The value of fitness

There’s a lot of talk about fitness these days – physical, mental, professional fitness – and for good reason. There are many things we can do individually to improve our physical and emotional health. We can improve our physical well-being through proper diet, sleep, and physical activity. We can elevate our happiness by savoring, flowing, acknowledging, forgiving, and showing self-compassion. We can excel at work by acquiring more technical and interpersonal skills. But is it enough? I would argue that physical fitness is a necessary but insufficient condition for promoting well-being.

In addition to the activities that we can initiate and maintain through self-motivation, there are factors of well-being related to the context of our lives. Let me touch on two of them: the right fit between the person and the environment, and the degree of fairness in relationships, at work and in society in general.

The right fit

Fit is the right match between your needs and the environment. The context of your life—family, work, community—should meet your needs; and you, in turn, must adapt to the context. If you’re clean, you might want to live and work with people who pick up after themselves. If you want to reduce your stress in Miami, you might want to avoid driving on US 1, which we locals call the Pointless.

Is there a good match between your needs and your social environment? Are you surrounded by people who support or judge you? Are there many obstacles preventing you from achieving your goals? Have you thought about changing your environment to improve your life? I have made major changes in my life to better reconcile my needs and my living conditions. To begin with, I changed countries four times, which seems a bit excessive, but it’s true. I grew up in Argentina under a brutal and anti-Semitic dictatorship. Terrible crisis, especially if you opposed the military dictatorship and you were Jewish, like me: two against two. I moved to Israel when I was a teenager. After nine years there, my wife Ora and I decided to pursue higher education in Canada, which we believed would provide better opportunities. After 15 wonderful years in Canada, winter has arrived. Ora, who uses a wheelchair, was bothered by the constant presence of snow and slush. There were many wonderful things in Canada, but weather was certainly not one of them. In search of better weather, we moved to Australia. We spent three amazing years in Melbourne, but in search of a better career match, we moved to Nashville to take jobs at Vanderbilt University.

Life is a dance between what we want and have and what the context can offer. Sometimes we have to change the environment to make it more suitable to our needs; we can make it more nurturing and accepting. Families and workplaces that provide care and respect promote significance and well-being. Settings that ignore you, on the contrary, can create alienation. In short, what sometimes needs to change is not you, but the environment.

The value of equity

The right fit between person and environment requires not only fitness, but also fairness. Equity is the practice of justice. There are several types of equity. Distribution is about getting what you deserve, such as respect, recognition, opportunity, access to high quality health care, adequate pay, or free education for your children. The procedure is about having a voice and choice in the decisions that affect your life, from the movie you will watch with your partner to policies that impact your community to voting rights. The remedy, in turn, is to repair the damage done to you or your community and to restore fair relations between the conflicting parties.

If an injustice of any kind – distributive, procedural, corrective – prevails, improving our physical condition may not be enough. If you find yourself in a violent situation, where your physical or psychological integrity is at risk, improving your communication skills may not put an end to the violence. You may be the greatest communicator on Earth, but that might not stop a physically abusive partner from acting violently.

Fairness, or lack thereof, can take place in relationships, families, workplaces or the community. Women are still paid less than men for similar work. People with disabilities still face physical and social barriers. Children are abused by ill-prepared parents. Minorities face discrimination due to racism, prejudice and stigma. Poor children are hungry. Workers are exploited by unscrupulous companies. People with more power treat others with disdain. These are injustices that afflict many groups.

Are you treated with respect? Do the people around you make you feel valued? Do you have a voice and a choice in the decisions that affect your life? Are you getting what you deserve, in your relationships, at work, and in the community?

We should learn to spot the signs of unfair treatment. For example, bullying does not have to be overt to be harmful. Insidious means can be just as damaging. Harassment can take many forms: sexual, psychological, social. Exclusion and marginalization are manifestations of injustice – we are treated as invisible or worse. Once we learn to recognize these transgressions, we can improve our ability to build equity. Being assertive is part of interpersonal and psychological fitness. To achieve an optimal fit between person and environment, we need fitness and fairness.

In short, there are three paths to wellness. The first, physical fitness, involves the acquisition of healthy skills and habits. The second, fit, requires changes in ourselves and in the context. The third, equity, requires changes in our environment and social relationships. It is a reminder that well-being depends on both internal psychological changes and social transformations. The more we create conditions of equity, the easier it will be for people to find the right match between their needs and their environment. Once we all enjoy the same opportunities in life, we can flourish through practice and dedication. But without equity, no amount of physical fitness will translate into optimal well-being.