Understanding the Different Fitness Levels and Where You Should Start
When we talk about fitness, it can seem like an abstract concept. How do we know if we’re fit? Often, we solely attribute fitness to a person’s physical traits. However, compare the body types of a bodybuilder and an Olympic figure skater: Both are deemed fit, yet they have vastly different physical appearances.
So, given how different our body types can be, how do we measure fitness? There are actually five components used to measure fitness levels: aerobic or cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and body composition.
Cardio endurance refers to your body’s ability to withstand an extended period of elevated heart rate brought on by vigorous activity. Your cardio fitness gauges the health and efficiency of your heart, lungs, and blood vessels.
True to their names, muscular strength and muscular endurance focus on your muscular health. Strength refers to how much weight your body can move and endurance focuses on the length of time it can sustain a certain activity. These are both important in maintaining a healthy weight and mobility.
Flexibility is often overlooked as an element of fitness, but it is an important part of lifelong health. Lengthening and stretching your muscles not only gives you a full range of motion to safely engage in various forms of exercise and activities, but it also helps prevent injuries. It can even help improve your balance, which is especially important as you age and become more susceptible to injuries from falling.
Finally, body composition refers to the weight of your body and its constituents, including fat, muscle, bone, and water. While you can’t control bone density and have limited control over how much water weight you retain, these are important considerations when determining your healthiest possible weight.
How to Test Your Fitness Level
There are standardized fitness tests available to help you determine where you are on the fitness spectrum. You might remember taking similar tests in high school gym class. While it may have been a pain back then, these tests actually provide a good baseline for determining fitness levels.
You can find many different fitness tests online, but we will be reviewing a general one for you to follow. If you try any other test, make sure that it is from a reputable site with standardized fitness data.
For this series of fitness tests, all you will need is a stopwatch (if one if not installed by default on your phone, there are several apps available), a minimum 12-inch measuring stick or tape, and a weight scale. A second person to monitor your exercise is also helpful.
A basic determinant of aerobic fitness is your resting heart rate (RHR). Measuring your RHR requires you to take your pulse after your body has been still for at least 10 minutes, and not within one to two hours of exercise or a stressful event. You can even take it right after you wake up.
You can take your pulse in one of two ways. To check your pulse at your throat, place your index and middle fingers to the side of your windpipe. This can be done on either side of your neck. To check your pulse on your wrist, place any two fingers on your wrist (palm facing up) beneath the spot where your lower thumb joint ends. In both cases, you may need to practice your positioning before you find the best location to feel your pulse. There are also videos available for visual instructions on how to check your pulse.
Once you have found your pulse, set a timer or watch a clock for 10 seconds while counting the beats. Multiply this number by six to calculate your beats per minute. A healthy adult should be in the range of 60 to 100 beats per minute, with a lower heart rate typically indicating a more efficient heart. If your RHR is below 60 or above 100, you should speak with your doctor.
You can also use your target heart rate to gauge your fitness. Once you know the recommended target heart rate for your age and gender, you can engage in aerobic tests. A simple test is to run or jog a mile. You can map this out with a GPS-enabled app like MapMyWalk.
For this test, you will be focusing on finishing the mile within your average mile time for gender and age. However, you should also take your heart rate at the end of your run or jog to see where it falls within your target heart rate zone. If it is above the recommended level, it’s an indication that your heart is not as fit as it should be.
Muscular Strength and Endurance
There are two ways to determine your muscular strength. The first uses the 1RM test, which refers to the maximum weight you can lift or push with the correct form for one rep – for example, the highest amount of weight you can bench press one time. This can give you a baseline for your maximum strength and help you set goals.
The second way is the situp challenge, which also tests muscular endurance. To begin, make sure that you are in the proper situp form. It’s helpful to have another person count your situps and watch your time. You want to do as many situps as possible within a one-minute timeframe, then use that number to see where you fall on the average situp fitness scale. The only drawback to this method is that it primarily tests your abdominal muscles, which are just one component of your muscular system.
Muscular endurance can also be tested with static movements held for one minute. A general example of this would be to hold a plank in the proper position for as long as you can, aiming for one or more minutes.
The sit-and-reach test is a simple way to test your general flexibility. Simply sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Place a measuring stick or tape beside your legs, starting at the bottom of your feet. Slowly stretch your arms down the length of your legs as far as you can. Have a second person record the distance you stretched toward your feet.
If you were unable to stretch past your feet, this is an indicator that you’re not as flexible as you should be. You can use this chart for average sit-and-reach distances.
There are many basic calculators to determine your Body Mass Index (BMI), which can show where you fall within the range of healthy weight for your height and age. All you need to know is your weight and height. A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered to be a healthy range, while a BMI of 30 or greater is considered obese.
Increasing Your Fitness Levels
If you fell short of any standards or expectations for your fitness level, don’t worry. There are a variety of fun and engaging ways to get fit in each category.
You can improve your aerobic fitness by engaging in any activity that helps you reach your target heart rate zone for at least half an hour. This can be accomplished by running or walking around your neighborhood or local park, or on a treadmill or stair climber. You can even take heart-pumping classes that will get your body moving and increase your heart rate, such as Zumba or kickboxing.
Muscular strength can be improved by weightlifting at a weight that provides a challenge but doesn’t overwhelm you. You can use 50% of your 1RM weight as a starting point and adjust to a lower or higher weight as needed. You can lift weights either at home or at the gym, though a gym might offer a more diverse selection of weights as well as access to support.
Martial arts and kickboxing classes are another good way to increase your muscular strength and endurance. These disciplines can also help with aerobic fitness and flexibility.
Muscular endurance can be increased by adding static exercises to your routine, such as planks and squats, that you hold for a set period of time. Use your fitness test results to gradually challenge yourself to hold poses for longer.
It’s important to remember that stretching should not be used as a form of warm-up. Muscles should already be warm for the best results and to prevent injuries. Both yoga and Pilates are great ways to enjoy a good stretch while also supporting other areas of fitness. CrossFit training programs that target more than one area of fitness are also a great way to combine fitness training from multiple categories.
You should never compare your fitness level to anyone else’s. Use fitness tests to regularly check in with your progress and enjoy reaching your fitness goals! Remember, it’s not a race. Fitness is a personal journey that can add years to your life and increase your overall well-being.