The fitness litmus
If the tailor asks how tall you are, you have an answer down to the inch. If a medical form requests your weight, you know what to say, give or — more likely, take — a pound. But if a prospective trainer asks how fit you are, what measurement unit do you use? After all, there’s no universal definition of fitness; one man’s bench press is another gal’s resting heart rate. “No one measure is the end-all, be-all,” says Brian St. Pierre, a strength and conditioning coach in Scarborough, Maine, and director of performance at Precision Nutrition. But taken together, these measures can give you a picture of your fitness:
If you consider your normal weight and thin appearance proof that you’re fit, think again. More and more research is showing that measures that take into account your waist circumference better reflect health since excess belly fat, regardless of the number on the scale, is linked to diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. To find your waist-to-height ratio, divide your waist measurement by your height using the same unit (like inches). A ratio over .52 for men or .48 for women should sound the alarm. “The things that you’re doing to improve your health in general are going to decrease visceral fat storage,” St. Pierre says. Exercise included.
Body fat percentage
Gym rats may brag about their minimal body fat, but what does that say about their athleticism? “It depends on what sport,” says Dr. Naresh Rao, an osteopathic physician in New York City who worked as the physician for the 2016 U.S. Olympic water polo team — a group whose body fat can range from 4 percent to 22 percent. Triathletes may carry significantly less body fat, while linebackers pack on much more. In general, though, lower body fat (most accurately measured with a Bod Pod or DXA scan) is linked to better fitness, says Jessica Crandall, a registered dietitian in Denver. “The more lean mass you have, the more explosive your moves can be,” she says.
Resting heart rate
When Craig Weller, a Denver-based coach at Precision Nutrition, worked in Naval Special Operations, he trained men whose resting heart rates were as low as 35 or so beats per minute; a healthy civilian’s is typically 60 to 100. The low rates among military personnel reflect elite physical shape since their hearts are so efficient at doing their jobs. For the average exerciser, a low resting heart rate can signal good aerobic shape, but an even better indicator is how quickly you can return to that rate after an intense bout of exercise, Rao says. “If you can recover your heart to your resting heart rate within a minute … that’s really good,” he says.
If you answer, “How fit are you?” with the weight of your heaviest deadlift or how many pullups you can do before you’ve got nothing left, you’re really addressing your strength — an important, but not the only, measure of fitness. While a measure of maximal strength — or how much you can, say, lift or squat in a single move — can sound impressive, it’s not something you want to try unsupervised, says Rao, author of “Step Up Your Game,” which applies elite training principles to average Joes. Instead, test your endurance strength by doing as many pushups or crunches as you can. Use that as a baseline upon which to improve.
The talk test
Sure, you could purchase an advanced fitness tracker to track your heart rate variability, a reflection of your recovery based on how much the time between heart beats varies. Or you could hire someone to test your VO2 max, a measure of aerobic capacity based on how efficiently your body uses oxygen during exercise. But most people can get helpful information with the simplest test of all: Can you carry on a simple conversation while going for a jog or walking up the stairs? If so, you’re probably in decent shape. “You don’t really have to get into all the gadgety stuff if you don’t want to,” Rao says.
The sit and reach
Rao’s kids and patients alike perform this test. “It’s actually a good, complete measure of flexibility — especially in the low back,” he says. Simply sit on the ground with your legs straight in front of you and a ruler between your feet. How many inches (if any) can you reach beyond your toes? For men, more than 2 inches is above average; for women, over 4 inches is good, according to Topend Sports. Flexibility is important, Rao says, in part to avoid injury. “If you have a big storm coming through and you’re a palm tree, you can take on the forces,” he says. “If you’re an oak, you’re going to fall over.”
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