The terms health and fitness go together often enough that they can appear almost synonymous. What’s fit is healthy, and what’s healthy is fit. After all, what’s more healthy than being really fit, right?
Unfortunately, this line of reasoning can lead us into trouble, especially when it comes to taking advice and “learning” from other people.
The truth is that health and fitness are related, but they are not one and the same.
Why Does it Matter?
First things first, let’s cover why splitting hairs like this should even be a concern. I mean sure, a tomato is technically a fruit, but that doesn’t mean you should start putting it in fruit salad. The fact that it’s a fruit doesn’t functionally change anything. So why does it matter?
To put it quite simply, it matters because the way you get fit isn’t always the same way you get healthy (and vice versa).
It is quite possible to be both healthy and fit. It can be fairly easy, in fact. But if you make no distinction between the two, you might find yourself heading down a path toward one and farther from the other.
What’s the Difference?
To be clear, the following descriptions are meant to provide a bit of perspective and a way to distinguish between two seemingly identical ideas. They are not meant to reflect exact, dictionary-ready definitions.
Generally speaking, fitness refers to how you look or how you perform (or both). Being fit, then, would mean that you either “look” fit—low body fat percentage, proportionate and well-sized muscles, etc.—or that you can perform a given task, job, or sport at an above-average level.
Health, on the other hand, is the amalgamation of how you look, feel, and perform. It’s the absence of illness and the presence of vitality, energy, and strength (in all forms). It reflects how well you are able to perform both physically and mentally, up to and including involuntary actions and processes (like digestion).
Which is Better?
It shouldn’t surprise you that the answer is “It depends.” And on what does it depend? Your goals, of course.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be healthy. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be fit. There is nothing wrong with wanting both. The only thing wrong here is conflating the two and making poor decisions because of it.
An easy, if not extreme, example of this is professional bodybuilders.
Bodybuilders are interested in one thing and one thing only: body manipulation. This muscle bigger, that area leaner, those sides more symmetrical. Their approach has absolutely nothing to do with health. (This is not to say that bodybuilders will always only make unhealthy choices—remember, it’s all a spectrum.)
So if your goal is to be fit and healthy, would it make sense to try to live your life the way a bodybuilder does? Absolutely not. Their methods don’t support your goal.
The main lesson here is don’t make assumptions. Don’t assume that someone who has a small waist also has the energy to play pickup basketball with their friends. The strongest person in the gym might have terrible digestive issues. Your friend who started running every morning and lost 15 pounds might be experiencing (and ignoring) terrible knee pain.
There’s healthy, and there’s fit. Sometimes intimately intertwined, but not the same thing.