We use health-related fitness to build our everyday foundation to have enough energy to avoid fatigue and to simply enjoy life. The older we get, the more important a healthy body gets. I have said this in my articles many times: health is our most important good.
The great thing about it is that most of it is in our own control. Later in this article I will present that your general fitness is crucial for any specific sport you want to become better at. This is referred to as the principles of generality and specificity.
I will explain what health-related fitness is, the various components, how to improve them, and how to incorporate them into a healthy lifestyle that delivers results and that you can stick to long-term.
Let's dive in.
What Is Health-Related Fitness?
It is a generally established and agreed fact that engaging in fitness-related activities has a beneficial impact on health. A more formal definition of health-related fitness is "a multidimensional construct containing the components cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and body composition."
This definition is used in many places. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), for example, uses this to create their guidelines for physical activity.
In my article, "How Can I Really Measure How Fit I Am?", I am leaning on CrossFit's definition of fitness. Essentially this definition says that fitness ideally is our ever increasing work capacity in various different areas, which we achieve by constant new stimulus.
Regular physical activity is linked to reduced risk factors of cardiovascular disease, various cancers, Type 2 diabetes, and improved mental health. Other proven benefits of an active lifestyle are the reduction of risk of heart disease, obesity, and all health risks related to it.
Generally, health-related fitness improves the quality of life in every age, but in particular when we get older. That it is why it is such a crucial topic in public health that should get way more attention. Personally, I believe this should already start in schools where generally physical education is not substantial enough — or in fact, entirely missing. I would gladly exchange (most of) my six years of Latin for proper physical and nutritional education. This is a life skill that's way more important than most other skills taught in school.
Let's take a look at the different components of health-related fitness and how you can improve them.
11 Components of Physical Fitness
There are 11 components that determine our physical fitness levels. Five components are health related (cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, muscular endurance, body composition) and six are skill related (agility, balance, coordination, power, reaction time, speed). Various fitness tests can be used to determine your general fitness level or your performance in a specific component.
Let's look at all these components in detail.
Health-Related Fitness Components
Five characteristics are used to describe your level of general fitness. These are essential to building a solid foundation for general fitness and well-being. It is important that you (or your coach) balance them in your exercise program according to your goals and circumstances. These health-related components serve as a basis not only for better health and also for any other specific type of sport. I will address this in detail later in the section about the principles of generality and specificity.
Cardiovascular fitness (also referred to as cardiorespiratory fitness) is the level at which your body can exercise for a long time. Aerobic fitness or capacity is often used as a measure of the heart’s ability to pump oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body and also how fast we can recover from strenuous physical activity. To do this you require a strong heart, healthy lungs, and clear blood vessels to supply the body with oxygen.
Muscular strength is the ability of a muscle or major muscle groups to use force against a resistance. This is related to your maximum strength. People with more general strength will suffer less from certain nagging pains like back pain and can carry out daily activities (like lifting up and carrying home shopping bags) easier. We can improve muscle strength via resistance training. We can achieve this by leveraging body weight exercises like pushups or exercises with equipment like using a barbell for deadlifts or squats.
Flexibility and mobility are two very similar concepts. Flexibility refers to the ability to lengthen your muscles, muscle groups, and tendons, while mobility is your joints' ability to reach their full range of motion. Flexibility can be increased by static or dynamic stretching. Before you stretch you should usually do a simple warm-up to avoid injury. A classic flexibility exercise for fitness testing is sit-and-reach.
Muscular endurance is similar to muscular strength but in this case force is applied over a longer period of time against less resistance. It is different to muscular strength in the sense that it does not test your maximum force (like a 1-rep-max/1RM) but using your muscles for longer without getting tired. A good example where this ability is important is boxing where we hit a bag or a pad many times with force but we are not tested regarding our maximum strength.
To train muscular endurance we use different ranges of sets and reps, as I explained in my article, "Muscle Hypertrophy vs. Strength: What’s the Difference?"
Body composition breaks down your weight into four areas: muscle, fat, minerals, and water. It's the ratio of your lean body mass versus body fat. Other related measures are body weight or body mass index (BMI). People with a high body fat percentage are more likely to be affected by diseases and even have a higher death rate. Following a health-related nutrition and exercise program not only improves their body composition but also health and well-being. Body composition can be measured with calipers, special scales, body circumference measurements, or DEXA scans.
Skill-Related Fitness Components
Above, I described the five components to improving overall fitness and health. If you want to improve your skills in a specific sport or activity, you need to work on skill-related components.
Let's take the sport of climbing as an example. You need to have cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and muscular endurance to be able to climb and enjoy it. But in order to become really good, you will need to develop skill-related components such as balance, power, and coordination. Research in the field of human kinetics has identified six such skills. Every sportive activity is characterized by the need to develop certain skills in certain ways.
Agility is the ability to change direction quickly and effectively in a controlled way. Typical sports examples where agility is important are basketball, football, or tennis. Athletes need to be quick on their feet and be able to react and move into other directions instantly. To improve agility, drills are used that develop foot speed and direction change, such as ladder drills.
Balance is the ability to maintain an upright body position while moving or being stationary. It's related to proprioception (i.e., knowing where your body is in space) and being able to adjust. Balance is a skill that is especially important in yoga, gymnastics, snowboarding, Thai boxing, and trail or obstacle race running. A good way to train balance is to add a source of instability to standard exercises like squats or pushups using, for example, a BOSU ball or a balance board. Or, try standing on one leg while performing different poses.
Coordination is the ability to quickly and correctly integrate input from your senses (what you see, hear, or feel) with body movements (especially hand or foot). Among others, this skill is required whenever you need to catch or hit something. Examples include basketball, baseball, racket sports, martial arts, archery, or hockey. Good ways to improve coordination (apart from simply performing your sport of choice) is juggling or rope jumping.
Power is the ability to generate maximal force in the shortest possible period of time. It combines strength and speed. The best example of power athletes are Olympic weightlifters performing snatches, cleans, or jerks. But all other sports where explosiveness is required (like jumping in volleyball) requires the power skill to be well-developed. Power especially focuses on the fast twitch muscle fibers. It can be improved by leveraging plyometric exercises like box jumps or clapping pushups, kettlebell swings, sprinting with resistance bands, or Olympic lifts.
Reaction time is the ability to respond quickly to an external stimulus (like a starting gun in sprinting). This skill is strongly related to how well your body-mind connection is developed and established. You receive a stimulus, your mind processes this and then sends the right signals to your body. This reaction time should be as short as possible. For most experienced athletes in a certain sport this becomes instinctive. Reaction time is typically improved by gaining sport-specific experience and performing related drills.
Speed is the ability to move as fast as possible from one point to another. This is obviously relative. For a sprinter, "speed" means something different than for a marathon runner. That also means that speed needs to be developed and trained in different ways. The best way to improve speed is to do it over and over again and rely on cardiovascular and muscle adaptations over time. Interval training like HIIT is an effective protocol.
The Principles of Generality and Specificity
In order to achieve your goal (whatever that is: improving general health and/or sports performance) more effectively, it is very useful to understand and apply the principles of generality and specificity. Below is an illustration that I use in my Achieve Superior Health & Fitness Online Courses.
These principles are related to the 11 components of physical fitness but from a different perspective. It can be visualized like a pyramid. The foundation is formed by following the principle of generality, which helps you build a good level of general fitness and health. This is necessary not only for everyday life and well-being but also for any specific sport performance. There are indirect carryovers from general fitness to specific sports like a good level of strength, endurance, or body composition.
The principle of specificity covers all the characteristics and set of skills related to your specific sport. As shown in my illustration above, this splits into two layers. The second layer includes sport specific training techniques where certain aspects are isolated and improved by drilling. For example, as a basketball player you need to have a high field goal percentage. So, you practice throwing. A lot of it. As a boxer you need to have a good defense. So you practice slip, bob, and weave drills. These drills have direct carryover effects to your primary sport.
The last part of the pyramid is simply executing your sport in its entirety. I am sure you know the old saying "practice makes perfect." That is exactly it. In order to become better at your sport you need to do it as often as you can. This joins all the dots and combines all the health-related and skill-related components of fitness to make you a better athlete over time.
How To Live a Healthy Lifestyle That's Fun
In this article I discussed a lot about the physical aspects of improving health based on fitness. However, there are a couple more aspects that are important to live a healthy lifestyle that's fun and that you can live by long term.
One is nutrition. Nutrition is so powerful. That's why I studied it a lot and made it one of the four legs of my 4 Legs of Fitness model. You get out of your body what you put in. I recommend getting a good understanding of the main principles of nutrition or working with a coach. Getting your nutrition right is paramount to achieving your goal. Additionally, you can choose the right foods to help you heal injuries, avoid injuries by reducing inflammation, or improve happiness by getting enough vitamin D.
Another aspect that's overlooked way too often is recovery. Your body (and mind) improves and grows during your rest periods. You need to make sure that the quantity and quality of your rest is appropriate. If you overdo it with physical activity, you risk overtraining and its consequences like injuries.
In order to improve what you are doing, you need to actually measure it. I started to use the WHOOP system to objectively measure my level of recovery. Every day, this helps me determine the optimal level of training intensity without the risk of overtraining or injury. You can use my WHOOP link and we both get one month of WHOOP for free.
I also highly recommend making your health (and fitness) a priority. It may at times be harder to follow a healthy lifestyle. For that I recommend introducing systems that help you achieve your goals. These are routines or habits (like a morning routine) that help you automatically follow your path without too much thinking.
In another article I provide some tips about how to make it easier to follow a fitness program. This includes choosing exercises or activities that you like doing, so it makes it easier to follow. CrossFit or weightlifting gyms are not for everyone, so consider being out in nature hiking or climbing. The possibilities are endless.
If you start following a training plan, make sure you follow my principles in order to improve. Finally, social pressure or encouragement really works wonders. Get a workout buddy or a coach. External accountability is very powerful and helps you stay on track.
Use a Fitness-Oriented Lifestyle To Improve Your Health
Our health is our most important good. Using the ideas of health-related fitness helps us to reap the health benefits in a fun way. In this article I presented the 11 components of health-related physical fitness. I discussed their importance for general health as well as skill-related aspects and how to improve them. I also showed how this is related to the principles of generality and specificity, which is a model that I use a lot due to its simplicity and effectiveness.
I use these principles in my work with clients. My flagship program is Build Bullet-Proof Health, which aims at general health and fitness goals such as losing weight, getting stronger, or body recomposition. After an initial assessment the program offers exercise and nutrition plans to achieve your goals. For sport-specific goals, I offer bespoke programs.
Sounds interesting? Try it for free.
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