We hear sentiments about fitness all the time, especially in early January. We tend to describe fitness as a state or as an end goal — “I’m getting fit,” “That person is really fit,” or “I’m really out of shape.” But I wonder: does the language and terminology we associate with ‘fitness’ unwittingly bewitch us?
Let’s think about fitness is a spectrum or a continuum, rather than a state. No matter how ‘fit’ you are, you could always technically be ‘fitter’. (And what does ‘unfitness’ mean, exactly?) You can never really ‘get fit’ in a literal sense — you never cross a magical threshold and receive a certificate of achievement that says, “Congratulations! You are now Officially Fit!”
Let’s consider the concept of adaptiveness instead. Like all living creatures, humans are continually adapting organisms. If you sit on the couch all day eating potato chips and Smarties, you will adapt to these demands. If you run 5km every morning, you will adapt to this demand instead. Your body adapts to whatever you do in order to be fit for that purpose. This is equally true whether you are eating potato chips or running a daily 5km. If you constantly lift lots of heavy things, the continual tearing of muscle demands more muscle growth.
The composition of your body is a case study in adaptation: for the most part you are probably remarkably well acclimated to whatever you do on a regular basis. At the cellular level, these adaptations are not necessarily positive or negative, your body has simply adapted to the demands placed on it. These might be demands to store excess caloric energy or demands to increase cardiovascular capacity. Adaptivity is inherently neutral: it does nothing but mould to variables and demands. Your body is continually conforming itself to the world you inhabit, the activities you perform, the diet you consume, and the contexts and circumstances you experience. Indeed, it is the essence of life itself to revise, modify, and conform to its particular situation. Adaptiveness is what it means to be alive. The big question is: what are you adapting to?
One thing seems for sure: you are adapting to something.
An adaptivity approach appreciates the complex interconnectedness of the brain and body. The psychological and physical are not independent, isolated systems. Several extra pounds can nurture a lethargic desire to tarry in Candyland. Getting accustomed to an exercise-induced endorphin rush can make you feel miserable if you don’t get your daily dose. The point: You can never eliminate the reciprocal patterns of biology that influence your behaviour — but you can influence them. This is the key. You can shape who you are becoming inasmuch as you can shape the variables that you must adapt to. ‘Fitness’ is a chronically ambiguous goal, but hacking your own addictions and habits can seismically alter your evolutionary trajectory as an individual. This is an adaptivity mindset.
As a human, I am in a unique position to take some degree of ownership for my own adaptive potential. I can hijack my own micro-evolution, in a sense. To a limited extent, I can select my own nature. But the key lesson here is that self-transformation does not transpire by sitting in a room and willing myself to change, but rather by changing the room or leaving it.
This whole mindset derives from basic evolutionary biology. If you want to change a species, you can only really change the variables that the species must interact with. You might adjust context, pressures, and circumstances of a generation, but you can do little to rewire an individual animal itself. But at the cellular level, we are fractals of our evolutionary origins. Genetically identical seeds produce varyingly unique plants depending on the conditions wherein they are planted. In this sense we are all well-adapted to the unique lives we are living. We are all ‘fit’, so to speak, as evidenced by the fact that we’ve survived thus far.
But what are we becoming? This is the underlying concern of self-change and we cannot address it without asking how our circumstances and environments inform our ideas, wills, emotions, and choices. What does the world around us presently demand us to become adapted to? This is not just an interesting question to ask ourselves because it is January, but it might be the question that makes us uniquely human. There is much more to ‘fitness’ than whether or not we go to the gym today.