How Physically Fit Are You?
Magazine covers, news articles, advertisements, and more compel us to do – or not do – certain things to be fit.
But what really signifies whether you are fit or not?
Jeff Roberts, MS, manager of EvergreenHealth’s Cardiovascular Health and Wellness Center, says fitness can be assessed in three core areas:
- aerobic/cardiovascular health
- muscular strength and endurance
Cardiovascular health is all about getting your heart rate up to improve the body’s oxygen consumption capacity. With aerobic exercise, three things happen:
- The lungs process more oxygen with less effort.
- The heart pumps more blood with fewer beats.
- The blood supply to your muscles increases.
“The main purpose of cardio exercise is to build endurance,” Jeff says, “so you can remain active for longer periods of time and perform physical activities with less effort.”
Bonus benefits could include weight loss, an improved immune system, and disease reduction.
One way to gauge your cardiovascular fitness is through the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion, which assesses a person’s perceived effort during physical activity. “It’s a subjective measure, but it has a fairly good relationship to the actual heart rate,” Jeff says.
Here’s why: perceived exertion – how hard you feel your body is working – is based on physical sensations you experience during physical activity, such as increased heart rate, breathing rate, sweating and muscle fatigue.
“If you walk up a hill and feel your breathing becoming more labored, that’s a good indication that your heart is having to exert more effort and you probably are exercising at a pretty good level of your capacity,” Jeff explains.
With the Borg scale, you can monitor how your body feels and know when you need to adjust your intensity in either direction. For example, a walker who wants to engage in moderate-intensity activity should aim for a Borg Scale level of "somewhat hard" (12-14).
If your muscle fatigue and breathing are "very light" (9 on the Borg Scale), then you might want to increase your intensity. If your exertion seems "extremely hard" (19 on the Borg Scale), consider slowing your pace.
Walking, hiking, cycling, jumping rope, swimming, rowing, Zumba class, elliptical trainer, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are all great ways to improve your cardiovascular health.
If you are over age 50, haven’t exercised in a while, or have a history of diabetes, heart or lung disease, then you should probably consult with your doctor before initiating an exercise program.
Muscular strength and endurance are also important measures of fitness. That’s because muscles contribute to strong bones, increased stamina, better sleep, increased metabolism, and decreased risk of injury – and that’s just a handful of the benefits.
Muscular strength measures the amount of force a muscle can produce against resistance.
Muscular endurance measures the amount of time you can endure multiple muscular contractions before becoming fatigued.
Push-ups are a common test for muscular strength and endurance. To ensure proper posture, Jeff recommends the following technique:
- Lie face down on the floor with your elbows bent and your palms next to your shoulders. Women should use the modified position with their
- knees and lower legs in contact with the floor throughout the entire push up motion.
- Keeping your back straight, push up with your arms until your arms are extended.
- Lower your body until your chest touches the floor.
- Push your body upward, returning to the starting position.
Do as many push-ups as you can until you need to stop for rest, you are straining, or your form is slipping.
Use the table below from the American College of Sports Medicine to find your score, which is based on the number of push-ups you can do consecutively without rest.
Flexibility is the final gauge of physical fitness. Measuring flexibility, or range of motion around a joint, is a useful way to determine the functional ability of that joint and the corresponding muscles.
“Someone who has good flexibility is less likely to be limited in their ability to perform their daily activities or exercise routines.” Jeff says. “Flexibility can also improve your posture and lengthens your muscles.”
The sit-and-reach test is one of the most common ways to measure flexibility in your legs, hips, and back. To perform the test:
- Place a yardstick on the floor. Secure it by placing a piece of tape across the 15-inch mark.
- Remove your shoes and sit on the floor with the yardstick between the legs (0 mark close to your crotch) with your feet about 12 inches apart.
- Reach forward as far as you can, holding the position for two seconds.
- Perform the stretch three times with a few seconds of rest between stretches.
- Record the best of the three reaches..
For those who want to improve the flexibility of the upper body, Jeff recommends the shoulder flexibility test:
- To test your left shoulder flexibility, stand and raise your right arm straight up overhead.
- Bend your right elbow and let your right palm rest on the back of your neck and slide it down your back and between your shoulder blades.
- Reach behind you with your left hand so the back of your hand rests on the middle of your back.
- Now slide your right hand down and your left hand up to try to touch the fingers of both hands.
- Measure the minimum distance between the fingertips of the right and left hand. Record any overlap as well.
- Switch your hands to perform the test on the opposite shoulder.
- Use the chart below to determine your flexibility.
Benchmarking yourself against these three fitness standards – cardiovascular health, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility – can help you evaluate where you stand and develop strategies for improving your overall health and fitness.