Simple Tests Can Indicate How Fit You Really Are

By Howard Schneider
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The holidays are over. The new year has begun. So let the nagging begin, right?

Nah, let's skip it. There's too much of that coming from the folks who want you to give them money. Signing up for a new exercise program may lower the level of guilt, but that alone won't get the work done. Instead, I asked a few local trainers to offer simple tests you can do at home or on the way to work to check your strength, aerobic fitness, balance and all the other stuff we want to keep intact. Some are pretty basic. Others are a bit more challenging.

What you do with the results is up to you. There'll be no nagging here.

Aerobic capacity: There are lots of ways to evaluate fitness, but one of the most fundamental is to look at your ability to raise your heart rate, increase your breathing and use more oxygen to allow the muscles to do more work. Actual measurement requires access to the right equipment (see sidebar), but there are plenty of ways to get a rough idea of where things stand.

Such as walking up from your Metro stop. Lance Breger, head private trainer at District-based Mint Fitness, says that when you are looking up from the bottom of your station (particularly those deeper ones, such as Rosslyn or Wheaton or Woodley Park), go ahead and make the climb. If your stop has a staircase, take it. Otherwise, walk up the escalator. Check your breathing at the end. If you can speak in reasonable sentences without gasping for air, then you're in decent shape. If you have to make stops along the way or are breathless by the time you reach the top, then think about regular cardio training (such as taking the stairs every day?).

If you aren't a subway rider, Mary Layne, owner of LifeStages Fitness in Northern Virginia, suggests a one-mile run or jog. For her younger clients, Layne would want them to cover the distance in maybe 13 minutes, or roughly 4.5 mph; if you are older, strive for a brisk walking pace of 3.5 mph, or about 17 minutes per mile.

Finally, Kenn Kihiu, who trains out of the Sport & Health chain's Rio facility in Gaithersburg, offers this simple test for lung function (which also can serve as a basic deep breathing exercise). Good breath control figures into many types of exercise, and a slow controlled breath can be healthy and meditative in its own right. So get a full belly of air and see if you can perform a steady 30-second exhale. If not, try to work up to it: You'll find the practice itself relaxing.

Strength: Upper body, lower body, back, abs: where to begin? Kihiu offers a simple (but challenging) test and exercise rolled into one: the wall squat. With your back against a wall and your feet shoulder-width apart, slide down and move your feet out until your knees are at a 90-degree angle, with the hips parallel to the floor. If you can hold the pose for a minute, Kihiu says, it is a good measure of lower-body strength and a strong indication that you'll avoid the routine pulls and strains that an unfit person can suffer from such simple motions as standing up or bending over. If you fall short, you can use the pose as an exercise to try to build strength. If needed, use a table or chair for support while moving into or out of position. Be extra careful if you have weak or problem knees.

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