By SYU student Spencer Viernes
Some time ago, I wrote a blog post on why I think yoga, and specifically the Scholé style of yoga, is beneficial and attractive to athletes. If you are so inclined you can read that post here. In this post, I’ll attempt to address another discussion that seems ever-present in the fitness and healthy living world. I’m talking about being fit versus being strong. As I mentioned in my previous post, I won’t claim to be any credentialed authority, or that I have material statistical knowledge to prove my claims. My words are the product of personal experience and should be viewed as my anecdotal history.
You may now be wondering why you should continue reading this post (just as I’m wondering why I’m writing it to be scrutinized, and potentially ridiculed, by the population at large). Well, I do think I fall within the greater portion of the population that would like to be fit but that is not on the one side of the spectrum that includes professional athletes and Olympians nor on the other side that is chronically ill, unable or unwilling to consider fitness. So, I pretty much think I’m like the average human, and I'm not sure if it’s good or bad that I would classify myself this way.
I am now approaching mid-life, or at least I hope it’s mid-life. As I near the big 40, I have to acknowledge that my body is not the same as it was when I was 25. When I was 25, a sprained ankle took a couple weeks to get back on the field. Now, it could take a month or much longer. I don’t heal the same way, in the same time, or with the same level of recovery. Injuries can linger much more so than they ever did when I was younger.
My fitness and strength habits (yes, habits) are also very different. You’ll notice I didn’t say goals. Some may disagree with me here, but I don’t shoot for any personal records, or goals, at my age. Not saying there is anything wrong with it (though, you may see the potential for contradiction below), but I don’t know that I need to lift any weight for any number of repetitions anymore to feel that I am achieving success. These days I spend more time thinking about what is going to help me address functional movement than I do wondering how big my biceps will be.
And that leads me to my main assertion here, I think fitness and strength are different, but not completely. If that sounds confusing, then I got my words just right. It should be a little confusing. I define strength as muscular power to move mass. I define fitness as threshold capability to perform some action or number of actions. You may have noticed that my definition of fitness doesn’t preclude strength. In fact, my definition of fitness requires strength as a necessary component.
Fitness absolutely requires strength. As a matter of course, our muscles demonstrate strength by moving our skeleton in different directions. However, I believe fitness incorporates more than just strength. As I say this I should clarify that I believe fitness may be achieved in levels that require behaviors that may diverge from a path leading to acquisition of strength goals. I’ll give a story from my past to illustrate my point. When I was in my late twenties, I was pushing hard to achieve some strength goals I had set for myself. For reference, I will mention that my playing weight (soccer) was about 165 pounds. The goal was to lift 225 pounds on the chest press/bench press for 12 reps. During the soccer season, it seemed impossible that I would achieve my goal. Following the conclusion of the playing season, a couple months after actually, I finally got my goal. I was pretty stoked. Not surprisingly though, I was spending so much time lifting that my ability to move as I ran and my general range of motion was suffering. For me, this illustrates my achievement of strength targets at the detriment of my overall fitness level.
In contrast, I no longer maintain strength targets, but I do try to be mindful of my body’s needs for functional movement, strength, cardiovascular capability and range of motion. When I was lifting 225 pounds I had a growing chest and arms. Those are great, but now I can play with my kids and get outside to do myriad things that I couldn’t do when I was focusing specifically on muscular strength. I am not trying to discount any benefit from increasing strength. I think it surely has its place. Nevertheless, I think optimal fitness in any individual – which, if I can further define what I believe it is, means having the optimal balance of strength, range of motion and functional movement and cardiovascular capability to engage in the most diverse set of physical activity – allows one to engage the body successfully much like we could before the burdens of life took their toll.
Try and think back to your childhood. I remember being able to walk on my hands easily, climb trees and run for miles. My body was taxed at the end of each day because I was out doing so many things. I didn’t have back pain or any issue hanging upside down and then flipping back up. I could go on a hike with ease, and I was flexible enough that all the weird falls I took in being adventurous didn’t leave me with lasting injury (not that I walked away from all of them). And this is merely the physical component.
The aspect I haven’t yet discussed, and which might be even more important, is that optimal fitness requires us to train our minds as well. If I consider the activities I’ve just mentioned above I love how there is so much positive mental nourishment to be had. If you are worried about the foo foo image of yoga practitioners and think this is headed in that direction, please feel free to ignore me from here on out. I think Yoga, and it doesn’t have to be this way for everyone, has reinforced that optimal fitness – and by extension optimal performance capability – requires devotion to the mental components of ourselves just as much as we focus on the physical. I don’t often climb trees anymore (maybe sometimes), but I love to get up into the mountains, I love to rock climb, I love to play in the surf and I generally believe that play and laughter are the fountain of youth. Mindfulness, both physically focused and mentally engaged provide a well-rounded foundation for so much more than our bodies, but our bodies are certainly a great place to start.
So, the takeaway I’d like to share is that strength can be great, but I think fitness is so much more than just strength. I credit my current yoga practice to helping me focus on the differences and similarities in a mindful way. I should note that my physical yoga practice usually takes place in a studio, inside, which is not where I really like to play, so I wouldn’t expect anyone to just go to a yoga studio. Like my definition of fitness, we are all so much more than just one strength, or the collection of our strengths. Get out and explore that, and if you feel inclined to do so with a yoga practice, I highly recommend you drop by a Scholé class.