Methods of assessing fitness

Many people use the bathroom scale as their sole measure of progress. This makes sense, since they want to lose weight.

But do you really want to lose weight, or do you specifically want to lose fat? Do you also want to be healthier?

There are several ways we can measure progress in fitness. Here are a few:

Weight

Yes, the bathroom scale can be a good way of measuring progress. Even if it’s not perfectly accurate, if you weigh yourself at the same time, under the same conditions each time, you should be able to tell whether you are losing or gaining weight. Unfortunately, it won’t tell you whether you are losing or gaining muscle or fat. It only measures overall weight.

The best way to use a bathroom scale is to step onto it, completely naked, immediately after using the toilet first thing in the morning. At this time you are likely to always be in the same state of hydration, so the measurement won’t fluctuate as much from day to day as if you were measuring at other times.

Body composition

The most accurate method of measuring body composition is hydrostatic weighing. This involves totally submerging the body in an underwater weighing tank or pool and measuring the underwater weight of the body. This method is unavailable to most people, so we will go on to the methods most commonly used.

The skinfold method is widely available, but accuracy varies according to the experience of the practitioner, as well as the quality of her tools. The skinfold method is a good measure of subcutaneous fat, that layer just under the skin. It is assumed that approximately one-third of the total fat is located subcutaneously in men and women (Lohman 1981). This varies by individual, however. In short, be sure your fitness professional is using the correct equation after measuring. For example, an equation derived specifically for 18 to 21 year old sedentary males would not be valid for predicting the body density of 35 to 45 year old sedentary males.

Bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) is another method commonly used. With this method, a low-level eelctrical current is passed through the body, and the impedance is measured with a BIA analyzer. The accuracy of this method depends on several factors. Hydration status of the client must be controlled. She should not eat or drink within four hours before the test. No moderate or vigorous exercise within twelve hours of the test. She should void completely within thirty minutes of the test. Abstain from alcohol consumption within forty-eight hours of the test. Do not ingest diuretics, including caffeine, before the assessment unless prescribed by a physician. Do not test immediately prior to your menstrual period if you sense you are retaining fluid.

Other methods of determining body composition include body mass index (BMI), waist circumference (usually coupled with BMI), waist-to-hip ratio, and sagittal abdominal diameter. These methods are useful when there is no equipment available, but the other methods are more accurate.

Every measurement of progress is best used as a comparison of where you were to where you are now. If your body composition test shows that you have 25% body fat, for example, this information is most useful when compared to the previous measurement, or subsequent measurements. Unless you use hydrostatic weighing, or one of the other expensive clinical tests, your bodyfat measurement will not be 100% accurate. But if you are tested under the same conditions by the same practioner over a period of time you will see a trend, and hopefully it will be downward.

VO2max

This is essentially the rate of oxygen intake during maximal exercise. It reflects the ability of the heart, lungs, and blood to transport oxygen to the muscles, as well as the utilization of oxygen by the muscles during exercise. A maximal exercise test is generally performed in a doctor’s office using specialized equipment, and with emergency equipment nearby. A submaximal test can be used by a fitness professional to obtain similar information with less risk. This test is done on a treadmill or stationary bicycle most often. The practitioner will monitor your heartrate and blood pressure, as well as your rate of perceived exertion (how hard you feel you are working), throughout the assessment.

Resting heartrate and post-exercise heartrate recovery

As you become more fit, your resting heartrate may decrease. You can check this yourself by checking your pulse at your wrist or neck, immediately after you awake in the morning, before getting out of bed. This is a useful number to have, also, as the %HRR (heartrate reserve) is a more accurate method of determining your exercise intensity than the more common method of %HRmax.

Blood pressure

Normal blood pressure is defined as values less than 120/80 mmHg. You fall into the prehypertensive category if your blood pressure is more than that, but below 140/90. Hypertension is defined as a resting blood pressure equaling or exceeding 140/90 mmHg on two or more occasions. If you are prehypertensive, you can reduce your risk of developing hypertension by maintaining a healthy body weight and engaging in aerobic physical activity for at least thirty minutes a day on most days of the week. You can check your blood pressure for free at most pharmacies, or ask your fitness professional if he will perform this service for you as part of your regular fitness assessment.

Cholesterol levels

You will need to see a doctor to have your cholesterol levels checked. I recommend everyone do this periodically, as it is a good indicator of present and future health. It is also something that can be improved by diet and exercise.

Cholesterol is essential to the body, and we manufacture it in our liver. There are various kinds of cholesterol, but we mainly concern ourselves with HDL and LDL. One of them is generally known as “good” cholesterol, and the other is known as “bad” cholesterol. Do you know how to remember the difference? Just remember the H in HDL, and think of it as meaning “high”. HDL actually stands for high-density lipoprotein, but we’re just going to think “high” because we want that number to be high! And the “L” in LDL stands for low. We want less LDL.

So again, this is not a test that your fitness professional can perform, but you should have it done by a doctor and note the results in your fitness chart for comparison in the future.

Strength

I do a thorough fitness assessment when I begin working with a new client. One of the things I test is strength. This helps me to know where to begin, and actually ends up saving us time in trying to figure out how much weight the client can lift. As we continue, I keep good records of how much weight is used in each workout. It’s easy to see progress this way, and to know when a plateau has been reached (and something needs to change in the program).

Size

This is something you can do at home, or you can have a qualified fitness professional take accurate measurements and add them to your fitness chart. Two of the most important measurements are waist and hip, but others you might consider are calf, thigh, chest, bicep, and even wrist. In general, most people want to see the waist and hip measurements decreasing, and those who wish to build muscle will want to see the others increase. If you don’t take measurements, you won’t know for sure whether your program is really helping you to achieve your goals.

Flexibility

We often neglect flexibility, unless we are acrobats or gymnasts. But flexibility is very important to our fitness and health. We might need to bend over to pick something up, or get out of the back seat of a two-door car. In many situations in life, flexibility comes into play. Your fitness professional should assess your flexibility at regular intervals, and should include flexibility exercises into your program.

Endurance

Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle to maintain submaximal force levels for extended periods. (Heyward 2006) This should be tested before a program is prescribed for a client, and periodically thereafter. Muscular endurance is assessed by counting the number of repetitions of several different exercises the client can perform. The exercises and weights used are determined by the age, gender, and perceived strength of the individual client.

Bone mineral content and Bone density

These tests should be performed by your doctor, and are especially important for women.

Parents, keep these words in mind:

“Peak bone mass is developed during childhood and adolescence, and is a major factor associated with the risk of osteoporosis. Bone mass is higher in physically active children compared to less active children.” (Heyward 2006)

In addition, adults should engage in at least thirty minutes a day, three days a week, of weight bearing exercise with a moderate to high intensity to prevent bone mineral loss and ultimately bone loss. Although osteoporosis is often thought of as a woman’s disease, it effects 2.3 million men in the United States.

To summarize:

Find a fitness professional who will do a thorough assessment of your current fitness level. She should be able to administer a cardiovascular fitness assessment, a strength and endurance assessment, and a flexibility assessment, as well as taking several measurements to accurately chart your progress. In addition, consider seeing a doctor soon for a bone mineral content and bone density test, as well as a cholesterol test. Add these numbers to your fitness chart to keep track of your progress in these important areas of fitness, as well.

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One Response to “Methods of assessing fitness”

  1. Wayne Says:

    I bookmarked this and thought I would share this with others at my blog. In particular, I like the reference to % heart rate reserve as a way to measure your heart rate max. I think so many people default to the easy calculation because the the % reserve number is just a little harder to figure out. It normally takes a trainer, or a heart rate monitor that actually can do assess the resting heart rate effectively and calculate the numbers for you.

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