Measuring fitness for better health

How do doctors measure health and fitness? Is it some sort of ratio between your height and weight? Does it mean you’re more fit if you can touch your toes without bending your knees or lift a heavy weight? If you can run 100 yards without being out of breath or do 50 sit-ups, are you healthier than someone who can’t?

“Although our genetics may differ, being fit allows us to perform our activities with ease,” says Lauren Elson, MD, director of dance medicine at Spaulding Rehabilitation, and instructor at the Harvard Medical School. “Someone is appropriately fit when they are able to achieve their daily goals with ease and without effort. They should have enough reserve to sometimes do a little bit more than usual without significant stress on the body. When you are younger, being fit may present itself as being able to do yard work, help a neighbor move, lift a child. As you age, this may translate into easily being able to carry in groceries.”

The medical community agrees that there are five basic measures of fitness and health: cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and body composition. Each determines a person’s overall fitness.

Cardiovascular endurance

As the body’s blood pump and circulatory system, a healthy heart enables people to have the reserves to easily perform activities of daily living and recreation.

“Besides allowing us to climb stairs or walk up hills without becoming short of breath, being fit allows us to accomplish whatever we need to without effort,” says Elson, who is board-certified in sports medicine and physical medicine/rehabilitation. “We do know that training our cardiovascular system can have the added benefit of stress relief and immunity enhancement.”

Preventing heart attacks, managing blood pressure and avoiding strokes can be improved by paying attention to cardiovascular health and endurance. Knowing your resting heart rate, then comparing it when you exercise can give you a general measure of cardiovascular health. A resting heart rate of between 60 and 100 beats per minute is healthy. Of course, this is only a guideline.

Muscle health

Muscular strength and muscular endurance go hand in hand and will change as people age.

“‘Power muscles’ allow us to run, jump, throw a ball, open doors, lift objects onto shelves and get into and out of chairs,” Elson says. “Although our goals may change as we age, keeping these muscles strong will allow us to maintain function.

“Core muscles that help us maintain an upright posture are constantly at work. Keeping them fit can help prevent or reduce such things as low back or neck pain. These are the muscles of your body’s trunk, including your back muscles, gluteal muscles and abdominals.”

Build core muscle strength through such activities as yoga and abdominal work like sit-ups and planks.


Your muscles get tight when you sit, stand or lie down for too long, making it a bit painful or difficult to change position. The fronts of your thighs can be stiff, the backs of your legs may cramp or your back may be weak through prolonged inertia.

“Basically, what’s happening is your muscles experience imbalances from lack of movement and cause discomfort,” she says. “Over time, you can lose range of motion if you don’t regularly move your joints and keep your muscles and frame limber.”

Body composition

Several procedures can be used to determine body composition, including body mass index, ratios of height to weight or gauging your body’s percentage of body fat using skin-fold calipers.

“Body composition varies from individual to individual and as a stand-alone is not an accurate measure of health and fitness,” Elson says. “Genetics, how often you exercise and what you eat can all affect body composition. For our bodies to function well, it’s vital to maintain a diet that includes a balance of nutrients and minimizes simple sugars. Add good nutrition and you’re well on your way to having the ideal body composition for you.

“Body weight, in and of itself, is not a great measure of fitness. While it may be appropriate for some people to use it as one piece of the puzzle, it does not reflect all the other factors related to fitness. For example, someone who is gaining muscle through exercise may gain weight while actually slimming down.”

Putting it all together

Elson recommends visiting your physician for an assessment of overall fitness and health.

“Your physician can help match you with providers or resources to set goals,” she says. “Someone who would like to improve their strength but has muscle pain may benefit from physical therapy to reduce discomfort and improve function. If weight loss is a goal, see a nutritionist or dietitian. A sports medicine physician could also be helpful in evaluating overall fitness and can help set specific quality-of-life goals.”

Ten tips to improve your nutrition

myplate_greenGood nutrition is about more than losing weight. From building stronger bones and muscles to ensuring your digestive, cardiovascular and brain functions are working well, nutrition is key in regulating these systems. By making wise choices about the foods and beverages you consume, you’re laying groundwork to improve your health for years to come.

  1. Kick the sugar habit.
  2. Consciously make healthier choices, such as snacking on a handful of nuts or raw vegetables versus a candy bar or crackers.
  3. If you think you’re hungry, first try drinking a glass of water. Your body may be signaling that it’s beginning to be dehydrated.
  4. Drink a full glass of water before each meal.
  5. Use a smaller plate at mealtimes; the amount of food will look bigger, and you’ll naturally eat fewer calories.
  6. Fill one-fourth of your plate with protein, and three-fourths with a variety of vegetables.
  7. Reduce your intake of carbohydrates such as white bread, starchy vegetables and high-sugar fruits. Instead, eat more protein, including eggs and whey protein, plus vegetables and fruits that will add more fiber to your meals.
  8. Always eat at the table without distractions, even if you’re snacking, so you can pay attention to what you’re consuming.
  9. Slow down when you eat and savor your food.
  10. Resolve to make nutritional lifestyle changes rather than “going on a diet.”