Over the twenty-two years I’ve been a Rolfer®, the seven years of doing CrossFit and the six I’ve spent coaching and owning a CrossFit gym, I’ve asked myself a lot questions about what is the optimum level of functional fitness we should have as humans. I’ve read a lot about this subject, I’ve taken years of continuing education on it—the last year I’ve been in the OPEX Coaching program—I’ve had numerous discussions about it, and last week when someone who used to train with us stopped tby the gym and asked me the question I struggled to answer. This article is a start on the answer to the question “What is Functional Fitness?”.

A Definition of Fitness

Greg Glassman the founder of CrossFit wrote a seminal paper defining fitness in October 2002. It’s this article that introduced the seeds of the CrossFit training methodology.
He argued, in the paper, that before we can have a discussion of fitness we need to actually define what we mean by the term. He used ten general “skills”, articulated by Jim Crawley and Bruce Evans, as a starting point. These skills are:
Cardio-Vascular/Respiratory Endurance – Stamina – Strength – Flexibility – Power – Speed – Coordination – Agility – Balance – Accuracy.

He postulated that a person is as fit as they are competent in these ten physical skills. A person who was more competent in these skills, on average, would be fitter than one who wasn’t. Being competent in these ten skills requires that one have a broad exposure to training not specialization.
The fit human is one who is able to adapt to the constantly changing physical challenges of life.

Disease – Health – Fitness

Anyone who’s ever had a wellness exam has been exposed to this continuum of Wellness. We take blood tests to see if we are disease free—cholesterol, bone density, PSA, Triglycerides—our blood pressure is taken… If we are free of obvious disease, we are considered “healthy”. If we have some problems, high blood pressure, we’re given a drug that artificially controls the problem and declared healthy. After all we’re aware of the problem. In this model we’re never tested to see if we are “Fit”, simply because Fit resides beyond simple Health bio-markers–if all we’re concerned about it Health and Fit is beyond health, who cares about FIT? But, if you’re Fit you’re beyond Healthy, and being FIT provides a wide margin from Disease.
If this logic works, then it makes sense for our wellness professionals to prescribe Fitness as the first line of action to combat Disease. Unfortunately, drugs are commonly prescribed and their side effects are generally less than healthy.
We, in the US, are a population that has been conditioned to believe that something that comes easy is valuable. Researchers recently suggested that drinking a glass of wine had the benefit of an hour of exercise. I find this idea attractive and really, really wish it were accurate, but when I drink wine I’m not at my peak performance. Test this premise; you’re in a car accident the First Responders in case one are getting fit by drinking wine, in case two they’re in the gym working hard. Who do you want to see coming to your rescue?

Slow Fitness Decline

I think we all agree that health is something we have to work on. We can’t expect to be healthy if we smoke, drink too much and don’t exercise. The problem is that while we need to decrease the influence of the bad habits in our life, we don’t seem to understand that we have to increase the good habits in our life. Exercise if it is to continue to benefit us has to be adjusted to keep our body adapting to it. For instance, let’s assume that we decide to take up running. In the beginning we might find running a mile very difficult, but if we keep after it sooner or later we’ll be able to run the mile without much difficulty. If run an 8-minute mile without too much difficulty running an 8-minute mile as your exercise will soon lose its value as a stressor. While your mile time may not get worse it won’t get better and your overall fitness will suffer.

Fitness to Death
Too many of us enter in this slow decline losing the buffer fitness provides us from disease. It’s generally accepted that as we get older we’ll have a decline in our ability. We consider the individual who does not enter into a decline an outlier–someone not on the normal path. The illustration shows this decline over time in red. It terminates in death following a slow decline that we may not notice. On this path to death we become less able to take care of ourselves, a burden on our families and society. An alternative to this is to constantly pursue fitness until we die, enjoying our bodies for a longer. This requires more effort but has a greater overall benefit. And, unfortunately, putting in this added effort to reach a peak of performance and then die seems like a rip off!

We’ll look at this more in the next post.