Health

Put Yourself to the Test

It's important to find — and fix — your weak spots before you get into shape

There is no one-size-fits-all definition of being “in shape.” Golfers and CrossFit fans will tell you that. But if you’ve set your mind on getting fit, it helps to know where you are on the fitness spectrum.

Enter Neal I. Pire, a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and president of Inspire Training Systems in New Jersey. Many of Pire’s clientele are what those in the fitness world call “de-conditioned” adults — aka, most of us. Pire says the point of measuring one’s strengths and weaknesses is to identify where you’re at, so you can set benchmarks for your progress.

“The best tests won’t emphasize a final score,” he says. “But they can be a stimulus to help you figure out how you can improve.”

The three tests below will help you determine your starting point. Follow Pire’s tips to boost your abilities, then retake the tests in six weeks to chart your progress. (The numbers for these tests are based on guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise and the YMCA.) Before you begin, be sure to get your doctor’s OK to exercise if you have a known health condition, such as hypertension or diabetes.

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TEST 1: PUSH-UPS

How: Do as many as you can in one minute without breaking proper form (drop your chest to about three inches from the floor). Women may do knee push-ups.

Why: Measures upper-body strength

Reading your results: Most men in their 40s will likely eek out between 20 and 30 solid push-ups; men in their 50s between 15 and 25; women in their 40s between 8 and 20; women in their 50s between 6 and 15. Anything above those high figures would be considered “good to excellent.”

Pire’s point: “Don’t get too hung up on the numbers — that holds true for any of these tests. Look at them as your beginning point, and as long as you improve, your plan is working.”

Give yourself a boost: Just keep trying, says Pire. Take away the timing element and try to do small sets of push-ups, such as 3 sets of 5 or 10, 3 times a week. If you’re struggling because of bad form (your butt’s in the air or you can barely bend your elbows), try doing them on an incline (hands on a step, chair or even against a wall).

TEST 2: CRUNCHES

How: Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor and your heels about 18 inches from your bottom. Keeping your hands flat on the floor beside your hips, contract your abs to raise your head and shoulders off the floor. With each crunch, you want your hands to slide forward about six inches. (If it helps, place a piece of tape on the floor six inches from your fingertips in the start position.) Do as many as you can, hitting the six-inch mark each time, in one minute.

Why: Measures all-important core strength

Reading your results: Congrats if you’ve completed 25 (for men 45 and up) or 15 (for women of the same ages). You’re a solid “good” in the crunches category. Any number higher would be considered “excellent.”

Pire’s point: “A strong core is the only thing that’s supporting your spine. You want to have good control over those muscles so that your back is protected, your posture is good and your balance is steady.”

Give yourself a boost: As with push-ups, toss out the timer and break up the test move into small sets. When that gets boring, he says, any variation of a crunch will get you where you’re going. In addition, do planks: Lie facedown on the floor with your feet just slightly apart and your hands near your shoulders; raise your body off the floor and support your body weight on your forearms and toes. (Hint: You want your body to look like a plank, hence the name.) Challenge yourself to hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds or as long as you can. Work your way up to the 3-minute mark.

TEST 3: STEP TEST

How: Using a sturdy step or box that is about 12 inches high, march up and down on the step to the beat of a metronome set at 96 beats per minute, for 3 minutes. (Go to http://www.metronomeonline.com for a free metronome.) When the time is up, sit down and count your pulse for one minute.

Why: Measures your cardiovascular fitness level based on how quickly your heart rate returns to normal after exercising (the fitter you are, the quicker your heart rate will recover)

Reading your results: Consider yourself on par with the masses if your pulse rate fell to between 103 and 111 for men ages 45 to 55; between 103 and 109 for men ages 56 to 65; between 113 and 118 for women 45 to 55; and 113 to 118 for women ages 56 to 65. Anything lower than those ranges would be considered “above average, good or excellent.”

Pire’s point: “Good aerobic fitness is important for your overall health, especially your heart health, and it also makes it easier for you to go about your day-to-day life, so you won’t get winded walking the stairs, working in the yard or carrying a load of laundry.”

Give yourself a boost (or in this case, a drop): Find an aerobic activity that you enjoy and just start moving more. “Chances are, if you don’t like your numbers in this category, you’re probably someone who doesn’t have a real exercise routine,” says Pire. “Here’s your motivation to start one.”

STRATEGIES FOR LONGTERM SUCCESS

* Set realistic goals — If you’re a stranger to exercise, don’t push yourself into an hour-plus workout. Instead, challenge yourself to exercise for 10 minutes a day for three weeks.

* Be deliberate with your progression — Once you’re comfortable with mini-sessions, gradually ramp up the intensity. For aerobic activities, add time and then distance to your workouts. With strength exercises, add repetitions and then weight.

* Consider hiring a coach — Even if you meet just a handful of times, a professional trainer can offer you valuable support and guidance. Find an ACSM certified pro here.

* Make this your mantraIt’s never too late to start moving more. “Once you start exercising,” says Pire, “within a couple of weeks you’ll feel better. From there, you’ll soon notice that you look better, that your weight has changed and that your lifestyle’s changed.”