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What Does It Actually Mean to Be Fit? What Physical Therapists Want All Beginner Exercisers to Know

Learn about what fitness is and how to achieve it, regardless of your background, with tips from our PTs.

Published Date: Jun 6, 2023
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Although “being fit” may sound like a phrase reserved for athletes, gym rats, and people training for races and competitions, you don't have to be a hard-core athlete for fitness to be important in your everyday life. Physical fitness comes into play during your everyday activities, and being fit makes life easier and more enjoyable. 

“Fitness refers to the ability to perform physical activities and tasks without excessive fatigue, pain, or dysfunction,” says Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT, OCS, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. But being fit means different things to different people, depending on whether you’re new to exercise or have a long history with it. And if you have joint or muscle pain, achieving optimal fitness can seem challenging. 

But no matter your health conditions, exercise experience, and other factors, there are always steps you can take to gradually increase your fitness and simultaneously improve musculoskeletal pain. Here, learn about the different types of fitness, what it means to be fit, how to get fit, and tips to help you achieve your goals.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Kimbrough is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

The 4 Types of Fitness 

There are four types of fitness: cardiovascular fitness, muscular fitness, flexibility, and balance.

Cardiovascular fitness, also known as aerobic fitness, refers to the ability of your heart, lungs, and circulatory system to deliver oxygen and nutrients to working muscles. It’s about having endurance or stamina to do physical activity or exercise for an extended period. You need good cardiovascular fitness to run a 5K, walk from your house to your mailbox, climb stairs, or ride a bike around your neighborhood. The more cardiovascularly fit you are, the longer you can do these activities (and without feeling winded or fatigued). Plus, decades of research links cardiovascular health and fitness to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancer, and overall better health. 

Activities that can be particularly good for cardiovascular fitness include walking, running, cycling, dancing, pickleball, basketball, soccer, Zumba, and using cardio equipment like elliptical trainers and rowing machines. These activities also reduce stress and enhance your mental health by boosting your mood, decreasing anxiety, improving sleep, and keeping you mentally sharp.

Muscular fitness involves muscle strength and endurance. This is what’s needed to lift heavy objects, get up from the couch, carry groceries, climb stairs, open windows, stand up straight, and twist open jars. Muscular fitness serves a lot of health purposes. It helps protect your joints and can take pressure off them, which can be helpful if you have joint pain. (Strong leg muscles, for example, can help reduce pressure on your knees.) Muscles help to regulate blood sugar, protecting you from diabetes. And because muscles are attached to bones and tug on them every time you move, good muscular health helps keep bones strong, too. 

Just as hair turns gray and wrinkles form on your face, it’s natural to lose muscle mass as you get older. This starts as early as your 30s and tends to speed up as people age. Just know that muscle loss is not inevitable as you get older. You can curb the loss at any age and improve your muscular fitness by doing resistance exercises (also called strength training), which often involve dumbbells, resistance bands, weight machines, or your own body weight (like when doing push-ups or squats).

Flexibility is the ability to use and move joints and muscles through their full range of motion. It’s essential for mobility. Flexibility allows you to reach overhead and grab something off a high shelf, get down on the floor and sit cross-legged, touch your toes, twist to look behind you, and swing your legs as you walk. 

Tight muscles can reduce your flexibility, making it harder to move and contributing to pain in some cases. For example, tight hamstring muscles in the backs of your thighs may contribute to low back pain. Just like other components of physical fitness, flexibility varies from person to person. It can be influenced by genetics, gender, age, joint structure, and past injuries. But regardless of all that, staying active and stretching can help you maintain or increase your flexibility.

Balance allows you to remain steady and upright, avoiding falls, whether you’re moving or stationary. This type of fitness is critical when riding a bike or hiking over rocks, roots, and other uneven terrain. But it’s also essential in everyday life when you step over objects in your path, climb stairs, pick things up off the floor, and turn to look behind you. When you have good balance, you’re more coordinated, move with more confidence, have more body awareness, and can react and recover more quickly from a stumble and avoid a fall.

You can maintain and improve your balance with activities like yoga and Tai Chi, working on strengthening your core muscles, and doing balance training exercises like standing on one leg or walking heel to toe. 

What Does It Mean to ‘Be Fit’? 

The definition of fitness is different for each person. For an athlete training for something specific, fitness might be running a sub-six-minute mile, throwing a football over 50 yards, or jumping more than two feet into the air. For someone new to exercise, getting fit might involve climbing several flights of stairs without getting winded, keeping up with your kids or grandkids in a game of tag, or hoisting a heavy suitcase into the overhead compartment on an airplane.

How to get fit and what that personal definition of fitness is for you will depend on a variety of variables, including your goals, your motivation, and your experiences with different types of fitness. Here are some questions to help you figure out what being fit means to you and how to get started.

  • What are your goals? This will help determine what type of fitness you want to focus on. “Somebody whose goal is to be able to lift their kids up from the ground might want to focus more on strength,” says Dr. Kimbrough. Somebody who wants to run a 5K may need to focus more on aerobic endurance training. “If somebody is interested in overall health, I typically recommend they do multiple activities that improve all areas of fitness,” says Dr. Kimbrough. 

  • Why do you want to be fit? This is the bigger picture beyond a specific, short-term goal. It might be to live long enough to see your grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Maybe you want to be healthy enough to travel when you retire. Or you might want more energy or less pain than you have right now. Focusing on your “why” can motivate you to achieve your fitness goals. At Hinge Health, our coaches often work with members to identify their “North Star” goal when starting a new fitness routine.

  • What is your current health status? Achieving physical fitness — and how you get there — can look different for someone with chronic health issues or pain compared to someone without these issues. But it’s still possible. “No matter who you are or what your current health status is, there's always something you can do to take control of your health,” says Dr. Kimbrough. 

As our physical therapists and coaches frequently discuss with Hinge Health members, doing some movement is always better than none. And some movement that is comfortable and enjoyable for you often begets more movement.

PT Fitness Tips 

Now that you know what fitness is and what types of fitness you may want to pursue, here are some ways to get fit.

  • Pick an activity you enjoy. “If it's fun, you're going to stick with it longer,” says Dr. Kimbrough. Not sure where to start? Walking is one of the simplest exercises for improving cardiovascular fitness because you only need a good pair of shoes and you can do it anywhere. If you find walking boring, consider changing up how you walk: listen to an audio book or podcast, hike in a scenic park or trail, or do laps around a local track with friends. Or consider other activities you might enjoy: pickleball, swimming or water fitness classes, a local recreational softball or basketball team, etc.

  • Start small. Be realistic about how much you can do when starting out, and gradually increase your activity level. “Even something small like walking for five or 10 minutes on your lunch break at work can have ripple effects that can improve your health over time,” says Dr. Kimbrough.

  • Enlist help. If joint or muscle pain makes exercise difficult, a physical therapist can help. If you don’t know how to use a machine at the gym, ask a trainer to show you how to do it. If you’re having trouble sticking with your workouts, a personal trainer or health coach (like those at Hinge Health) can help hold you accountable. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a trained professional,” says Dr. Kimbrough.

  • Exercise with others. Inviting friends or family members to get moving with you or joining an exercise class or a sports team can turn exercise into a fun, social activity. It can also help you stick with your workouts when others expect you to show up and you’re looking forward to seeing them.

  • Mix it up. Doing different activities, also known as cross-training, keeps exercise exciting and challenges your body in new ways. You could alternate walking with a yoga class, or swap a cardio exercise class for a strength training one. This helps expose you to different types of fitness.

Getting Fit and Chronic Pain

Chronic pain can make it more difficult to be active. When movement hurts, a natural reaction is to stop moving. People with chronic pain may also worry about getting injured or worsening their pain with physical activity. These concerns are valid. But medical study after study after study (and testimonials from thousands of Hinge Health members) show that movement is a key part of healing and recovering from pain. 

That’s why our Hinge Health physical therapists spend a lot of time talking to members about this key message: It’s important to find your movement sweet spot.

Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT, OCS
Exercise and movement are very effective at decreasing pain and building resilience in your body but you want to be mindful that you're not pushing too much or causing too much pain.

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Some discomfort is normal when you exercise. For example, you may feel short of breath or experience some achiness in a joint, fatigue, or burning in a muscle. But the symptoms should resolve when you stop. You may also feel soreness immediately after a workout or several days later. As long as the pain doesn’t last for more than 24 hours, it’s a normal sign that your body is working hard and adapting to the activity, says Dr. Kimbrough.

Signs that you are overdoing it and may need to scale back include sharp, shooting pain that doesn’t ease when you stop exercising, pain that lasts more than 24 hours, numbness, or tingling. 

How to Get Fit 

If you want to get fit, consistency is essential. While workouts here and there provide benefits, you’ll get better, faster results when you exercise regularly. Here are some tips to help you stick with exercise.

  • Break it up. You don’t have to get all your daily exercise in one session. You can break it up throughout the day. For example, move for 10 minutes before breakfast, at lunch, and after dinner. Sneak in three minutes of stretching every hour. Or do 20 minutes in the morning and another 20 in the evening. Every minute counts, and the benefits are similar whether you do it all at once or spread it out. Shorter workouts may also be preferable if you have pain that makes longer workouts more challenging.

  • Fuel your body. Your body is like a car and needs fuel to make it run — and the quality of the fuel impacts how well it runs. Processed, sugary foods provide quick bursts of energy that don’t last. Instead, whole foods with a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and fat and little to no added sugar give you longer-lasting energy. If you haven’t eaten for several hours, have an easy-to-digest snack about 30 to 60 minutes before your workout, such as a banana with nut butter, yogurt, or a small piece of avocado toast.

  • Keep it moderate. You don’t have to push yourself to the max to get fit. Instead, work out at a moderate intensity. An easy way to gauge intensity is with the talk test. If you can talk but not sing while exercising, it’s moderate. If you can’t say more than a few words without stopping for a breath, your intensity level is considered vigorous.

  • Stay hydrated. Exercise is harder if you’re not adequately hydrated. A general recommendation is to drink about half of your body weight in ounces of water each day. (So if you weigh 160 pounds, you should aim for 80 ounces, or 10 cups, of water daily.) Drinking water also helps keep your joints lubricated which can make movement easier and possibly less painful.

  • Align your expectations. There aren’t any quick fixes when it comes to health and fitness, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t see immediate results. While some changes, like improvements in your mood or energy levels, may happen more quickly, changes in fitness usually take six to eight weeks — sometimes longer.

  • Try an app. Fitness apps like Couch to 5K or MapMyRide (Run or Walk) can help you track your progress and provide accountability.

  • Get enough sleep. It’s harder to work out when you’re tired. Aim for at least seven hours a night to ensure you have energy for exercise.

  • Acknowledge accomplishments. If you weren’t working out previously and then did two or three workouts this week, that’s a notable achievement. Acknowledge it and be proud of yourself. “It’s a lot of work to stay active, and you should take a moment to celebrate it,” says Dr. Kimbrough. Treat yourself to a massage, dinner at your favorite restaurant, or new exercise gear.

PT Tip: Pair Up 

Not with a person, but with another activity. “The best way to build a routine is to stick it with something you're already doing throughout your day,” says Dr. Kimbrough. “If you know you watch a Netflix show at home every night, that's a perfect opportunity to stick some exercises with it.” Or, you could practice balance exercises while you’re brushing your teeth or make your weekly coffee date with a friend a walk instead.

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Volpi, E., Nazemi, R., & Fujita, S. (2004). Muscle tissue changes with aging. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 7(4), 405–410. doi:10.1097/01.mco.0000134362.76653.b2

  2. McKinney, J., Lithwick, D. J., Morrison, B. N., Nazzari, H., Isserow, S. H., Heilbron, B., & Krahn, A. D. (2016). The health benefits of physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness. BC Medical Journal, 58(3). 

  3. Ruegsegger, G. N., & Booth, F. W. (2018). Health Benefits of Exercise. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, 8(7). doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a029694