The American Heart Association defines an athlete as “one who participates in an organized team or individual sport that requires regular competition against others as a central component, places a high premium on excellence and achievement, and requires some form of systematic (and usually intense) training.” A 2019 article in the American Journal of Cardiology defines athletes as those who strive for external, performance-related goals, such as to make teams, win games or beat opponents.
Another definition, this one from researchers in Brazil and Germany, adds the requirement that an athlete should have sport training and competition as their way of living, devoting, at minimum, several hours a day to the pursuit of that sport.
But these definitions fail to account for the athleticism required to compete in other ways, perhaps without a scoreboard or clock. To capture these feats, experts such as sports scientist Ross Tucker say that the definitions of athlete and of competition are too narrow.
“You have to expand the definition of ‘competition’ to be broader than just competing against other athletes in that specific moment,” says Tucker, a sports science researcher for World Rugby. “For instance, is a person who climbs Mt. Everest an athlete? I’d say so, because they’re pushing boundaries, which I think meets a definition of competition where ‘competitive’ means challenging oneself to perform better.”
Tucker says he believes that if you have performance aspirations, then you can consider yourself an athlete. If you don’t, then it’s exercise. For instance, a person who goes to the gym three times a week and lifts weights in a routine program is an exerciser. Someone who is training for specific conditioning could be considered an athlete.
Tucker and others think the term “athlete” should bring in individuals who exercise in ways equally strenuous as traditional athletic competition. That includes on platforms such as Strava, a fitness tracking app that allows users to compare their performance against others, and on smart exercise equipment, such as Peloton and Wahoo, which connect users all over the world, allowing for the virtual comparison of performance metrics such as power and speed.
“Competition has definitely changed,” says Ryan Hall, a two-time Olympian in the marathon. “Before, you had to show up at a race or at a competition to share this thing with the world, to have a common experience with people.” Now, he says, social media has created ways for people to challenge themselves. “I might want to do some crazy challenge, and there might not be any spectators, or might not really be an actual event, but it’ll be shared with the world,” he said.
A former professional runner, Hall holds the U.S. record in the half-marathon. Since his retirement six years ago, he has looked for other ways to keep himself motivated. One recent solo challenge had him trying to run to the floor of the Grand Canyon and carry two 62-pound water jugs back up the 6.3-mile climb, an athletic feat that Hall combined with chopping a cord of wood. “I would go as hard as I can for 30 seconds, set [the jugs] down and catch my breath, go as hard as I can for another 30 seconds, and I did that for 6 hours straight,” Hall says.
Hall relishes attempting the unknown. “It’s opening up to fun, creative new challenges,” he said. “That gets me way more fired up than thinking about and training for some event, half of which I might like and half that I might hate.” And he thinks that trying to meet these untraditional challenges makes him an athlete. “An athlete has a unique set of skills and uses those skills to go after some goal, no matter what it is,” he says.
But does it really matter if someone considers herself an exerciser or an athlete? Jim Afremow, a sports psychologist and author of “The Champion’s Mind,” believes it does. “The reason why I think embracing an athletic identity is important for us is it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says. “Our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves lead to expectations about our actions. And then those lead to those behaviors and actions, and that reinforces itself where it bolsters our sense of being an athlete.”
This is backed by research. In one study, 400 participants completed measures of exercise motivation, athletic identity, exercise frequency and well-being. The results suggested that intrinsic exercise motivation and greater frequency of exercise was associated with athletic identity. The more the subjects identified as athletes, the greater their exercise level. But, another study suggests, to embody that identity, an athlete has to exercise and train at an intensity consistent with improving performance.
The converse might be true as well, that when you start to behave like an athlete, you will begin to identify as an athlete. After all, Afremow says, no one was born to be sedentary. “There is an athlete in all of us,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where you come from or what your particular situation is. What matters is thinking of yourself as an athlete, having athletic goals and reaping the rewards of being more active.”
Tucker hypothesizes that the rewards will come from more training. “I think every metric we have for measuring athletic ability — VO2max, speed, strength — is generally (though not always) going to increase in proportion to the training done, and athletes will also generally train more than exercisers.”
That is because forming or maintaining an identity as an athlete might also improve motivation to exercise, primarily because having an athletic goal increases the drive to train. An article in the Journal of Sport Behavior found that “both higher external and intrinsic exercise motivation were associated with a higher level of total athletic identity and greater frequency of exercise.”
Perhaps equally as powerful as identifying as an athlete is identifying as a member of a team or community — thinking of yourself as a Peloton-er, perhaps, or as a running club member — says sports psychologist Matt Cuccaro. That’s because the community or social aspect of sports or exercise can be an important motivating factor.
While the experts duke it out over the correct definition of athlete, the easiest way to think of yourself as one is to accept the definition from Bill Bowerman, co-founder of Nike. Nike’s mission statement is to “bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.” The asterisk leads to a phrase added by Bowerman: “If you have a body, you’re an athlete.”
Ian McMahan is a freelance writer and full-time certified athletic trainer. He has a master’s degree in exercise physiology from the University of Maryland and has experience working for Major League Soccer, the Women’s World Cup and the San Francisco 49ers. Find him on Twitter: @IanMcMahan.