"You look fit," a person will say to someone skinny. This shows a fundamental confusion about what "fitness" is. "Fitness" is not about being lean, still less is it about good health. The three are different things.
Fitness is the ability to do a task. That's it. This may or may not include having sixpack abs, usually not. Generally it does not include being healthy, since pushing your body to extremes of performance in one area is rarely good for it. Of the two people below, one is fit for weightlifting, the other is fit for running marathons. They are not fit for each-other's tasks. See also here for a visual example of the diversity of physiques fit for various athletic tasks.
|Fit? Yes. Healthy? No. |
Likely: diabetes, joint issues, cardiovascular disease
|Fit? Yes. Healthy? No. |
Likely: joint issues, ammenorrhea, osteoporosis
The Olympics begin today, and as usual the Australia media fall over themselves to fawn on any athletes they think might win medals (they ignore those unlikely to do so, only to grovel when one wins unexpectedly). Part of this expectation that the athletes should earn medals is a vicious attack on anyone who might deny some hysterical commentator the chance to bellow, "GOLD! 'Straya wins GOLD!"
Thus, when the swimmer Leisl Jones showed up looking a bit chubbier than normal, the media went into paroxysms of indignant rage, which when questioned was staunchly defended. "No, we're just talking about her... fitness." No, you're talking about the size of her belly and bum.
|Who cares if she can swim?|
This has been attributed to sexism, and I think there's some truth in that, as the media and general public tend to feel that any prominent woman has some sort of moral duty to be worth having a wank over, or at least not put you off if thoughts of her happen to cross your mind at the relevant moment. No such standards are applied to men, since a man is allowed to be as ugly as a sackful of arseholes provided he's more or less competent at what he's doing, or at least has big wads of cash.
As well, the media and general public often feel some distress and confusion whenever confronted by any female physically stronger than a eight year old with muscular dystrophy, and thus look for any excuse to stick the boot in. So there's definitely sexism involved.
However, the wider issue is confusion between fitness, health and being lean. These are three different things, and if you improve one, you will often take away from one of the others.
|Choose a point somewhere in there|
Again, fitness is the ability to do a task. Health is, as Dan John noted, the optimal interplay of the organs - things are just working right. Being lean is just being lean.
Fitness and health
Any athlete who reaches international level and stays there some time will not be healthy, since pushing your body to those extremes, repeating the same tasks again and again, this is not healthy. Swimmers get shoulder impingements, weightlifters damage their knees, runners damage their knees and ankles, and so on. If you push your body to the limits of human capability - or a bit beyond, with the help of drugs - then you will push it to a level which damages some of the tissues in the body. Thus, top athletes aren't healthy. If they pull back on training to allow their health to recover, their fitness for the task of performing on the field, track or in the pool will diminish.
Leanness and health
Being lean is not an indicator of being healthy, either. "Fitness" models on the day of their shoot are tired and weak, being depleted of glycogen (giving them energy) to help keep water retention low so you can see their sixpack. And of course, starving people are generally pretty lean, as are anorexics. Leukemia patients are usually lean. But nor is being fat an indicator of health. Fatness or leanness is, unless you go to the extreme of one or the other, a separate issue to health. A person can be a bit chubby or a bit lean and still be healthy, or be chubby or lean and very unhealthy.
Fitness and leanness
There are no sports which require a sixpack as part of the scoring, any more than their score on height or shoe size. Generally certain physiques will do better at certain sports, and athletes with particular physiques will gravitate to particular sports, or change their physiques to suit - if they can. There are not many short basketball players, not many tall gymnasts, not many chubby sprinters, and not many lean hammer throwers, not at the top level anyway.
Fitness = performance
Your fitness is measured by your performance. Your ability to do a task is measured by how well you do at that task. Leisel Jones' fitness is measured not by whether she looks good naked, but how she swims. My workplace has a swimming pool, every day I see dozens of women leaner than Jones, none of them are on the Australian women's swimming team - because lean as they are, they are not as fit for the task of swimming as Jones is.
I don't really care about swimming, but it's my sincere hope that Jones will win gold, and then the media will shut the fuck up about the size of her bum. Of course, I still don't expect them to learn the difference between fitness and fatness.
2012.07.30 Addendum: at this stage, Jones is through to the final with the 5th fastest time. The "unfit" woman has at most 4 other women in the world faster than her. All of us wish to be so unfit.
2012.10.27 Addendum: an interesting and familiar-sounding article. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.