Fitness and the journey it entails is often viewed from the standpoint of the individual: that decisions about our health are made because we don’t like what we see on the scale, or we have an event coming up that we have to “look good” for, or we have been feeling lethargic and want to do something about it.
While many health and fitness interventions have been structured around what the individual thinks, believes, feels, and acts, a more holistic approach has been advocated by many in the public health field. In my Health Education class, there has been a noticeable shift in the way that health and fitness are being viewed, and how actions should be thought of and conceptualized for these goals.
An ecological view of fitness takes its name from how ecology is usually understood, that of seeing an organism in its surroundings and the various subsystems around it, and their corresponding interactions. Applying this concept to the fitness arena offers many possible avenues for explaining the decisions we make and the actions we do. It also allows for many levels of comprehension and intervention, as well as boosting the success rate of any such intervention.
Below are some of the considerations for each level in the ecological view of fitness. While this is not an exhaustive list (I only listed three levels, but there are more), it can help us to see how various areas in our lives are actively shaping our health and fitness, and how we can use them to our advantage.
This level deals with our own thoughts, beliefs, motivations, and actions—in short, the current or prevalent model for viewing fitness. The statement that “Beauty is in the eye of beholder” is the equivalent of this level, as it posits that what is paramount is the individual.
If you know eating nuts causes skin breakouts, it will lessen your desire to munch on them. If you have been feeling sick more often, you make changes or see a doctor because you know this is not how your body usually is. Your decision to take up brisk walking is because you know you don’t do well in social situations and would prefer a solitary activity.
You know yourself better than anyone—and you can make fitness decisions accordingly.
This refers to the immediate circle of the individual: family, relatives, friends, classmates, office co-workers. This level is important because many of our so-called “individual” decisions are affected by what our parents think, or how our classmates dress up, and what places the barkada goes to on Saturdays. In short, unless we have devoted ourselves to a monastic life, we do not live in a vacuum, and those around us will have an impact on our lives.
One of the more beautiful features of the ecological model is that these various levels affect and are affected by each other. So in this simple example, you may have decided to go on a fitness journey because your pants don’t fit you anymore (intrapersonal). However, come lunch time, you are loathe to suggest a different, healthier restaurant because you have a tradition of someone picking up the drinks tab if they become the sales person of the month (interpersonal).
However, if you are now designated as the sales person of that month, you can use that influence over your group to say, “I will pick up the tab—if you all come with me to try this new restaurant that makes healthy drinks” (interpersonal). This leads to your officemates trying the healthier options, and coming to individual conclusions that “These aren’t too bad at all” (intrapersonal). These individual evaluations, in turn, can strengthen a collective decision to continue having lunch at the healthier alternative (interpersonal).
This level is concerned with the community level, and casts a wider net in terms of influence. Specifically, the institutions we go to—schools, offices, malls, groceries, service providers—are influential in “making” health and fitness decisions for us. The word “making” is in quotes because individual decisions may be seen as still having more import, but the way institutions can limit or expand our health choices needs to be taken into account, because it frames the way we make decisions more comprehensively.
Making fitness decisions means making changes in your life. As most of us adults know, our bodies are predisposed to stasis: it hates making changes and would prefer the status quo for as long as possible. (Those who have been exercising for a while know the term “plateau,” a particularly frustrating phenomenon that showcases our predisposition to not experience changes in our bodies.)
Applying the ecological view to your fitness goals can help you see areas of success and weakness, and to influence those areas so that your chances of success are increased. As in most things in life, doing things alone can be great, but making use of all available resources in all other areas makes those successes long lasting.
Research has shown that interventions made at multiple levels in the ecological model spell success. Use this knowledge for your benefit, and ultimately, your success.
Illustration by Mitzi Villavecer