Oftentimes, in many aspects of life, we start doing something for a specific purpose, and we get so caught up in doing it, we lose sight of why we are doing it in the first place. Fitness is a lot like that.
Many of the exercises that are common in gym culture are sports-specific, or derived from bodybuilding, and this is fine if you are a professional athlete with an expert guiding your training process, but when it comes to health, wellbeing, and the capability to help yourself and others, a skill-oriented training approach that touches on the full-spectrum of human movement skills is more appropriate. Competence in this full-spectrum of human movement capabilities is true fitness, and this includes skills like balancing, climbing, carrying, running, getting up and down from the ground, crawling, jumping, vaulting over low obstacles, and more. Essentially these are all the skills that would be required of us on a daily basis if we were living in our natural environment.
When we look at the conventional approach to fitness, at face value it’s all about aesthetics. People are motivated to become fit for the purpose of looking better and feeling more respected, confident, and desirable. Goals are often framed as “burning fat”, losing weight, “getting ripped” or toned, and “muscular hypertrophy”. Much of the desire to build the body this way is driven by our social situation, and the media’s portrayal of what a “fit” person should look like.
True fitness isn’t about what you look like, it’s about what you’re capable of. When I say “what you are capable of”, I’m not talking about how heavy of a weight you can lift, or how long you can run before collapsing, or how hard you can push yourself at high intensity without throwing up. I’m talking about capability in the context of physical competence. How adaptable are you? and how well can you move your body to navigate your environment? How limited are you as to how you can help those around you? How useful would you be in responding to an emergency and how much would you be able to rely on your ability to move?
Etymologically, the word “fit” means suitability, and the suffix “-ness” describes a state of being. Fitness in the truest sense of the word means “a state of being suitable”. This can be applied to almost anything, but in the broad sense that is implied to our physical state, fitness means to be able to use our bodies however we may need without unreasonable restrictions.
This means being strong enough to lift and carry things, to be able to run and do other movements at high intensity, and the coordination and stability to move the body in a variety of ways. More than cultivating these attributes, fitness is largely about improving the quality and variety of our movement in a way that is useful for daily life, emergency response, and in support of recreational activities that we would like to partake in.
So far in this article we have established the conventional context of fitness being a pursuit of aesthetic presentation for the purpose of creating a more favorable social impression on others around you, then we dug deeper into the meaning of fitness to see the development of attributes like strength, power, endurance, etc… But even this is not deep enough.
The aesthetic approach, and the structure of conventional fitness comes from practices like bodybuilding, which is about developing the aesthetic appearance of the body to develop and showcase certain muscles and physique. The purpose of bodybuilding is showcasing aesthetics, and most machines and gym exercises are based on these goals.
Bodybuilding is a sport, and every top-level athlete makes sacrifices to their health and well-being in order to rise above the competition. Bodybuilding is not meant to build a healthy body, it’s not meant to expand your ability to adapt and respond to the world around you. It’s designed to make your muscles bigger and more defined. Not that there’s anything wrong with that if it is your passion, but if you are not devoted to competing in this sport, and your reason for pursuing fitness is for health and well-being, approaching training in this way will not yield the results you’re looking for.
Developing your physical attributes to increase strength, endurance, agility, power, etc… is a little more functional and can potentially yield results that increase your capacity for movement and adaptability. Conditioning the body in this way is more useful, and it is an approach that is often used to compliment athletes in sports such as Football, track, Olympic weightlifting, and other professional sports. Athletes focus on developing their sport-specific skills, and train to enhance their attributes in order to support a higher level of performance. There is usually a massive specialization with these athletes to focus their skill development on what is relevant for their sport. Without this, they would not be able to compete at a professional level, and there is a trade-off. Again, this approach is not going to yield the best results when your goal is to support your health and well-being.
Professional athletes and the people who train them are aware of these trade-offs, and therapeutic intervention is a vital part of their regimen. When we train as they do, but don’t receive the care that their bodies are given, the costs add up, and our bodies often develop weak links that lead to problems. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to compete as a world class athlete, but if that’s not you, or you’re not willing to pay equal attention to your self-care, then that might not be the best approach.
True fitness comes from pursuing an approach that is in line with our biological needs as human beings. In our natural setting, for most of our time on this planet, human beings have been running, jumping, throwing, carrying, crawling, climbing, lifting, swimming, and getting up and down from the ground hundreds of times per day. In our modern society, for the first time in history, we have recently removed the necessity to perform such movements. We’ve invented chairs, cars, and smart devices that allow us to sit in shallow ranges of motion all day with everything we need to reach for being right in front of us. We are telling our body that we don’t need it anymore, and it should optimize the sedentary positions we put it in all day. These “optimizations” are a far cry from our biological needs and result in poor posture, pain, tension, and uselessness. I use the word uselessness because through our actions, we are electing to become increasingly unsuitable to help ourselves and others.
Human beings should be able to climb a tree, jump over gaps, traverse hip height obstacles, sit and kneel on the ground without struggling, carry another person, balance across a narrow surface, and get up and down from the ground with ease. You get the picture, I’m sure. This kind of capability does not come from sports-specific training, developing attributes, and certainly not from cultivating your aesthetic. It comes from skill-focused training that encompasses the full-spectrum of human movement. With a strong and well-developed equalization of these kinds of skills, our bodies become strong, adaptable, and resilient; capable of helping others and ourselves; and our aesthetic also follows suit to naturally express how we are utilizing our bodies. With this foundation, specializations can then be explored, specific attributes can be further conditioned, and how we interface with our environment opens up in ways we never saw before.
True fitness is about cultivating a state of capability to respond naturally to the world around you in a way that’s biologically relevant to your body. Everyone has unique interests, and training in this way lays a balanced foundation on which you can build whatever you feel drawn toward without being limited by incapability. This leads to faster progress and less compensatory mechanisms trying to support poor movement habits.
MovNat is the world leader in Natural Movement training. It introduced a true paradigm shift in how I think of fitness, as well as my relationship with my body and my environment. It’s a lot of fun, while being technical, and dynamic like a martial art. Starting with a MovNat 1-Day Elements is the best place to start to get a good feel for the full scope of the system and philosophy.
This paradigm shift was an awakening for me, and I am a different person than I was when I first learned about it. Learning to move more efficiently has cleaned up a lot of problems that resulted from poor alignment and general tension from stress in daily life. In my professional manual therapy practice, I have observed much more potent results from those who are willing to cultivate their Natural Movement skills, and reprogram old habitual patterns in the way they use their bodies. My vision is to share this shift I experienced with others.