Physical Fitness

views updated May 23 2018

Physical Fitness

Healthy living and physical fitness are closely connected. Being physically fit not only helps people live healthy lives, it also helps people live longer. People who make physical activity and exercise a part of their daily lives when they are young are more likely to keep it in their lives as they grow older and benefit from it throughout their lifespans. Physical activity is defined as any movement that spends energy. Exercise is a subset of physical activity, but it is an activity that is structured and planned.

While many children engage in physical activity, usually by playing with their friends, the amount of physical activity they get as they grow into adolescents usually declines. In fact, many researchers believe that physical inactivity is a national health problem that can increase the risk of illness and disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), doing some kind of physical activity or exercise on a regular basis helps to increase strength and flexibility, improve endurance, control weight, increase bone mass, and improve self-esteem, as well as reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and the risk of developing high blood pressure.

The best way to keep physical activity and exercise a permanent part of one's life is to make it fun and enjoyable. If people are given different options of what they can do and have easy access to those options, they are more likely to participate in physical activity and exercise. This allows people to have a positive attitude toward physical fitness. It's also helpful if people are knowledgeable about the rewards of physical activity and exercise.

This chapter will outline how physical activity and exercise benefit both the body and the mind in numerous ways. It will also discuss a number of different activity options, from team and individual sports, dancing, walking, gardening, and martial arts, to doing household chores and just playing with friends. Finally, it will explain the importance of setting goals, staying safe, and preventing injuries while keeping the body physically fit.


It is a known fact that adding regular physical activity to one's daily routine will improve health and well-being. And that physical activity doesn't necessarily need to be strenuous for a person to enjoy benefits to health. Of course, by increasing the amount of physical activity (within reason), one will increase the amount of health benefits.

One of the most important benefits of physical activity is that it actually lessens a person's risk of developing or dying from many of the most common causes of serious illness and death in the United States. The risk of developing colon cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes is reduced through regular physical activity. Being physically active has also been proven to help build healthy bones, joints, and muscles. Furthermore, regular physical activity reduces the overall risk of dying prematurely from any cause. In fact, in 1995 the American College of Sports Medicine estimated that five times as many Americans die from being inactive than from losing their lives in car accidents.

Benefits of Physical Activity and Exercise on the Body: Words to Know

Something that occurs in the presence of oxygen.
Something that occurs without oxygen because a person is using energy to do activities at a faster rate than the body is producing it.
Intense worry and fear.
Chronic inflammation of the joints.
Blood pressure:
Pressure of blood against the walls of blood vessels.
Cardiovascular fitness:
How efficiently the heart and lungs can pump blood (which holds oxygen) to muscles that are being worked.
Proteins in the brain that act as the body's natural pain reliever.
A person's ability to continue doing a stressful activity for an extended period of time.
A subset of physical activity, which is an activity that is structured and planned.
Heat stroke:
A serious condition that causes the body to stop sweating and overheat dangerously.
Immune system:
A body system that protects the body against illness.
A condition involving a decrease in bone mass, making bones more fragile.
Physical activity:
Any movement that spends energy.
A sudden loss of consciousness, feeling, and voluntary movement caused by a blood clot in the brain.
Inflammation of a tendon.
A series of exercises that incorporate regulated breathing, concentration, and flexibility.

Other benefits of physical activity and exercise include increased cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, flexibility, energy, and bone mass.

Increase Cardiovascular Fitness

Regular activity and exercise make for a healthier heart. A healthy heart is a strong heart that works efficiently and is able to easily supply the body with blood. The heart pumps blood, which carries oxygen to muscles and carries away waste. How well the heart performs is a good indication of how healthy a person's cardiovascular (the heart and the blood vessels) system is.

Endurance refers to a person's ability to continue doing a stressful activity for an extended period of time. This is sometimes called stamina. What this means is that a person with good endurance or stamina can bike, jog, play, or run for a long time without getting tired. Having a healthy endurance level means that a person has a healthy level of cardiovascular fitness. Technically speaking, cardiovascular fitness refers to how efficiently the heart and lungs can pump blood (which holds oxygen) to muscles that are being worked. The more efficiently the heart works, the more energy the body has to continue working without a great deal of effort.

Cardiovascular fitness is improved by aerobic exercise. The word aerobic refers to something that occurs in the presence of oxygen. Aerobic exercise improves cardiovascular health as it typically uses the body's largest groups of muscles (the legs) continually which makes a person need more oxygen. The more oxygen a person needs, the more efficiently his or her cardiovascular system must be functioning. Examples of aerobic exercise include running, walking fast, biking, and dancing. Incorporating cardiovascular, or aerobic, activity strengthens the heart and lungs. This makes it easier to do all sorts of everyday activities, such as hurrying to class, climbing stairs, or mowing the lawn.

Regular activity helps the cardiovascular system by improving circulation. Circulation is increased because physical activity increases a person's blood volume (amount). This makes it easier for the heart to function and more blood gets to muscles, meaning more oxygen is carried to the muscles. Exercise and activity also help reduce a person's chances of developing high blood pressure, or hypertension. Additionally, physical fitness reduces the risk of suffering a serious consequence, such as a stroke, from high blood pressure.


Gain Strength

Strength is the ability to resist force. Muscles constantly resist force. The more strength a person has, the easier it is for his or her muscles to resist greater force. For instance, someone who can lift one hundred pounds of weight once is stronger than someone who can lift fifty pounds of weight twice.

Just as regular physical activity builds strength, it also builds muscle endurance. Similar to cardiovascular endurance, muscle endurance means that muscles are able to work for longer periods of time, making it easier to swim another lap or carry a heavy knapsack while walking. Someone who can lift a fifty-pound dumbbell ten times has more muscular endurance than a person who can only lift that dumbbell once.


Some things never seem to change. People have been concerned with physical fitness for thousands of years. What does change is why people are concerned with fitness and what benefits they think being fit will bring them. Different cultures at various periods believed that physical activity and exercise would provide individuals, or even the government as a whole, with different attributes. These attributes provide insight into the evolution of exercise and activity as well as a view of what was valued by certain ancient cultures.

Preventing Illness in Ancient China

The martial art kung fu was developed in China over 4,000 years ago. There, people saw that individuals who were physically active on a regular basis didn't get sick as much as those who were inactive. Kung fu, then, was developed in order to help more people get exercise on a regular basis and avoid frequent illness.

Quieting the Mind in Ancient India

In ancient India, physical activities such as exercise and sports were not seen as being beneficial to the mind. Matters of the mind were of the utmost importance as far as Hindu and Buddhist priests were concerned. Yoga, a series of exercises that incorporate regulated breathing, concentration, and flexibility, became popular with disciplined Indians and priests, who used it as a method for emptying their minds of thoughts before meditating.

Preparing for Battle in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Persia

The link between a healthy body and a healthy mind was lost on the ancient Egyptians. Rather, they used physical activity and exercise primarily as a way to strengthen soldiers' bodies for warfare. Endurance exercises and the use of weapons were stressed. Likewise, the ancient Persians began training young males in warfare at very young ages, ignoring education, as having schooled soldiers was not deemed necessary to protecting Persia.

Perfecting the Body in Ancient Greece

People living in ancient Greece recognized that physical fitness was just as important as knowledge and learning. Ancient Greeks strove to be well-rounded individuals and, to them, that meant training the body and the mind. Furthermore, physical fitness was seen as its own reward. In fact, there weren't any professional competitions in which victors won valuable prizes. In the Olympic Games, which originated in ancient Greece, winners were awarded only a wreath fashioned out of olive branches.

Going for the Glory in Ancient Rome

Unlike the ancient greeks, ancient Romans valued physical fitness not just for its own merits but because it benefited the government. Physically fit men made better soldiers and workers, who helped protect and expand the empire. Ancient Romans preferred to witness the glory of a victor who had competed in professional games more than the humble victory of an amateur, who didn't reap material reward from a win.

Many activities and exercises help to increase muscle strength. These are called anaerobic (without oxygen) because a person is using energy to do these activities at a faster rate than the body is producing it. Anaerobic activities include lifting heavy objects, doing chin-ups, or even taking out the trash.

Muscles grow through physical activity just as they can become more well-defined (in terms of appearance). Typically, however, more strenuous activity and exercise is required for this to occur. Muscle growth comes with activities and exercises that require strength, while muscle definition stems from exercises that require muscle endurance.

Stronger muscles go hand in hand with stronger bones and healthy joints. And, as the body builds muscle, it tends to lose fat, which results in a leaner, healthier body.

More strength means more activity can be done for a longer period of time.

Build Better Bones

Physical activity not only builds muscles, it builds stronger bones. The type of exercise that builds bones is weight-bearing or strength-bearing, such

as playing baseball, soccer, tennis, walking, or weight-lifting. The bones that will be strengthened are those that are directly affected by the activity being done. This is why doing a variety of muscle-strengthening activities on a regular basis is important.

There are several reasons why weight-bearing activities build better bones. First, these activities seem to actually stimulate the formation of bone. Also, with physical activity comes muscle strength, which means that the muscles that are exerted grow stronger; this, in turn, benefits the bones. Finally, with improved strength, balance, and coordination, the risk of falls and bone injuries is greatly reduced.

Having thicker, healthier bones helps combat arthritis, a disease that involves the chronic inflammation of the joints, and osteoporosis later in life. Osteoporosis is a disease that gradually weakens bones, making them so fragile that they can fracture easily doing everyday activities. Osteoporosis takes time to develop, and many people are unaware that they have the disease until they fracture a bone. This can result in a painful, crippling condition that is irreversible. While it is true that osteoporosis mainly strikes older people, it is during childhood and adolescence that bones are forming. Building stronger bones during adolescence will help combat diseases such as osteoporosis later in life.

Breathe Easy

As people grow older, their lung capacity (how much air the lungs hold) grows smaller. Cardiovascular activity and exercise can combat this because aerobic activities actually increase lung capacity. So while lung capacity will continue to diminish because of age, with regular activity, especially aerobic activity, it will do so at a slower rate.

Boost Energy

Physical activity and exercise require energy, as does everything. In addition to expending energy, however, physical activity also gives people increased energy throughout the entire day.

The immune system, too, gets a big boost from regular physical activity. A healthy immune system helps fight colds, cancer, and other diseases, and speeds recovery from all kinds of injuries. The less time a person is ill, the more energy a person has to spend on living well.

To have energy to function, the human body needs sleep. Sleep, as does food, gives us energy. And regular physical activity helps people sleep more soundly. The more soundly one sleeps, the more energy one saves up during that time, and the more energy a person has to work, play, study, and do all sorts of things.

Improve Flexibility

Young people are usually quite flexible. But as with lung capacity, flexibility diminishes as people grow older. Activities and exercises that increase flexibility, such as gymnastics, martial arts, and yoga, are helpful in preventing injuries. The more flexible a person is, the less likely he or she is to suffer a sprain or strain a muscle while doing everyday things or while being active.


Physical activity and exercise are beneficial to the mind as well as the body. They help improve a person's health and overall outlook on life. In order to feel the best, have more energy, and stay healthy, a person should do something active at least three times a week. The great thing about physical activity and exercise is that it doesn't matter what a person does as long as it raises the heart rate for a certain period of time (twenty to thirty minutes is good); it is something one enjoys; and it is safe. This means that a person can bike, run, swim, or in-line skate, and each will help benefit the mind. Specifically, a person will experience a natural high and develop the ability to better handle emotions and changes in life.

Endorphins: The Natural High

When a person is physically active or exercises for a certain period of timeabout 20 minutes or longerthe body releases endorphins, proteins in the brain that act as the body's natural pain reliever. When endorphins are released, a person may experience a feeling of euphoria. Many people enjoy this feeling and look forward to the natural high they get from keeping physically fit.


Exercise benefits people of all ages. In addition, exercise is often more fun when done with friends or family. Being active with parents or grandparents is not just a great way to stay healthy, but it can be a time to bond with loved ones. Knowing that regular physical activity and exercise offer great benefits to aging adults is a good reason to make exercise a family affair. Muscle-strengthening activities reduce the risk of falling and fracturing bones. Increased activity equals increased bone strength, even in adults over ninety years old! As a person ages, physical activity can also decrease pain in joints from arthritis (a disease that causes inflammation of the joints).

Improve Concentration

Concentration is important for learning and understanding new things and being able to perform well in all aspects of life. Being physically active and exercising can help improve concentration. This means that a person will be able to be more focused and perform better in class or during other activities. Staying physically fit has also been found to help people maintain memory longer in their lives. As people get older, their memory skills can deteriorate, and physical activity and exercise can help ward off this effect for some time.

Lift the Blues and Lower Anxiety

Many people suffer from depression and anxiety. A person may feel just depressed or anxious or experience both depression and anxiety at the same time. Depression can cause people to feel sad, tired, and/or hopeless, and suffer from low self-esteem. Anxiety causes feelings of panic. Both conditions can be treated by medication. But researchers have found that in mild cases, physical activity and exercise can help relieve feelings of depression and lower a person's anxiety.

Handle Stress Better

Stress is a normal part of every person's life. It is actually necessary to have some stress in life. Otherwise, a person would have no motivation for self-improvement or hard work. However, too much stress can cause many health problems. Some symptoms of stress include anxiety, high blood pressure, irritability, tense muscles, headaches, stomachaches, and lower resistance to illness. Physical activity and exercise, especially noncompetitive activity, help to manage stress. They give a person the opportunity to feel calmer and more alert, which can help a person work through the things that are causing the stress. They also boost the immune system, so resistance to illness will increase.

Build Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem

Low self-confidence and self-esteem can cause a person to engage in harmful behaviors, such as self-mutilation, drug addiction, or disordered eating. They may also seek acceptance from others in destructive ways, such as having sex before they're ready or drinking alcohol to excess. People with high self-confidence and self-esteem are usually happy with themselves, outgoing, and positive. They take pride in accomplishments and are able to stand up for themselves. They are not afraid of taking on new challenges and are not afraid of failure. Researchers have found that physical activity and exercise can increase self-confidence and self-esteem.


Feel Calmer and Sleep Soundly

While physical activity and exercise can make people feel more alert during the day, they also allow people to feel calmer and sleep more soundly. When people are active, their body temperature rises and warms their insides. This soothes the body, like a warm bath, and causes a person to feel calmer. This feeling, along with the lower anxiety and stress and physical benefits of physical activity and exercise, helps a person to sleep soundly at night.


There are many types of activities that improve a person's physical fitness. The options range from traditional aerobics to alternative practices such as yoga and martial arts. Each activity has its own specific benefits and requires different kinds of equipment. Choosing the best activities involves finding the ones that are the most pleasurable and fun. The most important thing is doing some kind of activity on a regular basis.


Participation in sportsand other extracurricular activities such as band or dance troupesis a great way of staying active, and sports offer wonderful rewards for mental health. Being involved in sports has been proven to help people learn valuable skills for dealing with life's ups and downs. They teach people how to interact with others and work as a team. This helps in daily life when working on a class project or a school play with others. Sports also help people become more independent and feel better about themselves. The result is positive self-esteem and self-confidence, which are extremely important to a person's happiness and success.

Sports also offer a fun and exciting environment in which to learn how to handle both failure and success. Everyone wins and loses at times in both sports and life. Winning feels great and empowering but can also cause a person to feel pressure and anxiety in the next attempt to win. Losing usually produces feelings of sadness, depression, and disappointment. Learning how to cope with these different feelings is important for good mental health.

Another aspect of sports that contributes to a healthy mind is goal-setting. People who have goals are more likely to be self-motivated and are usually able to accomplish more because they know what they need to do in order to get ahead. Without goals, people tend to lack direction and focus. In sports, goal-setting is essential for improving individually and working as a team. This is also true in life. For example, if a person wants to get better grades, accomplishing specific goalssuch as studying for a certain period of time each nightis the fastest way to get those As.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise strengthens the heart and lungs and tones the body. There are two types of aerobics: high-impact and low-impact. Both involve moving the body for at least twenty minutes in order to increase the heart rate to a point where the body is burning fat. High-impact aerobics involves dance combinations and jumping movements, while low-impact aerobics uses similar movements without the jumping. Low-impact aerobics is gentler to the joints because one foot is always touching the floor and therefore it is less likely to cause injury.

It's possible to get into aerobics through a class at a gym or recreation center as well as at home with a fitness video. Doing aerobics requires good sneakers for support and cool, comfortable clothing.


Biking is another fun activity that builds strength and balance. Riding for twenty minutes will make the heart strong and help the body burn fat. Most people learn to ride bikes as children, so all it takes to participate is a bicycle and road to ride it on. Some people choose to ride on the road, while others buy a mountain bike that allows them to ride on dirt roads and trails in the woods or in the mountains. In addition to having a bike, people need to wear helmets and have reflectors attached to the bike. Many people ride with friends or even join a cycling club to meet others who like to use their pedals to get their hearts pumping.


Boxing tones and strengthens the whole body. Whether a person is just punching the air, called shadow boxing, or punching a bag, boxing helps burn fat, relieve stress, and increase endurance and confidence. People interested in boxing usually take classes at a local gym or learn boxing moves from a video. With boxing gloves and loose, comfortable workout clothing, boxing can be done at a gym, a recreation center, or at home. It's also possible to learn how to kick box, which uses the legs and the arms to punch the air or a bag.


Dance is great exercise for the whole body. It not only tones the body and burns fat, but it also improves balance and coordination. There are many different types of dance, including ballet, tap, modern, country-western, jazz, and hip-hop. Some people choose to take classes to learn the right technique. This can be especially important for tap and ballet. Others may rent or buy a video that teaches them the right moves. However, dance doesn't have to be structured. Dancing to a song on the radio or to a favorite CD is enough for some people. Dancing in any form is a fun way to become physically fit.

Dance classes are usually available at a private dance studio, a local community center, YMCA, or YWCA. It's necessary to have the proper shoes and sometimes the right clothing to take certain classes.


Gymnastics is an intense activity that strengthens every muscle in the body. It also improves coordination and flexibility; however, it can be risky since many of the moves include flips and jumps that can cause injury. Practicing gymnastics requires classes at a gym with special equipment, a training camp, or a gymnastics clinic. It also requires an instructor, as gymnastic moves are difficult and cannot be learned without proper instruction. With the right clothing and a coach, a person can become involved with gymnastics for fitness. There is also rhythmic gymnastics, which combines dance and gymnastics and is generally less physically intense than traditional gymnastics.


Physical activity and exercise are not the same. And while both are good for all people, most experts recommend that kids and preteens focus more on being physically active (such as playing or bike-riding) than on actually doing structured exercise (such as an aerobic exercise class). For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that weight training not be undertaken until after puberty and bone growth are complete.


Hiking gives the legs and heart a good workout. Going up and down hills will strengthen the muscles in the thighs. Continuous hiking will increase the heart rate and burn fat. One of the best things about hiking is being surrounded by

nature. Hiking trails can be found near beautiful mountains, giving hikers many choices of trails that differ in difficulty and scenery. Finding a place to hike, however, is not so easy for those who live in urban and suburban areas. Contacting the local parks and recreation department is the best way to find the closest hiking areas. Hikers need certain things to have a fun and safe time, including a good pair of hiking boots, socks, hat, water, sunscreen, food for energy, a few friends with whom to hike, and a trail map.

Ice Skating

On a frozen pond or in a rink, ice skating works the lower body, including thighs, hips, and buttocks. It also strengthens the heart, burns fat, and improves balance and coordination. Ice skating can be done without instruction, but in order to improve one's skating skills, lessons are a good idea. Individual and group lessons are available at local rinks. It's also possible to learn how to figure skate, which involves doing spins, jumps, and dance moves on the ice. Having a supportive pair of skates is essential. If there's nowhere to ice skate, but the activity is appealing, in-line skating is a great alternative.

In-Line Skating

In-line skating is similar to ice-skating but it's done on concrete, not ice. It works the lower body and strengthens the heart. In-line skating has grown in popularity over recent years and many people consider it to be one of the most fun activities to do. It can be done alone or with friends, and lessons are available at local parks or places where in-line skates are rented. Lessons can help people achieve more complicated moves and jumps. Getting involved means buying or renting a pair of skates, as well as wrist guards, elbow guards, kneepads, and a helmet for protection against falls and collisions.

The Martial Arts

The martial arts are a combination of physical activity and mental strength and development. The practice of the arts goes back thousands of years; they work to improve the body's strength, power, speed, endurance, control, balance, awareness, and timing. In addition to physical training, martial arts benefit the mind through meditation that brings peace of mind in daily life.

Classes are available in different types of martial arts at local studios or recreation centers. The different types of martial arts include karate, kung fu, aikido, judo, jujitsu, tae kwan do, and tai chi. A little research will help one find the right class. Participating in martial arts usually requires a martial arts uniform.


Playing is simple and fun, and anyone can do it. The options are endless and the benefits are great. Playing increases strength, flexibility, coordination, and muscle tone and, because it increases the heart rate, it burns fat as well. In addition to the physical benefits, playing relieves stress and gives the player a positive attitude about life and physical fitness. The types of playing activities include, but are not limited to, Frisbee, tag, hide-and-seek, raking and jumping in leaves, playing with a pet, gardening, and hopscotch. Playing can be done anytime and anywhere, alone or with friends. The only requirement is a lot of imagination.


Running is an intense exercise. It's great for increasing heart rate, burning fat, and relieving stress. The muscles in the legs and stomach become stronger through running, and many runners talk of a "runner's high," which can be attributed to the release of endorphins, or the body's natural pain reliever, into the bloodstream. While most physical activity signals the body to produce endorphins, running causes the body to release more because of the intensity of the workout.

Not everyone is suited for running. The constant pounding on pavement can cause injuries, especially to knees and ankles. It's essential to have good running shoes with proper support and to run on soft surfaces whenever possible. Asphalt, dirt, grass, and sand are softer surfaces than concrete and are better for the body's joints. For those who are just starting, it's smart to begin slowly and increase speed and distance over many months. Running can be done alone, but it's often safer to run with a friend. And, while it can be done at any time, it's best to run when it's still light outside.

Skiing and Snowboarding

Downhill and cross-country skiing and snowboarding can be done only during the winter months, but they all have great physical benefits. Downhill skiing improves muscle tone for the whole body, as well as increasing balance and endurance. Cross-country skiing means constantly moving the arms and legs in a rhythmic fashion, which keeps the heart pumping fast. Snowboarding increases muscle tone in the lower body, while also improving balance and coordination.

Skiing and snowboarding take time to learn and require a lot of equipment that can be expensive. Equipment includes skis or a snowboard, special boots that can be rented or bought, warm clothing, a hat, and gloves. Most ski resorts offer lessons for all skill levels of skiers and snowboarders. Having access to these sports on a regular basis can be difficult, however, depending on where a person lives.


Swimming is a fun activity that is easy on the body's joints because the water cushions the body while it moves. Swimming tones the whole body and increases the heart rate. It can be structured or unstructured. Doing laps with different types of strokes (backstroke or sidestroke, for example) is a possibility, as is just playing around in the water with friends or participating in a water volleyball game. It's difficult to swim year round, as most pools are outside and only open during the summer months. Some people have access to heated indoor pools, but they can be expensive. Still others go to the beach to swim in a lake or in the ocean. Swimming requires access to a pool or a beach, a bathing suit, and possibly goggles for doing laps. It is important that a person take structured swimming lessons before jumping into the water, however. Several

skills, such as floating and proper breathing, must be mastered in order to ensure one's safety in the water.

Team Sports

Team sports offer a variety of benefits that are unique to each sport. Hockey, basketball, and soccer, for example, require constant movement and therefore are great for increasing the heart rate, burning fat, and toning muscle. They also improve coordination and endurance. Softball, baseball, football, and volleyball increase muscle strength and coordination. Track and field benefits the whole body as it can involve running, sprinting, jumping, and throwing. All team sports usually require the participant to train for the playing season.

Team sports provide a challenging, cooperative atmosphere and teach teamwork and mental concentration. It's possible to participate in more than

one sport, depending on the seasons in which they are played. Most team sports are offered at school and through community programs. The school or community usually provides equipment although there may be a fee to cover the costs. Finding the right sport can depend on a person's skill level. Some teams require tryouts in order to join; however, some just look for enthusiasm and a good attitude in their players.


Tennis can be played with two or four people or, in other words, singles or doubles. Either way provides a good workout, increasing strength in the arms and the legs, as well as improving eye-hand coordination. Singles is a more intense activity since one does not have a partner to help cover the court. Doubles can be more fun, however, because it involves more people and can be considered a social activity with friends. Both doubles and singles increase heart rate and burn fat, resulting in overall improved physical fitness. The game of tennis is competitive, which gives people a challenge and improves their mental skills of strategy and concentration.

Getting into tennis requires access to a court, a good racquet, and tennis shoes. Many communities have outside courts that people can use for free or for a small fee. During the winter months, there are indoor courts that can be used, but they are usually more expensive. Some people take lessons to improve their skills. Most tennis centers and clubs offer classes for different skill levels. They may also offer tournaments where people compete with others at the same skill level.


Walking is one of the most simple and accessible activities. Most people do some walking every day. Going for a fast, long walk, sometimes called power walking, will increase heart rate and burn fat, while also improving endurance. Walking uphill will increase muscle tone in the legs, back, stomach, and buttocks. Pumping the arms while walking will tone the arms and shoulders. Walking can be done anywhere, alone or with friends. (For safety's sake, it is best to walk in well-lit areas or with a friend.) It's also a great stress reliever. The only requirement is a good pair of walking shoes. If the weather isn't nice, some people choose to walk indoors on a treadmill at a gym or they head to their local mall.



Yoga is a way of life that connects the mind, body, and spirit. Through different poses, or postures, yoga improves flexibility, strength, circulation, and relieves stress while helping a person achieve peace of mind. Yoga will also improve the body's alignment, which means all the body's parts are in the right position for good health. There are many different types of yoga that a person can practice. It can be done at home with the help of an instruction book or a video. It's also possible to take yoga classes at a local gym or community center. All a person needs is comfortable clothing, an exercise mat, and an open mind. [See also Chapter 10: Alternative Medicine for more information on yoga.]


Set Goals

Setting goals for staying physically fit is important. These goals can be as small as making sure to do some kind of activity three times a week and as large as wanting to join the ski team. The key to successful goal-setting is making small goals that can be achieved daily and when added up can equal the accomplishment of a long-term goal. For example, if a person wants to start playing basketball, he or she can start with the short-term goal of shooting baskets with friends every week. The long-term goal may be to join the basketball team at school.

BE REALISTIC. When setting goals, a person should pay attention to how realistic the goals are. It doesn't make sense for a person to focus on trying to be a successful surfer if one doesn't live near water. Nor is it good for someone who is currently inactive to suddenly try to take up long-distance running. This will only lead to frustration. It's smart to take smaller steps in the quest for fitness, based on a person's schedule, skill, and access to different kinds of activities.


Extreme sports are becoming more and more popular among young people. They offer the thrill of facing difficult challenges and overcoming obstacles. Extreme sports get the heart racing and put the body and mind to the test in the face of danger. With the many physical and mental benefits of extreme sports comes the risk of injuries. It's essential to work with a trained instructor and use the necessary safety equipment when doing any kind of extreme sport.

Extreme sports are not for everyone. However, those looking for bigger challenges in their quest for physical fitness have many options, including rock and ice climbing, surfing, white-water rafting, wakeboarding, water-skiing, mountain-bike racing, bicycle stunt-riding, skydiving, skateboarding, and extreme snow-boarding. There are many camps around the country that teach extreme sports to kids and teenagers. Anyone can find the nearest extreme sports camp or more general information by typing "extreme sports" on any Internet search engine. There are thousands of websites devoted to these exciting activities.


Making realistic goals does not mean making only easy goals. Some should be challenging. This will increase feelings of accomplishment when the challenging goals are met. Challenging goals will also help maintain interest in one or more activities. Anything can become boring after awhile. By tossing in some challenges, interest and enjoyment will remain high. Challenging goals will also allow someone to improve his or her skill at an activity.

STICK WITH IT! Being active should be a lifelong pursuit. The human body is made to move, and when it doesn't, it suffers. Goals should be assessed every so often to make sure they are still important in one's life. The goals that are no longer important should be changed. A person's interests change throughout life and so should goals. As goals are met, new ones should be established, and a person should remember to reward him- or herself after successfully completing a goal.

Keeping Fitness Fun and Safe

GET A CHECK-UP. Being fit involves physical activity and exercise as well as a good diet. A person who is just starting to become more active should start slowly. Also, before anyone starts to become more active than usual, a complete check-up from a physician is necessary. This will help a person

learn how to be active if there is an existing health condition or injury, as well as be aware of how much one can and cannot do.

GUARD AGAINST INJURY. As important as it is to be physically active, it's also important to stay safe while being active. The first step in keeping fitness safe is wearing proper equipment. When playing on the street, biking, running, or in-line skating in the evening or on overcast days, reflective gear should be worn. Protective gear, which may include helmets, elbow and wrist guards, and gloves depending on the activity, are all necessary for biking, in-line skating, and for extreme sports, such as snowboarding.


Ray Kybartas is a fitness trainer who helps teach others how to keep fitness a part of everyday life. His most famous client is pop star Madonna. In an introduction for Kybartas's 1997 book Fitness Is Religion: Keep the Faith, Madonna relates that during her first workout with Kybartas she realized "it was possible to exercise and enjoy yourself." She also points out, "There are no rules. All you need is dedication," and that "the goal has been much more about peace of mind than having a perfect body."

Kybartas's philosophy about fitness, which has greatly influenced Madonna, is that it should be a way of life. Like religion, Kybartas writes, fitness requires a lifelong commitment. This commitment will result in better health, both physically and mentally. A lifelong pursuit of fitness may seem daunting or overwhelming, but, according to Kybartas, once the commitment is made, most people look forward to being physically active and exercising on a regular basis because it makes them feel so good. One of Kybartas's suggestions for keeping fitness in your life is "doing something you enjoy. If youwant to walk, run, dance, row, swim, cycle, inline skate, cross-country ski, practice yogawhateverthen do it."

FRIENDS MAKE IT FUN. Whenever possible, it is always safest to play or do physical activities with friends. Some activities and sports require that they be done by more than one person, such as basketball or street hockey. Other activities, such as biking, running, doing gymnastics, or walking can be and often are done alone. This is okay as long as these activities are carried out in safe, well-lit places. Isolated places, such as empty parks or roads, can leave a person at risk for many dangers. Taking familiar paths when walking or running and doing activities with other people around lessens danger from strangers. It also makes it easier to get help quickly if an injury occurs. A person taking a walk or going for a jog should let others know where he or she is headed.

TALK TO A PRO. Before anyone gets involved in an exercise such as weight training, a professional trainer should be consulted. This will assure that a person is using proper form and following a healthy training program. The same is true for extreme sports, such as snowboarding and rock climbing. This is because these activities usually involve a certain degree of danger and require safety equipment and training.

Dangers of Too Much Exercise

There are wonderful rewards for exercising: physical fitness and good mental health. However, a person can exercise too much and cause health problems. Some athletes are even dying from exercising too long and hard. Everyone should be aware of the dangers of exercise when beginning or maintaining a physical fitness program.

GIVE YOUR BODY A REST. A body is not made to be on the go all the time. It needs to rest. While exercise is good, it does tire the body. Overdoing exercise can result in feeling tired, weak, sore, or irritable. A person shouldn't exercise more than six days a week. If one feels tired or sore during or after being physically active, those are signals to rest.

OVERHEATING. Like a car, bodies can overheat. It is easy to overheat if a person is active on a hot day. A person should try not to exercise outside in very high temperatures. If one does, one should drink a lot of water, wear well-ventilated clothing, and pay attention to how the body is reacting to the heat.

Overheating should not be ignored. The symptoms of overheating can include cramps, nausea, tingling and clammy skin, and can lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Signs of heat exhaustion include sweating a lot, skin that is clammy and cool, and a pulse that is rapid and weak. It is important for anyone experiencing these symptoms to get out of the heat, lie down, and drink water. Heat stroke is a more serious condition that causes the body to stop sweating and overheat dangerously. A person will feel confused and dizzy, and the skin will become red, dry, and hot. Medical attention is necessary for anyone who suffers from heat stroke. As soon as it starts, a person should stop exercising, get out of the heat, and drink water.


Walkmans and other portable radio and CD-players are very popular with people who are physically active. While getting into shape, they listen along to their favorite tunes. Music can help motivate people into walking a bit farther, playing a bit longer, or pushing themselves just a tiny bit harder. However, when a portable radio is played too loudly, a person may not hear what is being said or done around her, such as a person yelling or a car beeping its horn. It is important, then, to keep the volume low enough so that one is aware of his surroundings, which can prevent injury and lessen the threat of danger from strangers.

INJURIES. Exercising too much can cause injuries. It is easy to worsen slight injuries if a person doesn't pay attention to soreness or pain. As soon as a person experiences discomfort while exercising, he or she should stop and the injured area should be rested. Time should be taken for the injured area to heal before exercising again. However, depending on the seriousness of the injury, a person may continue to exercise as long as the focus is on exercising other parts of the body. For example, if the injury is in the shoulder, a person may jog or skate to avoid using the shoulder. Working different areas of the body on different days is helpful in properly resting the body throughout a fitness program.

Some common injuries associated with exercise and sports include strains, sprains, shin splints, stress fractures, tendinitis, tennis elbow, and runner's knee. Strains occur when muscles or tendons (tissue that attaches muscles to bones) tear as they are stretched beyond their limit, and sprains happen when ligaments (tissue that holds bones together) are stretched too far or torn. Shin splints, or pain along the shin, occur when muscles along the shin are damaged, and stress fractures, or small cracks in bones, may happen when bones are stressed by intense exercise. Inflammation of a tendon is called tendinitis. This condition commonly affects the tendons in the hands, upper arm, or heel.

Some injuries, such as tennis elbow and runner's knee, have names that are associated with the sport in which the injury is common. However, one can still suffer from tennis elbow or runner's knee even if one is not a tennis player or runner. Tennis elbow occurs when tendons at the elbow are damaged. Tendons that move the wrist either forward or backward may be affected. Runner's knee is when the kneecap, which normally moves up and down during movement without touching another bone, rubs against the end of the thigh bone as a person walks or runs.

To help prevent injuries, a person should always warm up before exercising and cool down afterward. Warming up means starting out slow for the first ten minutes of exercise. This allows blood flow to increase in the muscles, which warms up the muscles and makes them more flexible. Cooling down means slowing down gradually after exercising. This will let blood flow from the areas that were being worked to other parts of the body, especially the head, which will reduce the chance of dizziness or fainting following a hard workout. A proper cool-down will also help keep muscles from getting too stiff.

Another way of helping to prevent injury is for a person to vary the kinds of physical activity he or she does. This allows different parts of the body to be used so the same parts are not always being stressed. Also, more parts of the body will get stronger, which will contribute to total body fitness. [See also Chapter 8: Preventive Care.]

EXERCISE ADDICTION. Looking forward to exercise and feeling good about the effects of exercise on the body is normal. Exercise feels great and provides people with more energy and increases self-esteem. However, some people use exercise as a way to purge the body of calories to try to become thinner. This is considered an eating disorder. People who suffer from exercise addiction, or compulsive exercising, are not exercising to become physically fit. Instead, they are exercising to try to obtain the ideal body shape. However, the ideal body shape is an unrealistic and impossible goal.


R.I.C.E. is a suggested way of treating most exercise- or sports-related injuries. Each letter stands for a certain part of treatment.

R est. Rest gives an injury time to heal.

I ce. Ice should be applied to an injury in order to relieve pain and swelling.

C ompression. A bandage should be wrapped around an injury for support and to help limit swelling.

E levation. The injured area should be elevated to keep fluid from collecting there.

If the pain or swelling is intense, a person should seek medical attention.

Every person is born with a certain genetic makeup that will determine one's body shape. If the body that a person is striving for is not possible, that person will be disappointed and most likely engage in unhealthy behavior, such as improper dieting and overexercising. The best approach to exercise is to use it to become physically fit and maintain health. This approach will produce the body shape that is right for each person. [See also exercise addiction section in Chapter 13: Eating Disorders.]



Cohen, Neil, ed. The Everything You Want to Know About Sports Encyclopedia: A Sports Illustrated for Kids Book. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.

Kybartas, Ray. Fitness Is Religion: Keep the Faith. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Nardo, Don. Exercise. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.

Scwager, Tina and Michele Schuerger. The Right Moves: A Girl's Guide to Getting Fit and Feeling Good. Minneapolis, Minn.: Free Spirit Publishing, 1998.

Web Sites

American School Health Association. [Online] (Accessed October 20, 1999).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. [Online] (Accessed October 20, 1999).

Kid's Health. [Online] (Accessed October 20, 1999).

National Association for Sport and Physical Education. [Online] (Accessed October 20, 1999).

President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. [Online] (Accessed October 20, 1999).


views updated May 21 2018


Fitness for what?

When we speak, perhaps with a hint of envy, of a ‘fit’ young man or woman — and even more when we refer, with undisguised admiration, to a ‘fit’ old person — there is little ambiguity as to our meaning: we are referring to fitness to cope with life in general, not only with sport, and certainly not a particular sport. Furthermore the international athlete, in peak of condition, is ‘fit’ for only a limited number of very similar events: the sprinter could not possibly run a marathon, the power lifter could compete with neither kind of runner at their events. The fitness of the racing driver is radically different from that of the dinghy sailor, the gymnast from that of the mountaineer and, perhaps most radically of all, the oarsman from that of the pistol shooter. Furthermore, many highly trained athletes, particularly those conditioned for endurance events, display greater, not less, vulnerability than the average person to many forms of illness.

Clearly then, we must distinguish ‘fitness for life’ from ‘fitness for sport’; and, when considering the latter, must specify which sport.

Fitness for life

This is a condition which we almost all desire, but few of us pursue with vigour. To attain and maintain it requires adequate and balanced nourishment, adequate and varied exercise, adequate but not excessive sleep, avoidance of excess in using social drugs, plentiful stimulation without excessive stress, and psychosocial well-being. The Aristotelian precept, ‘moderation in all things’, remains as good a guide as any to the balances which must be struck. Fitness for work, for leisure and recreational exercise, for family life and parenthood, and even for childbearing itself, and fitness to cope with emergencies — all are optimized in these broad ways. The influences of genetics and of environment are inescapable, so the fitness attained by one person will be very different from that attained by another, but all will approach their individual optima by personal application of the same balanced principles. Even Western and Eastern, secular and religious wisdoms (disregarding the most extreme of the latter) have much more in common than divergence in their guidelines for ‘fitness’, whether or not they would recognize that term; and modern science, while adding a few details on matters like trace nutrients, takes little issue with them about the broader picture.

Endurance fitness

If there is one aspect of specialist, sports-oriented fitness which embodies the greatest part of the lay ideal, it is probably endurance fitness — the ability to continue a demanding physical activity many times longer than the untrained person can. Whether the challenge is a London– Brighton cycle race, an ascent of the Matterhorn, or a Channel swim, the fundamentals of this category of fitness are the same. Each of these activities is trained for in essentially the same way — namely, by covering large mileages several days a week for many months, with few if any periods of exertion that are flat out, either in strength or speed. Each activity is, in turn, necessarily aerobic — an activity performed in balance with oxygen intake — and consequently requires that the heart can pump blood to the working muscles at several times its resting rate throughout the long duration of the exercise; also that the lungs can adequately oxygenate this enhanced blood flow as long as the exercise continues. ‘Cardio-respiratory fitness’ is thus a common feature of all endurance events, though they differ in the skeletal muscles used, and the movement patterns these muscles perform.

When muscles have been endurance-trained they are typically only a little larger than before the training began, months or years before. They become furnished, however, with a much more copious system of blood capillaries. Within the muscle fibres, mitochondria, the organelles involved in oxidative energy provision, may be 2–3 times more numerous than in untrained or differently trained fibres. Connective tissues within the muscle as well as the associated tendons and ligaments are stronger too. The nervous system must also participate in the training, for patterns of movement in the exercise concerned are usually measurably more economical than before the regime began.

Other forms of training

Pure strength training contrasts most markedly with the low-force, multiple-repetition work just described. Though increasing the bulk of the muscles and the maximum loads which they can handle, it adds little or nothing to their endurance. However the more commonly undertaken ‘weight training’, in which less extreme loads are worked against, with several times as many repetitions during the course of each gymnasium session, imparts ‘strength endurance’, a balance between the two extremes which arguably develops the most useful form of fitness for everyday life. Speed training, ‘plyometric’ (resilience) training, and flexibility training are other forms in which it is possible to specialize: in particular, yoga places a degree of emphasis upon flexibility which most other schools of physical educators would consider disproportionate. Nevertheless a programme of muscle stretching and joint flexibility should be part of the regime of every sportsperson seeking to improve not only performance but resistance to injury. Finally, between speed and endurance comes ‘anaerobic endurance’ — the ability to maintain a power output only a few per cent below flat out for several tens of seconds (as in 400 metre running) or to repeat short bursts many times in a period of about 90 min (as in hockey, soccer, and other ‘multiple sprint’ sports).

Specific versus general fitness

It would be widely agreed that the broader-based forms of fitness are of greater value in daily life than the extreme forms, such as pure endurance, pure strength, pure flexibility, or pure speed. Older literature embodied the ideal of breadth in the term ‘general fitness’. However, it is now appreciated that the dominating principle underlying the response of the body to training is its ‘specificity’. A particular exercise elicits the adaptive responses we call ‘training’ only from the specific muscles and other tissues exercised, and enhances only the specific property (endurance, strength, speed, or extensibility) which the exercise challenges. At best only very modest improvements of other properties or at other muscle sites (‘cross-training’) are ever reported, and they cannot be counted upon. A sport requiring many forms of fitness must thus have a training programme including many elements. There is probably only one sense in which ‘general fitness’ can be enhanced by most individual forms of exercise, pursued in isolation: since it is impossible to undertake any exercise without raising both pulse rate and ventilation, every form of exercise provides some cardio-respiratory training, and hence some degree of ‘general fitness’ in respect of these central organs. More thorough-going general fitness can only be attained by an exercise programme which is itself broad-based.

A broad-based programme can, of course, be achieved by regular visits to a well-conducted gymnasium; however, such a clinically purposeful regime is not the only way. Someone who, in a typical 2-week period, goes for a 40-minute run, plays a game of squash, spends an active 30 minutes in the swimming pool, does a couple of hours' heavy gardening, polishes the car energetically, chops wood, vacuum cleans the stairs twice, and scrubs the steps, especially if (s)he precedes at least the first three of these activities with 5–7 minutes of stretching and flexing exercises, will be as fit for life as a neighbour who visits the local gym three times a week. Any difference between them which is non-genetic may well be determined by which of them gets more sleep, or eats less fat.

Women, children, and the elderly

In modern, Western societies, women, children, and the elderly are particularly prone to take insufficient exercise. The Allied Dunbar National Fitness Survey found that, in England during 1990, only one woman in ten, whether aged 20 or 50, took the amount of exercise really recommended for health whereas, among the men, 30% of 20-year-olds and 20% of 50-year-olds did so. Dunbar's standards were admittedly high — among the 20-year-olds, for instance, it hoped to see three games of squash, or equivalent, per week. More recent research has shown that statistically demonstrable improvements in cardiovascular fitness, compared with the effects of taking no exercise at all, can be had from only three 20–30 minute periods per week of moderately vigorous walking. Nevertheless, about a quarter of women in the working age-groups do not even achieve this, which is a much more modest goal than the vibrant fitness sought by Dunbar.

Modern children are distracted by television and computer games and are more likely to be transported to and from school, so that they almost certainly take less exercise than their predecessors before the 1939–45 war (although incontrovertible figures for the past are hard to establish). They should be urged to the maximum amount of physical activity of which they seem capable. No damage will accrue, provided they wear well-fitting trainers, are provided with shock-absorbing landing mats for gymnastics, and don't spend more than 90 minutes, 3 days a week, with specialist, competitive coaches.

Amongst the elderly, a ‘disuse–disability spiral’ operates. Well-meaning younger carers can be the old person's worst enemies. If daily activities fail to maintain independence — the bottle top, the heavy kettle, and worst of all independence at the toilet, being critical markers of diminished capacity — exercise regimes can be of enormous benefit. Often this benefit is proportionately greater than in younger adults, because, through disuse, the elderly have declined further below their genetic capability. Instances of elderly people running marathons are well known, but strength training is at least as effective in the very old as endurance training, and may be even more beneficial.

Neil Spurway


Morris, J. et al. , (1992). Allied Dunbar National Fitness Survey. The Sports Council, London.
Sharkey, B. J. (1990). Physiology of fitness, (3rd edn). Human Kinetics, Champaign, Illinois.
Wilmore, J. H. and and Costill, D. L. (2000). Physiology of sport and exercise. 2nd ed. Human Kinetics, Champaign, Illinois.

See also exercise; health; sport.

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