What it Really Means to be Active

Amaan Akhtar outlines the difference between what he calls being 'physically active' and 'physically fit.' We do not need to engage in regular strenuous workout sessions in order to be considered healthy and active by medical professionals. Maintaining an healthy and active lifestyle can be achieved by simply taking up an outdoor hobby, walking the dog or walking to work. Amaan argues that this is a safer and healthier attitude to have, which relieves one of the guilt and pressure around working-out. 

When someone says that they are an active individual, our minds usually conjure up dreadful images, like lung-bursting cardio, heavy weightlifting sessions and gruelling hours of sports practise. Yet, if you were to inquire further into their supposedly active lifestyle, you may be perplexed when they respond with “I walk for several hours a week”.

But why do we only associate ‘being active’ with intense exercise?   

It is because there is a subtle distinction that people tend not to recognise: being physically active is not the same as being physically fit. The former involves engaging in any activity that moves your entire body, whilst the latter focuses on pushing your body past its perceived limits. This means that you could theoretically be physically active by doing shopping or taking the dog for a walk; but physical fitness can only be improved by intentionally increasing the intensity, length and frequency of any planned physical activity such as exercise.

Yet both terms seem to be used interchangeably, to the point where they are now considered synonymous. This disparity between activity and fitness needs to be addressed properly, as it misconstrues what it truly means to be active and healthy.  

For instance, there is a minimum requirement of physical activity that we should do on a weekly basis:  government authorities recommend at least two and a half hours of moderate aerobic activity per week (think cardio), for overall health - but they only suggest doing strength exercises (i.e. anaerobic activity) twice a week at a minimum, for developing muscular endurance. Whilst we can easily achieve this quota through our daily commute or spending more time outdoors/playing sports, it has become more convenient in our society to shift our focus to fitness training instead, to work on both types of physical activity.

Yet, when you look at most gym goers and athletes’ training routines, they go way beyond this status quo: as they dedicate a heavy portion of their time to strength exercises and incorporate regular cardio sessions (at a steady or intense pace), at least five to six days a week.

Whilst it is great that many people are working on improving physical fitness, not everyone enjoys fitness training, because it demands a lot of physical and mental energy from our bodies. Through unrealistic body image standards, we are expected to continuously exert them, so they inevitably break down and recover, becoming even stronger and “better looking” than before.

Although we do not need to live up to these standards, our bodies are designed in a way that requires an active lifestyle – they consistently need to be mobile, to be tested and challenged in a variety of ways. Additionally, the pressure of the ideal body image in society has created a perpetual state of fear that prevents us from accepting who we are as an individual. With these factors, it is not surprising that a lot of us prefer to be sedentary, because it is much more satisfying in our heads to conjure up anything else which is not physically demanding, to do instead.

However, maybe the problem lies instead in our mind-set and intentions towards physical activity itself – when most people think about being active, they set goals that prioritise aesthetics over function. Because in this modern age we are constantly subjected to influences from advertising and the media, which have warped our own personal views on our ideal body type, we yearn to shed any unwanted weight and to pack on slabs of muscle. As a result, this body image epidemic has made many of us trade the prescribed healthy dose of physical activity for intense workout routines intended to act as a “shortcut” to achieve that ideal physique that many desperately crave.

Unfortunately, this trade-off can be damaging; when we devote our attention to moulding the external appearance of our bodies, we neglect the internal systems that maintain our health and wellbeing. The physically fit and toned individuals may possess incredible strength and seem healthy in appearance, however they are not immune to damage within.

If we subject our body to extreme levels of activity in our weekly schedule, the cardiovascular system pays the price – the heart and lungs must consistently work at a high rate to cope with the demands of our vigorous schedule, and could lead to severe health risks if they do not get an opportunity to calm down. Additionally, if we do not give our muscles adequate time to recover and integrate less physically-demanding activities into our active lifestyle (such as flexibility and stretching) to counterbalance the exhaustive physical effort; then our bodies will develop issues such as stiffness and pain that impairs even the strongest individual’s mobility.

Ultimately, we need to focus on striking a balance in the physical activity we do, as this will provide the best overall health benefits for you. But we must do it at our own pace, to suit our own individual needs and lifestyle and that can only be achieved if we focus on the bigger picture, our health and wellbeing.

Many of us are fortunate to be able to engage with this world every day through movement, whether it is subconsciously with the smallest gestures from our body, or through conscious actions that we do when carrying out our daily routines. Our body grants most of us this incredible gift, so we are indebted to it. We have a responsibility to be active by taking up that outdoor hobby or making consistent, slight changes to our lifestyle that keep our body mobile and healthy. And in turn it will provide us with numerous health benefits that prevent both mental and physical health conditions such as depression, anxiety, diabetes, strokes and osteoporosis.