Understanding the difference between training for health, fitness and sport is the key to meeting or exceeding your goals.

The majority of people who start an exercise program usually start for one of the following reason:

  • Improve health
  • Improve fitness
  • Improve sport performance/athletics/competition

While the benefits to the body within these three categories are for the most part the same, the way you train for each varies greatly. The guidelines for exercise were developed by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) over the course of many years of conducting and reviewing thousands upon thousands of research articles.

Training for Health

Training for health is exactly what is sounds like.  You are using exercise as a means to help you function throughout the day better with more efficiency.  Walking is primarily the main focus of activity, but can also include some bike riding or easy aerobic training. Activities of daily living (ADL’s) are increased to encourage improvements in health status. ADL’s include:

  • Taking the stairs vs escalator/elevator
  • Walking
  • Household chores
  • Yard work
  • Parking away from the front of the store and walking in
  • Healthy eating habits

Exercising for health is basically very low intensity, just moving around creates benefits.  According to the ACSM, you need to spend at least 150 minutes per week to achieve health benefits. That may sound like a lot of time, but when you break it down, that is only 2.5 hours/week! That averages out to less than 22 minutes a day. Very doable. Activities can include a easy walk, bike ride, basically anything that involves moving your body for over 20 minutes at a time.

Benefits associated with ADL’s:

  • Slight improvement in cardiovascular endurance
  • Ability to perform everyday tasks with ease
  • Decrease in all cause morbidity (avoidance of disease) such as cancers, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.
  • Improved brain function

Training for Fitness

Training for fitness has all the benefits of training for health but is more specific in how we get the benefits. Fitness is what we call “intentional exercise.” This means specifically going to a facility (like Golds’s, the YMCA, or even better: Precision Fitness) and doing classes, cardio machines, and/or strength training exercises. Activities associated with training for fitness include:

  • Cardiovascular Training (treadmill, stepper, rower, bike, etc.)
  • Yoga/Pilates Classes
  • Strength Training (free weights, strength machines, bodyweight)
  • Flexibility exercises
  • Group Aerobic Classes (Step Aerobics, Spinning Classes, etc.)

Most of us who start exercising do so for better health benefits, but we also have the added benefits here:

  • Improved VO2 (Maximal oxygen uptake – aerobic fitness)
  • Increased bone density
  • Increase muscle mass/strength
  • Improved body composition (decreased bodyfat levels)
  • Improved ROM of joints and muscles
  • Improved confidence/self esteem

Training for fitness involves a higher intensity of exercise. For those doing cardio activities, this means having higher heart rates, a faster pace, and/or more incline or resistance on the cardio machines.  For strength training, this means heavier weights, less reps.

This type of training is for 3-4 days/week (sometimes more), 30-40 minutes per training session at a moderate to higher level of intensity.

Training for Sport/Performance

The final piece to our continuum, is sport/performance.  For individuals involved in this section, this is either their livelihood (think professional athletes, Olympic athletes) or they really love the training and competition.  Training for sport is very specific to the sport they are involved in.  To get involved in this type of training, athletes break up their training program into phases to they are peaking for the most important competitions. This process is called periodization.  Activities involved in training for sport/performance include the following:

  • Training for the Crossfit Games
  • Triathlon Training (Swim, Bike, Run)
  • Track and Field Activities (sprints, distance running, pole vault, hurdles, shot put, etc.)
  • Bodybuilding
  • Olympic Weight Lifting
  • Tennis
  • Etc.

Not only are individuals practicing the associated sport, but they are doing things to enhance their performance by hitting the gym for strength work, hitting the field for agility training, working on technique.  These individuals are more than your weekend warriors. They take it seriously and they practice their sport to get better.

Benefits of training for sport/performance include the following:

  • Increased quickness/speed/agility
  • Specific levels of strength depending on sport
  • Improved coordination/reaction time
  • Improved high end levels of aerobic capacity (high levels of endurance/VO2max)
  • Increased levels of anaerobic capacity (speed/power development)

To  be able to train for sport/performance, the frequency is most days/week for at least two hours at a time at an intensity that can vary depending on the type of training for that particular day. That being said, most workouts are higher intensity than the other two categories (health/fitness).

Where do you fall on this continuum?

Knowing your goals for starting a fitness program (whether health, fitness, or performance) will dictate your level of commitment.  Also, understand that you can fall anywhere on this spectrum at anytime as well.  I have seen it many times over the years and it is fairly common to go back and forth depending on your goals, interests, and injuries.  I’ve been there myself. When I was in college, I was working out, but not for anything in particular (fitness). Then I decided to train for a bodybuilding show (sport/performance), then got into mountain bike racing (sport/performance). Once my kids were born, it was off and on (alot more health). Lately I have been more specific with my training (fitness), but not for competition. Just loving training again to stay ahead of my kids so I can keep up with them.

No matter what your goals are, you can improve your overall health by just getting started in a program, any program.  If you aren’t sure where to start, hire a trainer to help you get started.  Personal Trainer not your thing, but you need help? Online training is great way to have access to a trainer in your pocket. This gives you access to a trainer but you train on your schedule, in your gym.  For more information on online training, click here.

authored by dave radin