Most people have heard of the VO2 max test, often used by athletes to precisely measure their cardiovascular fitness levels by measuring how much oxygen the athlete can utilize during exercise. These fitness tests can also be used by non-athletes to provide an estimate measure of cardiovascular health. Unfortunately taking the VO2 max test is expensive and requires specialized equipment, placing it out of reach for most people. Fortunately health science researchers have developed some much simpler fitness tests which anyone can try from the comfort of their home. These tests have been shown to be strongly correlated to different aspects of health, including cardiovascular health, functional fitness, and life expectancy. They can also be used for bench markers of fitness to help you identify areas that could use improvement and measure your progress. Read on for simple fitness tests that can tell you a lot about your health.
Push-ups and Heart Health
Though cardiovascular fitness has long been associated with heart health, a recent study shows that strength and endurance also play a big role. For this study, male middle-aged firefighters were asked to undertake a battery of health tests including VO2 max, blood work, and a push-up test. Researchers were surprised to discover that the humble push-up was as accurate as much more expensive fitness tests in predicting future heart disease.
The participants were asked to do as many consecutive push-ups as possible before their form was compromised or they were unable to continue, due to fatigue. Men who could do 40 consecutive push-ups or more were 96% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease in the next 10 years than men who could do 10 or fewer push-ups. Researchers speculate that this result is because the push-up is a good measure of overall strength, endurance, and a healthy body weight. Men who could do more push-ups also tended to have other indicators of cardiovascular health such as lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and better blood sugar control. These current findings are only for men as there were not enough female firefighters in this cohort to investigate the impact of push-up ability for women, though high levels of strength and endurance are likely to contribute to the longevity of women as well.
Test Yourself – Push-ups:Do a short cardio warm-up, including dynamic stretching for the upper body. A light set up push-ups with a short rest afterwards might also help you prepare for the test. Following the warm up, do as many consecutive push-ups as possible—counting each successful repetition. To best replicate the fitness metric used in the study, do push-ups in the standard position with hands and toes on the ground. Lowering knees down is an acceptable method to establish a personal fitness baseline if unable to do standard push-ups. Stop the test if form is compromised, you are unable to lower your body to 90° angle with elbows, or you are too fatigued to continue. Compare your results to other adults using the American College of Sports Medicine standards.
Sit To Stand and Functional Fitness
Another simple test that can be used to measure strength, balance, coordination, and flexibility is the “sit to stand” test. For this test participants are asked to move from standing to sitting and back to standing, using as little support as possible. A point is deducted every time a hand, knee, or other body part is needed. In this study involving 2,000 Brazilian people between the ages of 51 and 80, those with the lowest scores on this test were 5-6 times more likely to die in the next 6 years compared to people with the highest scores. Every additional point is associated with a 21% decrease of mortality. Researchers speculate these results show that maintaining high levels of body flexibility, muscle strength, power-to-bodyweight ratio, and coordination help with functional fitness, avoiding falls, and performing daily activities that are needed for successful aging. For younger populations, the mortality impact of the scores are unknown, but a higher score does indicate better levels of overall strength and flexibility.
Test Yourself – Sit To Stand: Begin with a light cardio warm-up and some dynamic stretching to prepare your body for activity. Start the test by lowering yourself from a standing position until you are in a seated cross-legged position on the floor (deduct a point from 5 for every hand, knee, side of leg, or other body part used for support). Once seated, from a cross-legged position move back to standing, again deducting points for every point of contact (from 5). Add both sitting and standing scores together to get your results. A perfect score is 10 points. Seven points or lower is associated with increased health risks for older populations.
A Sweat-Free Measurement of Heart Health
Did you know you can evaluate your cardiovascular fitness and potential risk of heart disease without ever breaking a sweat? That is because your resting heart rate is a factor that is strongly related to cardiovascular health and overall life expectancy. Many factors go into your resting heart rate, including your weight, blood pressure, the medications you take, and how much you exercise. In general a stronger, healthier heart beats less in order to circulate blood, while a weak or diseased heart must beat more rapidly to meet the body’s needs. A faster resting heart rate may also be an indicator of high stress levels, which can tax the cardiovascular system.
In one large 22-year study of Chicago middle-aged men and women, those with heart rates 12 beats faster than average were 16-27% more likely to die from coronary heart disease than study participants with lower heart rates. Those with the highest heart rates also had a 15-20% higher risk of dying of cancer. Another study of Norwegian adults showed that adults whose pulses increased the most—15 beats or more over a 12-year period—were twice as likely to die as people whose pulses did not increase as drastically. The opposite was also found to be true: people who started out with high pulses and were able to significantly lower them were 40% less likely to die prematurely.
A higher resting heart rate is associated with other health risk factors such as high blood pressure, a sedentary lifestyle, and cholesterol levels. A normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Research indicates that a higher resting heart rate—though still in the normal zone—may indicate an increased risk of cancer and heart disease for middle-aged adults.
Test Yourself – Resting Heart Rate:Upon waking but before standing, count your pulse for 1 minute on three consecutive mornings, taking the average of the three scores. Beats between 60 and 100 are considered normal, though findings in the higher range could indicate a lack of cardio fitness, high stress levels, or other problems.
Many people know that eating well, regular exercise, and other healthy habits will help us to live as long as possible, but we may wonder if all our hard work is paying off. Try these simple, fun fitness tests to see how well you are doing and what areas have room for improvement. If concerned about any of your results and what they might mean, please consult a health care provider immediately.