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Fitness vs Health: A Distinction That Can Save You

What is the difference between fitness and health? Aren’t they the same thing?

No, no they aren’t. Understanding the difference can make a big difference when you start planning how to get in shape and lose weight.

Today’s distinction was first taught to me in the book, In Fitness and Health by Dr. Phillip Maffetone.

When we start to think about getting healthy, we naturally think about getting into shape. Hitting the gym or starting to run again. But those things are about getting fit, not being healthy.

Matter of fact if you aren’t healthy, getting fit can be dangerous.

That is why it is so important to understand the difference between fitness and health.

Health is characterized by a lack of disease and the proper functioning of all the systems of your body.

Fitness is characterized by the ability to do physical work.

You may be one of the people who’s profession benefits from physical strength. Maybe you are a solider for whom physical ability may be the difference between life and death. Between victory and defeat.

Or a cop, firefighter, or medic, where it will make a big difference in your or someone else’s survival.

In our modern era, the word ‘work’ is not associated with physical activity in our jobs. Physical fitness is now mostly about what is required to excel in athletic pursuits.

Even before I knew this distinction, I had an object lesson as a child. As a child to John Baker Elementary school in Albuquerque New Mexico.

This school had recently been renamed after a former teacher there. John Baker was a long-distance runner who tragically died of cancer.

This was my first introduction to the idea that you could be fit, as a long-distance runner, and not be healthy.

Does it work the other way too? Can you be healthy and not fit?


Matter of fact most young people fall into this category. They are healthy, but left to their own devices, don’t really do anything. They pursue the minimum amount of sport their schooling requires, but because they are young and healthy they are OK.

I mentioned earlier that we don’t do much actual physical labor nowadays. So why is there a gym on every corner and everyone talking about how they are working out or should be working out?

In most cases the reason everyone wants to be fit is aesthetics. Fit people are naturally prettier. Or at least all the attributes we naturally attribute to attractiveness are marketed as the natural outcome of fitness.


A smaller set of measurements.

A shape that looks good in a swimsuit.

But if you hang around people who are professionally pretty, like I used to when I was a photographer of models, you discover a lot of time those attributes just come naturally.

I remember one photo shoot in a Nevada desert where I was shooting two young models in bikini tops and shorts. I’d just taken a remarkable picture of one of the model’s midriff and shown it to her.

She turned to the other and said, “Wow. Imagine what we’d look like if we worked out and stuff.”

This brings up a related distinction that a lot of the fitness industry is lying to you about.

You don’t lose weight in the gym.

Really. Matter of fact, if you are doing it right, you gain weight in the gym.

Only in the most extreme cases like Olympic swimmer, Mark Phelps, do you burn enough calories to off-set what you can easily eat.

To quote Tim Ferris,

“You lose weight in the kitchen. You gain muscle in the gym.”

So why should you go to the gym and build that muscle?

Well, you can do it to look better.

There is nothing wrong with aesthetics.

The world is a better place when it is filled with beautiful things, and you should be one.

Secondly you can build muscle to excel in a sport that gives you joy. Sports and athletics have all kinds of positive impacts on our well being. So go to the gym so you can hit better at that softball game.

Lastly should go to the gym to contribute to your health in one of the ways it can actually have an impact.

Injury prevention.

A proper, balanced fitness program will make you stronger, more flexible, and less prone to injury.

How many of you, like me, reached a certain age and suddenly started throwing your back out, or hurting your knees, doing simple things like leaning over or picking up a package off the porch?

That is a result of being so unfit, you were vulnerable to injury.

Alright now that I’ve discussed how and why you should get fit. What about health?

There are lots of things in health you have no control over. You could have conditions passed down genetically there is nothing you can do about. Being exposed to disease isn’t something you can change.

But for most health-related problems you do have control over, it comes down to what you put in your mouth.

Inhaling or chewing tobacco everyone understands is horrible for your health. Stop doing it.

In Medicine – the science dedicated to improving health – there is the concept of dose. Lots and lots of substances are harmful in too large a dose, and helpful in the proper ones.

Most drugs are a matter of dose. Belladonna is a deadly poison, but in the right dose is a valuable anesthetic. Even substances you absolutely require like oxygen and water will damage your health if overdosed.

Substances like alcohol and refined sugar are a matter of dose. A little may relax you or make a pie sweet. Too much and you will slowly destroy your life and your health. So watch the dose of things that go in your mouth.

Question of the Day: How do you want to change your health or your fitness?

Leave your answer in the comments below.

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