The Difference Between Health vs. Fitness

Make the other 23 hours in your day count.

The words “healthy lifestyle” have been buzzwords for years, used by brands to sell you products from pants to smoothies, or for workouts, yoga retreats and a growing industry of wellness vacations. Can we live such a lifestyle without having to spend money?

Absolutely. The reasons each of us heads to the gym vary widely. But one thing unites us: we want to be comfortable in our bodies and pain-free as we go through the course of our days. If we’re going to discuss making health a way of life, this is our foundation. And there are plenty of ways to build this foundation inside and outside the gym.

Make home your playground

I love watching students in the zone, committed, focused, fully loving movement in the midst of challenge. But taking a class too seriously is counterproductive. Like any form of addiction, exercise quickly becomes a mental and emotional crutch.

Part of the problem is that we reserve a certain space and time for working out. Maybe an hour each day, we enter that zone. If our habits are poor for the other 23, how much good are we really doing?

A better idea is to make your environment an opportunity for consistent movement.

Biomechanist Katy Bowman is an advocate for using what’s available in your surroundings to stay in shape. Every time she needs to pick something up, she squats instead of bending over. This can result in a hundred squats throughout the day. Rather than limiting herself to sets facing a mirror during a prescribed hour, she’s keeping limber all day long.

She also blogs and writes books in a variety of seated positions: on her stomach or cross-legged on the floor, mostly. You don’t need to worry about fitting in a separate yoga session if you’re constantly experimenting with angles.

A better idea is to make your environment an opportunity for consistent movement.

In this spirit of making movement a part of my day all day, I recently invested in a sitting-standing desk. I no longer spend more than 15 minutes in one position. When I need to do research I sit on the floor, stretching my legs and upper back while I take in information.

Bowman also suggests carrying objects differently. For example, she hikes using her child as a load. Since her daughter is constantly shifting in her carrier, Bowman continually reorients herself, resulting in a variety of movement. It’s a total-body alternative to the one-directional, repetitious nature of pulley machines and treadmills.

Master your environment

I’ve watched cars endlessly circle a block, waiting for a parking spot to open up when just a block or two away, there are plenty of spaces. Likewise, I see people spend $20 on valet when the other side of the building has free street parking. I’m constantly amazed at the lengths to which people in Los Angeles go, to not walk.

Bruce Lee addresses this phenomenon in his book, “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do.” In a section on everyday opportunities for exercise, he writes, “Take a walk whenever you can — like parking the car a few blocks away from your destination.” He also advocates for choosing stairs over elevators, and practicing balance by standing on one foot when putting on pants or shoes — or whenever you’d like, as I’m now doing at my standing desk.

Our ancestors evolved by constantly engaging with their environment, learning new tricks for survival and pleasure.

The quest for convenience means we miss opportunities to engage our environment. Sure, staring at your Uber driver’s progress makes life easier, but when I lived in New York City, sometimes I’d walk for so long searching for a cab that I ended up getting to my destination on foot. Every Friday I walked from Park Slope to Tribeca and back to teach my yoga class, a round trip of over six miles. Taking different routes not only kept my commute interesting, it showed me parts of Brooklyn I never would have happened upon otherwise.

Our ancestors evolved by constantly engaging with their environment, learning new tricks for survival and pleasure. While we have different challenges today, spending our entire lives in the distance between home and work is cognitively and emotionally deflating — unless we look for new avenues of physicality in our everyday terrain, which keeps life interesting on every level.

Move all day, sleep all night

Just as it makes sense to make your environment a playground, it also makes sense to make it a sanctuary. Setting aside a device-free personal space for reflection or meditation, ideally not in your bedroom (a place usually reserved for sleep), makes for a good reminder of this “other side” of health.

Indeed, the most important factor in health occurs in the bedroom. If the day is spent navigating a terrain of movement and regeneration, nighttime is a necessary respite. Without a good night’s rest you won’t achieve much of anything. One Gallup poll reported that 40 percent of Americans do not meet recommended sleep requirements. While we have individual needs, in general seven hours is required for our body to do proper housekeeping.

Even just one night of unrest leads to hormonal imbalance and immune system suppression. Issues with memory and cognition, as well as increased inflammation, also result from a sleepless evening. Perhaps the most interesting function of sleep is the activation of what researchers have termed the “glympathic system.” While we sleep, cerebrospinal fluid flushes unwanted toxins from our brain. These include the protein beta-amyloid and synuclein proteins, which play roles in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multisystem atrophy. Staying awake for long stretches is not a badge of honor. It’s a toxic build-up of dangerous proteins.

While we sleep, cerebrospinal fluid flushes unwanted toxins from our brain.

Understand the distinction between health and fitness

A few months ago I took a regeneration workshop in which the instructor pointed out the differences between being fit and being healthy. While these words sound like synonyms, in practice they are often at odds.

Fitness often represents high-intensity and strength-building programs. But health encompasses so much more than physical strength or endurance. Regenerative techniques such as meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and relaxation are an integral part of the process. If you spend your entire day moving with no time for restoration and reflection, you might be fit, but you’re not necessarily healthy. We’ve come far in our understanding of our bodies, yet the most important things we can do are what our parents told us: go outside and play, turn off the TV (or phone or laptop) — and go to bed on time.