Is Athleticism Good for Your Health?

athletics CrossFit fitness health martial arts


CrossFit defines fitness as work capacity, how much force you can exert over a given time frame. The more weight you move, farther, faster, and more often, the more work your body is capable of, and the greater your fitness. This is a good definition of fitness because it is measurable and quantifiable, thus making it something that can be consciously improved and developed.

There are other definitions though. The biological definition of fitness is that ability of an organism to pass on its genes. This might include factors such as work capacity, but ultimately boils down to reproductive viability. Often, however, an organism's reproductive fitness is directly tied to its physical fitness; the stronger, hardier stag will win the fights and get the does. That is why lean, muscular men are sexy.

The reason I bring up the second definition is because humans, being organisms, are governed to some extent by the laws of nature. That is, our health has developed to become correlated with our fitness. People with high reproductive likelihoods tend to be healthier. In layman's terms, health is sexy, at least on some level. We are attracted to healthy people.


So what is health? CrossFit has another definition handy. Health is fitness over time, or work capacity over age. Ultimately, the goal of CrossFit is to promote health by engaging in fitness pursuits that promote work capacity over the long term. In general, I agree with this philosophy. If there were one standard to improve in the elderly which would improve their quality of life, it is work capacity. Because work capacity translates into strength, stamina, cardiovascular endurance, and a range of other things, finding ways to improve it will definitely make people happier and healthier into their old age.

Health also has connotations of being free of disease and degeneration, though it is quite easy to imagine an individual with a terminally ill disease with fairly high work capacity. It also implies being pain free generally, though I suppose being healthy doesn't necessitate being pain free.


Athleticism is evidenced by one who partakes in a sport. Since sports can range from mixed martial arts all the way to sport fishing, athleticism has no real correlation to fitness under this definition. A better definition is taken from the connotation of athleticism. When I think of an athletic individual, I tend to think of a soccer player; lean, fast, powerful, agile. Gymnasts are up there, as are martial artists. That's just my image, but these all have in common high levels of physical performance as well as mental coordination.

Nevertheless, my doctor maintains that sports involve lots of repetitive motion, and that the fitness they develop is far from functional or healthy. In a way, I suppose this makes sense, because specialization leads to detriments in other areas (marathoners can't sprint, powerlifters can't jump, etc.). A baseball pitcher specializes so much in throwing baseballs that he develops uneven musculature and often rotator cuff injuries from overuse. There is such a thing as too much work capacity it seems. Eventually, the strain of maintaining that level of output causes the pieces to fall apart, and then you've got a decline in work capacity. Which means a decline in health.

Does this mean that athletes are unhealthy, or that trying to get to high levels of fitness is bad for you? Probably not, since there are individuals with far greater levels of fitness than I who don't have pain in their shoulders. But certainly some athletes are unhealthy and pain-ridden.

A New Kind of Warrior, an Old Kind of Athlete

It stands to reason that unlocking the greatest human potential does not involve hobbling the body with minor and persistent injuries. The concept of unlocking potential implies a flowering, the human being blossoming under the right stimuli. It requires balance to enable excellence. Quiet juxtaposed with intensity, flexibility to temper strength, agility to counterbalance solidity and heft.

To be fair, this concept is not new. It is, in fact, extremely ancient, but seems to have gone out of fashion despite 'advances' in fitness. Ancient schools of martial arts were hardly just about fighting, but rather set out a program for the betterment of all aspects of the human person. Meditation, flexibility, speed, coordination, focus, awareness, strength, power, balance, nutrition: all these were inseparable from the ancient Warrior's quest to become a master. To focus on one at the expense of another was not only to create a chink in your abilities for your enemies to exploit, but also led to imbalance that would eventually lead to problems.

Certainly, all sports, practiced consciously, have the potential for this all-encompassing approach to fitness/health.

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