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I talked briefly the other day about health, and how we don’t have an obligation to be healthy. I want to talk a little more about that, and the problems with the ideas of “health” and “fitness”.

To start with, there’s simply the problem of defining both words. What is health? What is fitness? All too often, we define both at least partially by weight, something that’s been shown again and again not to be true.

Merriam-Webster Online defines health as “1 a : the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit; especially : freedom from physical disease or pain b : the general condition of the body “. How does that apply to people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, then? Is it impossible for them to be healthy? My lungs aren’t especially sound, and neither are my knees. I have a mental illness, so my mind is not sound. Am I never healthy, then? What about people with disabilities that affect their lives even more than mine? Can they never be called healthy? Or is health a relative concept, and I can be more or less healthy relative to some arbitrary default? The opposite of “healthy” is “unhealthy,” and is used all too often to be a value judgement — something or someone who is unhealthy is bad, ethically or morally. Are people with disabilities bad people?

Fitness is often defined as the ability to do things, and so can be defined relatively. You can set fitness goals, things you want to be able to do, and then works towards them, making them a little more concrete. But there’s still a lot of judgement attached to those fitness goals, and again many people’s idea of fitness is such that it’s simply impossible for a lot of people, especially those with disabilities, to achieve. Worse is the word itself. The opposite of “fit” is “unfit,” a word most often seen in phrases like, “unfit for duty,” “unfit parents,” and even “unfit to live.” It means physically or mentally unsound. The implications are, if anything, worse than unhealthy. Are people with disabilities unfit for life?

Or can we, instead, come to some idea of well-being that does not imply judgement upon people who do not have it? One that takes into account people’s various abilities and disabilities, and in which the only yardstick is how the individual person feels, what she can do, how he can operate his body? One that does not hold anyone up to any outside standard, as any outside standard will be unreachable for some who nonetheless feel comfortable and happy in their bodies? One that has to do, not with length of life, but with the quality of life as determined by the person living it? And if we can come to some such idea as a society, what would we call it?

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