How Fit Is Fit?

1970s Canada Fitness Test Badge

Canada Fitness Test Badge (the highest I earned was a silver, like this one!)

Over the past 6 months, I’ve taken it up a notch, from being fit to very fit. I am a lot more active and I feel a tremendous sense of well-being. Sure, I have gaps, for example, less strength and more endurance. There are whole areas of fitness I haven’t touched, such as team play and muscle building. But I feel very robust when it comes to tackling everyday life. I can do things like run up stairs,  stand at a concert hall with no seating for 4 hours, sit on the floor and get up again with no supports, lop unruly branches off trees, haul bags of soil and gravel for the garden, and shovel the car out from a winter blizzard. In the absence of any real-life activities, I stay in shape by walking, skating, elliptical, mini-trampoline and the occasional exercise DVD.

I’ve written before about whether I am athletic and about my experiences in gym/physical education classes in school. In my school days, all across Canada, students were subjected to annual fitness tests. These consisted of doing push ups, sit ups, sprints, distance runs, relay-type runs and long jumps. Later we were judged by our ability to attempt gymnastics or to learn and play basketball, volleyball or field hockey. To complement this, we learned about nutrition in the Canada Food Guide.

In retrospect, I wonder why we didn’t focus on more practical things like touching our toes or doing squats, which would have actually helped with everyday activities. But even more so, it would have been better to learn about health more holistically. How do I know when worry is appropriate and when it has become debilitating anxiety? How do I know when to call for a medical appointment and when to wait it out? What are the best ways to develop and reinforce good habits? How can I tell if medical information is reliable?

Lately I’ve been thinking about how much a good level of fitness adds to my life, and what a difference it would make to my quality of life if I didn’t have it. First of all, I am able-bodied and have a full range of movement. I don’t have any chronic health conditions, illness or injuries. I have no particular mental health stressors in my life right now. I feel I am able to use good judgment in managing my health. I have a good education, income and social supports. I have the freedom to act in my own best interests. I have access to medical services, mostly free. To me, all of those things are the starting points for health and fitness.

I completed a little analysis of what fitness means to me: to perform self-care, to be able to engage easily in daily tasks, to move without injury or pain, to get through the day without feeling weary, to feel alert and motivated, to feel comfortable in my body, and only when those things are secure: to go harder/stronger/faster!

Here is a list I made up that describes my view of moving toward better health. I could never tick all these boxes, especially not every day, but I am at a healthier, more fit level the majority of the time and I appreciate feeling truly well.

Basic Level

I can:

  • Be kind to myself
  • Get out of bed, shower, prepare food, eat, and go to medical appointments
  • Do what I need to do to recover from an illness or injury
  • Take steps to prevent injury and pain
  • Take steps to avoid the onset of my symptoms (allergies, migraines, etc.)
  • Take the medications I am prescribed
  • Maintain my mobility
  • Get the medical help I need
  • See friends and accept their help

Comfort Level

I can:

  • Remain standing for a period of time (waiting for a bus, waiting in line)
  • Walk throughout the day (work, shopping, errands)
  • Push and pull, turn and reach for things I need
  • Experience little to no pain during daily activities (driving, keyboarding)
  • Dismiss or deal with intrusive thoughts and worries
  • Sleep deeply most nights
  • Enjoy the company of my friends, relatives and co-workers
  • Stop short of eating until I’m uncomfortably stuffed – most of the time!

Good Level

I can:

  • Maintain my weight
  • Prepare and eat mostly healthy foods with reasonable portion sizes
  • Recognize when stress is building and make a change
  • Cope with stressful situations, decisions and people
  • Recover from colds and viruses without lingering effects
  • Crouch and bend to reach something dropped on the floor, or stored on a bottom shelf
  • Function without escalators, elevators and close parking spots (within reason)
  • Climb a flight of stairs without stopping or gasping for breath
  • Use a step ladder without fear of falling
  • Lift and carry medium-weight items like a bag of groceries
  • Go for a walk with a friend and carry on a conversation
  • Do active things: walk the dog, weed the garden, move a piece of furniture, paint a wall, dance at a wedding

Active Level

I can:

  • Meet my nutritional needs with few or no supplements
  • Exercise regularly to improve my strength, balance and endurance
  • Enjoy hearty walks, tourist treks and long shopping trips
  • Climb hills or multiple sets of stairs easily
  • Stay balanced on rough ground or ice
  • Lift heavy items
  • Carry heavy items for a distance
  • Solve problems alone or collaboratively with others
  • Adapt to major life changes
  • Do very active things: go for a swim, shovel snow, help a friend move, give a child a piggyback ride

Plus Level

I can:

  • Rely on myself to eat all the healthy food I need every day
  • Enjoy being physically active every day
  • Choose a focus such as core strength or cardio stamina
  • Integrate movement into my work day
  • Challenge myself by trying new sports and activities
  • Compete against my Personal Best records or against others
  • Power through evening activities after a busy day
  • Feel mentally sharp at meetings
  • Play at the playground with kids
  • Make time to help others

Are you kind to yourself and your body? What does (or what would) it take for you to feel healthy and/or fit?


  1. Greatly enjoyed this post! I earned a Presidential Fitness patch when I was in high school, and looking back at how active I was I can’t believe I let it go. I think though it was the message girls/women received back then, that sports, activity, etc. were not “womanly.” There was no encouragement to excel, or continue with sports other than maybe playing tennis once a week with your girlfriends. There was no Title Nine then (funding for women’s sports in high school and college) – my daughters today are amazed that there were no girls cross country, swimming, track & field, etc. when I was in school.

    Still, looking over the fitness levels I find myself somewhere between approaching Active, and I’m working on getting somewhere between Active and Plus. The one thing that will hold me back is an old knee injury – I fell and broke my kneecap 17 years ago, and I still have lingering effects (can’t get up and down off the floor easily, can’t kneel, it’s difficult to climb and descend stairs and hills). But otherwise I am in good shape, if a bit overweight. I’m convinced now that’s a struggle that will be with me until the end of time, but I’m not giving up.

    • Hi Laura, I did swimming during my high school years, and worked out the fitness centre at university daily. When I started working full-time, it seemed there was no way to incorporate fitness except to join a gym. I think the first things that kept me from being active were the range of activities for women (mostly aerobics) and self-consciousness about my body at the locker room and pool. Then add in shift work and childcare.

      Pretty much everyone has a limitation, whether it is an old injury, a health condition, sensitivities, etc. I think being functional in everyday life is prime and all the rest is a bonus (although a very powerful and life-enriching one!)

  2. Ah ha! You inspired me – I got home and did Jillian Michaels’ 30 day shred video. I heard her on the radio the other day – she’s so lovely – I didn’t know she had her own reality show either!

    i do love it when I get in a rhythm of exercising, and that ‘high’ you get, but it’s the very steep up hill to get out of bed or off one’s tush and get moving. Momentum you know. I feel great post work out, I just need to remember that. And stop eating the gingerbread cookie dough!

    • Hi Sarah, I love the 30-Day Shred 🙂 I haven’t seen Jillian’s show either. When I am fit, I look back on my former self and can’t believe I didn’t want to take that first step, but at the time, it feels like a Herculean task!

  3. Good concrete list of what you can do.

  4. Living In Denim

    Your lists could be turned around to be the things I’ve lost over the years but also all the reasons I still keep working out and tweaking what I can do to hold on to the strength I have left and to keep my independence. As one who grew up knowing I would lose the ability to do many of those things on your list and was motivated by them it’s fun to read the motivations of others who work at staying fit when they are healthy to begin with.

    • Yes, good points. Sometimes I think ahead to the abilities I will eventually lose just through ageing. I am happy to be as able as I am and not to have lost abilities “prematurely.” I guess it’s all relative.

  5. NicolaB

    Interesting list! I think I am active/plus- in the last year I have gone from running 5K comfortably to running 10K without really thinking about it, so I am fitter than I have ever been.

    I’m still overweight though, according to my BMI, at 84kg (according to BMI, 72kg would be a healthy weight).

    I think because I am active I think there is room in my diet for more snacking etc than there really is! I also find myself eating sweet food that I don’t really crave or need. Maybe time to say goodbye to puddings (except if out for a birthday meal or similar!)
    I also feel I need to incorporate some knee strengthening exercises (well, leg muscles around knees) as I am starting to get twinges…and as my mum has knee issues I know it might well be coming my way!

  6. Fiona

    I’m very interested in your lists – what a good way to look holistically at Health. We have ‘Health’ as a subject at my school and I think over the whole curriculum we cover a fair percentage of those items. But I’m not completely sure. I wonder how much self-awareness teaching we do about knowing when to get help etc.?

    I think like many people I tend to take my ‘ableism’ for granted and probably don’t look after it. I’m overweight at 81kg but I feel very strong and healthy. I know I can hike a good distance carrying all I need to live in my own pack. But I know I need to start looking after my balance, core strength and aerobic capacity…’use it or lose it!’

  7. saragillis

    What a great post Dar. First and foremost, I love that you include the social determinants of health in your fitness lists, including social support networks, environment, and coping skills. So very, very important.

    When that photo of the old Participation badge was making the rounds on Facebook it made me laugh – I HATED that initiative as a kid! If i had been able to redesign it, I would have made it way more fun, like gigantic games of hide-and-seek for the whole school. I think I got one silver during my entire school career – I was bronze pretty much all the way.

    I started to take notice of my own fitness after two small changes in my life made me re-evaluate things: First, our dog passed away a few years ago. She had kept us very active – besides the daily walks, we often ended up hiking on weekends and on vacation because we could include her. And then, a couple of years after she passed away, I changed jobs to one that was mostly sedentary. I could really feel the changes this lack of activity was causing, but for a while I really did’t do anything about it -a gym was out of the question (I just knew I wouldn’t enjoy it and therefore wouldn’t stick to it – I did give a spin class a try). Plus, I was away from home from 7:40 am – 5:45 pm every day and the last thing I wanted to do was try and fit going somewhere else in my day. And then I got this FitBit! This is really all I needed to give me some motivation to make walking part of my day. I even run 3-4km on a treadmill several times a week. I do know I need to work on some toning, but that will come someday!

    Very recently (early in January) my husband was given an initial diagnosis that he has Celiac disease (which still needs to be confirmed with a biopsy scheduled for next month). We did eat healthy meals previously, but this diagnosis caused us to really change things up.

    I was really intrigued by that CBC piece recently on exercise for weight loss ( It’s new research that indicates the value of exercise is in its importance for your heart, immune system, and mental health but you really shouldn’t be a slave to exercise to lose calories. A well-balanced diet is more important.

    I think I am close to finding the perfect balance of diet and fitness that suits my lifestyle and makes me happy.

    • Hi Sara, Thanks for reading! I changed my diet and started exercising at the same time for weight loss, but now I just stay active because it feels better to (mood, alertness, etc.) Also, as an empty-nester, I suddenly had a lot more time in my day. Then to top it off, I can (and do) walk to work at my current job. Thanks for the linked article. I liked the comments. It’s been true for me that my body has become used to a high level of activity and a lot of my activities don’t even raise my heart rate any more. (I was pissed off today when I shovelled a total of 105 minutes – at a good intensity, too – and my Fitbit said I had zero active minutes!!)

      If a Celiac diagnosis is forthcoming, do you think you’ll both go gluten-free? I suppose I could give it up if I had to, but I would be doing a lot of substitutions. Just like I am pretty much vegetarian but haven’t taken the step to go vegan because I don’t “have to” give up dairy.

  8. saragillis

    I will go gluten-free at home for sure – it’s just easier that way, but most importantly it’s supportive. Bread was never a big part of our diet in the first place, but losing pasta will be difficult (and I don’t care how good they say they rice or quinoa pasts is – I’m just not ready to go there!). But there is gluten in SO MANY THINGS! It’s kind of shocking. And we like to go out once every weekend so it’s been investigating the gluten-free options around town. There’s more placed than I suspected there would be that take it seriously.

    The big change for me will be baking. I always loved to bake, but Tim was never into cakes or pastries anyway, so I probably consumed more than my fair share, so it’s not a bad thing that I stop this. I can see myself indulging in something with gluten for lunch though! And sadly, often lactose intolerance and celiac go hand-in-hand, so we’ll be waiting to see what the specialist and dietician say about that (and he will be devastated, and I will be bringing fancy and stinky cheeses to work with me!).

    • This makes me think: I wonder how many people do Supportive/Sympathy Diets for the sake of others? A lot, I bet! I compromise what I like to eat because Rom and I take turns cooking. And that is just about tastes, rather than medical needs. I hope Tim’s diet (and subsequently, yours) isn’t too restricted, but if it eases symptoms, I’m sure you’ll both be happier. Even if you do have to sneak cheese.

  9. These are great lists. I am what feels like a life long journey to health. I fall off the wagon often but I always get back on … eventually. 😉
    I have never thought to list out my abilities. Would be a great benchmark to see how far I’ve come or fallen as the case may be.

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