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What is Fitness?


A week ago, I was at Lakme Fashion Week. Anorexic models, decked-up celebs, dolled-up skinny teens — you get the drift.

I hate going to Fashion Weeks. What I hate even more, is the fact that I keep forgetting this. 

So every few years, I get lured again, only to find myself amongst these unattainably, unbelievably good looking people. And it transports me back to my teenage years. Where I was the fat, ugly kid amongst other normal ones. Normal ones who were attractive to the opposite sex. 

16 years hence, and I’ve come a fair distance. But put me in a Fashion Week, and the gap looks as wide as it was back then. Square-cut jaws, broad shoulders, dark, dense, flowing hair, ultra-fair, paper thin skin, and.. ofcourse…abs.

One look at those men (and women), and I question everything about my existence. 

I’ve been watching my calories for the last 16 years. When I’m not, I’m running marathons or lifting weights or doing yoga. Oh, and I write a health blog!! And yet, put me next to one of them, and I look like the penultimate stage in an ape-to-man evolution graphic. 

A short, balding, scraggy, bent-over excuse of a man. Created to serve this superior being (Which, by the way, is how I feel all the time in Europe. Especially in Sweden. Have you seen those men and women? I forgive them if they feel they are the superior race. I’d happily drive their taxis and walk their dogs and tend to their gardens. As long as I get to live amongst these celestial beings)

But I digress. 

So after a 3 year hiatus, last week I was back at LFW, and back to feeling miserable about my body and about all the ways in which it wasn’t anything like that other fellows body, when I bumped into a colleague who started talking about my blog.

We spoke of how she was a regular reader and how some recent articles had really resonated with her. And I won’t deny, that conversation made me very happy. Amongst all these demi-gods, someone was talking about my health blog. Take that, you Asian Brad Pitt. 

But part of me felt extremely uncomfortable too. A voice in my head kept taunting me, ‘What must she be thinking, looking at you and then at the people around ?  What proof do you have that you know fitness? If you really are that good, why don’t you look like these people?’

And right then, as if she’d read my mind, she asked 

So what’s the proof of your fitness? How do we know how fit you are?

I was stumped. And offended. And angry. And crestfallen. All at once. 

I’ve lost 20+kgs, thrice. I write a health blog that thousands read every week. How dare you ask me for proof? Is my body-complex so utterly visible? 

But she was right. What’s the proof? It’s a question I ask myself everyday. Because I too need to know that it’s all been worth it. 

Here’s a detailed version of how I answered her.

What is Fitness?

She’d asked me for proof of my fitness, so it was only fair that we begin by defining fitness. For me ‘Fitness’, I told her, is:

Strength. Endurance. Flexibility. Progress. 

Strength

Strength I measure by how much I can lift. I define it as Load.

Load = Sum (Weight*Reps*Sets)

If today, to make me buckle, to overload me, it takes 5X the Load it used to 10 years ago, then that’s progress.

Endurance

Endurance I measure by how long I can keep going. And the ‘I’ here is a combination of 3 systems.

Skeletal. Muscular. Cardiovascular.

How much can my bones endure under constant pounding? That’s Skeletal Endurance.

How much can my muscles bear, before completely breaking down? How many sets? How long a workout? That’s Muscular Endurance.

And how long can my heart keep up with it all? How long can it keep pumping enough oxygen into my veins to keep my cells energised. That’s Cardiovascular Endurance.

If today I can run 20kms where I couldn’t even run 200m when I started – that’s progress.

Flexibility

I must admit here, that I added Flexibility to my definition only after I started Yoga a few months ago. 

From years of running and resistance training, my hamstrings had become less like strings and more like logs. Given the rare back disease I have, I couldn’t even think of attempting risky postures like Sirsasana (headstand) and Chakrasana (bend-over backwards ‘wheel’ pose).

Even the most basic twists and stretches would make me pant heavily and leave me in pain. 

That I can do headstands and ‘Bakasana (crow pose)’ and ‘Chakrasana’ today, is flexibility. That I do it with increasing ease and grace every week, is progress. 

The Complete Definition

That’s what I told her. I explained that it’s my progress on each of these 3 pillars of fitness, against my own benchmark of where I used to be, that is the proof of my fitness. 

I think that left her suitably impressed. An answer befitting of a fitness-blogger. Worthy of being followed-up by the proverbial walk into the sunset. But it wasn’t the complete answer. 

This, is my complete answer. Fitness is:

Strength. Endurance. Flexibility. Progress. In both Body and Mind.

So take all that I’ve explained above, and now apply it to the mind. 

Mental Strength

Just like today it takes a lot more load to overload my body, so it takes a lot more load to overwhelm my mind. 

Compared to me 10 years ago, today I can do deeper, more focussed work. I can think through tougher, more layered concepts. I can dissect more complex problems. And the ones I can’t tackle, I can stay with for far longer, before I decide to give up. 

That is Mental Strength Progress. And it comes, in no small part, from the repeated application of the mind required to remain on the physical strength-building path. 

Mental Endurance

It’s one thing to apply mental strength for a day. And another to apply it day-in and day-out, for a lifetime. 

Along the way, just like your body, you mind fails you. You take on too much and it can’t cope. At these times it isn’t mental strength, but endurance that helps you get up and give it another shot. 

Today I can take a lot more mental pounding, a lot more emotional upheaval, a lot more daily variability, and still remain on the path I’ve set out on. That’s the only reason this blog has seen 58 posts go out in 58 weeks. 

And this endurance, in no small part, is built by the experience of physical endurance. Of running through all sorts of pain during marathon preparation, and then willfully doing it again the next day. That, is Mental Endurance Progress. 

Mental Flexibility

I used to think that people who keep changing their stance are frivolous. Superficial. I still do. 

But over time I’ve come to respect people who learn and evolve. And sometimes, evolution means accepting that you were wrong and changing your stance. 

That sort of flexibility isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of immense mental strength. Because when we embrace a new idea (one that we used to vehemently deny), we don’t just swallow ego, we also enter unchartered waters. And that is scary. And doing scary things requires strength.

For the first 2 months of Yoga, I never even attempted Chakrasana. I had a perfectly valid reason — my back-kyphosis made me a special case and hence it wasn’t that I was ‘unable’ to execute the aasana, I was prohibited from. 

I’ve just started, but I hope that Yoga will set me on the path of much more mental flexibility.


There. That’s my full answer. Now I’ll quietly turn and walk into the sunset. You turn around and walk away too. Because I hate how my back looks and I don’t want you to be looking. Ok?


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