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Fitness vs. Wellness: What's the Difference?

I remembered going to a hot yoga class where one woman was wearing her Fitbit with the heart rate monitor. She was anxious to know how many calories she could burn in the class. To be honest, I was curious, too, and I think she said she burned like 500 calories, which I knew wasn't correct. I also told her that the wrist-based heart rate monitors aren't as accurate as the chest-based ones--and this was five years ago, before the technology on wrist-based monitors had advanced.

So we agreed that we would both wear our monitors that next class to see. Mine said something like 376, which was probably right, considering I typically burned about 600 calories an hour during a hard run and about 500 during a solid bike ride.

But burning calories isn't what yoga is about. Burning calories is about fitness. Yoga is about wellness. In other words, wellness is less concerned about burning calories in one sitting and more concerned with whether or not you arrive on the mat in the first place.

There is nothing in the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, or Hatha Yoga Pradipika that talks about being thin. In fact, none of them really concern themselves with the body aside from being a vessel of your spirit. And there are times when the body can hold your past emotional trauma in certain places, which hinders your spirit from flowing freely.

Fitness is concerned with short-term goals. You might need to lose weight for health reasons, and that points to the long-term goal of overall wellness. What is "fit" in your 20s is different from your 70s. We idolize those 70-year-olds who can run a sub-20 5K, but that's not about wellness.

Wellness is an overarching perspective. It includes keeping the mind sharp, keeping the body strong and supple, and keeping the spirit connected to the divine. We adopt different routines to develop our wellness, and these routines are very specific.

We must refrain from looking to others as "goals," although that might sustain you in the short-term. Fitness might look to "beat" someone else or to allow yourself to be "better." Wellness is concerned with evolution, a continuum, that seeks to make shifts according to your current life circumstances.

Let me give you an example.

Fourteen years ago, I was going through a lot of emotional drama. I had ended a tumultuous and substance-laden relationship, and the hangover was too tough to bear. I had participated in a few triathlons, which was great for my spirit. I loved having others around me to find my edge.

I was asked to enter a fitness bodybuilding competition. It honestly wasn't in my "plan." I was getting ready to move to Florida, where I could possibly participate in more triathlons. But I figured this entered my path, so I would investigate.

I did a ton of research and talked to a few female competitors. I knew which diet would be best for me and my body, and I dropped significantly. This is what I looked like.

Figure competition
My first fitness show in 2007

I think you could empirically say I was "fit." Was I happy? No. I knew I still had some work to do. 

Yes, I was participating in a lot of activities such as Eucharistic Adoration, Catholic RCIA, and Bible studies. I was meditating and practicing yin yoga.

Although I had reached the short-term goal of winning my first fitness competition, it wasn't making me emotionally well. It was a nice diversion to focus on my body and my physical health to an extreme, but I knew there were other things that were much more important.

In other words, fitness wasn't my "goal." My aim was more holistic. I wanted to be well physically (which I was), mentally, and spiritually. Focusing on just one would have thrown everything out of balance.

I have seen many women participate in fitness shows who are going through a whole host of drama in their personal lives. Some of them are suffering from their husband's emotional abuse, others are suffering from body image issues from their youth. Some emerge victorious because they look at these competitions as a means to an end. They don't throw their lives out of balance. They keep their jobs, they maintain their social lives, and they nurture their spiritual health.

Others lose themselves in their fitness. Their eating disorders return, they get lured into taking steroids, or they immerse themselves too deep that they have no other life aside from their fitness. Their "lifestyle" has become an addiction. Their spiritual and mental health is tied into how others perceive them and whether they "win" competitions. The extreme is now the normal, and they fear returning to their "old" self because they will lose their identity. 

Their short-term goal of fitness has consumed them, and they are locked in. They cannot evolve until they release their attachment to their external idea of "fitness." They cannot adapt to new circumstances because they are still fixed in their attachment.

The goal of a race or a competition might jump start your fitness in the same way that a three-day juice fast might. But you don't stay there. You use that to springboard you to a new place and perhaps out of a rut you might be encountering. 

Wellness doesn't consider "before" and "after." It says this:

"This is who I was, this is who I am now, and I am open to what new opportunities might help me uncover a continually improved version of myself--body, mind, and spirit." 

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