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Time to redefine fitness

I know that fitness has gotten a bad name. MANY people associate fitness with shame, lack of worth, exclusion, and more.

And that’s what I’m going to change.


You see, about 10 years ago, my common-law partner was in an accident and died.

I felt like my entire life had crumbled beneath me.

I felt weak. Lost. Alone.

Many people reached out to me. But none of us (me included) knew what to say or do.

Thankfully, I had fitness.

When I lifted weights, I felt strong. Able to conquer the world…or at least another day.

In group fitness, I was immersed in the energy of the class as we struggled through the challenging parts, laughed at our mistakes, and celebrated our accomplishments together. I was, at least for that hour, no longer alone.

With pole dance, I was able to express my emotions and tell my stories through movement in a way that was acceptable, even beautiful, in a community where grief was not part of the conversation.

And of course, there were endless nature walks with Wicket. Exploring the river and pathways, experiencing the beauty of nature, and feeling connected to something much more than myself.

I know this is a bit of an extreme example.

But when I hear all of the ads and gurus and fitness talk about “dropping dress sizes” and “shedding pounds”, and “shaping up”, etc…

I can’t help but think…

You’re missing out on all the good stuff!!

Fitness has a LOT of potential to do great things for us humans in this world. BUT we have to treat ourselves like humans…

We need fitness instructors, owners, marketers, community and culture that celebrates the humans in fitness. Otherwise, the experience is dehumanized by limiting it to burning calories, moving muscles, breathing lungs, etc, and the actual HUMAN experience of fitness is left behind.

In my own research about holistic movement experiences, I came across a scientific article by Dr. Joe Piggin proposing a holistic definition of physical activity (an important step for holistic fitness, since fitness is a type of physical activity).

I’m going to share a little bit about it here, but if you would rather read the full article, it is open access and you can get the full version here.

The Original Definition

The original and most used (though sometimes modified) definition states:

Physical activity is “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure.” (Caspersen et al, 1985)

There have been many modifications around the energy expenditure part:

…increase energy above basal level

…substantially increase energy expenditure


Yet all focus only on bodily movement, which kind of removes the person from the equation.

Which, for this definition, was actually ok, since it was created for the purpose of epidemiology and it covered what it needed for that at the time.

However, for those of us who want to be creating fulfilling, meaningful fitness experiences, it is not enough.

Yet, it is the definition that has fueled policy creation.

It is the definition (a variation of it) taught to us through our fitness certifications, which we are now possibly sharing with our clients indirectly through our class/session structures, cuing, conversations, etc.

And now we have he opportunity to change!

Why Physical Activity Needs a New Definition

I invite you to close your eyes and remember the BEST fitness experience you EVER had!

What do you remember about it?

Do you remember how you moved your muscles and how many calories you burned?

Probably not.

You probably remember some kind of pleasure – maybe a thrill! Something powerful! Maybe connecting. Maybe a triumph after you overcame a challenge. Maybe a wonder and appreciation. Maybe clarity.

Maybe you have no words to describe it.

But there is probably more to it than simply muscles and calories.

Dr. Piggin lists 3 main problems with the original definition. I’m listing them here, because I think it’s important to see WHY he wanted to create a new definition. With this information, you can decide which definition works best for you, or if there is a way you would modify it to better suit you (or your brand, business, etc).

  1. The phrase “bodily movement” depersonalizes activity, which becomes separate movements instead of an embodied human experience.

  2. The movement of “skeletal muscles” limits the definition to biomechanical movements and misses the fact that the movements were produced by the choice and motivation of a human.

  3. The “results in energy expenditure” phrase puts the focus on calorie burning instead of all the other incredible benefits that you can get from fitness.

Physical activity requires much more than just the movement of muscles (e.g. choice, motivation, physical space), does so much more than just burn calories (e.g. other physical and emotional effects), and can be facilitated or impeded by a number of elements (e.g. social environment, accessibility, relationships, policies, culture). As such, it requires a definition that encompasses more of these elements so it can better guide our practices.

The New Definition

Dr. Piggin’s holistic definition of physical activity is:

“Physical activity involves people moving, acting and performing within culturally specific spaces and contexts, and influenced by a unique array of interests, emotions, ideas, instructions, and relationships.”

He gives 5 reasons why he chose this definition:

  1. It prioritizes people moving and emphasizes the complexity, the environment, and the human experience.

  2. It appreciates the productive and creative potential that comes from physical activity, which shifts the focus away from force production to appreciate other reasons why people may choose to be active.

  3. It emphasizes inclusivity, complexity, and holistic, which moves away from the “body as machine” mind-body duality thinking to a more embodied “body as self” thinking.

  4. It resists against over-medicalizing physical activity by focusing primarily on disease risk and opens it up to physical activity for more reasons that simply physical health.

  5. It prioritizes the range of interests, emotions, ideas, instructions, and relationships that influence people, promoting “unique” movement experiences.

Dr. Piggin does not claim to have the definition that works for everyone. In fact, he just proposed it and encourages people to discuss and modify to best suit their needs.

What is YOUR Definition of Fitness?

I invite you to take a moment and reflect:

  • How does the new definition feel to you?

  • Does it align better with the way you teach?

  • Does it make you reconsider your cuing and how you teach?

  • Do you prefer the simplistic muscles and energy definition?

Any answer is totally valid.

I personally appreciate this holistic definition because it much better encompasses everything that fitness did for me when I was dealing with grief that I didn’t really have the words or support to process another way. It stretches me to focus on the full experience of the classes I teach, from the first connection right through to the follow-up: from the ways I describe my classes, represent myself and my classes on social media, discuss the benefits, cue in class, set up the class environment, follow up with how they felt afterward, and suggest or recommend other services or products to people.

It reminds me that I am leading a diverse group of unique individuals.

It reminds me that I am dehumanizing them when I consider no more than moving muscles and burning calories when I plan my classes.

And it reminds me to be open and creative to ensure that I can provide an inspiring experience that considers their holistic, human selves.

As fitness professionals, it is important to re-evaluate how we communicate about and teach fitness.

And let’s be honest…

Most of the fitness industry isn’t conducive to these kinds of conversations and is quite frankly stuck in the shame, lack, and exclusion culture.

If you are looking for a space that disrupts typical fitness culture and instead is looking to build a holistic, innovative, and loving fitness culture, I invite you to join the Volair Movement. You’ll receive information and inspiration to support you in becoming and embracing the values-aligned fitness professional you know you are! I’ve been on this journey for a while now. It’s a lot of work to choose different, but totally worth it to know I am sharing love and joy with the world. I’d love for you to join me in this journey.

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