A couple years ago I was part of a team that filmed several video segments centered around the value and importance of fitness for law enforcement professionals. The video series was never published but I’ll never forget a couple of things about it. First, my partner in the series was the same height and weight as I am but our physiques were (and remain) entirely different. Second, our eating habits were (and remain) very different. Last, the amount of time each of us spends per day exercising, not to mention the type of exercise we focus on, was and is drastically different. All of that combined to create different examples of fitness and the goals we each had.
My compatriot and I are both five feet ten inches tall. At that time, we both weighed between 190 and 195 pounds. Due to our different approaches to nutrition and our differing goals, that weight was arranged differently on our frames. Where I had a 36” waist, his was closer to 32”. Where my chest measured about 44”, his was far closer to 50”. I won’t even go into the differences between our biceps and thighs. Suffice to say his physique is much more muscular than mine has ever been… or ever will be. That’s not a criticism of either of us. We simply hold different goals. He’s a bodybuilder; I just want to live healthier.
The measurements of fitness vary for everyone and their individual goals. Let’s talk briefly about some measurements you should be taking and paying attention to and how they apply to fitness goals.
Weight: Weight is only one piece of data that you should consider as part of an overall view of your fitness level. Obviously none of us wants to be “overweight,” but maybe it’s time we redefined what “overweight” means. Instead of simply being viewed as a number indicating our total weight, maybe we should only apply it to the fat content of our body. Muscle weight is not something most of us want to lose, but we’d all be happy to lose some of the fat we carry. There are scales made that will show you your total weight, your body fat percentage, your bone mass and how much water you’re carrying. The greatest variance we see in our weight day to day is due to water content in our bodies. It can fluctuate each day dependent on how much sodium (salt) you have in your diet in the previous few days.
Body Fat: Instead of total weight, this should be one of the leading measurements you consider as you evaluate your health and fitness level. For men, a body fat in the area of 15% is considered healthy. For women, it’s slightly higher at 22%. Understand that if you have a body fat percentage in that range (for your gender), you will not be displaying those washboard abs; you won’t be “cut.” That requires burning off some more of the fat we all carry. That said, it’s possible to have a body fat content that is low to the point of unhealthy as well. Professional body builders, for competition purposes, get their body fat percentage down as low as 4-6%. The large majority of us should not want a body fat that low. We NEED the fat tissue that exists between our organs and around our muscles… but not too much of it. It’s a balancing act for sure, but it’s one that isn’t difficult to perform with reasonably clean eating.
Body measurements: As I alluded to earlier – body shape can be an indicator of fitness. If you weigh 190 pounds with a 40” chest and 40” waist, it’s safe to assume that you are not as fit as the guy standing next to you with a 45” chest and 35” waist. As a method for measuring muscle mass, in addition to a scale that performs the function, taking regular body measurements can be a good idea. The parts of your body to measure would include: Neck, upper arm, chest, waist, thighs, calves. Most of people who are trying to lose weight are constantly looking to see measurements shrink. I submit to you that might not be what’s best. If I’m eating clean, exercising and “getting in shape,” then my chest might grow while my waist shrinks. If I’m regularly performing strength training exercises, my arms and thighs might grow while my waist shrinks. Ultimately my waist is only going to shrink so far and, after that, all progress will be seen in maintenance or growth in the other areas of my body. It is imperative that you know your goals and what results you can expect from the combination of nutrition/diet and exercises you perform.
Those three are the most obvious to anyone looking at you, but are far from the most important indicators of your overall health. As the example, because Type II Diabetes runs in my family, the importance of blood sugar levels and cholesterol in my system are important indicators of my current and future health. Measuring those requires blood work ordered by my doctor. I do it annually due to my age and I’m not sure it would hurt anyone to get it done annually even in their 20s, 30s or older. Your “diet” – more accurately referred to as nutritional intake – has the largest impact on your body chemistry even though there are some genetic traits we can’t control.
Your blood pressure and resting pulse rate are two other vitally important measurements of your overall health. The average adult healthy blood pressure in 120 over 70. Although some allowances are made based on age to adjust those numbers, in general that still remains the goal. If your blood pressure is too low (as is common in petite people) you may still be perfectly healthy. If your blood pressure is too high, it’s not healthy for anyone. Imagine the bicycle tire inner-tube that you overinflate until it pops. That can happen to your arteries and veins. That’s bad (huge understatement). Your resting pulse rate is an indicator of heart strength. Your body needs your blood to circulate a certain amount. Your heart, dependent on its strength, can maintain that circulation easier if it’s stronger. If it’s weaker it actually has to work harder. One of the things we exercise when we exercise our bodies is our heart. If you’re performing cardiovascular exercise, the “cardio” part of that is your heart.
As indicators of your fitness level, there are performance measurements you can take. The military has done this for decades. You can measure your endurance and strength as indicated by how fast you can move from point A to point B and how many times you can perform a repetitive exercise prior to failure of the muscles to complete the motion. The Army, as an example, times a two mile run, how many push-ups you can do in two minutes and how many sit-ups you can do in two minutes. The Marine Corps substitutes pull-ups for push-ups and crunches for sit-ups but it’s still the same overall idea. How hard can you push your body to perform these physical challenges? Obviously strength can also be measured by simply finding out how much weight you can lift in a given motion depending on which muscle group you’re intending to test.
Flexibility is the last item I’ll mention. To avoid or minimize injury from unexpected events such as car accidents, and to simply keep your body functioning as smoothly as possible, being flexible is important. A great many lower back, hip and pelvic injuries (pulled muscles, torn tendons, etc) are the result of insufficient flexibility. As important as it is to exercise your body on a regular basis, it may be even more important to stretch and maintain your flexibility. As we move through our lives, our flexibility naturally reduces over time. Consider how flexible newborn babies are as compared to the average fifty year old. Due to physiological changes, it’s near impossible for that 50-year-old to ever be as flexible as the one-year-old, but s/he can be far more flexible than the average 50-year-old simply by stretching daily.
To review, the items listed as indicators of health are:
Weight, Body Fat, Body Measurements, Blood Sugar Levels, Cholesterol, Blood Pressure, Resting Pulse Rate, Endurance, Strength, Flexibility.