5 Fitness tests you can do today

Oct 20, 2013 at 2:36 a.m. ET

Want to set better fitness goals and get in the best shape of your life? Well, it's time to take a fitness test! To know where you want to go, you have to know where you're starting. Use these five test to set out on the road to success.

It’s time for your test!

As Lewis Carroll said, "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there." Setting appropriate fitness goals is one of the most important steps to becoming a fitness success, but without a firm grasp on your starting point, you're likely to end up confused and frustrated. While fitness testing might seem scary — like you're baring your perceived shortcomings to the world — there's no reason anyone needs to know the details but you.

Use these five tests to gauge your current level of fitness, then set reasonable and specific goals to improve each area of your health.

Body composition test

Please step away from the scale and ignore those pesky BMI charts! BMI and body composition are not the same thing. BMI is a ratio of your height to your weight, while body composition assesses what percentage of your body is made up of muscle, bone, skin, water and — of course — fat. While the most accurate body composition tests require access to high-tech imaging machines, a simple body fat scale can do the job at home. Body fat scales use bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) to gauge the rate at which a small electrical current flows through the body. This rate is used to determine the body's total water content, which is then used to determine fat-free mass. Once fat-free mass is determined, fat mass can be calculated.

Luckily, you don't have to do any of those calculations yourself! Just step on a high-quality body fat scale, such as the EatSmart Precision GetFit Digital Body Fat Scale (Amazon, $95), and wait for the digital assessment.

Waist circumference test

Waist circumference is one of the most accurate predictors of chronic disease, such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Individuals with a large amount of fat distributed around their waist are much more likely to suffer from these diseases than those with fat distributed around their extremities. To take a quick risk assessment, simply pull out a tape measure and wrap it around your belly at approximately navel height. Make sure the tape measure is taut, but not tight, and is parallel to the floor. Measurements greater than 35 inches for females or 40 inches for males indicate high risk.

Cardiovascular health test

Cardiorespiratory endurance refers to the ability to sustain large-muscle, dynamic exercise — such as walking, cycling or swimming — at moderate to high levels of intensity. Estimating your current VO2 max (or maximum level of oxygen uptake) gives you a good picture of your cardiovascular health and the ability of your heart and lungs to deliver sufficient amounts of oxygenated blood to your muscles during exercise.

Believe it or not, there are several simple tests you can perform on your own to get a pretty accurate picture of your VO2 max. One of the most accurate home-based tests is the Rockport Fitness Walking Test:

  1. Weigh yourself prior to taking the test.
  2. Use a standard 400-meter track to time how fast you can walk a mile without breaking into a jog.
  3. Immediately following your one-mile walk, record your heart rate by counting your pulse for 15 seconds and multiplying your pulse rate by four.
  4. With your weight, mile time and pulse rate in hand, use an online calculator to estimate your VO2 max.
While VO2 max is expected to vary by age and sex, the following values are considered "good" values for women:
  • Ages 20–29: 40–43
  • Ages 30–39: 37–40
  • Ages 40–49: 35–38
  • Ages 50–59: 29–30
  • Ages 60–69: 29–31
  • Ages 70–79: 27–29

If your VO2 max falls below the "good" values, you should work on your cardiovascular fitness. If your VO2 max falls above the "good" values, keep on doing what you're doing!

Muscular endurance test

Muscular endurance is a picture of how long a given muscle group can work against a given level of resistance before becoming fatigued. I love to use the example of cyclists climbing mountains in the Tour de France — every time they rotate the bike's pedals, their leg muscles are pressing against the incredible resistance of the mountain's incline. The cyclists must have an awesome combination of muscular endurance and cardiorespiratory endurance to be able to make it to the top.

Muscular endurance is very muscle group specific, so it's hard to test for total-body muscular endurance, but doing a pushup test is one easy way to get a picture of this facet of fitness. Men perform the test in full pushup position, while women perform the test in a modified position on their hands and knees.

  1. Start the pushup in a lowered position, so that your chest is touching the ground and your elbows are bent.
  2. Push yourself up, straightening your elbows fully and keeping your back completely flat and straight.
  3. Lower yourself back to the ground until your chin touches down.
Perform as many pushups as you can without resting. When you have to physically strain to continue or you're unable to perform a pushup with correct form for two consecutive repetitions, the test is complete.

While muscular endurance is expected to vary by age and sex, women's averages are broken down into the following amounts:

  • Ages 20–29: 17–33
  • Ages 30–39: 12–24
  • Ages 40–49: 8–19
  • Ages 50–59: 6–14
  • Ages 60+: 3–4

These are the averages, but even if your results fall into the average zone, that doesn't mean you shouldn't shoot for more. Aim to improve your muscular endurance over time so you can perform more pushups than the average for your age group.

Flexibility test

Flexibility is a particularly important component of fitness that's often overlooked. Not only does having limber muscles help prevent injury during fitness activities, but a high level of flexibility in the hamstrings and low back is associated with a lower incidence of low-back pain. Plus, by maintaining flexibility as you age, you'll maintain a greater range of motion. That will help enhance your balance and coordination, both of which work together to help prevent falls.

Like muscular endurance, flexibility is very joint specific, so while you might have a lot of upper-body flexibility, your lower body could be an entirely different story. The following sit-and-reach test is used to assess flexibility because it measures how limber you are in your hamstrings, hips and low back:

  1. Tape a yardstick to the floor, placing tape perpendicularly across the stick at the 15-inch mark.
  2. After warming up (or shortly after taking the cardiovascular health test above), sit on the ground at the 0-inch mark, placing your heels against the edge of the tape.
  3. Place one hand on top of the other, so that your middle fingers are stacked. Set them on top of the yardstick.
  4. Exhale and slowly lean forward, sliding your hands across the yardstick and extending your arms in front of you. When you feel slight discomfort, stop and hold position for two seconds, recording the distance you’ve reached.
  5. Repeat the test two more times. Your score is the farthest distance (to the nearest 1/4 inch) you were able to reach without bouncing, lunging or jerking forward.
Use an online calculator to determine your score by entering your sex, age and distance reached.

Using your scores to set goals

Once you've gotten a good picture of your current level of fitness, you'll be able to set S.M.A.R.T. goals — specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound — that you can track and assess over the next several months. Plan your workouts to address each area of fitness that you'd like to improve. For instance, if you'd like to improve your flexibility, add a once-weekly yoga routine to your schedule. If you'd like to improve your cardiovascular fitness, skip the steady-state cardio and start interval training. If you want to improve your body composition and reduce fat accumulated around your belly, talk to a dietitian about getting your food intake under control while simultaneously sticking to a reasonable workout plan. After three months of persistent effort, perform these tests again and see how much you've improved.

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