(This article originally appeared on Grandparents.com.)
Just what does it mean to be fit? Fortunately, fitness has nothing to do with running an 8-minute mile or doing 20 push-ups on command. On the other hand, being in shape can’t be measured purely by how much time you spend exercising.
Health professionals across the board — from cardiologists to physiologists and trainers — have loosely the same definition of “being in good shape:” the ability to do the things you enjoy doing without feeling limited.
In terms of specific benchmarks, it’s difficult to predict what an individual should be able to do, says Jude Sullivan, senior clinical exercise physiologist at University of Wisconsin Health. “For my mom, it’s: Can she sit in a chair, bend over and tie her shoes? For me, it’s: Can I excel in my taekwondo class? Both pack a punch, because they have a lot of meaning for each person.” If you care for grandkids regularly, the question may be: Can you be engaged and active with them while they’re at play, not just sitting on a bench watching?, Sullivan adds.
While experts hesitate to quantify what being in shape means exactly, the baseline for being in bad shape should be pretty clear. If you’re 50 and unable to walk a block without panting, you’re not in good shape, says Dr. Martha Gulati, cardiologist and editor-in-chief of CardioSmart.org, a patient education initiative from the American College of Cardiology.
Weight and Being in Shape
What’s weight got to do with being in good shape? Not very much. While the benefits of being at a healthy weight abound, fitness is determined by how much activity you can do. Says Gulati: “It’s how well can you endure exercise, which is affected by your muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, body composition, age, gender and more.”
Easy Activities That Test Your Fitness
Celebrity trainer and fitness expert Joel Harper says there are five elements to being in good shape: muscle strength, heart strength, flexibility, balance and coordination.
To help you assess your fitness level, Harper devised the following set of activities. See how many you can complete. Each activity requires just a few minutes of your time and no equipment. Keep in mind: This assessment isn’t scientific, but it will help you identify what you can already do and what you should work on.
(NOTE: To prevent injury, talk to your doctor before trying these exercises.)
• Stand up. Rise from a chair without using your hands; a test of balance, coordination and muscle strength
• Take a walk. Walk briskly for three blocks; a test of cardiovascular ability (To ensure you are properly engaging your muscles, Harper recommends imagining you are walking on a sheet of glass, so you “float” rather than pound on the pavement.)
• Pulse your arms. Hold your arms straight out to the side, palms up, at shoulder height and pulse them 1 inch upwards 25 times. Do three more sets of 25 pulses, but change the direction your palms are facing — facing down, facing forward and facing backward. This is a test of muscle strength.
• Stay on your toes. Balance on your toes for 30 seconds without touching your heels to the ground; a test of balance
• Balance on one foot. Stand on your left foot and clap your hands 30 times, then switch feet and repeat; a test of balance
• Rise up, hands-free. Lie on your back on the floor and get up to a standing position without using your hands; a test of muscle strength and coordination
• Do yard work. Rake leaves or shovel snow for 20 minutes; a test of cardio and muscle strength
• Hold a plank. Hold yourself in upper push-up position (otherwise known as “plank position”) for 30 seconds; a test of muscle strength
• Bounce those knees. Get down on the floor on all fours with your palms on the floor directly below your shoulders and your knees on the floor directly below your hips. Keeping your upper body stationary, lift your knees so they are hovering off the ground, and bounce them upward 1 inch and back down to the hovering start position for 45 seconds without stopping. This is a test of cardio and muscle strength.
How to Score
If you can complete one to three exercises: Prioritize your workout efforts
If you can complete four to six exercises: Good job, but step it up
If you can complete seven to nine exercises: Bravo, keep up the good work
Commit to Being Fit
Need to step up your workout efforts? There’s no time like the present — and it’s never too late.
“The more fit you are, the less likely you are to have heart disease, cancer and all kinds of health-related issues. We have good data showing that older people who start a fitness regimen do better health-wise,” says Gulati, referring to a 2014 study published in JAMA which found that sedentary adults ages 70 to 89 who had trouble walking a quarter mile lowered their risk of physical disability by adding moderate exercise to their daily regimen.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that adults do a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity five days a week (or two and a half hours a week, total, split up however you’d like), plus 20 minutes of muscle-strengthening exercise twice a week.
Not sure what constitutes “moderate intensity?”
“You should be able to talk to the person next to you but not want to talk to them,” says Gulati. “If you’re comfortably able to talk to the person next to you, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.” Most people underestimate how hard they’re capable of working, adds Sullivan.
One last hurdle you might face in the quest for a fitter you: What’s the best exercise to improve my health? (And what if I don’t like it?) “The best exercise is the one that you’re going to do,” says Sullivan, who specializes in preventative cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation. “If it’s something you’re doing because you feel like you have to be a hero about it or some magazine suggested it, the likelihood of that being sustainable is not good.”
First figure out what’s possible — talk to your doctor and come up with five activities you’re physically capable of doing and want to do — and pick one thing to start, suggests Sullivan. Even walking with water bottles in your hands is enough to give you some resistance training, says Gulati.
One benefit of the exercise guidelines is that every set of stairs and every extra block of walking counts. “It doesn’t have to be in continuous time — we just need to be perpetually moving,” says Sullivan.
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