Q: Which one of the above athletes is healthiest?

A: You cannot determine health based on aesthetics alone. 

Too often, we equate health with weight loss and fitness with an aesthetic such as ripped abs. All ripped abs means is some exercise combined with low body fat. In fact, can we all get over our obsession with ripped abs? It’s silly. Unless you are a stage competitor, ripped abs are as hard to maintain as they are useless.  As a matter of fact, even competitors don’t have ripped abs all the time. It takes cutting cycles to achieve and once the competition is over, the athlete’s body is screaming for fluids and carbohydrates and guess what? They oblige. Six packs aren’t usually year-round, even for most professionals.

Ripped abs doesn't mean strength. It doesn't mean a healthy heart or lungs. Ripped abs doesn't mean you can swim or kick a ball or run a 5k or lift a barbell over your head. It's simply a look. Can you achieve it by getting healthy and fit? Yes, but it doesn't mean you are not healthy and fit if you can't wash your clothes on your midsection. 

Health is the state of a body without disease or defect. Fitness is the body’s ability to perform physically and handle tasks without fatigue or injury. There are many aspects to this: strength, power, stamina, agility, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility, to name a few. Visualizing ourselves with the bodies of top fitness models and heavily angled and filtered photos on Instagram, instead of thinking in terms of performance and function, leads us to have unrealistic expectations of our own bodies and capabilities. Then, everyone gets depressed when they cannot achieve their goals.

Look, you are not going to look like an athlete, unless you live like an athlete. This takes dedication, folks. Not ten minutes a day, not some one-month blast, not from fat burners and supplements, or a few sweat sessions in a neon tank top that says “BEAST MODE.” It is making strenuous exercise a part of your life, using your diet to build muscle as well as lose fat and challenging yourself every day to do better than you did the day before. It takes years to hone, not weeks. And even with such dedication, your body will not look like someone else’s.

For instance, I’m 5 foot 3 and under 120 pounds. No matter how hard I train, I’m never going to look like a pole-vaulting gazelle, or have a bottom half that blasts out of Lululemon booty shorts and squats 400 pounds at a powerlifting meet. It's just not something I am naturally capable of. And that’s okay. I know my parameters. 

So what do we do?

We must break ourselves from the mindset that health and fitness is unattainable without certain physical attributes. Don’t fixate on a specific look. Don’t fixate on a specific weight. Focusing on those things will only cause you to feel defeated too early on, because your body will not bend to your sudden will after years of abuse. Instead, work towards attaining the qualities of health and fitness, like “I want to run a mile without puking,” “I want to do ten unassisted pull ups,” or “I want to be able to squat 315 pounds.” This way, your progress and motivation is wrapped up in the action, not in the mirror. Watching numbers go up is more enticing than waiting for them to go down. 

Something I always find inspiring is the ESPN Magazine Body issues, where everyone is naked.

#1 because, naked.

#2 because looking at all those bodies makes you realize, once and for all, that top-tier, world-class athletes come in a wide array of shapes and sizes. Here are people in prime condition, performing feats of strength, power, stamina, agility, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility that the average person can only dream of doing, and they don’t look like models. Tall, short, thick, thin, muscular, lean… fitness doesn’t always fit a mold. A six pack doesn’t indicate health. You can be inspired by all these bodies, without feeling defeated by them.

Start thinking, not how do you want to look... but what do you want to do?