Physical fitness is a general concept and is defined in many ways by different scientists. Physical fitness is discussed here in two major categories: health-related physical fitness and motor-performance physical fitness. Despite some overlap between these classifications, there are major differences, as described below.
Health-related physical fitness
Health-related physical fitness is defined as fitness related to some aspect of health. This type of physical fitness is primarily influenced by an individual’s exercise habits; thus, it is a dynamic state and may change. Physical characteristics that constitute health-related physical fitness include strength and endurance of skeletal muscles, joint flexibility, body composition, and cardiorespiratory endurance. All these attributes change in response to appropriate physical conditioning programs, and all are related to health.
Strength and endurance of skeletal muscles of the trunk help maintain correct posture and prevent such problems as low back pain. Minimal levels of muscular strength and endurance are needed for routine tasks of living, such as carrying bags of groceries or picking up a young child. Individuals with very low levels of muscular strength and endurance are limited in the performance of routine tasks and have to lead a restricted life. Such limitations are perhaps only indirectly related to health, but individuals who cannot pick up and hug a grandchild or must struggle to get up from a soft chair surely have a lower quality of life than that enjoyed by their fitter peers.
Flexibility, or range of motion around the joints, also ranks as an important component of health-related fitness. Lack of flexibility in the lower back and posterior thigh is thought to contribute to low back pain. Extreme lack of flexibility also has a deleterious effect on the quality of life by limiting performance.
Body composition refers to the ratio between fat and lean tissue in the body. Excess body fat is clearly related to several health problems, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes mellitus, and certain forms of cancer. Body composition is affected by diet, but exercise habits play a crucial role in preventing obesity and maintaining acceptable levels of body fat.
Cardiorespiratory endurance, or aerobic fitness, is probably what most people identify as physical fitness. Aerobic fitness refers to the integrated functional capacity of the heart, lungs, vascular system, and skeletal muscles to expend energy. The basic activity that underlies this type of fitness is aerobic metabolism in the muscle cell, a process in which oxygen is combined with a fuel source (fats or carbohydrates) to release energy and produce carbon dioxide and water. The energy is used by the muscle to contract, thereby exerting force that can be used for movement. For the aerobic reaction to take place, the cardiorespiratory system (i.e., the circulatory and pulmonary systems) must constantly supply oxygen and fuel to the muscle cell and remove carbon dioxide from it. The maximal rate at which aerobic metabolism can occur is thus determined by the functional capacity of the cardiorespiratory system and is measured in the laboratory as maximal oxygen intake. As will be discussed in detail below, aerobic fitness is inversely related to the incidence of coronary heart disease and hypertension.