I would propose that physical fitness is a state of having the physical ability to perform at a certain level. For example, Lance Armstrong...physically fit, enough said. Achieving a state of physical health, on the other hand, requires a less performance-based measurement and more of a holistic understanding of the continuous inner workings of these glorious bodies of ours. When your body is in a healthy state, it is free of illness and disease, it is digesting efficiently, sleeping well, and properly balancing hormone levels in a sea of constantly shifting currents. My point in making the distinction between fitness and healthiness is that, while they often come together, that is often not the case.
Take me for example. I've been an athlete all my life to some degree. From playground foot races and jump rope, to Little League, AYSO soccer, college intramurals, adult pick-up games, organized adult league sports, even solo activities like marathon running, swimming, and cycling. You might say...it's a sickness that I refuse to be cured of.
Nevertheless, despite all these activities, I spent the years from my childhood to my recent adulthood getting progressively unhealthy. How is that possible? Well, throughout all of these athletic pursuits, I focused (to my detriment) solely on performance-based goals (Type A American mindset, anyone?) and ignored the deeper, often quieter, inner workings and balances that were slowing down or malfunctioning within my body.
Now, don't get me wrong, I consider myself still a young guy at 36, so this path didn't lead me to any serious illnesses or diseases, but the two biggest and most apparent impacts for me were my energy level and my weight. Even though I logged thousands of miles in marathon training (my longest training run once was 30 miles!) and even though I raced my bicycle up to the top of a mountain near my home on a regular basis, I was constantly fatigued, physically uncomfortable (especially after meals), and steadily gaining weight. Talk about counter-intuitive!
Just to give you and example, here's a picture of me after cycling up a mountain in the Mt. Diablo Challenge. In total I rode about 50 miles that day. Fifteen casual flat miles from my house to the race, eleven grueling miles up the mountain, eleven white-knuckle miles down, then fifteen exhausting miles home. Was I fit? Sure. How could I have done all that without first achieving a certain level of fitness. Was I healthy? Well, look at my sagging chest and bulging middle. Thank goodness those shorts don't reveal too much! There's a reason bike shorts are black...to make your butt look smaller to passing cars!
Seriously though, at this time I was a good 20 pounds heavier than I am now, but more importantly, my body composition was WAY off. The ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass was completely out of whack. Most likely because I was eating a high carb diet "for energy" and in an attempt to avoid muscle gain (which I gain easily) so that I would be lean and mean, not bulky and muscle-bound. In my ignorance, with all those carbs I was eating, I was still increasing my mass...just in fat rather than muscle. Not a good way to go!
I realize now that by reducing my carb intake, I could have shed the extra pounds and still had the energy to train. In fact, reducing my weight would have probably boosted my energy levels right there. In addition, if I had focused on a diet that emphasized a variety of fruits and vegetables (energy producing) and lean meats (for muscle strength and density), I could have achieved the lean and mean physique I wanted without bulk by just moderating my overall food consumption and my training intensity.
I've come a long way since those days. I've learned a lot along the way. I'm definitely eating better, training smarter and feeling great! I'm much "healthier" and, as a result, much "fitter" than I have ever been before. (I'll have to write another post about all the pain I've avoided by walking, literally walking, away from all that endurance training.) So, don't be pressured into setting only performance-based goals for yourself that ignore the quality of your body's internal functions. If you put your health first, you can raise your body's efficiency and power, which will in turn lead you to outperform what you previously thought you could do at the height of fitness.