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Fit for the Ages

No Matter How Old You Are, It's Time You Checked Your Performance Against These Fitness Yardsticks

By Craig Stoltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page HE01

Remember high school?

That's all right, neither do we. But if you think back really hard, you may remember that for years most kids, and probably you, were subjected to regular fitness tests in physical education classes, often under the auspices of the President's Council on Physical Fitness. The assessments varied, but they usually consisted of a run (e.g., the 600-yard "run-walk") and some mix of sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, the long jump, maybe some kind of stretch.

Some students were humiliated. Many were annoyed. A few (let the bitterness go, man) excelled. But no one was spared. For worse or better, most high school kids received an annual fitness report card.

It's probably been a while since your fitness was tested against that of your peers. We can fix that. (The Washington Post)

_____Tests for Grown-Ups_____
Fitness Chart: Check your results against these norms, adapted from measures used by health professionals.
_____Live Discussion_____
The Facelift Diaries: Jill Scharff, M.D. and Jaedene Levy, MBA, MSW, will be online at Noon ET to discuss the misconceptions and consequences of plastic surgery when it comes to facelifts.
_____Aging Well_____
The Facelift Diaries (The Washington Post, Jan 11, 2005)
A Prevent Defense (The Washington Post, Jan 11, 2005)
Home at Sea (The Washington Post, Jan 11, 2005)
Getting in Deeper

The following books offer fitness assessment methods that are more thorough, and scientifically valid, than the simplified tests described on this page.

• The ACSM Fitness Book, Third Edition, by the American College of Sports Medicine (Human Kinetics, $16.95). This slim volume provides a simple, accessible program for measuring your fitness and beginning an exercise program. Best for complete beginners or the long-sedentary. Information: www.acsm.org.

• "ACE Personal Trainer Manual: The Ultimate Resource for Fitness Professionals, Third Edition" (American Council on Exercise, $54.95). If you want to know a little too much about fitness testing, physiology and practice -- or if you harbor a secret desire to become a personal trainer -- this is the book for you. One chapter details many fitness assessments used by trainers. Available only via the group's Web site, www.acefitness.org (click on "ACE Store"). Used copies available via Amazon.com.

_____Full Coverage_____
Fitness News and Resources

Adults, on the other hand, rarely have their fitness graded. Those "lucky" enough to have, or be at high risk for, a heart attack may have their aerobic capacity tested on a treadmill so the doctor can see how bad things really are. The rest of us are left in a sort of fitness fog, certain we've lost a step or seven since high school, knowing it's harder to bend down and pick up a quarter, but having no clue what kind of physical condition we're really in.

Fear not, we're here to help you figure that out no matter what your age. First we researched the measures often used by health and fitness professionals to assess adults' levels of fitness. They are used by physical therapists, rehab specialists, personal trainers and people who test the fitness of cops and firefighters. These tests are pretty demanding of time and gear, and the interpretation only slightly less complex than a Federal Reserve money supply report. One test involves suspending you under water; another has you breathe through a rubber hose for an hour; a third grips your flab with calipers.

But you don't want to get wet or hurt. So the fitness assessments we present here -- simplified versions of those used by the Cooper Institute in Dallas , the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise -- are easier to do and require less equipment.

We've also boiled down the charts of norms, so it's easier to determine how your results compare with those of your peers in age and sex. The result is a set of fitness assessments that, while far less precise than professional versions, are easy to administer, derived from authoritative sources and useful for creating a big-picture snapshot of your fitness level. To measure yourself via the more precise tests recommended by the groups, see the "Getting in Deeper" below.

Of course, we have to say this: Don't do any of the following until you get the go-ahead from your doctor. And before you perform any test, spend at least five minutes warming up: walking, doing simple calisthenics, swinging your arms, doing the funky chicken, anything to get your blood circulating and your muscles moving.


This is one of the least precise ways to measure aerobic capacity; the Cooper Institute recommends using it only for those who take medication that affects heart rate or who don't have access to a heart-rate monitor. But other tests require stethoscopes, treadmills or very precise measures of distance, so this one is the easiest by far.

How to Do It Measure a mile on a running track (usually, four laps) or on little-trafficked neighborhood streets (use your car's odometer to get the right distance). Using a stopwatch or a watch that counts seconds, walk the mile as fast as you can (don't run -- that's cheating -- and don't hurt yourself). Note elapsed time and compare your results with the chart.


Stop us if you've heard this one before: Down on the mat and give us . . . well, as many as you can.

How to Do It Guys: Up on your toes and hands, back straight, hands flat on the floor directly below your shoulders. Gals: Same position but (in a long-standing concession to the typical woman's lesser upper-body strength) support your body on your knees, not your toes.

Now, both of you: Lower your body, bending your elbows, until your chin grazes the floor. Push back up until your arms are straight. (We said, Keep your back straight!) Continue until you can't do any more. You can rest, but only in the "up" position. Record the number of push-ups completed. Compare your count to the chart.


In case you haven't been paying attention for the past 20 years, we don't do sit-ups any more. They can hurt your neck and back. Curl-ups are often used instead to measure abdominal strength.

How to Do It Place two long parallel strips of masking tape on the floor, 3 1/2 inches apart. Lie on the floor, face up, with your body perpendicular to the tape, your hands palm down and fingers touching the closer of the two strips. Bend your knees at about 90 degrees, feet on the floor. Reach forward, your hands still on the ground, curling your spine and lifting your shoulders until your fingertips touch the second strip of tape. Return to the starting position. That's one repetition. Do as many as you can in 60 seconds.

Results Count the total number of curl-ups done in one minute. Compare your totals to the chart.

FLEXIBILITY: Sit-and-Reach

There are many ways to measure bodily flexibility; this is one of the simplest.

How to Do It Lay a yardstick on the floor and stick a two-foot piece of tape perpendicular to it, crossing at the 15-inch mark. Now sit on the floor, the soles of your feet touching the tape at the 15-inch mark, the zero-inch mark pointed between your legs. Your feet should be about 12 inches apart. Put one hand on top of the other, exhale and very slowly -- we mean that -- reach forward as far as you can along the yardstick, lowering your head between your arms. Don't bounce! (We mean that, too.) Note the farthest inch mark you reach. Don't hurt yourself by reaching farther than your body wants to. Relax, then repeat the test two more times; compare your farthest reach to the chart..

All right, so now you know where you stand. It may be pretty ugly. Want to improve your results? You know the drill: Do aerobic exercise that makes you breathe hard for half an hour three days a week. Lift weights that challenge you two times a week. Stretch a couple of times a week. Walk more. Take an exercise class.

You may not win the "gold patch" that the hotshots got in high school. But if you play your cards right, you might outlive them. At your age -- as a matter of fact, at any age -- that's nothing to scoff at.•

Freelance writer Dana Scarton contributed to this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company