Vitality versus Fitness

by Dr Danielle Pirera, Exercise Physiologist, Goonellabah, Australia

Why do healthy people who are extremely or moderately fit, who eat a well balanced healthy diet of protein, carbohydrates and fat, who go to bed early and sleep 8 hours per night, still get very tired or even exhausted by an average work day behind the desk, or need caffeine and sugar to get them through the full day?

In my early 20s I was super fit (able to run 21km, or in scientific terms, a peak oxygen consumption of 70 ml/kg/min, which is equivalent to a male competitive cyclist), but still I got tired by an average work or university day: I not only ate, but craved sugar in the form of high carbohydrate foods, chocolate, lollies and ice cream.

Generally, if someone is unfit, not eating well, over-weight, going to bed late and feeling a level of fatigue or tiredness throughout their day, their doctor or health practitioner would say that they need to eat healthy, lose weight, go to bed early, and do some regular exercise to increase their endurance. Practically and scientifically this makes sense: the cardiovascular and muscular system is not strong enough, or is under strain, or does not have the nutrients it needs, or the physical body is not having enough rest to easily get through the physical demands of the day.  From my experience working in this industry, I have seen that being fit, healthy and eating and sleeping well is not the answer to having good energy levels.

Through the work I have done with Universal Medicine I have come to realise that there is a significant difference between being fit and being vital. Vital is being energetic, awake and lively throughout my day without the need for sugar or caffeine or other stimulants to get me through the work day. Being fit is being able to walk for an hour comfortably, or walk stairs or hills with minimal effort, or swim a few laps at the pool without getting out of breath, or doing 15-30 minutes of light weight-lifting without reaching fatigue. But being fit does not mean being able to get through a work day without being tired, or waking up not tired – this is being vital.

For me, being vital requires a different type of training. It’s not the time or consistency spent walking or doing strength exercises. It’s more to do with how I am with myself in everything that I do. Not only my diet, sleep and rest, but the way I prepare for work, how I shower and dress myself, how I move about the house, drive to work, how I am at work, how I speak with others, how my lunch break is, how I arrive home from work, how I prepare myself for my evening, how I am with my evening, how I am when I eat, how I interact with my husband and family and how I lay myself down for bed in the evening.

If I do all of these things in a frantic, fast-paced or unfocussed way then I feel drained. It’s like there’s a part of my petrol tank leaking, so not only am I using petrol to do what I need to do, but I’m dumping petrol at the same time.

Fine-tuning how I do things to not drain my energy levels has been a process of breaking old ways of being; not only to not rush around, but also considering how I am holding myself and how I am moving with myself. Is it in a fast paced, empty way, or at a natural pace where I feel every movement and move gently and lovingly? It’s also about considering what I’m thinking about whilst I am doing anything; when I’m in the shower, washing the dishes, talking with a person at work, writing a report or doing exercises. Am I thinking exactly about what I’m doing?…. Or am I thinking about something completely different? And it’s about considering the purpose behind everything; why I am doing or saying things – is it because I think I have to, to please another person, to get recognition, to look good, because that’s what my mother did, because that’s what the magazines, TV, teachers or my friends do?

I’ve discovered that if I move in a very gentle and precious way with myself in all that I do, if I stay focussed and thinking about what I’m doing and if I only truly do what I feel to do for me because it feels right, then I don’t get drained throughout my day. When I lay myself down to sleep I am not tired, but already rested and ready to enjoy more rest, not needing it. I then wake up the following day in the same fashion that I finished it, rested and energised. Over a number of days this builds, then over weeks and months it builds to a level where I feel much more rested, more energetic and less chaotic or tired during my day.

This is definitely a work in process as I begin to realise that what felt rested a few years or even a few months ago feels tired or chaotic now. Sometimes I fall back into old ways of being, but eventually my eyes and my body ache and I recognise that my vitality is low and I need to re-consider how I am living – not whether I need to go to the gym and get fit to have energy.

360 thoughts on “Vitality versus Fitness

  1. It’s how I move that energises me or not. I woke up this morning and realised that hitting snooze and going back to bed does not energise me. Getting up, being present with how I move is what works for my body currently.

    1. I’m finding this that I wake up early and my body wants to wake up and get on with the day, but my mind wants to go back to sleep because it feels it is too early to get up. If I listen to my mind and go back to sleep when I then wake up again I feel dull and sluggish. Listening to my mind always comes with unforeseen consequences.

  2. I just think this is such a brilliant question – why do healthy and fit people still get tired after an average working day and need sugar and caffeine? “Being fit, healthy and eating and sleeping well is not the answer to having good energy levels” – I completely agree. When there are so many things that promise to offer a healthy option, exhaustion is at a pandemic level. All those band-aids are obviously not working.

  3. This blog blows away many ideas and perceptions about fitness, health and vitality. It has also been my experience as well in that going to the gym is one aspect but being present with myself in my every day is a far greater influence on my vitality levels.

  4. My personal feeling is that fitness is all about the mind it can take over and run the body ragged. Vitality is all about the body the enjoyment of being with our bodies no matter what activity we are doing.

  5. “I’ve discovered that if I move in a very gentle and precious way with myself in all that I do, if I stay focussed and thinking about what I’m doing and if I only truly do what I feel to do for me because it feels right, then I don’t get drained throughout my day.” A priceless recipe for vitality.

  6. So often fitness is held up as the holy grail that we should be attaining whilst completely ignoring how our body feels when we push it to complete a punishing fitness regime in complete disregard. Having just spent a weekend doing much harder physical work than I would normally do I have woken this morning feeling achey but well rested and ready to go back to my regular office work. This is truly remarkable as for many years I pursued fitness regimes that always left me feeling depleted whereas now I do little exercise other than walking but am much more open to listening to my body’s communication and moving in a way that supports me whatever I am doing.

  7. Thank you again Danielle for this wonderful article, I learn so much each time I read it and also from the readers comments. We tend to think that it is the bigger situations that happen in our day, week, or year that impact our wellbeing like receiving bad news, being in an argument, an accident or illness, not the way we are in our day to day physical movements, patterns of thinking, and not being present with ourselves. I feel what you have shared shows how much detail we can bring to supporting our health and wellbeing, well beyond the current concept of lifestyle choices.

  8. Vitality is a quality that is missing from our lives today, I have seen the demise of this quality in my life time. I can honestly say that the quality of life or our vitality for life has diminished since I was a child and this can clearly be seen in photographs of people I would say up until the late 1970’s and then you can start to see changes in people’s bodies and how they harden to cope with life, so what on earth are we doing to ourselves?

  9. To coin a phrase – this is a vitally important question Danielle, and one that does not get any airtime. It reminds me of another aspect as well… how come the way we educate our children does not seem to prepare them for work? Its like we are focussing on totally the wrong things.

    1. Good point Simon, even towards the end of school when jobs are becoming part of the conversation the actual schooling doesn’t prepare you for choosing, performing and maybe even enjoying your work.

  10. I feel that we have lost our vitality for life and have replaced it with fitness which as you correctly say Danielle is not the same thing at all. So we are again misleading ourselves into a belief that is not true.

  11. “Vital is being energetic, awake and lively throughout my day without the need for sugar or caffeine or other stimulants to get me through the work day.” And I like to add quality – I will bring it to everything I do if I chose to be vital! With quality I stop myself of being only functional!

  12. Thank you Danielle, for showing so clearly the difference between exercise and gentle exercise and the connection with vitality.

  13. It makes absolute sense to me as I have reflected on my way of being in the past that how I am with myself in every moment is going to affect my vitality. Ignore me and how my body is feeling then exhausted I will become; pay attention to supporting and loving me first then the rewards of vitality follow, a work in progress that can only be built on with a continuous commitment to self.

  14. As we have to train to be fit so too we have to train to be vital in life, especially when we haven’t been paying attention to this for most of our lives. There is a way to live that we can be ‘fit for life’ that we can handle situations, conversations, work, study, relationships without getting exhausted.

  15. A fantastic read, thank you Danielle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article like this that so clearly defines vitality, and how this relates to how we move and how are with ourselves. It makes perfect sense though as if we are rough with ourselves and our movements, or feeling rushed and disconnected, then it’s a strain on the body and a day we have to recover and replenish from. If we are with ourselves and being caring, aware and gentle then we are not depleting ourselves.

  16. I love 20 minutes swim a day, its just what I need, sometimes I want a little more exercise but generally 20 mins a day really suits me, gone are my days where I would not exercises for ages then do it all in one day only not to walk for 3 afterwards. Consistancy is the key.

  17. It is the quality of which we move from that makes us either feeling more resolved and truly vital or drained and tired. This is what we need to consider as a humanity. It is not about food, sleep, fitness and practicality, it is about the quality in which we do this, first. Energy is first, what we then do from this energy is second.

  18. The bottom line when it comes to vitality is that the more loveless abusive energy we use in our day, the more drained we are going to be. You might say that’s obvious but abuse streams through even the subtlest of actions be it having too much to eat or holding back in your posture

  19. Love this focus about being vital throughout our day, and it’s not a common topic. We hear lots about being physically fit (it can be measured very easily), eating a healthy diet (again easy to assess), and getting enough sleep (as defined by the 7 or 8 hours recommended)….. but vitality is a very different thing. It’s having that spark throughout the day and no one I know measures that well, and yet that is the feeling we walk around with day in day out so it’s incredibly important to how we feel about ourselves, about our lives, and inextricably linked to what we express to our colleagues, family and friends.

  20. I am so glad you are sharing this, because there’s so many things we can use to bounce back from exhaustion and appear “ok” and not many people, especially if they pride themselves as “healthy”, are going to admit the level of exhaustion they are chronically suffering, and what I can feel is how much we undervalue true vitality, or we just don’t know what we are missing.

  21. So interesting that when we’re feeling tired and under the weather, the first things we go to are obvious lifestyle changes of the basics: I must need to eat more, sleep more, etc, seemingly to put more fuel in the tank. Learning that not all of our energy comes from food, but the source of energy we’re choosing to connect to, is pretty game-changing, because then we start to look much more widely at how we’re choosing to live and be, moment to moment: are we taking on emotions that aren’t our own? Are we staying present and focused on what we’re doing, or draining ourselves by thinking through other issues or problems? Are we creating problems that we don’t need to have? Basic questions to ask ourselves, but ones that can help us to look at where we’re draining ourselves, and where we’re building our vitality.

    1. We think of putting more fuel in the tank as more sleep, better food, or getting fitter…. do we consider that it is all to do with our movements during the day and the energy that we are aligned to?

  22. Beautiful, the difference of vitality and fitness being described. And how powerful they are in their true enriched meaning. For lets live the words here described and feel more deeper into what it is that we need to change in order to actually be healthy in its full form.

  23. I agree Danielle, it is how we are when we do things that count, the quality that we hold ourselves in, the way that we move, our conscious presence, this all makes for a steady mind and body and a vital way of being.

  24. No question that we need both, fitness and vitality, but you bring awareness to how important it is to know the difference and how to support oneself in the ‘training’ – fitness is taking care of one´s physical and physiological capacity while vitality is the result of presence and quality in everything that we do.

  25. Vitality is a product of the physical and the the inner world of the soul. Brought together there is a vitality that defies the norms.

  26. Great points here, we often have pictures about what being healthy means and being fit is definitely part of these ideas, but as you correctly say, people can be exhausted and drained even though considered fit. So we are left to ponder what it means to be energised and vital as you say, beautiful consider, the quality we are in and not just what we are doing?

  27. I like how you pointed out Danielle the importance of the wind down period in the evening so by the time we actually go to bed our transition to sleep is both simple and smooth as our body has been lovingly prepared for it. I really need to pay more attention to my quality of wind down in the evening.

  28. I think it is revealing and really worthwhile examining what we call ‘fitness’ and if the ideals we have of what we think this is are actually harmonious and supportive or not…

  29. I observed recently how I was only giving 80% of my all to my work and even though it looked great and I could not be faulted as being a great employee, I was still not giving my all to it. Recently I have been exploring bringing my all and really going for it and it unlocks a whole new level of energy and vitality to do what I do. It even brings my body alive too to work this way. There is more to vitality than purely just fitness.

    1. I could not agree more Joshua. If I’m checking out in any way, and it happens more than I care to admit at times, I am instantly drained therefore having low vitality or none and then trying to get back into what I need to do from that energy is practically pointless. It’s giving our all from first being connected, know where we are at, being honest with if we’re tired or not feeling 100% and then do what needs to be done taking care of ourselves in what ever way is needed. I know for myself, and see in others at work, how we think we are getting away with what happens outside of work, how we treat ourselves, what we indulge in in the privacy of our homes and then presto click a switch and able to walk through the doors at work and be instantly ready to work, converse with others, be productive etc. but it just doesn’t in truth happen like that. Everything we do comes with us in all we do.

    2. Thank you Joshua for everything you have shared here, the wisdom you have gained from your own experiences can accelerate us all.

  30. This takes it to a whole other level beyond function and exercise to how we move, the quality of how we are in each and every moment, and it is indeed about how we are in everything we approach and that this is continually refining, it’s about our relationship with us and our bodies.

  31. Recently I felt drained and wiped out, something I have not experienced in a while. A couple of incidents occurred in my life the one incident where I had to learn to speak up in a situation which I was not used to and the other a more intense situation of something that has kept re-occurring throughout my life except with different people as they entered my life. What I was amazed by was how exhausted I was feeling. It made me realise how exhausting relationships with others can be when I am not focused and honouring of the relationship I have with myself. It showed me that when I slip and place another before me dishonouring me and who I am I lose vitality and become exhausted. Thankfully it didn’t last long because I knew what was going on and how to get myself out of it but before Universal Medicine this would have been my normal and way of living!

    1. Caroline I really appreciated your sharing this, most people would not consider not placing themselves first as a drain on their energy. I worked with a very experienced psychologist who told me that the majority of her chronically exhausted clients (including people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) were placing everyone before themselves. She felt a link between that behaviour and vitality levels.

    2. Caroline Universal Medicine is a life saver because we go about our daily lives exhausted. The amount of caffeinated drinks that we consume in the day testifies to this way of living. Universal Medicine asks the question if it is possible that there is a different way to live so that we are not drained of energy instead we feel full of vitality. I saw someone recently who is about to celebrate their 70 th birthday but to look at them you would think they were 60! They are so full of life, so full of vitality it pours out of them. They are probably busier in their life now with all the volunteering they do than when they were working full time. This proves to me that there is a way of life that can be lived and enjoyed however old we are.

  32. Bringing a focus to what drains us is really important in understanding it, and living with the huge amount of vitality that is there for us to access. Love what you’ve shared Danielle about bringing a focus to everything that you’re doing, and how you are in each moment, the quality of your movements, as a way of staying vital and not being drained. What drains us? Being unfocused, reacting, taking on other people’s stuff, wanting or needing things to be different to how they actually are.. the list is pretty endless, but we can stop the draining and increase the vitality simply by paying attention to how our body is feeling, and starting with just one thing – e.g. how our feet feel on the ground, and building from there.

  33. True vitality is rare these days, one only has to count the number of coffee shops in every city to know that humanity is dealing with a level of exhaustion in their body, they need to prop themselves up with coffee in order to function every day.

  34. Great article Danielle. That is what I did in the past: when I felt tired, I would go to the gym. It got my energized but that did not last very long, it was more a drug to compensate the fact that I was not living vital.

  35. Yes I have this too, slipping back into old habits only to find like an old pair of shoes, that they no longer fit and no longer support, and back out comes my new shoes to walk in.

  36. This is a great explanation of the difference between being “fit” and being “vital”, perhaps the two go hand in hand and we need to work on both our practical physical fitness and also our fitness for life, so our stamina in the day, how we cope with difficult situations, how we prepare for sleep. And perhaps it comes down to this question – our energy is incredibly precious – what do we really use it for?

  37. The way we exercise, eat and sleep, and as you share how we live in all the moments in between those times as well, is key in the kind of vitality levels that we have. And listening to our body gives us a marker for the way that truly feels harmonious and vital, rather than just looking outside of ourselves for guidelines. It’s not that we can’t be open to seeing recommendations or different ways of doing things but to remember to always honour the wisdom of our body too in showing us what truly works…

  38. A beautiful way to look at vitality. For me I have been supported by Esoteric Yoga to become more aware of my body and to stay connected with it, and also explore a more natural way of moving that is not disregarding, rushed or rough, but is considerate of my body, and gentle and tender. I definitely find this kind of tender loving care for myself as I go about my usual day impacts on my energy levels. It feels lovely to move this way!

  39. I recognize that. The level of unrest is changing all the time. It is asking us all the time to refine our movement as so does the love comes closer to us.

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