What is Fitness? Part I: Mission

I’ve been thinking a lot about “fitness” lately. What is it, really? Why do I do it? How do I do it? For so much of my life, I never paused to ask the most basic questions. David Jack and I discovered ActivPrayer because we were asking those questions, and I’m still asking them today.

The answer to the question “What is Fitness?” is not a simple one. There are many dimensions. But I’d like to at least start off with the basic observation: that health and fitness are the not same thing, and that fitness has a unique human value that has everything to do with mission.


The word fit-ness comes straight from the word “fit” – like a key fitting a lock. Fitness means to be “fit” for something. Either it is a good fit, or a bad fit!

What is it a for for, then?

I decided to go back to the roots to understand fitness because it seems to have become separated from life in modern times. It has  become fitness for fitness’ sake, often without purpose and without a truly greater good in mind. It has even become self-serving.

Ascesis, or training, in Greek, was always training for a mission. Often, that mission was the mission of a soldier. But they also believed that training was always for the mission of developing virtues for life. Whatever the case, though, it was always directed toward a greater good. It was never, ever, an end in itself.

If fitness is for mission, then it has to be something different from health. Health is for life. Fitness is for mission.

We can certainly be alive – our heart can be beating, we can free of disease, we can have full brain function, we can even be strong – all without a mission. If fitness is being “fit” for a mission, then we can’t speak about authentic fitness without first talking about mission.

If we don’t have a mission, health and fitness quickly become the same thing. Fitness becomes nothing more than a measure of health – a degree of heath, or “super health” – and not a measure of how well we’re prepared to answer a vocation, or calling, in life.

How can we be a good “fit” for something if we don’t first know what that thing is? How can we know if a key is the right key if we haven’t seen the lock?

ActivPrayer fitness wants to re-fit fitness so that it opens the door of life. 

The Three Fundamental Principles

There are three fundamental principles to this vision of fitness:

1) Health is something universal. Fitness is something very personal.

Every living creature wants and needs to be healthy. Only a human person needs a mission. Each person has a unique mission, too. If that is the case, then there are as many types of the “right” fitness as there are people on this earth. Fitness is personal because mission is always personal. For this reason, we envisioned ActivPrayer from day one as the most personal fitness program on the planet.

2) Health is related to nature. Fitness is related to mission.

I was speaking to a veterinarian the other day who told me that he has never used or heard the word “fit” in his entire career in reference to animals.

Animals are simply “healthy” (or not) according to their nature. Dogs are healthy if they are functioning like a dog, birds are healthy if they are functioning like a bird. A botanist would say that a plant is “healthy” if it is functioning like a plant: getting enough sunshine enough nutrients, and growing like it should. Nobody would think to call a plant “fit”.

Health is a very loose, general term. All kinds of things are healthy. We even call a baseball swing “healthy” if it has all of the essential elements of a baseball swing. We use the word “health” for all kinds of things! But whenever we use it, we are measuring what something is according to the nature of that thing.

Fitness, on the other hand, comes after health. Health is a presupposition for fitness.

Something interesting happens when we think about “health” for human beings. Unlike dogs, or cats, or plants, once we achieve perfect “health”, we’re still not perfectly happy. Something is missing. We want more. Why?

Because the nature of a human being is also to have a mission. We are unique among creation in that. It’s not enough that our organs are funcitoning properly; we are called to transform the world, and each one of us receives a mission as part of it.

We’re “fit” when we’ve shaped ourselves to carry out that mission.

Health is related to our nature on a biological level. Fitness is related to our mission on a spiritual level – although physical adaptation is no doubt a part of that.

3) Health is measured according to universal measurements for every human being. Fitness can only be measured against your mission.

Health is something that we can generally apply to every human person, with slight variations depending on their age, sex, and culture. Am I free of disease? Are my organs functioning properly? Are my muscles working properly? Is the spinal cord aligned? We could go on and on. These are basic indicators of health that every single human person can be measured by.

But how ridiculous it is if we start equating “fitness” with “health” and trying to measure people with different missions in life by the same standards!

Is a stay-at-home mother of 6 not fit because she can’t do 50 kipping pull-ups in under 5 minutes? Her mission is to be a mother, and “fitness” is completely relative to her mission of motherhood. There exists an order – a hierarchy of values in life – and fitness always has to remain ordered and in perspective.

One of the beautiful things about mission-driven fitness is that it always aligns fitness with life, and it prevents fitness from becoming its own monster. When it becomes separated from the realities of life and fitness is something that lives on its own, as if it were an end in itself, we end holding up ideals of fitness that are unrealistic and not even desirable for the vast majority of the population.

Let’s look at another mother as an example: Mother Theresa, the saint who worked in the slums of Calcutta as her mission.

Was Mother Theresa not fit because she never stepped foot in a gym in her entire life? Mother Theresa is a holy woman who poured out her life out, including her body,  in the service of others. Her “fitness” was first of all a spiritual fitness – how many of us spend 2+ hours/day in prayer? – and it was exactly what she needed to be doing to accomplish her mission. Quite frankly, Mother Theresa didn’t need to have the fitness level of a Navy Seal. In fact, 99.9% of us do not.

We’re fit to the extent that our fitness “fits” our mission.

I wonder if much of the confusion in the fitness world is precisely that: we’ve lost sight of a greater good…a unique, personal mission.

Measurements reflect mission.

In Conclusion

Fitness simply can’t be understood apart from mission. And when we divorce it from mission, we end up forgetting why we wanted to be fit in the first place. It’s not to prepare us to do anything; it’s to prepare us to one thing: our own life.

My life is not the life of a Delta Force Operator, and a Delta Force Operator’s life is not the life of a saint in Calcutta. And neither one of them have the life of a stay-at-home mother of 6.

Fitness is personal, and it’s about mission. And it can only be measured against mission.

If I had to define fitness in 100 words or less, then, it would be this:

Fitness is the training that we do to adapt our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual gifts to our mission in life.




Luke Burgis
Luke Burgis, CSCS, is a Co-Founder of ActivPrayer, an architect of the activMAP, and a sports and performance coach that has worked in the nutrition and fitness industries for over 10 years. He graduated with a B.S. in Finance from NYU and also completed an S.T.B. in Sacred Theology at a university in Italy where he worked closely with the Vatican's office of Church & Sport about the role of sports and fitness in renewing cultures.

He is a well-known public speaker on the topics of entrepreneurship, fitness, and faith.
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