught in grade school: That one’s appearance doesn’t matter as much as what is inside. That may sound corny, but when you truly value your abilities more than your appearance, to paraphrase the late, great John Wooden, you don’t become corny. You become a better, stronger person.

Cultivate strength, of body and character. That’s what matters.

Need some daily inspiration to redirect your focus from how you look to what you’re capable of? Check out my Facebook page Cut the BS – Athletes Against Body Shaming!

Check out more Reflections and Moments!

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