What Is Being in Shape?

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What Is Being In Shape?

People often talk about "being in shape," but what does that really mean? It seems like a simple question but when you start looking for answers, you'll soon discover that explaining being in shape is more complex—and individualized—than it seems.

Is being in shape (also often called being fit) about extreme athleticism or is it simply being generally physically fit? Is there one true or defining answer or is this something that everyone gets to answer for themselves?

It's complicated. The concept of being in shape delves into the realms of both physical and mental health, touching on fitness, general health, well-being, how your body looks, what your body can do, self-concept, and self-esteem.

The idea of being in shape (and understanding what it really means) can feel both obvious and elusive, as well as vital to one's well-being. Learn more about what being in shape truly is—and how to get there.

What "being in good shape" is may be different for each person. However, your doctor, personal trainer, or physical therapist can let you know if your current fitness level fits the bill and/or help you design an optimal "get in shape" training program that aligns with your goals and what is healthy and realistic for your body.

Overview

You might think there is an exact formula for determining whether or not someone is in shape. Instead, it turns out there are many ways to define and think about this concept of physical well-being. For example, sometimes "being in shape" is used as a euphemism for being a regular exerciser, healthy eater, very fit, and/or relatively thin. Some people assume if someone is overweight, differently-abled, or a senior citizen that they can't be fit. However, being in shape is accessible to all.

Some common constructs of "being in shape" leave a lot of people (and bodies) out, failing to recognize that physical fitness and "being in shape" may look different for different bodies but be no less valid.

Body Size and Shape

Unfortunately, if you ask people what being in shape is, some will likely blurt out that it's being thin and/or "fit."

By fit, many people will mean someone who is trim, strong, and works out, which is one way to define being in shape. However, being fit isn't really about thinness or outward beauty (or fitting our culture's dominant beauty standards).

Being thin doesn't necessarily mean you are healthy or physically fit or active. Plus, just like being overweight has health risks, so does being underweight.

It's key to distinguish between what a body looks like on the outside and what it can do or how "in shape" it is on the inside.

Does It Mean Being an Athlete?

Is extreme fitness capability or physical training a prerequisite to being physically fit? Does it mean being able to do amazing things like run 4-minute miles, complete an Ironman triathlon, surf mammoth waves, or do double backflips? Not necessarily, but most likely people who can do those things are by definition "in shape."

But someone who can run 10- or 12-minute miles or simply walk at a 15- or 20-minute pace—or whatever physical activity they enjoy—may also be called "fit."

Certainly, athletes are in shape, but they've also exceeded what a normal "in shape" body can or needs to do. While clearly, some basic fitness capacity and general good health are vital to being in shape, the definition changes along a continuum with what you want to do, any physical limitations you may have, and what your lifestyle and fitness goals are.

Most doctors will tell you that being in shape is about being healthy, physically active, physically capable, and comfortable in your body, rather than being able to accomplish extraordinary physical feats—or what your body looks like. It's vital to note that while many people equate being in shape with being physically fit, others equate it simply with being healthy.

Ultimately, in the absence of poor physical health, you can define being in shape to suit what makes you feel good and strong in your body. You don't have to look a certain way to achieve being fit, it's what your body can do that really matters.

Does Being in Shape Equal Fitness?

Another way to look at "being in shape" is to consider various factors like scores on physical fitness tests, such as how many pushups or situps you can do or how fast you can run a mile—or if you can run a mile.

You'll also factor in general health and/or body mass index (BMI). How much weight can you lift and/or carry? Can you climb a tree, throw a ball across a field, swim across the pool without taking a breath, run a marathon, compete in a triathlon, or make it through a power yoga class?

Many people would also classify most athletes or people who consistently exercise or play sports as being in shape. However, it's increasingly recognized that healthy and fit can come in a range of sizes and fitness levels. Studies show that people can be overweight and also be "fit." However, overall, obesity and being overweight are strongly correlated with lower cardiovascular fitness and adverse health outcomes.

Consider though that a smaller person might be exceptionally strong, a person who doesn't outwardly appear to be athletic might be able to run or swim or dance really well or have great endurance, a larger person might be super flexible, graceful, or skilled at a sport in ways we might not expect if we only think slim, muscular people are in shape or athletic.

The reality is you don't need to be (or look) athletic to be "in shape." In fact, one meta-analysis found that a person's physical fitness had a far greater impact on overall health than a person's BMI. In other words, being in shape comes in all shapes and sizes.

The stereotypical athlete with defined muscles and a towering physique is not the only body that can be "fit" or good at physical endeavors.

Why Being in Shape Matters

Studies show that people who meet the basic metrics of physical fitness and physical activity enjoy better health, including less frequency of the many complications associated with a sedentary lifestyle such as diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, degenerative diseases, multiple sclerosis, and brain aging. And it's your fitness rather than your shape that matters most.

Risks of Excess Body Fat

However, while it's important to embrace that people with larger bodies can also be physically fit, it's also key to note that excess body fat is a major risk factor for many diseases.

For those who are overweight or obese (defined as a BMI of above 25 and 30, respectively), it is often recommended that they lose weight as even a small reduction in fat can reduce the likelihood of many health risks like high blood pressure and heart disease. Incorporating more daily physical activity is also beneficial.

Why It's Worth Getting in Shape

A third of the world's population does not get enough physical activity—and Americans spend about eight waking hours a day in sedentary behaviors. However, research shows that it's never too late to improve your physical fitness—and enjoy the health benefits of more physical activity.

For example, studies show that incorporating more movement into your life can reverse the negative mental and physical health effects of previous sedentary habits.

In fact, regular exercise is known to have a positive impact on the mind as well as the body. Studies show that being active has antidepressant effects; improves memory, general brain health, and cognitive ability; and boosts energy levels and general feelings of well-being.

How Often Should You Workout?

Studies also show that physical education in schools and active lifestyles boost cognition and brain function in children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend at least 60 minutes daily of moderate to intense physical activity for school-aged kids daily.

The CDC suggests a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise plus strength training weekly for adults, which can be done in small bursts (even just 10 minutes at a time) or longer chunks.

Basic Criteria

Of course, there are basic parameters that constitute physical well-being and being in shape, such as the ability to physically do what you want and need to do in your life.

For example, can you get up the stairs without huffing and puffing? Does walking the dog feel like a challenge? Can you bike to work? Can you keep up with your friends on the soccer field or tennis court? Do you have the range of motion in your body and the balance necessary to accomplish your goals and everyday tasks?

Additionally, you can also look at how various health and fitness professionals, such as doctors, scientists, athletes, personal trainers, and physical therapists, view what being in shape entails. They might focus on blood pressure, cardiovascular fitness, strength, endurance, energy level, cholesterol levels, body fat percentage, sleep habits, mood, coordination, flexibility, and other factors.

Certainly, as noted above, general physical fitness and the ability to meet certain challenging physical fitness goals, such as how many pullups or squats you can do in a set amount of time or your running pace, are common key determining factors of being in shape. Others might set the bar a bit lower, for example, focusing on less strenuous tasks like if you can walk or bike for a mile and/or simply consider if you can physically do what you want to accomplish in your life.

Note that these answers may diverge and/or overlap quite a bit. Again, there is no one right answer, so what resonates for you and your body?

The Mental Health Component

Another vital component to take into account is how people think about the idea of being in shape, including which areas of physical (and mental) fitness are given the most value or importance, which may be unique to each person.

Feeling good in and about your body may indicate whether or not you're really in shape. Additionally, as noted above, physical activity (a key element of being in shape) offers mental health benefits like boosting your mood and sense of well-being.

Ultimately, it may be as important to feel "in shape" (both emotionally and physically) as it is to "be" in shape. Additionally, it matters how the concept of being in shape (or not) makes people feel when they think about their own bodies and what their bodies are capable of. So, getting to the heart of what being in shape is may be to look at the concept using these various lenses to find parameters that make sense for each person—and make room to include every body.

How you put the idea of "getting in shape" into practice is individualized as well, as is how those goals and actions line up with the possible definitions of "being in shape." It's important to consider how those efforts impact a person's ultimate feelings of well-being.

Being in shape physically influences being in shape mentally and vice versa. So, your physical capabilities will impact your mindset about your body just as how you feel about what your body can do may impact what it can accomplish.

"Being in Shape" For You

As noted above, the definition of being in shape, within the limits of general physical health and your personal fitness goals, can (and should) be adaptable to each person. Not every person may be in shape right now, but certainly, everyone can find a path for getting there.

How to Improve Your Fitness Level

So, how do you know if are you in shape? And if you're not there yet (or not even close), how do you determine realistic criteria to set for yourself—and how to achieve those goals?

First, you'll want to take into account your age, ability, perspective, activity level, general health, and goals. Naturally, what it means to be in shape for a 20-year-old may look very different than what it does for a 13-year-old, 45-year-old, or 70-year-old. But the key element of feeling good in your body still holds true.

Additionally, the definition of being fit will be different for someone who has physical fitness goals or participates in sports than for someone who just is focused on general well-being.

Likewise, if you have physical differences like respiratory disorders, arthritis, muscular dystrophy, or use a wheelchair or a cane, then your criteria for being in shape will accommodate to your body's needs. But that doesn't mean that you can't reach physical fitness goals that are possible for your body.

Ultimately, you'll want to pursue the version of being in shape that works for you, lets you feel how you want to feel in your body, and for your body to do what you want it to do.

Accepting Yourself

Once you determine what being in shape looks like for your body, it's important to accept yourself as is and let go of the things you can't control. Rather than fixating on what you don't like about your body and/or the physical feats you don't think you'll ever be able to accomplish, focus on what your body can do as well as what is within your grasp.

Create Attainable Goals

Striving for a series of close, realistic, attainable fitness goals can help you readily find success and feel better about the body you're in.

Still, don't limit your aspirations—if you set your mind (and body) to it, even seemingly far-reaching goals may be possible.

For example, you may want to be able to run a marathon or bike 50 miles even if the farthest you've run/biked is just a couple of miles. You might want to go backpacking but have never been camping, let alone hiking while carrying your gear in a heavy backpack, Maybe you envision surfing or snowboarding or rock climbing with ease.

Or maybe you envision just liking the way your body looks and feels as you go about your day. Whatever your goals are, you're more likely to get there and feel good about yourself and your shape if you give the body you have now acceptance, grace, patience, and love. After all, your body is your home, your vehicle, your lifelong companion that lets you move about and experience the world.

So, even if you don't think you're in good shape (right now), give yourself and your body a break as you strive to get in better shape. Know, also, that as long as you are relatively healthy and can physically do the things you want to do in your life, it's an option to focus on keeping your fitness level at its present condition.

Not everyone needs to compete or challenge themselves physically in order to be in shape—although there are often definite benefits to doing so.

Who Should Get in Better Shape?

The parameters of being in good shape shift from person to person and body to body—and may change during each person's life. Many people know they want to get in better shape, either because they don't feel good physically or aren't reaching their fitness goals or they have health issues, such as back pain, diabetes, or obesity, that may motivate them to get in better shape.

Also, your doctor, physical therapist, or counselor might have suggested working on your fitness level.

However, others may wonder if they could benefit from setting goals to get in better shape. If you're not sure, asking yourself the following questions may help you decide if pursuing enhanced fitness is right (and/or needed health-wise) for you:

  • Can you do the things you want to do physically? If you wish you could dance, jog, hopscotch, jump rope, yoga, ski, sprint, or cartwheel easier, better, or with more oomph and joy, then getting in better shape can certainly help.
  • Do you feel confident in yourself and your body? Are you sure about your body's ability to perform in the way you want it to?
  • Do you feel good about what your body can do? Think about if you consider your body your friend or an enemy. Getting in better shape may help heal any rifts that may exist.
  • Do you feel happy with how your body looks? Is the shape of your body something you want to change? Think about whether getting fit is likely to change any negative attitudes you may have about your body, how it looks, and how it performs physically.
  • Do you feel strong? If you don't feel strong, you may benefit from a strength training program.
  • Do you want to exercise more? If you're itching to add more workouts into your life, then you'd probably enjoy doing so.
  • Do you want to lose weight? While losing weight isn't always a prerequisite to being in shape, it can be a healthy part of that journey.
  • Do you get winded easily? If doing the activities you want to do make you feel winded or out of breath, improving your cardiovascular fitness could make these activities more enjoyable and accessible to you.
  • Do you have athletic goals you want to achieve? If you want to run at 10K in under 50 minutes, excel in a sport, or smash your personal bests in whatever exercises (from pushups or crow pose to CrossFit workouts) you enjoy, then generally getting in better shape will likely help.
  • Has your doctor suggested you improve your physical fitness? If your health practitioner or other fitness professional has advised you to get in better shape for health reasons, whether this includes losing weight and/or improving your cardiovascular fitness, strength, balance, or flexibility, it's a good idea to consider starting a training plan to achieve those objectives.
  • How does it feel to be in your body? If moving, sitting, sleeping, bending, and/or standing are uncomfortable or challenging for you, making a plan to improve your fitness may make you feel better.
  • Is your lifestyle sedentary or active? Consider how much physical activity you get on a daily or weekly basis and whether you want to tip the scale toward more physical activity.

Always check with your doctor before starting an exercise program or significantly altering your regular training program. Be sure to be cleared for any intense workouts or big changes in physical activity levels.

Tips for Getting in Shape

If you want to get in better shape, there are many effective ways to achieve your "getting in shape" goals. The following tips can help you get fit:

  • Aim to make getting in shape fun—choose activities and exercise companions that you enjoy.
  • Be kind, patient, gentle, and supportive of your body as you also challenge and motivate yourself.
  • Break up larger goals into smaller, sustainable chunks.
  • Consult with a personal trainer to create a training program that suits your needs.
  • Cross-train—adding variety (yoga, swimming, cycling, dance) to your workouts works your body in new ways and keeps things interesting.
  • Expect setbacks—and include solutions and plan Bs (Cs, Ds, Es, and Fs) in your training program.
  • Find others with similar goals to work on them together.
  • Gradually increase your activity level rather than going all in all at once, as overtraining or overdoing it too quickly can cause injury and/or burnout.
  • Instead of focusing on the scale or the mirror, find success in what your body can do and how it feels as you move.
  • Join a gym, athletics class, or sports team—and commit to going to workout, classes, or practices.
  • Make a plan and a schedule for yourself—and stick to it.
  • Seek out support and encouragement from friends, family, and your larger community.
  • Take care of your mental health and stress levels.

A Word From Verywell

Creating your own definition of what being in shape is for you can help you feel better about where your body is today and motivate you to get in even better shape in the future. Knowing you don't need superhuman strength or awe-inspiring physical prowess to be fit lets you embrace the healthy fitness goals that are right for you and your body, in whatever shape it's in.

Just like there are lots of different body sizes, shapes, and aspirations, there are lots of ways to be in shape. As long as you—and your doctor—feel good about your general health and well-being and what your body can do, then you can consider yourself in good shape. That said, if it appeals to you, wherever you are on the physical fitness spectrum, you can always strive to get into better shape.

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