Technology is a mixed blessing for older adults. While medical technology may help people live longer, everyday technology can make life so sedentary that seniors often become too frail to function.

"By their late seventies, many people don't have the strength and endurance they need to live independently," notes Roberta E. Rikli, who chairs the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion at California State University, Fullerton. Although many seniors blame their weakness on old age, she says, "at least half of the physical decline during aging is due to an inactive lifestyle."

Extensive research shows that exercise programs, such as walking and strength training, can delay the onset of physical frailty in older adults. But a limiting factor in prescribing appropriate exercise programs for seniors has been a lack of fitness standards for people over 60, says Rikli who, with co-researcher C. Jessie Jones, recently developed the first such performance standards.

Based on a nationwide study of 7,183 men and women aged 60 to 94, the tests are designed to help seniors determine their own fitness levels and compare their results to those of others their age. The research was funded by PacifiCare, a California-based health maintenance organization.

Ideally, the tests will help seniors spot areas of weakness early enough to begin an appropriate exercise program to improve fitness and stem decline. "The good news is that if you test low, you can still improve your fitness no matter how old you are," notes Jones, who is also a professor of kinesiology at Fullerton. "It's never too late to start an exercise program and get important health benefits."

Jones and Rikli are developing a self-test booklet, which they expect to be available by early next year. The complete test, with instructions and scoring, was published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity in April.

Below are condensed versions of three of the seven tests. In general, the tests are safe for most older adults. But DO NOT take the tests without your doctor's approval if you have been advised not to exercise because of a medical condition, if you are currently experiencing chest pain or dizziness, if you have had congestive heart failure or if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure (greater than 160/100).

Take the tests with a buddy, and be sure to do a 5- to 10-minute warm-up--of easy movements and gentle stretching--first.

* 30-Second Chair Stand, to assess lower body strength.

Equipment: Stopwatch, straight-back or folding chair without arms.

Procedure: Place the chair against a wall to keep it from moving. Sit in the middle of the chair with back straight, feet flat on the floor and arms crossed at the wrists and held against the chest. On the signal "go," rise to a full stand, then return to a fully seated position. Complete as many full stands as possible within 30 seconds.

Score: A normal range for women in their sixties is 11 to 17, in their seventies is 10 to 15, in their eighties is 8 to 14 and in their nineties is 4 to 11. A normal range for men in their sixties is 12 to 19, in their seventies is 11 to 17, in their eighties is 8 to 15 and in their nineties is 7 to 12.

* Arm Curl, to assess upper body strength.

Equipment: Watch with a second hand, straight-back or folding chair without arms, dumbbell (five-pound for women, eight-pound for men).

Procedure: Sit on a chair with back straight and feet flat on the floor. Hold the dumbbell in your dominant hand, sit with that side of your body close to the side edge of the chair and move the hand with the weight down until that arm is perpendicular to the floor. At the signal "go," turn your palm up and curl the weight up through a full range of motion, then return to the starting position. Complete as many correct curls as possible within 30 seconds.

Score: A normal range for women in their sixties is 12 to 19, in their seventies is 11 to 17, in their eighties is 10 to 16, and in their nineties is 8 to 13. A normal range for men in their sixties is 16 to 22, in their seventies is 13 to 21, in their eighties is 11 to 19 and in their nineties is 10 to 14.

* Eight-Foot Up-and-Go, to assess agility/dynamic balance.

Equipment: Stopwatch, tape measure, cone (or similar marker), straight-back or folding chair.

Procedure: Position the chair against a wall so it doesn't move during testing, and make sure it's in a clear, unobstructed area, facing a cone or other marker exactly eight feet away. (Mark the distance on the floor from the edge of the chair to the back of the marker). Be sure there is at least four feet of clearance beyond the cone to allow ample turning room. Begin by sitting erect in the chair, hands on thighs and feet flat on the floor, one foot slightly in front of the other. On the signal "go," get up from the chair (pushing off thighs or chair is allowed), walk quickly around the cone and return to the chair. The object is to complete the task as quickly as possible, without running. Have the buddy serve as a spotter, standing midway between chair and cone, ready to assist if necessary.

Score: A normal range for women in their sixties is 6.4 to 4.4 seconds, in their seventies is 7.4 to 4.9 seconds, in their eighties is 9.6 to 5.7 seconds and in their nineties is 11.5 to 7.3 seconds. A normal range for men in their sixties is 5.7 to 3.8 seconds, in their seventies is 7.2 to 4.2 seconds, in their eighties is 8.9 to 5.2 seconds and in their nineties is 10 to 6.2 seconds.