If you were told that someone 4 feet 11 inches tall and weighed 49kg, you’d probably think that the person in question is underweight and unfit. Conversely, if you were told that someone 6 feet 5 inches tall weighed 176kg, you’d think such a person would likely be overweight and unfit.
But then, in either case, you may just be airing your biases, based on an idea of fitness and health linked to body image that has been slipped into our collective consciousness through popular media, backed by brand marketing. To associate fitness with only certain body types is a mistake, unhealthy and, in the long run, extremely physically and psychologically dangerous. If you go beyond the advertisements and actually look at data or observe real people in everyday life, you’d realise that the concept of ‘fitness’ is much more nuanced.
Well, to explain the point I am trying to make and dispel these dangerous (and incorrect) notions about fitness, let’s start with the Tokyo Olympics. Expecially that morning in late July when we woke up to the news of Mirabai Chanu winning the silver medal for weight lifting. Chanu weighs 49 kg and stands a shade under 5 feet. She lifted 87kg in the snatch—a very difficult and complex lift—and 115kg in the clean and jerk. To put it in perspective, she clean and jerked more than twice her body weight. Most of us would struggle to even deadlift—a simple act of lifting a bar off the floor and standing up straight—115kg no matter what our weight or build.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Georgian weightlifter Lasha Talakhzade weighing north of 175kg and standing 6-foot 5 inches tall. He’s a giant of a man with a belly to match. He doesn’t have chiseled abs or carved muscles either. But that doesn’t stop Talakhzade from smashing world records at will. His starting weights at the Tokyo Olympics were the same as the heavier weights being lifted by his opponents. He shattered his own world record in Tokyo in August with a snatch of 223kg and a clean and jerk of 265kg. You have to be incredibly strong and fit to move something that heavy even half an inch off the floor all by yourself.
While it is the sculpted physique of someone like Cristiano Ronaldo, who grabbed all headlines last weekend when he scored twice on his second debut for Manchester United, that is held up as the epitome of health and fitness, it would be a grave mistake to think that other body types cannot be fit too. Ronaldo’s body type is perfect for what he does—hover around the opponent’s box, accelerate in short sprints, do some stepovers, bamboozle defenders and take aim at the goal. Even he is unlikely to be strong enough to clean and jerk more than twice his body weight. That doesn’t make him any less healthy or fit. It’s just that his fitness serves a different end than, say, weightlifting.
Fitness comes in many shapes and sizes and it is possible to be big and fit like Talakhzade, or a heavyweight boxer or wrestler. At the same time it is also very much possible to be extremely strong and fit while being scrawny and small. For further evidence, you don’t need to look beyond the current marathon world record holder and Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge, who weighs 52kg and measures 5 feet 5 inches. He is pretty much unbeatable in the marathon distance and practically wins every time he starts a race. To be able to do so, he runs a distance of 42km at the lung bursting average speed of about 20km per hour for two hours on the trot. Imagine the strength and lung capacity for such a feat!
Though marketing would want you to believe otherwise, fitness is not limited or exclusive to a particular body type. The medal winners at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics came in all shapes and sizes. They showed that fitness and health are possible for all; it doesn’t require a body type, it just needs hard work, dedication, some discipline and a positive frame of mind.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.