What is fitness and how do we get there? Ask one hundred people what they believe fitness is, and you’ll probably get a hundred different answers. Some will say it’s the ability to run a 5K. Others might say it’s the ability to pick up a heavy weight off the floor. Still others might suggest it’s having the ability to energetically dance to bad ’80s music while wearing tights (hopefully a very small minority). Regardless of people’s answers, not a lot of people can clearly define it. So, what is fitness?
What is Fitness?
Up until the last decade, fitness never was clearly defined, and it’s impossible to work toward the goal of fitness if we don’t know what it is.
Here’s what I believe is the best definition of what is fitness:
It’s the ability to do work across broad time and movement domains.
Work is defined by the ability to apply a force on an object for a specific distance. The force might be your own body weight, a barbell, a kettlebell, a dumbbell, or maybe even a wheelbarrow. Multiply that force by the distance traveled, and now you have work. Your ability to perform this work in the shortest amount of time possible (intensity) and utilizing a number of different movements is what fitness truly is.
While the number of possible movements to incorporate into your fitness routine is infinite, it might include the following:
- monostructural movements: running, swimming, jumping rope, rowing, or biking
- weight lifting movements: squatting, Olympic lifting, kettlebells, or dumbbells
- gymnastic movements: pull-ups, pushups, sit-ups, handstands
Well-rounded fitness should not only give you better cardiovascular endurance, but it should also help to improve stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.
And as a result of well-rounded fitness, you should be able to achieve better hormone function, stronger muscles, more muscle mass, less fat, improved sleep and energy, better mobility, and a stronger mental framework (arguably, the most important).
The Best (and Worst) Way to Exercise to Achieve Fitness
The first thing people think when they have the desire to get into better shape is that they have to spend hours and hours in the fat-burning zone on the treadmill (or “dreadmill,” as I call it), elliptical, or stair-climber in order to lose weight. We call that steady-state exercise. While doing this form of exercise has its benefits, there are some major drawbacks.
Perhaps the biggest drawback when doing steady-state exercise is that it raises a stress hormone called cortisol (remember this hormone). While it’s a great hormone in an acute crisis, chronically elevated cortisol can have devastating effects on the body over time. Chronically elevated cortisol will stimulate your appetite, cause muscle wasting, increase fat storage, diminish the immune system, and decrease testosterone and human-growth hormone (hormones responsible for fat burning and muscle building).
Even with all the negatives already mentioned, one additional drawback perks up a lot of people’s ears: Chronically elevated cortisol causes the deposition of cellulite. (1)
The big question, then, becomes this: How can we get all the amazing benefits of exercise without any of the drawbacks?
The answer is high-intensity, short-duration, functional exercise.
The Case for High-Intensity, Short-Duration, Functional Exercise for Fat Loss
While most people consider how many calories they burn as the benchmark for effective exercise and fat loss, it’s simply not the case. What matters most is the muscle-building and fat-burning hormone response after you exercise. Known as human growth hormone, this hormone is influenced by the intensity with which you exercise. With steady-state exercise, you’ll be in the fat-burning zone for minutes. With high-intensity, short-duration, functional exercise, you’ll train your body to be in the fat-burning zone for hours after you’re done with your workout.
Research over the last twenty years is finally uncovering what’s been true since the dawn of man: In the realm of fitness, high intensity is best.
- High-intensity exercise achieved superior fat loss, compared to moderate steady-state exercise. (2)
- There is a greater increase in fat expenditure after high-intensity exercise due to the release of human-growth hormone. (3)
- There was a significant loss in body fat in a group that exercised at a high intensity of 80–90 percent of maximal heart rate, while no significant change in body fat was found in the lower-intensity group that exercised at 60–70 percent of maximal heart rate, despite performing the same amount of work. (4)
- High-intensity exercise is superior for reversing the symptoms of metabolic syndrome, also known as prediabetes. (5)
The bottom line: When it comes to exercise, what matters most is the amount of work you perform in the shortest amount of time. This equals intensity, and intensity equals results!
Functional Exercise: Exercise That Makes You Better at Life
Exercise should not only be about fat loss. Exercise should help you become better at everyday life. If you took an inventory of the activities of your day, you’d notice that you need to perform a multitude of movements well. You need to be able to get up off of a chair, pick up groceries, play with your kids or grandkids, push a lawnmower, bend over in a garden, or swing a golf club.
The following are some movements that you need to be able to do to stay functional and move well throughout your entire life, not only to avoid the nursing home but to excel at life in general:
- squats and all their variations
- dead lifts
- overhead presses
- kettlebell swings
- pull-ups and rope climbs
- jumping activities, like jumping rope or box jumps
- running, swimming, and rowing
- core work: sit-ups, planks, and arch holds
While not an exhaustive list, if you practiced and mastered just these movements, then mixed these elements three to six times per week in as many combinations as your creativity will allow, and then combined them into a short, intense workout lasting anywhere from three to fifteen minutes, you’d be well on your way to achieving the absolute best fitness of your life.
What’s the Best Time to Exercise and What Should I Eat Afterward?
Your first priority should be to exercise whenever you can get it done. From a fat-loss perspective, however, the best time to exercise is in the morning on an empty stomach. You will be in a fasting state; your human growth hormone will be at its highest, and your insulin level will be at its lowest. This will make you primed and ready for fat burning and muscle building immediately after you are done working out.
At the conclusion of your workout, you’ll want to keep your human growth hormone as high as possible for as long as possible, if fat loss is your goal. One way to stop the fat-burning process is to consume sugars and grains immediately after exercise. Therefore, avoid any sugar, grains, and fruit for at least two hours in order to let your hormones continue to work for you and not against you. I often consume protein and healthy fats to give my body the building blocks to repair and recover.
What’s Fitness and How Do We Get it?
Fitness isn’t what most people think of when you ask what’s fitness. It’s not the marathon runners and heavy weight lifters. There is more to the story. Fitness is getting your body to optimal function and working to keep it that way. Even those who we think of as being fit can be very sick on the inside.
Just because you can make it to the finish line or dance to the 80’s doesn’t mean you are fit. In addition to quality exercise, it’s important to get your body tested thoroughly and get regular chiropractic adjustments to support your body’s best function. I know some awesome doctors. Find out where your cortisol and other hormone levels are at. With well-rounded fitness, you should be able to achieve better hormone function, stronger muscles, more muscle mass, less fat, improved sleep and energy, better mobility, and a stronger mental framework. Doesn’t fitness sound like a good place to be? We have to drop the ideas we have on fitness, so we look at the function of exercise to achieve the best version of ourselves. Now that you know what it is and how to achieve it- go get it!
Check out these exercise tips in the Quick Tip with Dr. Greg:
- Journal of European Academy of Dermatology (July 2000)
- Zhang et al., “Effect of High-Intensity Interval Training Protocol,” Kinesiology 47, no. 1 (2015): 57–66.
- Pritzlaff, Wideman, et al., “Catecholamine release, growth hormone secretion, and energy expenditure during exercise versus recovery in men,” J Appl Physiol 89, no. 3 (September 2000): 937–46.
- R. W. Bryner, R. C. Tome, I. H. Ullrish, and R. A. Yeater, “The effects of exercise intensity on body composition, weight loss, and dietary composition in women,” J. Am. Col. Nutrition.
- Dr. Arnt Erik Tjønna, Circulation (July 7, 2008).