How to Measure Your Fitness
Say the word fitness and you will likely conjure up many different images...you might think of an Olympic athlete like swimmer Michael Phelps, gymnast Simone Biles, or sprinter Usain Bolt. You might also think of a weightlifter who can lift an immense amount of weight but only for a single rep. You might also think of pictures you see of tight, rippling physiques on Instagram or in magazines. All of these seem like they are "fit" in some way or another, but how do we actually measure fitness?
Here's the thing, fitness actually means many different things. Google it and it will tell you that fitness is the condition of being physically fit and healthy (both things that are arguable in their nature), or the quality of being suitable to fulfill a certain role. Now this one actually helps us understand "fitness" a bit more - fitness really is specific to what your particular goals are. Michael Phelps is considered super fit - he is able to swim for long distances, using a variety of strokes, very quickly. His sport necessitates that he does not carry excessive body fat. On the other hand, some powerlifters are extremely strong (much more so than Mr. Phelps) and are able to lift immense amounts of weight, however their physique is incredibly different than Phelps' but it is perfect for their sport. If Phelps were to attempt some of their lifts, he would inevitably fail, and of course on the contrary, those lifters would likely fail miserably in the pool, yet we can call them both "fit." Fitness is, on one hand, a very specific construct, depending on the sport and goals one has.
On the other hand, we can look at all the aspects of what could describe fitness and create a composite of sorts. Fitness would likely resemble some kind of test you took back in high school (sorry, I know that might not conjure up your favorite memories!), with the following "subject areas" and examples:
- Basic physiology: think resting heart rate and blood pressure
- Body composition: think body fat percentage and circumference measurements
- Cardiovascular endurance: think distance running, swimming, or cycling
- Speed: think a 40-yard sprint in football
- Muscular endurance: think a plank test or sit up test in the Army (how much can you do in a set amount of time)
- Strength: think a bench press or squat test (how much can you lift for 1 rep)
- Mobility & flexibility: think how well do your joints move into different positions, such as squatting, lunging, or lifting arms overhead
- Other sport and activity-related measures, such as agility cone drills that field/court athletes might use, such as soccer, football, or basketball, or a vertical jump test
In this way, fitness is very broad and encompasses may different measures one could focus on. Some of us, due to either genetic predisposition or our inclinations, might be a little better at some over others. Rarely will you find someone who is a "jack of all trades" and is great at everything. Moreover, even if one is not your natural inclination, you can still train for it - more on this later.
Additionally, these are all outcome measurements. They all can be objectively measured however they are not all 100% within our control (e.g., no matter how badly I wish I could run a 5K in under 20:00 today, I cannot will it to happen, but I can train for it and occasionally measure my progress toward that outcome). The beauty of these measures is they give us something very tangible and often very satisfying to achieve. On the flip side, since they are not entirely within our control, it can be frustrating when we cannot just "make" it happen.
Additionally, outcome measures can be used in relative or absolute terms. Let's consider a man with a BMI of 26. If we only consider absolute terms, we might say, he is in the overweight category. That is true, however if we consider that, up until a year ago, his BMI was 36, this is a remarkable accomplishment relative to where he was before! Yes, he still might desire to lose a little more weight to bring him into the lowest disease risk category, however, his disease risk is relatively so much lower than it was a year ago. He can also continue to lose weight by making tweaks in his diet and exercise and having appropriate goals that help him to do so.
Similarly, if I were to compare myself to other runners, I might say, in absolute terms, I am so much slower than Olympians who run the same distance, therefore I suck. It may be true that I am substantially slower than them, however, if I compare my performance to one year ago, I would notice that I had substantially reduced my half marathon pace just over the course of the winter. In other words, relatively, I had made a huge improvement, and I can continue to make huge improvements with the right training. Enter process measurements...
We can also think of measuring fitness in terms of process measurements, which are the kinds of measures that tend to occur "along the way" to our outcome goals. They have to do with our "checking a box" in some way, meaning they are entirely within our control. There are an infinite number of process measures one could use, but here are a few examples:
- Completing X number of workouts per week
- Keeping a nutrition diary/food tracking X% of the time
- Learning about a new fitness concept (e.g., reading a blog or book, watching a video, or listening to a podcast)
- Trying a new healthy ingredient or recipe
- Taking one's weight and/or measurements at a given interval
What sets these process measures apart from outcome measures is they are 100% within our control (with reasonable exceptions, like natural disasters, extreme illness, and what not). For example, you might not be able to will yourself to run a given speed (an outcome measure), but you can surely set yourself up for success through the appropriate process measures - for example, following a ten week plan that includes one tempo run, one easy run, one long run, and one recovery run, plus, say recording how various food and/or supplement combinations that you try affect your work. So the process measures are doing the workouts and keeping track of the effects of the nutritional habits you try on your workouts and overall pace; I might also have an outcome measure at the end, which might be a race of my given distance to see if I can achieve my desired pace.
Similarly, the man in my previous BMI example might not be able to wish away the last 10 pounds (an outcome measure) but he can surely use an organized system of food tracking daily and hitting a certain caloric target, weighing weekly, and doing 45 minutes of cardio training five days a week to help make the wish a reality. By checking the process boxes, he is setting himself up to likely achieve the outcome as well.
These process and outcome measures can then become goals. For example, the measurement of counting how many times per week you workout may become the goal of doing five cardio workouts x 45 minutes each x a relative 4-6 out of 10 intensity level. This is well-defined and you will know if you achieved it. These process measures will become the stepping stones that pave the way to a desired outcome goal/measurement.
*We can measure our fitness in terms of both process measurements - those things we can entirely control that are about completing something, and in terms of outcome measurements - those measurements that we cannot "make" happen but we can work toward achieving.
*Outcome measures can further be broken down into absolute measures - how you do compared to some standard, such as other people of your same gender and age, as well as relative measures - how well you do on that outcome compared to some time in your past.
*Both process and outcome measures can directly be turned into goals.
*It is useful to use both process and outcome measurements/goals. Outcome measures can add a sense of purpose and excitement to training. Well thought out process measures can help to ensure we are on the road to achieving our desired outcome measure by adding organization and structure. They also are within our control, which helps to create a sense of success, even if an outcome goal is missed. Finally, they provide useful feedback for how to renegotiate a missed outcome goal.
*It is also useful to use both absolute and relative measures. Absolute measurements can create excitement and motivation in a training program, while relative goals help to show how far you have progressed and create continued motivation and a sense of accomplishment.
While it can of course be done at any time of year, September is a great renewal period to ask yourself:
1. What aspects of my fitness would I like to measure - both process and outcome?
2. If I am setting an outcome goal, what process measures/goals will pave the way to help me achieve that outcome?
3. How can I ensure that I will stick to my process goals? In other words, how I can I set myself up for success? I will continue to explore this in an upcoming blog, but my first suggestion is to WRITE IT DOWN! Writing it down and placing it some place you will see, check, and use it is the first step.
Please think these questions over and let me know what fitness measurements you would like to focus on for the rest of 2019!
In good health,