Network’s Author of the Year – a 30-year veteran of our industry – questions what ‘fitness’ means in 2014.
I can still feel my arm reaching high above my head in a static stretch as I mirror the movement of the instructor, resplendent in her sparkly leotard, leg-warmers and bare feet. I can see her thin ‘fit’ body. At 23 years old, I wanted that body. I reach further, feeling the stretch, the tension, muscles lengthening. Sweat pours off me. It was a cold Dunedin day, but by the end of class my body was warm, strong, confident, energised and empowered.
I hadn’t yet heard of Jane Fonda, and neither did I ever contemplate my ‘fitness’. It was the 1980s and I was working shift work at the hospital. Team sports were a thing of the past for me, and while triathlons fulfilled my need to compete, it was this ‘Jazzergetics’ class that fulfilled my need to move in ways which my body and my mind welcomed. I was hooked, and it wasn’t just the endorphins – though they played a role. The class, the instructor, the music, the energy of the other participants – it was all so transformational. This is a word I now associate with ‘fitness’ – the industry, the instructors, the trainers – for it has transformed me. It has given me a career, friends, work colleagues, education. It defined me back then as it does today.
But what is this term ‘fitness’? Back in the ‘80s there were no measurements – ‘fitness’ just meant that I could get through an ‘aerobics’ class. I could compete with myself, the instructor and fellow participants, young and old, as we sweated our way through our Saturday afternoons.
Before long PhysEd School beckoned as I sought to become part of this dynamic industry. But lecturers back then viewed the emerging ‘fitness industry’ cynically. It was ‘gendered’ they said. It worked to hook women in to ‘false body ideals’. It demanded that you had to wear the ‘right clothing’. All of which excluded a lot of the population. From the back of the lecture theatre, I glared and thought to myself ‘I bet they’ve never been to a Jazzergetics class’. But I listened and learnt, because by now the sports scientists, exercise physiologists and Dr Kenneth Cooper and the US Surgeon General had quantified ‘fitness’ and introduced the FITT principle of Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type. This academic knowledge brought a new type of ‘fitness’ – one that was prescriptive, programmable and, of course, more marketable. Today’s formats such as HIIT, GRIT, BODYPUMP™ and CrossFit owe much to this research.
By the ‘90s I had left university and was leading a newly defined discipline of ‘fitness’ – one-on-one ‘personal training’ at Les Mills. Train harder. Become ‘fitter’. Lose weight. Shape up. Prescriptive ‘fitness’ was now a consumer commodity and members flocked to it. I built up a highly successful team of trainers, educated them and inspired them to inspire others. I was proud of my involvement.
Then my own pursuit of ‘fitness’ changed. I had children. I worked. I had no time, but perversely, yearned ‘fitness’ for time-out. As I struggled to make the time for ‘fitness’, I didn’t care what I did – I just cared that I did.
It’s a new decade now. I’m older and, although less ‘fit’, I’m no less motivated. ‘Fitness’ for me no longer means weight loss or muscle definition. I now know that nutrition will do that. The endorphin rush still plays a role, albeit a low-impact version, but I’ve learnt that ‘fitness’ is not solely the domain of the sports scientists and exercise physiologists. This thing we call ‘fitness’ is, more than ever, subjective. It has meaning. It has feeling. Our industry is unique. It’s about motivation, stimulation, transformation. There are many in society who would benefit from joining us and the challenge is to find ways to engage their minds and bodies. Fitness can mean different things to different people, so we don’t always need to quantify ‘fitness’, define it, perform ‘fitness assessments’ and prescribe ‘fitness programs’. Over the years I’ve discovered that ‘fitness’ also means ‘wellness’ – and this connotes psychological and social dimensions, not just physical. So for today’s fitness professionals, as you quantify your client’s ‘fitness’ by taking their BMI, waist-to-hip ratio, blood pressure, VO2, heart rate, RPE and 1RM, take the time to ask them the most important question of all – ‘What does ‘fitness’ mean to you?’
Wendy Sweet, MSpLS is a fitness industry educator, consultant and resource developer. In 2014 she was named Australian Fitness Network’s Author of the Year in recognition of her contribution to the ongoing education and upskilling of fitness professionals.