‘I wouldn’t be fit for that, now’. It’s a statement that physiotherapists hear all the time from people of all ages and all walks of life. Some folks say it when you ask them to touch their toes, some when talking about reaching for a cup on a high shelf and others when discussing running a marathon. It seems nobody is ever as fit as they’d like to be. But what is fitness? Fitness is defined in two ways. Firstly, as the condition of being fit and healthy, and secondly, as the quality of being suitable to fulfil a particular role or task. Most of us concentrate on the first definition, being physically fit and healthy (although they are not always the same thing), but ignore the second, more specific part. Typically, fitness is considered from a cardiovascular perspective, in simple terms being able to puff and pant for a decent length of time without collapsing. Whilst such an interpretation is accurate, it is pretty simplistic. In sporting terms, how often have we heard of teams being said to struggle because they are ‘not fit enough’? And by way of improving that, we hear of coaches putting teams through all manner of horrendously punishing sessions. But just running a player into the ground will not necessarily make him a better footballer. Let’s consider then, the second part of that definition; the quality of being suitable to fulfil a particular role or task. This definition can be used in almost any context, whether it be sporting or occupational, physical or mental. A footballer who is physically fit enough to run all day, but can’t kick to save his life is not truly fit to play at a high level. Just as the person who can’t bear the sight of blood doesn’t have the right occupational fitness to work as a doctor or nurse in Accident and Emergency. For the average person then, the one who ‘wouldn’t be fit for that, now’, what should they focus on to improve their fitness? Obviously that all depends on what it is they wish to be fit for. World Health Organisation (WHO) Guidelines state that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity and strength training for major muscle groups at least twice per week. There’s a pretty good starting point then.
It should be noted that those same guidelines also suggest that further benefits could be got from doubling the aerobic activity levels. In other words, whatever you are currently doing, you probably could do a bit more. Strength training wasn’t always included in those guidelines, but research shows huge benefits for all population groups. The risk of osteoporosis and falls can be reduced by strength training for the elderly, and not just basic resistance band exercise either, we’re talking proper weightlifting. It seems one of the benefits of strength training is improved balance. This is most likely because you are getting used to putting different loads in different positions relative to your body, creating perturbatory forces that you gradually get used to, making routine daily forces seem easy. Interestingly, there is no mention of working on flexibility in the WHO guidelines, despite many people equating being able to touch one’s toes with fitness. Flexibility, or mobility, are more closely linked to the second definition of fitness than the first. In order to perform a certain task, you need to be able to move the right amount in the right direction, but you also need to have adequate strength in those ranges of movement. Plenty of people who can place their palms flat on the floor still get back pain, and plenty of elite sportspeople can barely reach their shins. That said, incorporating such exercises as yoga, Pilates or tai-chi into your routine can help to improve both mobility and strength through those ranges of movement. Which brings us nicely to the last portion of our opening statement: now. If you wouldn’t be fit for that, ‘now’, why not work on something that will make you fit for that ‘soon’? Perhaps by starting now.
Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.
This post first appeared in the Mayo News