What Does It Mean to be Physically Fit?

For the average American, the task of sorting through the vast amount of often conflicting information on physical fitness can be confusing. One year, experts encourage a vigorous workout for everyone, while the next, the body-acceptance movement urges us to love the shape we're in. After checking out photos of rail thin celebrities who look like they subsist on a diet of popcorn and ice cubes, we look down at our own normal-sized thighs and wonder whether physical fitness is an attainable goal for anyone without a home gym and a spa-trained chef.According to the latest research, however, being physically fit no longer means fitting into a certain size pair of pants. Today, physical fitness is defined as the ability to perform daily tasks with vigor, alertness, and with energy to spare for enjoyable activities. It is the fortitude to withstand stress and it plays a major role in the prevention of illness and injury. To the extent that physical fitness is an individual quality, influenced by age, gender, living conditions, and heredity, those who urge us to accept our own physical attributes and abilities without comparing them to others' are correct. Not everyone can or should run a marathon. However, there are a few basic fitness goals that should serve as a wellness cornerstone for anyone concerned about their personal health. The most pressing of these is weight management. According to the office of the U.S. Surgeon General, obesity is, after smoking, the second leading cause of preventable deaths in the nation, with 300,000 fatalities per year. Dramatic new statistics show that unhealthy weight has increased at record levels over the last decade, from 25 percent of the population in 1980 to 34 percent today. Currently, one-third of the adults in the United States are defined as obese. Medical studies have demonstrated that 90 percent of Type II diabetes, 60 percent of coronary disease, 11 percent of breast cancers and 10 percent of colon cancers in the United States are attributable to obesity. The American Health Foundation currently recommends that otherwise healthy adults maintain a body weight of ten to 16 pounds below the acceptable maximum for their height and body frame. Recent research has indicated that even ten extra pounds of body fat can raise some individuals' risk for obesity-related illness. Of course, extreme underweight is also never recommended, as it can lead to a myriad of other health woes. In 1996, the weight loss industry in the United States was a billion dollar enterprise. One out of approximately 16 Americans pays a diet counselor to categorize, weigh and measure every ounce of food that he or she consumes. According to Duke University's world-famous medical weight loss program, however, dieting or staying at a healthy weight shouldn't require elaborate, expensive or confusing routines. Duke physicians say that most Americans simply eat too much of the wrong foods in portions much larger than the rest of the world puts on their collective dinner plate. These scientists do not recommend the popular counting-of-fat-grams approach to eating. Instead, they suggest that Americans adhere to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 1992 "Food Pyramid" in which whole grains and carbohydrates form the backbone of a healthy diet. With these guidelines, fat, calorie and nutrient needs should fall into place with little effort. Exercise plays a key role in weight control by increasing energy output and calling on stored calories for extra fuel. Weight loss studies have now demonstrated that permanent weight stabilization is rarely possible without regular physical activity. Additionally, they have learned that not only does exercise increase metabolism during a workout, but it causes the metabolism to change for a period of time after exercise, allowing for increased food intake. Aerobic exercise is undoubtedly the most effective at burning fat. Shape-Up America, the national fitness organization headed by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, estimates that a medium-sized adult can lose one pound per month by walking a mile each day without increasing the amount he or she eats. Exercise can sometimes actually increase an individual's body weight because muscle weighs more than fat. For this reason, a measurement of fat-to-lean ratio by a physician or other health professional may be a more accurate indicator of this fitness fundamental than the traditional bathroom scale.Cardiorespiratory endurance is the second major component of a fit body. This involves the ability to deliver oxygen and nutrients to tissues, and to remove wastes, over sustained periods of time. Interested persons can measure these abilities in themselves by determining whether their heart rate falls within acceptable levels at rest. The rate should not then rise precipitously when challenged with physical activity. Heart rate is widely accepted as a good method of measuring intensity during aerobic exercise. According to Frank Jabowitz, a Minneapolis based, nationally-known cardiologist, "Every older child and adult should check his own heart rate periodically when exercising. The acceptable ranges of heart rates can be obtained from your personal physician or most health instructors." Activities that don't raise your heart rate to a certain level and keep it there for at least 20 minutes won't contribute significantly to cardiovascular fitness. For that reason, experts recommend at least three 20-minute bouts of non-stop, rhythmic aerobic exercise each week. Popular and effective activities which meet this need include walking, hiking, running, cycling, rowing and some continuous action games like racquetball and handball. Muscular strength and endurance, plus flexibility, top out the list of fitness basics. New research indicates that these items are especially important for women in combating the bone loss that often accompanies their later years. Muscular strength is measured in the ability of a muscle to exert force for a brief period of time. Endurance, on the other hand, comes with the capability of a group of muscles to sustain repeated contractions or to continue applying force against a fixed object. Lastly, flexibility requires that joints and muscles can be moved through their full range of motion. Weight lifting, traditional calisthenics and alternative activities such as yoga are all excellent ways to stay strong and supple. The misconception that physical fitness looks a certain way keeps many people from taking the steps that could lead to wellness. Individuals who stay at their best weight and exercise regularly still may not resemble the sweaty bodies on the workout videos. This can be discouraging to those who are exercising only to be able to wear a certain swimsuit. However, it is now recognized that physical fitness does come in all shapes and sizes. The only common denominator is good health.

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