How often do you say, “Today’s the day. I’m putting physical fitness at the top of my taking-care-of-me list.” Now answer this: How many times a year does physical fitness fall off your priority list?
Wait! Before you answer, are you sure you know what physical fitness means?
Many Americans confuse “physical activity,” “exercise,” and “physical fitness,” using the terms interchangeably. Here’s a snapshot of each1:
Physical activity is a bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure.
Exercise, a subset of physical activity, is planned, structured and repetitive movement with a goal to improve or maintain physical fitness.
Physical fitness is a set of attributes that are either health- or skill-related.
If your physical fitness goals often fall by the wayside, part of the problem may be knowing where to begin, how to keep going and figuring out what physical fitness means. Confusion can sabotage the best intentions.
Let’s lighten your self-care journey by clearing up seven physical fitness myths.
1. I’m already physically fit because I go to the gym every day.
Any conversation about physical fitness has to include exercise, nutrition, sleep and mental health. “I don’t see how it’s possible to achieve physical fitness without a balance between all your lifestyle choices,” says Robyn Arbogast, LMT, owner of Pure Synergy Wellness Studio serving the northern Dallas area. “Someone may think they’re physically fit just because they can bench press their body weight. But what if this person can’t jog around the block without getting winded because they smoke? What if they live on junk food? Let’s say this person’s job is so stressful they can’t turn off and sleep at night. It doesn’t matter how much weight this person can lift, they’re actually very unhealthy.”
In addition, even the most strenuous, trainer-designed daily gym workout can’t serve the full physical fitness equation, says Todd Durkin, LMT, owner of Fitness Quest 10, and author of "Get Your Mind Right." For that reason, he prefers the term functional fitness over physical fitness. “Functional fitness is about having the strength and vitality to be occupationally functional over a long period of time,” says Durkin. “The right metabolic workout will promote good posture, muscle tone and strength, improved flexibility and cardiovascular fitness. That’s the ‘yang’ of exercise. But to be functionally fit, you have to have ‘ying’ activities—stretches, yoga, breathwork or meditation—at least two or three times a week. That’s when you can tap into how you feel and maybe shift your energy to a more positive place, which won’t happen in a spin class or the weight room.”
2. Physical fitness is about six-pack abs, rock hard glutes and sculpted arms.
That’s a big misconception, says Nina Cherie Franklin, Ph.D., healthy living coach in Atlanta. First, exercise is only one part of the physical fitness equation. “I define physical fitness as having the ability to carry out your individual, day-to-day tasks efficiently, with minimal effort and without high risk for injury,” says Franklin. “A hundred sit-ups and bicep curls alone won’t give you this broad level of fitness.”
Second, Franklin adds with a wink, if six-packabs aren’t your goal, then skip the stomach crunches. “Structured exercise is part of physical fitness, but everyone needs to find their own exercise groove. This is about self-care, so honor yourself.”
And that “groove” is wide open to individual preference—providing there’s consistency. “You need a routine that you enjoy and will stick with,” advises Franklin. “Consistency is key if you want to build the muscle strength and endurance you need to be a massage therapist and live your best life.”
3. I don’t have 60 minutes every day for a gym workout.
David Madon, LMT, in Owings Mills, Maryland, is an avid jogger and exercise enthusiast—although he’s the first to admit that some days are too booked for his usual workout. “You can absolutely break your exercise session down into quick 10-minute sessions. Take a walk around the block or do some stretches. I’ve read studies that give shorter workouts a lot of credibility.”
One such study looked at 10-minute physical activity sessions and concluded that moderate to vigorous mini-workouts throughout the day appear to be equally as effective as spending an hour at the gym.2
In another study, researchers asked study participants to vigorously climb three flights of stairs three times a day, spacing the sprints out between one to four hours. Evidence shows positive cardiovascular improvement regardless of time between climbs, as long as there was some training consistency.3
4. I’m already physically fit because my career as a massage therapist is so physically demanding.
Precisely because massage therapy is indeed a physically demanding career choice, it’s not uncommon for a therapist to feel pain in their muscles, nerves and tendons due to repetitive strain injury (RSI) and overuse.
“We bend over a table all day, using the same muscles and repeating the same movements— client after client,” says Margie Mansir, LMT, in Sarasota, Florida, and licensed practical nurse. “It’s so important that we counterbalance those repetitive movements with stretches, yoga or resistance training to build strength and endurance.”
In full agreement, Arbogast goes a step further. “First you burn out muscles and then it moves on to emotional burnout. All of a sudden it feels like this just isn’t the right career for you and you quit.”
Physical activity to prevent or reverse RSI has a strong following, although allegiance is based mostly on anecdotal evidence with no large clinical studies to cite. There are a few smaller studies, such as a 2011 investigation that included 19 patients with carpal tunnel syndrome. After working with a hand and finger exercise ball for one month, about 21 percent of patients gained grip strength. After three months, 34 percent had gained strength.4
5. I book clients five days a week, which is plenty of physical activity.
There’s a difference between on-the-job physical activity and self-care physical activity. “When you get up and move for your own health and mental wellness, you’re respecting your body and your health. That’s important since we spend our career respecting the client’s body,” says Mansir.
Science says Mansir is on to something. In a 2016 study, researchers investigated the relationship between physical activity and self-esteem. The results suggest that among a sample of adults, physical activity is directly and indirectly associated with self-esteem, perceived physical fitness and body image.5
6. It takes a lot of strenuous, high-intensity, vigorous physical activity to get physically fit and I’m just not into that.
“Some people think they have to train two hours a day, seven days a week to be in great shape. That’s not true,” Durkin says. “You do need aerobic activity for heart health, but getting fit is also about yoga, tai chi, meditation, nutrition and sleep—they’re all part of the physical, mental and emotional fitness paradigm.”
Resent research agrees with Durkin. A cross-sectional study, including more than 1,100 young men and women, found that eating well, getting regular exercise and logging in enough high-quality sleep each night can help boost psychological well-being and reduce the risk of conditions like depression and anxiety.6 Sleep quality and quantity took first place as the top indicator of someone’s depression level and overall well-being, or “flourishing.” Physical activity came in second as a predictor of depressive symptoms. Diet was the weakest indicator of depressive symptoms, although there was a strong plug for raw fruit and vegetable consumption as a predictor of “greater well-being.”
7. Once I reach my fitness goals, my work is done.
It’s never time to coast, Arbogast cautions. “Fitness is about making progress. And again, that’s across the whole fitness spectrum—sleep, nutrition, physical activity and mental health. So if we’re talking about being well, I don’t believe there’s an end game. In fact, once we start to say, ‘Well, I’m healthy and fit enough,’ that’s when we start to lose health and fitness.”
Mansir has seen firsthand how important it is to keep physical fitness on the self-care list. “As a nurse, I’ve seen patients in their 80s who can run circles around patients in their 50s. Over the years, I learned that it’s all about lifestyle choices—and those lifestyle choices keep adding up over time.”
Making physical fitness a top self-care priority is ultimately about your mindset, Franklin emphasizes. “The activities you chose to do, how you fuel your activity, how you recover from activity—everything is part of your health picture. A broader mindset makes all the difference as to whether or not you actually get up in the morning and head for your massage table—or burn out and quit the career you love.”
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1. Caspersen CJ, Powell KE, Christenson GM. "Physical activity, exercise, and physical fitness: definitions and distinctions for health-related research." Public Health Rep. 1985;100(2):126-131.
2. Saint-Maurice PF, Troiano RP, Matthews CE, and Kraus WE. "Moderate-to-Vigorous Physical Activity and All-Cause Mortality: Do Bouts Matter?"
3. McMaster University. “Short bouts of stairclimbing throughout the day can boost health.” ScienceDaily, 18 January 2019.
4. Ünver S, Akyolcu N. "The Effect of Hand Exercise on Reducing the Symptoms in Hemodialysis Patients with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome." Asian J Neurosurg. 2018;13(1):31-36.
5. Zamani Sani SH, Fathirezaie Z, Brand S, et al. "Physical activity and self-esteem: testing direct and indirect relationships associated with psychological and physical mechanisms." Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2016;12:2617-2625.
6. Wickham SR, Amarasekara NA, Bartonicek A, Conner TS. "The Big Three Health Behaviors and Mental Health and Well-Being Among Young Adults: A Cross-Sectional Investigation of Sleep, Exercise, and Diet." Front Psychol. 2020 Dec 10;11:579205.