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What is Physical Fitness?

May 2006
What is Physical Fitness?

Many people seem to confuse good health with physical fitness. However, there is a distinction between the characteristics of general good health and those of being "physically fit." Whereas good health is characterized by being free of disease, physical fitness is achieved by leading a healthy lifestyle and participating in a well-rounded exercise program on a regular basis. According to the American Council on Exercise, "fitness" is assessed by one's level of cardiorespiratory efficiency (at rest and during exercise), muscular strength and endurance, muscle and joint flexibility, and body composition. Let's examine these further:

Cardiorespiratory efficiency: Also called cardiorespiratory endurance or aerobic fitness, this is a person's ability to perform large muscle movements over a period of time. This is also the ability of the heart, lungs, and the blood vessels to deliver an adequate supply of oxygen for continuous energy production for exercising muscles. A certain level of basic cardiovascular fitness can be achieved by performing activities such as walking, cycling, aerobics, dancing, and jogging at least three times a week. Activities that combine both lower and upper body movements such as skiing, rowing, and swimming can lead to high levels of cardiovascular fitness. Increasing the intensity of these activities over a period of time can further lead to optimal cardiovascular fitness.

Muscular strength and endurance: Muscular strength is the amount of force muscles can produce in a single maximal effort. Lifting a heavy suitcase and pushing a heavy object are examples of muscular strength. Muscular endurance is the ability to exert strength repetitively over a period of time without fatiguing. For example, playing tennis requires a certain amount of upper body muscular endurance as the ball is continuously hit. A certain level of muscular strength and endurance can be developed by performing a strength training routine (with the use of dumbbells, machines, or exercise bands) which involves all major muscle groups at least three times a week. Progressively overloading the muscles with heavier weights and changing the number of sets and repetitions over time will eventually lead to an increased level of muscular strength and endurance.

Muscle and joint flexibility: Flexibility is defined as the range of movement that can be accomplished at a joint such as the hip and shoulder. Even though maintaining flexibility helps to reduce the chance of injury and can improve performance in many activities, flexibility training is often overlooked. A flexible joint can have the capability to move further in its range and can also decelerate the joint degeneration process. Flexibility training (performed via stretching) also alleviates muscle soreness and tightness. Stretching (to improve one's flexibility) can be performed both before and after an exercise program.

Body Composition: Body composition refers to the quantity of total body mass which can be divided into fat-free mass and fat mass. Fat-free mass consists of metabolically active bone, muscle, and organs, and fat mass is just that: fat, also known as adipose tissue. Weighing scales measuring just weight alone are not a good indicator of body composition or good health as one person may weigh 200 lbs and have only 15% body fat (and be in good health), whereas someone else might weigh 200 lbs and have 40% body fat (and be at risk for disease). It is, therefore, important to know the ratio of fat versus lean mass, since having a higher body fat percentage increases the risk of disease. A desirable level of body fat can be achieved by leading a lifestyle of following a nutritious low-fat diet and performing cardiovascular and strength training exercises at least three times a week.

How can you determine your level of fitness? There are several tests that can be performed by certified personal trainers to determine one's level of cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and body composition. For example, there are treadmill, step, and walking tests that can be administered to determine cardiovascular fitness for a male or female of a certain age. The person's fitness level, whether "excellent," "good," "average," or "poor," can be categorized after taking the post-exercise heart rate.

For muscular strength, the 10 repetition maximum leg press and bench press test is utilized for determining upper and lower body strength in men and women. The person's fitness level is then categorized according to established norms and one's age. The pushup test is another popular test to evaluate muscular strength and endurance. The total number of pushups one can perform (based on age and established norms) before reaching exhaustion determines the person's level of upper body muscular fitness.

With flexibility testing, there is no single test that predicts the range of motion of other joints, so each joint must be assessed individually. For example, the trunk extension test measures lower back flexibility, while the hip flexion test evaluates the range of motion at the hips.

The most popular method of obtaining body fat measurement is taking skinfold measurement. This involves measuring the thickness of skinfolds at standardized sites which vary slightly for men and women. Waist-to-hip circumference ratio is a quick and reliable technique to estimate body fat distribution. Also popular for use at home are weighing scales which measure body weight and provide a body fat percentage.

Optimum fitness is a result of leading a lifestyle that leads to the development of an optimal level of cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and maintenance of an ideal body weight (fat versus lean mass). To achieve optimum fitness, each of the above systems must be trained specifically. In other words, exercises that develop cardiovascular endurance such as biking, walking, and swimming, are not effective for developing optimum muscular strength. Flexibility training improves the range of motion at a given joint, but is not effective at developing cardiovascular fitness or muscular strength. Resistance training or weight lifting is the best way to improve strength but not very effective at improving cardiovascular fitness or flexibility. To be "physically fit" an individual must participate in cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility exercises on a regular basis and achieve desirable results on certain fitness tests. So the next time your doctor delivers you a clean bill of health, don't confuse it for being "physically fit." Instead, make exercise a part of your lifestyle and strive to achieve optimum fitness!

By Aarti Patel

Aarti Patel is certified by the American Council on Exercise as a Personal Trainer and Lifestyle and Weight Management Consultant. She can be reached at (404)376-5655..

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