Getting Started: Fitness and Its Benefits for You

Getting Started: Fitness and Its Benefits for You
    At its simplest, fitness means having the capacity to perform activities without exhaustion. This capacity, often taken for granted when young, is not easy to maintain throughout life. Fitness involves five elements:

    strength to provide the force needed for pushing, lifting, pulling, walking, running, and similar activities
    endurance to maintain effort long enough to finish a task and even go on to others
    flexibility to attain or maintain the full range of movements that the body should be able to do, such as twisting, bending, and reaching
    motor skills to enable the body to respond efficiently and effectively to external stimulus
    circulatory (cardiovascular) and respiratory efficiency to sustain these activities and for recovery after such efforts

    A Balanced Fitness Program

    A well-balanced program should include training components for the achievement of these five goals. If a particular fitness program does not cover all of them, it should be complemented with activities necessary to provide the balance.

    A: Box Push-ups

    To increase strength requires working with resistance, which can be provided using your own body or weights. In floor push-ups, for example, the resistance or weight is provided by the body. The level of resistance can be adjusted to meet personal needs and capacity. Push-ups from a kneeling position involve less resistance than if they are carried out with straight legs pivoting on the toes.

    B: Full-floor Push-ups

    Strength development with body resistance (see illustrations): box push-ups (figure A) provide less body resistance than full-floor push-ups (figure B), in which the arm and chest muscles take on the full weight of the body. Strength development with weights (figure C): the heavier the weights, the greater the resistance.

    C: Training with Weights

    Endurance is built up by increasing the number of repetitions and hence the duration of an activity.
    Improving flexibility involves both stretching muscles and mobilizing the joints. When stretching the hamstring, for example, the knee joint is mobilized; stretching the inner thigh muscles mobilizes the hip joint.
    Improvement in motor skills comes from practice. Generally, exercises performed in a class, such as aerobics, step and line dancing, provide a good forum for their development because participants have to follow the instructor. Initially, the student’s responses may be slow, but these should improve with experience because the body can be trained to move in a coordinated manner in response to signals received from the brain. Exercise trains the eye and the nervous network to be alert. The development of motor skills is often neglected, which is unfortunate since they decline with age. Motor skills can only be maintained if nerve cells receive repeated stimulation. Sports that encourage motor skill and reflex development include boxing, fencing, tennis, badminton, and karate or tae kwon do.
    A structured cardiovascular workout is essential. Effected primarily through aerobic activities, it should aim to raise the heart rate gradually from its resting rate to one above normal. The heart is a muscular organ. Like any muscle it can be strengthened by being exercised and put to work. But herein lies the tricky part. How hard should it be made to work?
    At rest, the pulse or heart rate of an average person measures around 60 to 70 beats per minute. Theoretically, the maximum heart rate that a normal healthy person could work toward is 220 minus his/her age. This is known as the personal maximum heart rate. In other words, if you are 40 years old, then your personal maximum heart rate would be 180 beats per minute. However, if you have not done any sports before or have not exercised for some time—even if only because you were on a leisurely vacation for a couple of weeks—this number must be substantially moderated. In such a case, it would be advisable to work towards 60 percent of the personal maximum heart rate; for a 40-year-old, this means starting with a target heart rate of about 110 beats per minute. Over several weeks of regular training three to four times a week, this could be gradually raised to no more than 80 percent of the personal maximum heart rate, in this case, around 145 beats per minute (see the section on energy systems in Chapter 3).
    A different method, called the Karvonen formula, is used in the United States to determine the target heart rate. In this formula, the resting heart rate is deducted from the personal maximum heart rate. This gives the reserve heart rate. Multiply this number by the intensity at which you wish to work, and add the result to the resting heart rate. Let’s again use the example of a 40-year-old:
    Personal maximum heart rate: 220 – 40 = 180
    Reserve heart rate (assuming a resting heart rate of 70): 180 – 70 = 110
    Target heart rate if training at 60 percent intensity: (110 × 0.60) + 70 =136
    Target heart rate if training at 70 and 80 percent intensity: 147 and 158 respectively
    To achieve the most effectiveness, the recommended aerobic training zone is normally 60 to 80 percent of the personal maximum heart rate. Working below 60 percent is of little use, and working above 80 percent causes fatigue to set in rapidly.
    Very rarely, unless training for specific competitive sports, would anyone be encouraged to work towards their personal maximum heart rate. Instead, it is preferable, with increased fitness, to increase the duration of the workout within the same training zone. It is important to note that with increased fitness, the heartbeat is not raised as much by a given intensity of work. Thus, for the individual to reach the same training heart rate, he/she will have to intensify the workout. As a result, as fitness increases, maintaining training within 60 and 80 percent of the personal maximum heart rate automatically involves an increase in effort.
    A good workout is always based on the principle of overload, that is, giving the body more work and exertion than it is accustomed to, in order to improve fitness. Thus, the greater the fitness the greater the load. Inevitably, there should be some feeling of increased exertion. How much, as illustrated above, can be indicated by taking one’s pulse rate. This is easy enough when working on the treadmill or the bicycle, but can be difficult in a class situation. A general guideline in this instance is to work toward a comfortable level, where you are breathing hard without being breathless or giddy, and are able to continue the same level of effort. This is referred to as the perceived exertion rate, a scale developed by Gunner Borg (see table on page 9). The perceived exertion rate is a convenient measure for those on medication or with unusually high or low resting heart rates, where the pulse rate is a less reliable indicator of effort.
    According to this scale, the rank 6–7, or “somewhat hard,” is the minimum you should aim for in order to work aerobically. If perceived exertion is at 10–11, or “very hard,” you should slow down. If at any point you feel that you have reached this stage, moderate your workout. Walk briskly instead of jogging, leave out any bouncy or high-impact moves, reduce the vigor of arm movements, but do not stop. An abrupt halt at the peak of the workout would lead to a “pooling” of blood as the workout on the calf muscles stops. This reduces the return of blood to the heart, which in turn reduces the amount of blood that can be pumped to the rest of the body, and results in giddiness or even fainting.
    A note of caution: These levels of exertion are only guidelines. It is much more important that you feel comfortable, without any sense of giddiness, pain, or forced exertion. A great deal of sensible judgement is required. No one but the individual involved can fine-tune his/her own fitness program.
    Perceived Rates of Exertion
    Categories of exertion
    Perceived exertion by rank
    Extremely light
    Quite light
    Somewhat hard
    Very hard
    Extremely hard
    Maximum exertion
    In all workouts, whether in a class or on your own, even when jogging in the countryside, always start with a warm-up. This should consist of movements to mobilize the joints, ensuring that the synovial fluid that cushions them is warm and giving the lubrication necessary to ease their movements. A warm-up also gradually prepares the muscles, ligaments, and tendons for the increased exertion that is to follow. Then do a preparatory stretch. As the word suggests, this stretch prepares the body for bigger and possibly more vigorous movements in the main workout. These preparatory stretches help reduce the incidence of sports injury, which can occur if the body is launched into vigorous activity without sufficient preparation.
    On completion of the workout, again stretch all the muscles that have been involved, paying special attention to the hamstrings and the inner thigh muscles, holding them longer than in a preparatory stretch.
    Muscles shorten with age, especially with sustained muscle contractions, as is inevitable in any workout and even in daily activities. Left unattended, shortened muscles—especially the hamstring and the back muscles—can give rise to poor posture and the bent frame commonly associated with aging. Stretching at the end of a workout also helps reduce muscle aches; it maintains the flexibility needed for ordinary day-to-day activities such as bending to tie shoelaces, soaping the back, reaching up, and twisting. The reduction in muscle tightness and the greater mobility of joints that accompany stretches contribute significantly to reducing accidents that cause injury and breakage of bones.
    Finally, before embarking on any program of fitness, it is advisable to undergo a medical checkup and a fitness test. The major issues that should be addressed are listed in the screening questionnaire I use for my Fusion Fitness classes (sample on page 10). This kind of questionnaire is usually completed when joining a fitness club or center. The objective is to establish if there are any problems that might require referral to a medical service for clearance before starting an exercise program. If you have an instructor or trainer, keep him/her informed of any medical problems or injury, even after you have completed the questionnaire. It is important to discuss your needs and objectives with your instructor.

    Sample Screening Questionnaire

    Fitness Assessment and Testing
    Many fitness clubs ask new participants to undergo fitness testing. Fitness testing is simply a means to establish a baseline from which a person embarking on an exercise regime can work and progress. It also gauges health, already covered to some extent by the screening questionnaire, and fitness. In addition to establishing height, weight, body fat, resting pulse rate, and blood pressure, tests for strength, stamina/ endurance, and flexibility are also usually conducted. The tests conducted vary in complexity depending on the activity to be pursued. The following are some of the measures most commonly used to assess fitness.

    Weight, Height, and Body Mass Index

    The measurement of weight and height has traditionally been used to gauge whether a person deviates from the “ideal body weight” and whether weight loss or weight gain should be pursued. In the past, weight/height tables established by life-insurance companies were used to determine what was “normal.” However, comparing an individual’s weight and height to a life-insurance table was only broadly indicative of whether he or she was overweight. 
    This is because the weight/height tables failed to reveal one’s body composition, that is, his/her ratio of muscle to fat. Since muscle weighs more than fat, weighing more does not necessarily indicate excess weight. Furthermore, since the tables were computed for insurance purposes, they represented “population averages” (not “ideals”) based on actuarial data drawn from a large sample of people. For these reasons, nowadays, instead of weight/ height tables, body mass index (BMI) is the gauge used by most fitness experts, nutritionists, medical researchers, and government agencies to determine whether an individual’s weight is appropriate for his/her height.
    BMI is calculated by dividing the body weight in kilograms by the square of the height in meters. To learn how to calculate your BMI in either metric or standard measurements, see the examples presented below. Alternatively, the table below presents BMIs for different heights and weights. To read the table, find the appropriate height in the left column, and then move across the row to the weight closest to yours. The number at the top is the BMI for that height and weight.
    For adults up through middle-age, a BMI between 20 and 27 falls within the desirable range; a BMI over 27 indicates over-weight; and a BMI above 29 indicates obesity. Children and pregnant women have different BMI guidelines. (The World Health Organization’s classification of what represents normal, overweight, and obese for the overall adult population is marginally different from the classification provided by the U.S. government: A normal BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9; overweight is between 25 and 29.9; and obese is over 30.)

    Determining Your Body Mass Index (BMI)

    (Source:, a resource sponsored by the U.S. federal government:
    The BMI is an improvement over weight/height tables because it is based on an individual’s body mass rather than on a sample of people, but it still does not provide a measure of the fatness or leanness of the body. To do that, one’s body-fat content must be assessed (see next section).

    Body Fat

    A more accurate guide to ideal weight and “fatness” is to take a direct measurement of body fat. The average fat content of a young, healthy adult male is 10–15 percent and for a young, healthy woman is 18–25 percent. The higher the age, typically the greater the fat content. Therefore an upward adjustment of some 10 percent might be made for older individuals, although from a health perspective such an adjustment may not necessarily be desirable.
    While direct measurement has the potential to provide the most accurate assessment of body fat, the technologies available for taking such measurements have limitations. The most common technique is to measure skinfold thickness using calipers in the areas of the biceps, triceps, back (subscapular, or just below the scapula), top of the hip (suprailiac), and thighs. This measure, however, can be inaccurate because skin fold calipers cannot open wide enough to measure total fat thickness in the case of the very obese. Moreover, the measure assumes that 50 percent of body fat is located in subcutaneal tissues, that is, directly beneath the skin. This, however, is not necessarily so, because body form, nutrition, and physical activity can influence how fat is distributed around the body.

    Pulse Rate

    The resting pulse rate is a good indicator of cardiovascular fitness, because it shows the character and rate at which the heart contracts to pump blood to the lungs and the rest of the body. 
    Pulse rates should be measured under calm conditions, using the pulse that can be felt on the radial artery of the wrist. Alternatively, the pulse that can be felt on the carotid artery, in the neck just below the angle of the jaw, can be used. The pulse is taken for either 6, 10, or 15 seconds and then multiplied by 10, 6, or 4 respectively to derive the beats per minute. The normal resting pulse rate is between 60 and 70 beats per minute.
    World Health Organization’s Classification of Blood Pressure

    Blood Pressure

    A person’s resting blood pressure indicates the pressure involved when the heart contracts (systolic phase) and relaxes (diastolic phase). Blood pressure outside the normal range indicates poor health and the possibility of cardiovascular illness. A typical blood pressure for a young adult is 120 (systolic) over 70 (diastolic). The risk factor rises with blood pressure rates measuring 140/90 and more; therefore, a rate higher than either of those numbers requires medical clearance prior to exercise (see also Chapter 3, section titled “Cardiac Muscle”). Medical clearance before exercise is also needed in cases of low blood pressure. The World Health Organization’s classification of blood pressure is provided above.


    Strength is measured by the force that can be exerted to undertake a physical task. Two measures are commonly used: handgrip strength and sit-ups (abdominal crunches). A handgrip dynamometer is used to measure handgrip strength.

    Stamina and Endurance

    Stamina is tested using several different measures. Common measures generally include counting the number of abdominal crunches that can be executed and the “step” test. The type of step test used may vary, but basically it requires the individual to step up and down on a step-box with alternating feet at a steady pace for a period of 3 minutes, after which the heart rate is measured and compared against a chart. The lower the heartbeat after executing the steps, the greater the stamina. A heart rate lower than 112 beats per minute for men and lower than 109 beats per minute for women is generally rated excellent. For both men and women, heartbeats exceeding 136 are rated poor. 
    The step test is a convenient and simple measure, but its reliance on the maintenance of regular stepping frequency and variations in people’s leg length and weight can all reduce the consistency of the results.
    In determining cardiorespiratory endurance or stamina, the most common approach is to measure the oxygen uptake (volume of oxygen inhaled) during exercise on a treadmill, rowing machine, bicycle, or similar appliance used for aerobic activities.


    Flexibility tests can measure either static or dynamic flexibility. Static flexibility is determined by the extent muscles and joints can facilitate a movement, while dynamic flexibility refers to the ease of movement. Dynamic flexibility is important for exercises such as gymnastics and dance; static flexibility is important for yoga. Generally, only static flexibility is measured. A sit-and-reach technique is normally used to measure the flexibility of the back and hamstrings (figure A, page 16), two groups of muscles that are generally sources of tightness. The further the reach, the greater the flexibility. A hamstring test (figure B, page 16) provides an alternative method for measuring the flexibility of the hamstrings. In the shoulder test (figure C, page 16), extending the arms behind the ears indicates greater flexibility, but arms held to the front show stiffness in the shoulders. In the quadriceps test (figure D, page 16), the closer the heel to the buttock, the more flexible the thigh.
    Step Test

    Ready, Set, Go!

    Medical check-ups and fitness testing can seem daunting, but they are usually the prelude to years of safe and enjoyable activity that brings enormous benefits, keeping you mobile, active, and young. Gaining strength, flexibility, endurance, and coordination empowers you to do the things you wish to do, giving you confidence and independence. It means moving better. Posture improves so that you stand taller and reach out farther. The body becomes toned and tauter. Fatigue is reduced and energy levels increase.
    These benefits by themselves are sufficient to promote the feel-good factor. There is, however, much, much more to be gained as your muscles, bones, heart, lungs, circulatory system, and body cells change in response to exercise. The efficiency and strength of muscles improve as the number of component muscle fibers rises; weight-bearing activities increase the density of bones, making them stronger and less prone to breakage; joints are more mobile; the heart and lungs become larger and stronger and better equipped to deal with the stress of modern living; and the skin improves with better circulation and respiration. Even the hormonal balance of the body is improved, bringing a tremendous sense of well-being.
    A: Sit-and-Reach Test
    B: Hamstring Test
    C: Shoulder Test
    D: Quadriceps Test

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