Health vs. Fitness: Are They The Same Thing?

Health and fitness are words that become interchangeable in our industry, but they actually aren’t the same thing at all. These two words are most often used incorrectly and can get lost in industry jargon.

So what’s the difference? In order to answer this question effectively I would like to introduce the term the “biopyschosoical model,” fist before we get into defining them.  This model takes into account the spheres of one’s overall well-being.  Notice I did not say “health” or “fitness,” here either, I said “well-being.”

The Biopsychosoical Model:

Tis model is best understood in terms of a combination of biological, psychological, and social contextual factors rather than purely in biological terms of the human structure (our physical body).  Many clients come to us because they want to “feel better,” “get fitter,” “be less stressed.” Yet, most often this in related to the physical body only, and as we know the physical structure of a human is merely one proponent of someone’s “well-being.”  When we use the words like health and fitness  we need to identify the pre-requisites. After that address the systematic activities that need to be established to prevent or rehabilitate health problems that allow for greater fitness gains and ultimately promote optimal well-being.

untitled (10)Take pain for example, or movement dysfunction This model is used most often in the clinical practice, but as a Movement Coach is a very critical piece of analysis we can use as a reminder that health and fitness are not the same.

What’s the Difference?

Let me ask you this?  If there is pain, does this mean a person needs better health or better fitness? Do they just need to move more? Have we identified what kind of stressors  they exposed to at their work, lifestyle etc ? What’s their nutrition like, do they fuel their body for proper health or proper fitness?

Let’s outline a simple framework for not only defining these separately, but let’s breakdown an easy operating system towards acceptable transition from health to fitness.

What is health? Health can be considered the level of functional or metabolic efficiency of a living organism. Therefore, in humans, it is the general condition of a person’s mind and body, usually meaning to be free from illness, injury or pain.

What is fitness? Fitness is a general state of health and well-being or specifically the ability to perform aspects of sports or occupations. Physical fitness is generally achieved through correct nutrition, exercise, hygiene and rest.

Can you see the difference?

I want to bring your attention to the phrase ‘free of pain.” If a person has pain, their health is at risk. Not just physically, but biochemically, neurologically and psychologically.. Pain changes movement. Pain changes our chemical reactions and it changes breathing ; which can lead to dysfunction, limiting their ability to perform fitness related tasks. 50% of patients with chronic pain will increase their chances by 50% towards having a mental health problem; like depression, anxiety or sleep related disorders.

Why? because pain changes and affects your health. If there is pain, then improved health is first and foremost. Fitness cannot even be considered until the pain is at a manageable level where the client can feel confident in movement.

How to Screen Health vs Fitness:

Every person on our planet, no matter how athletic you are, or how many organic fruits or veggies you consume or super foods you add to your recovery shakes – when we look under the hood we can always find asymmetries or dysfunction – and this can cause pain. We all have them at some point in our lives, your coaches, your health practitioners – all of us, because we are all human and because our external environment is in constant state of flux  and when our external environment changes, so does out internal environment.

The goal is minimizing risk  and pain is by addressing movement dysfunction early on and ensuring early intervention with injury.  Look closely and you will often find that a tight muscle is limiting a movement pattern where motor control or stability is poor and vice versa, too much mobility can cause inhibition of tissue and instability of the joint.  Look at your profession; every profession has its physical and biopyschosocial risks that has the potential to lead to injury. Pain not only changes movement, it changes your bio chemical reactions, secretions and operating systems of your organs. Most affected by this is your breathing and cardiovascular health – dysfunctional movement = dysfunctional breathing patterns. This increases anxiety in the body; which in turn creates tonic, tense tissue!

Prevention is key and what you choose to do should make it move better, and that’s dependent on the tools in your coach’s toolbox. The FMS Movement Systems is one of those tools, along with the SFMA (selective functional movement assessment). Both are baselines for  health (the SFMA – when there is pain) and fitness (the FMS – movement and transition to performance).The SFMA protocol and top tier breakouts are a guideline from which you can see from the figure 1 that help to triage the impairment so you can know the direction to take the client’s health. This is for the clinician, not the coach. So if you are a coach, having someone to refer to with SFMA experience is key. Now, this is not the only assessment out there, but it is one of few that use language that is easy for any coach or client to understand. Using a language that is common to all, allows for greater intra-disciplinary support – working together as a team.

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Your Gateway to Fitness:

The FMS Systems is merely one tool in your toolbox towards screening a client for health concerns and or fitness readiness. Apart from the FMS and proponents of musculoskeletal testing, I also use a postural poise screen and certain strength benchmarks once a client has been cleared from pain..

If you flunk a movement screen due to pain or movement-pattern incompetency, the best coaching in the world most likely will not help much. As a coach, my job is to correct mechanics, improve movement and empower clients to live an optimal lifestyle. Even with a major movement restriction, compensation or limitation, we can always find positions where you can still encourage movement competency and increased load, but there must be pre requisites for applying load. These pre requisites start with mobility, then stability and then strength. The reality is we want a moving, dynamic evolving and adaptable human being, not someone who knows how to program a treadmill well.

When you pass a movement screen, you can undergo further load-focused testing and you are now ready to look at corrective strategies and transitional training.  Thus you can now move into fitness. Test and retest for much-needed bio feedback on how to improve performance and skill sets.

This is why the patterns of the FMS movement screen, the SFMA and the corrective models are so important. As Gray Cook says “acceptable movement patterns under appropriate loads usually improve, but we must first agree on situational definitions of acceptable and appropriate.” Much like agreeing upon acceptable definitions of health vs fitness. Understanding the vast difference can help you, as a coach systemically change your client’s life – not just physically, but improving their own biopyschosocial approach.

About the Author: Sarah Jamieson

Sarah Jamieson has written 155 posts on this site.

Sarah is the owner and head movement coach at Moveolution; a Vancouver based consulting company focused on the integration of movement and recovery science. Bridging the gaps between the clinical and performance fields Sarah’s passion stems from lifelong passion of Yoga, Jujitsu, and Qi Gong; which she integrates into her coaching practice. She is a full time social change maker, a ‘run-a-muker’ of everything outdoors and repeatedly engages in random acts of compassion.

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