For many of us who have made new year resolutions about getting into better shape, today’s word usually has one definition: pain! Joking aside, whether the goal is achieved through diet, exercise, or some combination of both, physical fitness is one of the most widely made resolutions. Considering that so many people want to improve this aspect of their life, perhaps we should take some time from straining our muscles to examine the word itself.
Though we have grown to think of it exclusively in physical terms, the term fitness is actually defined as “the quality of being suitable,” and comes from adding the Old English suffix -ness, meaning “the state of being,” to the root word fit, meaning “proper or suitable,” which is of unknown origin (with theories ranging from Middle English to Old Norse). Looking at the initial definition, it is difficult to see how this could relate to exercise; however, considering it abstractly, fitness is the quality of being suitable relative to what is considered to be a healthy individual.
In the UK, one of the obvious examples of fitness are exercising DVDs by the likes of Davina McCall, Charlotte Crosby, and Kym Marsh. We are not just shopping for home workout DVDs: the average adult Brit over a lifetime spends around £300 on various fitness equipment, with residents of Brighton leading the way, spending over £850. Unfortunately, with 16% reporting that the exercise equipment was never used and 25% dropping their health and fitness routine within the first week, it does not seem to matter how much you spend or what you buy.
The first known use of our word comes from lexicographer John Baret, in whose 1574 English, French, and Latin dictionary, An Alvearie, he writes: “Ableness, fitness, handsomeness. Habilitas.”
Several decades later, circa 1616, Shakespeare’s All’s Well that ends Well poses: “Have you, I say, an answer of such fitness for all questions?”
As for the first quote that references physical activity, we have to move forward to 1935, where T.E Lawrence writes in Mint: “So I dodge the last weeks of depot training and the orgy of fitness-tests with which it closes.”
Though we seem to have developed a tendency for punishing ourselves for not meeting what we consider to be a physical ideal, maybe it is time that we revert back to the spirit of the original definition of fitness and learn to be more accepting of ourselves as we are and saving some of that £300.