I had an interesting discussion the other day with friends about what fitness is and how to measure it. Most people seem to start a fitness kick with the goal of losing weight rather than building strength, stamina or ability to undertake a particular task. As a result we often use appearance as the main measure of fitness, when it can be a fairly poor one.
Not how I look unfortunately (Attribution: Wikicommons - Cpl. Earnest J. Barnes)
I am an avid hiker, but not much for going to the gym or other typical fitness regimes, though I do swim laps when the weather is right. I joined a fitness group who were going on a local walk that took us through bush land and up a hill. So there I was with my jeans and growing belly surrounded by fat free people looking like they had just come out of the gym.
First of all we started out at what to me could be seen as a average pace, which quickly meant I found myself leaving most of the group behind. Then later, near the end of the hike, just as we made it to the top of a crest, a guy turned to me and said "But you are not evening breathing heavily."
If I had to run or do a lot of lifting they would have all left me for dead but hiking is my thing so I was fitter than most people for the walk. So it raises the question of what exactly fitness is and how do we measure it.
Our society's obsession with appearance equates being thin with being fit. This is partly because most medical research has looked at the difference between fat and thin people, however when they compare active versus sedentary people, weight seems to play less of a factor in overall health.
So what are some ways to measure our personal level of fitness and how do they compare.These are all tests that can be done yourself and used as a baseline measure as you build up your fitness.
The Body Mass Index (BMI) is the most commonly used measure with many medical professionals relying on it as their primary method of measuring fitness in people.
Attribution: Wikicommons - InvictaHOG
The problem is the way it works. It is calculated based on your height and weight. At best this is only an okay statistical measure. You have to realise that if two people weigh the same, one of them might be all fat and the other all muscle.
In the end though the BMI can tell a person whose weight is obviously from fat, whether they are too fat or not. If you want to calculate your BMI use one the many online BMI calculators (just do a Google search for BMI calculator).
The measure than many doctors are pushing now is waist circumference. Mostly because fat put on your belly is the least healthy fat and a good indicator of health problems.
Attribution: Pixabay - PublicDomainPictures
The Australian Government sets a standard of less than 94 cm for men and 80 cm for women as a safe level of stomach fat. With greater than 102 cm for men and 88 cm for women indicating an increased risk of obesity related disease. Read more on the Measure Up website on how to conduct and interpret the waist measurements.
Physical fitness scales
There are a number of ways to measure physical fitness. These use a range of common activities such as number of pushups, situps or how quickly you can run a certain distance.
I like to compare myself against the US army physical fitness scale and I am happy to report that I meet the minimum standard that they use. Unfortunately most scales have a fairly narrow focus. For example, the US Army Ranger test includes chin-ups in their test and I am sorry to say that I can do exactly zero chin-ups, as this is something I never practice.
Many people who focus on weight training build strength but lack aerobic fitness. In essence this is your general overall cardiovascular health. This can be measured by doing an aerobic exercise. That is any exercise that normally requires heavy breathing as you bring in oxygen to support the activity of the muscles.
This can be tested by doing a range of activities. Some tests involve running a mile and others walking. You should choose an appropriate test based on your level of fitness. For example, as an avid hiker I able able to walk long distances very quickly and so I would look for somewhere with some hills to test myself.
One of the most important measures of both fitness and health is heart health. Cardio exercise is designed around the idea of increasing heart rate and so exercising the heart.
Attribution: Wikicommons - BruceBlaus
Basically you measure your heart rate during different activities, which is very easy now thanks to portable heart rate monitoring devices. There are two main measures, your resting heart rate and your heart rate after a certain amount of exercise.
Superfit people tend to have a very low resting heart rate while very unfit people will find that even while resting their heart rate is too fast.
A normal adult has a resting heart beat of 60 to 100 beats a minute while an athlete could easily have a heart rate of 40 beats per minute. If your heart rate is above or below the normal range it is recommended that you talk to your doctor, because sometimes a super slow heart beat could mean some sort of health problem.
Using these tests
There are two ways to use these tests. The first is against a standard. The purpose of this is to ask yourself "Am I fit enough"? This is why I like the US Army Physical Fitness Test, simply because it is nice to think I am actually fit enough for the Army (but not the Army Rangers). However you can also compare yourself against the standards set by medicine to determine whether you are considered healthy or not.
The other way to use the test is to set your own personal baseline. This is great if you are on a fitness kick. Most people use only their weight as a measure of success. It is like a guy I used to play social tennis with. He had been dieting and exercising but was complaining he wasn't losing weight, but, he was feeling physically so much better than before. Maybe he needed some other form of measure.
Remember, don't obsess about any measure or scale and use a variety of ways to increase fitness, don't simply focus on a single method to try and beat a particular scale.