The signs of declining fitness can be subtle. Your legs may complain when you climb the stairs; running for the bus may take your breath away, or an exercise routine that you used to accomplish easily may become hard going.
It is easy to ignore those signs, write them off as the natural effects of getting older, or assume that nothing you can do will help. However, waning fitness should not be ignored as it can lead to such everyday mishaps as sore muscles and sprains and also have farther-reaching health consequences. A higher risk of coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and some types of cancer is associated with declining aerobic fitness and strength. Stiff or weak limbs may lead to strains and sprains. Poor balance can increase the risk of falls and broken bones.
Fortunately, the right exercise combinations can restore fitness at virtually any age. While aerobic capacity decreases with age, and strength can decline by 15-percent every decade from age 50, much of the decline is preventable or reversible with the right exercise routine. Aerobic exercise can improve heart and lung capacity and reduce blood pressure even in your 60's and beyond. Strength-building exercises can add power to muscles even in your 80's and 90's.
Measuring your current fitness is a good first step for both protecting the shape you are in and motivating yourself to do better if you are out of condition. This fitness checkup does not require the help of exercise specialists, a visit to a fitness center or complicated equipment.
The following consists of four simple tests for which average benchmarks are available for adults of different ages.
For a profile of your current fitness, take the four do-it-yourself tests that follow and compare your results with the average for your age group (see chart). When taken periodically, these tests can also be a rough guide to how much good your exercise program is doing and whether it needs adjusting to improve a particular aspect of fitness. What is above average? Experts have no overall data, but if your scores meet the averages of those considerably younger, you should be encouraged.
This walking test measures aerobic fitness, or the ability to exercise without getting winded.
You need a watch with a second hand and a measured track such as the quarter-mile track at many schools. Alternatively, use your car's odometer to mark out a one-mile course along a level road.
Walk one mile as briskly as possible without becoming winded or dizzy, recording your time in minutes and seconds.
Before checking your time against the averages in the chart, adjust the time according to your weight.
Men should add 15 seconds for every ten pounds they weight over 170, or subtract 15 pounds for every ten pounds they weight under 170. Women should make the same adjustments for every ten pounds above or below 125.
To measure your flexibility, tape a yardstick to the floor, then tape a foot-long strip of paper perpendicular to it at the 15-inch mark. Warm up with some light stretches.
Sit on the floor with your legs extended on each side of the yardstick and your feet touching the paper strip about 12-inches apart. The lower numbers on the yardstick should be near you. With arms straight in front of you and one hand overlapping the other with the fingers aligned, lower your head and slide your hands forward as far as you can down the yardstick without flexing your knees or straining. Hold for one second and record the farthest point you reach.
Do the test three times, then check your best score against the chart.
This test does not require store-bought or homemade weights. Because you use your body for resistance, it evaluates your strength relative to your weight, unlike weight lifting tests in which people of different heights and weights life the same amount.
With your feet shoulder-width apart, stand six to twelve inches in front of a kitchen chair as if you were going to sit down. Cross your arms over your chest and keep your back as straight as possible. Squat slowly until your buttocks lightly touch the chair seat, then slowly stand. Take four full seconds to lower yourself and two seconds to rise.
As you squat, do not let your knees extend beyond your toes. Do as many of the leg squats as you are able to without bouncing, feeling pain, losing your balance or going faster than six seconds per squat.
Practice several times before you take the test.
Poor balance increases the risk of falls and broken bones and the risk of injury increases with age. If you are 50 or older, take this balance test using a watch with a second hand or stopwatch feature. It is preferable to have another person time you. Wear sturdy shoes without slippery soles. If you feel you may fall, stand next to a chair or wall to steady yourself if needed. If you are frail, ask someone to stand nearby to help steady you if you begin to lose your balance.
Bend the knee of one leg (the weaker leg if you are aware of a difference) and balance on your other foot with your eyes open and arms at your sides. Time how long you can keep your foot raised. Do it three times and use the best results.
If you rank below average on one or more of these tests, you probably will benefit from starting or increasing an exercise program, particularly in the areas where you have fallen short. If you rate above average for your age, there is probably room for improvement.
Meeting the average is not necessarily enough, since U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data indicate that only 30-percent of people over age 18 get even light-to-moderate exercise five days a week.
If your scores are above average, congratulate yourself but periodically assess whether your current fitness program is addressing all the key areas.
Whatever level you are currently at, following the exercise guidelines (next page) included in this E-book will help you optimize your fitness and avoid illness.
To view a chart on a full page, Click here A new window will open.
If your one-mile walk took longer than you wish, make sure you are getting enough heart and lung-strengthening exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine and other medical organizations recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise most days of the week. The exercise does not have to be in one 30 minute session, but make sure the mixture of activities you do throughout the day adds up to at least one-half hour. Of course, that is just a minimum; people who are in good shape or want to get fitter may need to exercise longer or harder than that. It depends on your current level of fitness in addition to your fitness goals.
Aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, swimming, bicycling and vigorous housecleaning and yard work, helps strengthen your heart and lungs, prevents obesity and lowers the risk of many illnesses. Moderate exercise works by reducing coronary-disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes, and by increasing your "good" HDL cholesterol levels.
Weight-bearing exercise also can help prevent age-related bone loss, which can lead to osteoporosis and fractures - in both men and women.
Keeping the joints flexible permits pain-free bending and movement and helps avoid exercise injuries and soreness. Just ten minutes a day of stretching promotes flexibility, keeps muscles supple and helps you relax. Stretching can be done before and after exercise routines and worked into everyday activities. After lengthy periods of working at a desk or driving a car, light stretching can relieve minor aches and pains.
Strength training with weights or resistance bands and with sit-ups, pushing-ups and abdominal crunches helps preserve or restore your muscles. The training can build the muscles you need for daily activities and aerobic exercise, stem the weakness that comes with age, boost your metabolic rate (and fat burning capacity), help prevent bone and muscle loss and lower the risk of back problems. Do at least two to three 20 to 30 minutes' sessions a week, focusing on the upper body, legs and torso.
If you are not happy with your test scores and want to begin or beef up an exercise program, follow these steps:
*Ask your doctor's advice, particularly if you have chronic illnesses, are over 45 or are at increased cardiovascular risk.
*Warm up with light exercises and stretch at the end of your workout.
*Increase the intensity of your workout by no more than 10-percent a week and start slowly after any lapse.