What constitutes fitness? How do you know if you are physically fit or not? Just like any other physical or physiological characteristics like height or weight, fitness is a relative measurement. We can safely assume that a weekend runner is more fit than a habitual couch potato, and in turn, is less fit compared to a marathon runner. Experts use several tests to judge a person's level of fitness. Here are some of them:
1. Resting heart rate – Your resting heart rate or pulse is the number of times your heart beats in a minute. It indicates how hard your heart needs to work in order to pump your blood around your body. A normal resting rate should be between 60 to 90 beats per minute. Well-trained athletes fall into the low-end of this normal range because their hearts have become very efficient pumping machines.
Heart rate can be affected by many factors like medicines, stress, physical activity, or stimulants like coffee. The best way to get your resting heart rate is to measure it first thing in the morning for three consecutive days.
2. Heart rate after exercise or physical activity – Your heart rate naturally goes up during exercise or physical exertion. Try to exercise for 15 minutes on a stationary bike or treadmill and then get your pulse rate. This number, just like the resting heart rate, should go down after sometime of getting into a regular aerobic exercise program.
3. Blood pressure – Blood pressure is a measure of how hard the heart has to beat in order to push your blood through your blood vessels. It also indicates how open your blood vessels are. The baseline normal blood pressure reading is 120/80 although there is a growing consensus to define it as 115/75. Blood pressure varies throughout during the day depending on several factors like mental state and physical activity. If it measures consistently higher than 140/90 throughout the day, for several days, you are considered hypertensive and should see a doctor for prescription medicines to lower it.
A regular exercise program helps to normalize your blood pressure by helping your blood vessels to relax. Again if you're hypertensive, be sure to consult your doctor about the types of exercise routines that are appropriate for you. He or she may forbid you to do weight training exercises which can cause a rapid rise in blood pressure.
4. Percentage of body fat – In general, the more body fat you have, the more prone you are to developing health problems like heart disease, hypertension, and even some types of cancer. However, this must be considered in conjunction with other factors like diet and exercise habits. Also, where your fat is distributed may be more important; studies show that abdominal fat, the kind that deposits itself around your waist (and in your abdomen), is more associated with heart disease risks than fat that is deposited around your thighs.
This is not to say body fat is bad; it is possible to be too thin. For women, for example, having too little body fat (less than 16%) may lead to problems like bone loss and irregular menstrual periods.
How to measure your body fat? One way is the so-called skinfold caliper test where the tester pinches your skin as if to pull away your fat from your muscles and bones. It is done on several different points like your upper arms, your abdomen, or the back of your shoulder. Another way is simpler and is called the Body Mass Index (BMI) measurement. It is calculated by dividing your weight (in kg) by the square of your height (in meters). If using pounds and inches, divide your weight (in pounds) by the square of your height (in inches) and multiply by 703. A BMI value of 18.5 to 25 is considered optimal. Higher than 25 is considered overweight, and lower than 18.5 is considered underweight.
5. Strength – Certain exercises such as sit-ups, leg extensions, and push-ups indicate the strength of your upper body, lower body, and abdominal muscles. If you can barely do a few sit-ups or push-ups, you may have been out of shape for some time. You may want to consider weightlifting to improve your strength.
6. Flexibility – This is a little bit overlooked compared to strength, but flexibility or the ability to bend your body and joints to full range, is a good measure of your overall fitness. You lose flexibility as you age, and you may find that you are less able to do some postures or bending motions that you could easily do when you were younger. Doing stretching exercises is the best way to improve your flexibility.
All these factors must be considered to determine your overall fitness level. Tests can be done by a physician, a personal trainer, or a fitness professional. By measuring these indicators, you can customize your exercise program and concentrate where it is more needed, say cardiovascular training, weight training, or flexibility exercises.