Knowing the difference will determine how your fitness plan is created.

We all know that improving our health is vitally important to living a longer, more fulfilling life.  With that being said, is your health and fitness program aligned with the goals you want out of that program? If your goals are set for fitness, but you are training for health, you will get frustrated. Each category (health, fitness, sport/performance), have their own recommendations. While training for sport/performance will also improve fitness and health, the same cannot necessarily be said when training for health and hoping to gain fitness and sport benefits.

Before we talk about the differences, let’s talk quickly about where the recommendations came from. The following recommendations are based upon decades upon decades of research by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). The ACSM has developed a curriculum for universities to use in teaching this information to exercises science students.  The Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription by the ACSM was the book I used in college (2nd edition) and has been updated over the years as new research has become available. It is currently in it’s 10th edition and is updated every few years as new research in exercise, longevity, and strength training is conducted and reviewed.

Let’s get into the differences in training for the three categories of exercise:

Training for Health

Training for health is exactly as it sounds.  Your routine is based upon improving your health.  To improve your health, the activities are low/moderate in intensity that total at least 150 minutes a week. That may sound like a lot time, but is only 2.5 hours/week. About 22 minutes a day.  If it matters to you, you will find 22 minutes a day.   The activities to improve health include the following:

  • Walking
  • Easy biking
  • Water walking
  • Chair aerobics
  • Beginner Yoga/Pilates
  • Meditation
  • Tai Chi
  • Gardening
  • Stairs instead of the elevator/escalator
  • Housework
  • Healthy Eating
  • Reduce/Stop smoking
  • Reduce/Stop consumption of alcohol

In a nutshell, it is making healthy lifestyle choices instead of sitting on the couch watching TV and paying attention to how much you eat and drink. Benefits associated with training for health include the following:

  • Slight improvement in aerobic capacity
  • Improvement in blood lipid profiles
  • Improved control of blood sugar
  • Decreased chance of all cause morbidity
  • Improved brain health
  • Improved mood
  • Improved energy
  • Slight increase in mobility

The baseline for any program is to start here. It is also the easiest place to start on your journey to health, especially if you have never exercised before.

Training for Fitness

Training for fitness is what most Americans know as “intentional exercise.” This means going to a facility like Golds Gym, the YMCA, or even better, Precision Fitness and using the equipment to build strength or gain cardiovascular endurance.   The guidelines for training for fitness are as follows: 30-40+minutes per session, 3-4 times/week at a moderate/high intensity.  You probably notice that you train less often than with guidelines for health (3-4 times/week for fitness vs. daily activity for health). The big difference here is the type of activity:

  • Low/High Impact Aerobic classes or Group Fitness Classes
  • Swimming
  • Treadmill/Bike/Elliptical
  • Strength Training (machines, free weights, bodyweight, etc.)
  • Running
  • Yoga/Pilates
  • Martial Arts

These activities require more energy and effort vs. doing the activities for health.  The physiological benefits of training for fitness include all of the benefits from health as well as the following:

  • Improved cardiovascular function and efficiency (VO2 Max)
  • Improved strength (relative and absolute strength)
  • Increased muscle mass
  • Increased bone density
  • Improved body composition
  • Slight increase in resting metabolic rate

Training for Sport/Performance

Training for sport requires a whole different spectrum.  If you are training for sport/performance, it is more than just trying to improve your health and fitness. Sport specific training requires hours and hours of practice and training.  Individuals (athletes) focus on developing skills specific to their sport.  For example, Triathletes require a high degree of endurance between three events: swimming, biking, and running.  They spend hours upon hours training within each discipline to become prepared and ready to compete against other triathletes.

Athletes or individuals interested in training for performance spend at least 2 hours/day (sometimes a lot more) at an intensity that is specific to their sport.  These intensities are usually fairly high, sometimes all out efforts are required and are practiced most days of the week.  Oh, and they also are in the gym working on their strength levels.  While aerobic capacity is important for most athletic endeavors, strength is crucial.  The strongest athlete is usually the best athlete.

Activities involved in this spectrum of fitness involve practicing sport specific skills:

  • Sprints
  • Agility Drills (side to side motions)
  • Acceleration/Deceleration drills
  • Power development
  • Skill development (practice, practice, practice)

The competitive activities include, but are not limited to the following:

  • 500M Front Stroke
  • Bodybuilding/Figure Competitions
  • Cycling
  • Tennis
  • Basketball
  • Football
  • Marathons/10K/5K
  • Baseball
  • Triathlons
  • Olympic/Powerlifting
  • etc.

The benefits of sport/performance training are the same for fitness, but the benefits are greater and more specific to their sports:

  • Increased levels of power development
  • Increased muscle mass/strength
  • Improved ability to change direction (agility)
  • Increased/improved skill development
  • Increased speed development

Training for sport has it’s downside as well. Increased time spent on practice and time spent in the gym can lead to over training and an increased chance of developing injuries.

While recovery and nutrition are important for health and fitness, it is especially important for athletes. If an athlete does not eat enough macro-nutrients, they will not have the energy needed to compete at a high level.

Goal Setting for Health/Fitness/Sport

Once a decision is made on what part of the fitness continuum you wish to use to improve your health/fitness/sport, proper goal setting is needed. Goal setting allows a plan to be created to keep you on track to reaching those goals.  If you need more information on goal setting, check out our previous blogs post here, and here.

A few quick tips on goal setting: don’t just focus on the outcome of the goal. Make sure you focus on the process of getting to that outcome. For example, if the goal is lose 10 lbs in x number of weeks, instead of just focusing on whether or not you losing weight each week, focus on behaviors/actions that are needed to help you reach that goal (eat healthy meals, exercise 3 days/week, etc.).

If you need help designing a program, find yourself a personal trainer/strength coach that has at least a 4 year college degree and a certification through organizations like The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), or National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).

If a trainer is out of your price range, online training can be a great alternative. Online training has grown over the years and is a fantastic way to have access to a trainer. If you are interested in learning about a online training, you can read more here.

Focusing on the just outcome and not being able to meet that outcome can lead to frustration and stopping altogether.  Keep in mind the changes that have been made that will improve your health that are part of the process (eating more veggies, water vs. soda, stretching while watching TV, etc.)

Whatever part of the continuum you choose, understand that moving back and forth into a new category is common.  For example, someone in the fitness category could decide to run a marathon, do a bodybuilding show, or whatever.  An athlete can get injured and will need to back to the fitness or health category while the injury heals.

Whichever category is chosen, do not let it define you. If you want to try something different, go for it. Ultimately you decide what category you want to be in.  The biggest thing is make that decision.

authored by dave radin, cscs

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