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Physical fitness isn’t simply about how you look or winning on the athletic field. It’s about your ability to meet the ordinary and unusual demands of your life, safely and effectively, and still be able to enjoy leisure activities. Being physically fit means being able to meet all your obligations for work, school, family and fun. And that requires taking care of your body, so that you don’t end up hurt or exhausted.

What is Fitness?

Physical fitness is divided into two kinds of components: health-related (necessary for improving and maintaining overall health) and skill-related. Health-related components are:

  • Cardiorespiratory endurance: the ability of the lungs, heart and blood vessels to deliver oxygen to your cells to meet the demands of physical activity. Improve your cardiorespiratory endurance by doing cardiovascular exercise—constant and repetitive movements that keep your heart rate up for a sustained period like walking, running, biking and swimming.
  • Muscular strength: the ability of a muscle to exert maximum force. Train for strength by lifting a lot of weight a few times.
  • Muscular endurance: the ability of a muscle to exert submaximal force repeatedly. Train for endurance by lifting a low amount of weight lots of times. Body resistance exercises like sit-ups and push-ups train muscular endurance.
  • Flexibility: the ability of a joint to move freely through its range of motion. Increase flexibility through gentle stretching and holding. It’s about being able to move your limbs without getting hurt.
  • Body composition: the fat and non-fat components of the human body. Too little or too much fat are both health risks. Too much fat can result in serious problems like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Too little fat can result in menstrual and reproductive problems and osteoporosis.
  • Skill-related components (see On the Field): these are critical for sports and physically demanding jobs. You won’t be good at skill-related fitness if you don’t have health-related fitness, and everyone needs health-related fitness to live a healthy and productive life. We get (and stay) physically fit by being physically active.

Why Does Fitness Matter?

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, physical activity is important because it reduces your risk for illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and even cancer. Physical activity also improves psychological health—30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise can be just as effective for reducing mild anxiety and depression as taking medication in some cases. Being physically fit will make you feel better now, and keep you feeling good in the long run.

So How Do I Get Fit?

Whenever you exercise, think about FITT: frequency, intensity, time and type. If you haven’t been exercising at all, but you’re young and healthy, start with the Surgeon General’s minimum recommendation for exercise to start getting physical. That’s moderate physical activity for at least 30 minutes, all or most days of the week. To put it in FITT terms, you might take a walk (type) for 30 minutes (time) every evening after dinner (frequency) at a brisk pace (intensity). After a while, it will become easy for you. The principle of overload means that the demands you place on your body have to increase in order to keep developing and improving. You can achieve overload—and keep it interesting—by altering any part of FITT. You can change the type and try a bike ride. You can increase the time, and walk 40 minutes. You can change the frequency, and add in a morning walk a few days a week. Or, you can change the intensity, and either walk faster or jog. The principle of progressive resistance says that those increases should be gradual so that your body has time to adapt. For instance, if you started lifting weights, you’d start with light weights and each week you might add two-and-a-half or five more pounds. You wouldn’t jump from 50 pounds to 150 pounds in one week—it could lead to injury. Make sure you lift only what your muscles can handle.

And How Do I Stay Fit?

Exercise adherence is an important part of physical fitness, because 50 percent of people who start exercising quit within six months. Don’t let it happen to you! Tips for keeping fitness a priority:

  • Get motivated. Do it for you—create a list of all the reasons why you chose to exercise in the first place. Having a handy reminder of your reasons for staying fit will give you something to turn to when you’re tired, grumpy or the weather is bad. Also important is to keep it fun—if you like it, you’re much more likely to do it! Use the buddy system. Exercising with a friend keeps it fresh and will motivate you to show up even when you don’t want to.
  • Prevent injury. The fastest way to stop exercising is to get hurt. Prevent injury by being smart—be reasonable about your limits. Give your body time to rest, recover and adapt. Be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t do, and be slow and steady in learning to do new things. After all, the tortoise beat the hare! Also, cross-train. Doing different types of exercise throughout the week will keep it entertaining and interesting, and prevent overuse injuries. Doing the same exercise every time makes you more likely to get hurt.

More Info

The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports is a great resource.

Listen to Your Heart

Listening to compute your heart rate is important in planning your exercise program.

  • Your maximum heart rate (or Max HR) equals 220 minus your age. Exercise physiologists do not recommend training above your max HR.
  • To increase cardiovascular health, you’ll want to work out between 60 and 85 percent of your max heart rate. Calculate your range, and try to stay in it during workouts. For instance, for a 20-year-old, your max HR is 200, so your training range is 120 to 170 beats per minute.
  • How to check: You can get a HR monitor at most sports equipment stores, and wear it while working out. Or learn to take your pulse (either at your wrist or on your neck). Count your pulse for 10 seconds and multiply by six—when you stop exercising to check HR, your pulse will begin to slow after just 15 seconds, so do it quickly and get back to your workout.

On the Field

Skill-related fitness components are important on the athletic field, and on the occupational field for people in jobs like the police force, fire department and military.

  • Balance: keeping your equilibrium; being in control of your center of gravity. Increasing core body strength through yoga and Pilates can improve balance.
  • Coordination: the ability to use all your senses and your body parts to move smoothly and accurately; being able to take what you see, hear, smell and feel, and translate it to accurate movement. To increase coordination, train at slow speeds and gradually increase tempo while maintaining accuracy.
  • Power: just like in physics, power is force times acceleration—being able to do something strong, fast—like throwing a punch in karate or tackling in football. To get power, train for strength and speed.
  • Agility: *effectively changing direction, quickly and smoothly. When a wide receiver has to shift direction to avoid being tackled, he doesn’t stop; he transfers his energy to another direction.
  • Speed: the ability to perform a movement quickly; how fast you can go. Train for speed by running speed drills.
  • Reaction time:* the ability to respond quickly to stimuli—like in karate, how fast you can block an opponent’s punch. Reaction time is affected by many factors. If you’re tired, congested, sick or have taken drugs or alcohol, your reaction time slows. That’s why drinking and driving is against the law.

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