The Diet Detective: Are You Really Fit?

The flexibility of tendons and muscles determines how freely you can move your joints.
All things considered, it's a pretty good bet that the guy in the corner of the gym bench-pressing his body weight is in decent shape, right? Well, maybe, but it's really not that simple. There are three unique components to fitness: strength, flexibility and cardiovascular capacity, and it takes all three to be truly fit. Physical fitness isn't just about how much you can lift or how far you can run, and a person who excels in one area could be floundering in another--and not even know it.

 

To gauge your own level of fitness on all three counts, you need to be tested for each component. And why these particular tests? "Because they have been extensively studied by exercise scientists for many years--and these tests are consistently ranked as the best," says Walter Thompson, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at Georgia State University.

Fitness tests are administered by institutions like the Army, police/highway patrol academies, professional and community sports organizations, gyms and schools. These tests will give you a sense of your own physical strengths and weaknesses, indicating areas you may be neglecting in the course of your usual exercise program. You should take the tests twice to verify your results. And pay attention to when you take them--for example, you're much more flexible after a run than you are when you first wake up in the morning.

Ready to find out if you're truly fit? Read on.

 

Flexibility

 

The flexibility of tendons and muscles determines how freely you can move your joints.

Why It Matters: "As we become less flexible, we become less functional. Things like reaching or turning your neck when driving to see the car behind you can become difficult. We're not just talking about quality-of-life issues but about the ability to function in life," explains Mitchell H. Whaley, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. If you're flexible, you feel better physically, which is why more and more people are doing activities such as yoga and Pilates.

Take the Test: SIT AND REACH TEST
The easiest way to test for flexibility is to grab a yardstick and have a seat on your living room floor with your legs extended in front of you, allowing about 12 inches between your feet. Place the yard stick between your feet so that it points away from you. Line the soles of your feet up to the 15-inch mark on the yardstick. Then slowly bend forward with your arms extended, reaching as far past your ankles as you can.

Men:
17 inches: above average
15 inches: average
14 inches: below average

Women:
19 inches: above average
17 inches: average
15 inches: below average

"This test is a great measure of hamstring and lower-back flexibility, and it has some validity for shoulders. But to generalize and call it a measure of overall flexibility is inaccurate," says Patrick Hagerman, Ed.D., a professor of exercise science at the University of Tulsa.

 

Strength

 

The experts call this muscular-skeletal fitness--basically testing for both muscular strength and muscular endurance. Strength training builds and maintains muscle mass and strong bones.

Why It Matters: Muscle strength and endurance also makes you more functional. For instance, maybe you can't move your own body weight in and out of a chair or can't carry groceries to and from your car, or you get jerked around when you take the dog out for a walk. The more body strength you have, the fewer potential injuries from these activities. However, unlike increased aerobic or cardiovascular fitness, which reduce the risk of disease, there is no epidemiological evidence of a reduction of disease risk when you increase muscular strength or endurance, says Whaley. So, if your strength is above average, it doesn't equate to a reduction in disease risk, but you will probably be healthier, adds Whaley.

Take the Test: CRUNCH TEST
The Crunch Test is a popular method of assessing your abdominal strength, but it's not without critics. "While the crunch test may be a good indication of superficial abdominal muscle strength, it is often done incorrectly," warns Mieke Scripps, DPT, an orthopedic physical therapist for the Miami City Ballet. So if you're going to try it, make sure you're doing it right.

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet planted firmly on the floor. Press the small of your back down and then lift your upper body until your shoulder blades are off the floor. You can tuck your hands behind your head to support it, but make sure not to pull up with your arms--you can seriously injure yourself that way. Instead, focus on using your constricted abdominal and back muscles to complete the crunches. See how many you can do without resting.

Men
Excellent: 25 (ages 20-69)
Good: 16-24 (ages 20-29); 15-24 (ages 30-39); 13-24 (ages 40-49); 11-24 (ages 50-69)
Fair: 11-15 (ages 20-29); 11-14 (ages 30-39); 6-12 (ages 40-49); 8-10 (ages 50-59); 6-10 (ages 60-69)
Needs improvement: 10 (ages 20-39); 5 (ages 40-49); 7 (ages 50-59); 5 (ages 60-69)

Women
Excellent: 25 (ages 20-69)
Good: 14-24 (ages 20-29); 10-24 (ages 30-39); 11-24 (ages 40-49); 10-24 (ages 50-59); 8-24 (ages 60-69)
Fair: 5-13 (ages 20-29); 6-9 (ages 30-39); 4-10 (ages 40-49); 6-9 (ages 50-59); 3-7 (ages 60-69)
Needs improvement: 4 (20-29); 5 (ages 30-39); 3 (ages 40-49); 5 (ages 50-59); 2 (ages 60-69)

(Source: Adapted from American College of Sports Medicine Guidelines, 7th Edition and from the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology)

Take the Test: PUSH-UP TEST
To test your upper-body strength, get down in push-up position. Start from the up position with your arms almost fully extended, palms flat on the floor and a little more than shoulder-width apart, balancing on your toes with your feet together. Movement: Bend your elbows at right angles to lower your body (without your stomach touching the floor), and then straighten your arms as you exhale while raising your body. (If you can't do a standard push-up, put your knees on the floor instead of balancing on your toes.) Keep your back straight by tightening your abdominal muscles. Your body should stay as stiff as possible during the whole movement--your arms should be the only body part moving. Keeping the pace slow and steady, see how many you can complete without stopping.

Men:
Excellent: 36 (ages 20-29); 30 (ages 30-39); 25 (ages 40-49); 21 (ages 50-59) 18 (ages 60-69)
Good: 22-35 (ages 20-29); 17--29 (ages 30-39); 13-24 (ages 40-49); 10-20 (ages 50-59) 8-17 (ages 60-69)
Fair: 17-21 (ages 20-29), 12-16 (ages 30-39); 10-12 (ages 40-49); 7-9 (ages 50-59); 5-7 (ages 60-69)
Below average: 16 (ages 20-29); 11 (ages 30-39); 9 (ages 40-49); 6 (ages 50-59) 4 (ages 60-69)

Women:
Excellent: 30 (ages 20-29); 27 (ages 30-39); 24 (ages 40-49); 21 (ages 50-59); 17 (ages 60-69)
Good: 15-29 (ages 20-29); 13-26 (ages 30-39); 11-23 (ages 40-49); 7-20 (ages 50-59) 5-16 (ages 60-69)
Fair: 10-14 (ages 20-29); 8-12 (ages 30-39); 5-10 (ages 40-49); 2-6 (ages 50-59); 2-4 (ages 60-69)
Below average: 9 (ages 20-29); 7 (ages 30-39); 4 (ages 40-49); 1 (ages 50-59); 1 (ages 60-69)

(Source: Adapted from American College of Sports Medicine Guidelines, 7th Edition and from the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology)

 

Cardiovascular Capacity

The term cardiovascular system refers to your heart and blood vessels, which help carry oxygen and other nutrients throughout your body. Your cardiovascular fitness determines how easily your body brings oxygen to your lungs and blood to your heart. Cardio workouts include running, swimming, walking and playing tennis or basketball, even chasing the kids.

 

The most precise cardiovascular test is the Maximal Oxygen Consumption test, which measures the exact amount of oxygen you are capable of consuming while working out. "This test is the gold standard," says Greg Welk, Ph.D., professor of health and human performance at Iowa State University. And because it's complicated, field tests try to predict what this lab test measures.

Why It Matters: The heart is actually a muscle, and like any other muscle, you can strengthen it with exercise and reduce your risk for disease (e.g., cardiovascular disease).

Take the Test: ROCKPORT ONE MILE WALKING TEST
"Anyone who can walk can do this test," Hagerman says. "It doesn't take an examiner or any special equipment, just a mile of flat terrain like a track or street. Measure the distance using a pedometer or the odometer of your car." Then just walk the mile as quickly as you can. Keep track of how long it takes you and what your heart rate is at the end. Then use the following formula to estimate your VO2 Max, that is, your maximum oxygen consumption.

First, multiply your weight in pounds by 0.0769, and subtract that from 132.853. Then subtract your age in years multiplied by 0.3877. Add 6.315 if you're a man and 0 if you're a woman. Subtract the time it took you to complete the mile multiplied by 3.2649. Now subtract your final heart rate (for one minute) multiplied by 0.1565. This will give you your estimated VO2 Max.

VO2 Max (ml/kg/min) = 132.853 -- (0.0769 x Body Weight in Pounds) -- (0.3877 x Age) + 6.315 if male (add 0 if female) -- (3.2649 x time for the 1-mile track walk in minutes) -- (0.1565 x heart rate)

Now compare your score below:

Percentile values for maximal oxygen uptake in men.

  Age (yr)
Percentile 20--29 30--39 40--49 50--59 60
Well above average (90) 55.1 52.1 50.6 49.0 44.2
Above average (70) 49.0 47.4 45.8 41.0 37.8
Average (50) 44.2 42.6 41.0 37.8 34.6
Below average (30) 41.0 39.4 36.2 34.6 31.4
Well below average (10) 34.6 33.0 31.4 29.9 26.7

Percentile values for maximal oxygen uptake in women.

  Age (yr)
Percentile 20--29 30--39 40--49 50--59 60
Well above average (90) 49.0 45.8 42.6 37.8 34.6
Above average (70) 41.0 39.4 36.2 33.0 31.4
Average (50) 37.8 34.6 33.0 29.9 26.7
Below average (30) 33.0 31.4 29.9 26.7 23.5
Well below average (10) 28.3 26.7 25.1 21.9 20.3

(Source: Adapted from American College of Sports Medicine and Cooper Clinic)

Keep in mind that just because you score well on any one of these tests doesn't mean you will have reduced risk for disease or injury. You still have to get the recommended minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity daily to reduce your risk for disease, says Whaley.


CHARLES STUART PLATKIN is a nutrition and public health advocate, author of the best seller Breaking the Pattern (Plume, 2005), Breaking the FAT Pattern (Plume, 2006) and Lighten Up (Penguin USA/Razorbill, 2006) and founder of Integrated Wellness Solutions. Copyright 2006 by Charles Stuart Platkin. Sign up for the free Diet Detective newsletter at www.dietdetective.com.

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