How do you measure your fitness?

Photo by: Neringa Rekašiūtė

Photo by: Neringa Rekašiūtė

I’ve always been someone who has appeared “fit”. I have never been overweight, I have muscle tone (more now, than before), and have engaged in “working out” for many years. Everything from exercise videos to powerlifting. I started working out “formally” 16 years now, doing Cindy Crawford and Kathy Smith exercise videos before walking to school.

Yet, at times, while still working hard, I was not technically healthy and my body could not perform well in exercise, despite what appeared to be a lot of “fitness and healthy eating” work.

Changing programs or trying something new, still didn’t truly deliver the “fitness” I was envisioning. That vision was based on looking good, and feeling good when I looked good. When I thought I looked good I often didn’t feel good or could not maintain “looking good” (Skinny fat anyone? Tired? Underfed?).

My efforts were “right” in intent (I want to be healthy and care about my fitness) but more work or new and different work, often didn’t deliver better fitness. Fitness as a state of being, and of feeling. Some things would change for a short time, and then I would find myself repeating the battle in another way. Working hard often wasn’t working well. Working more often wasn’t working at all. Figuring out what to do became frustrating and took on a desperate quality I despised.

Effort and interest is the first half of the the “getting fit” battle. I fought that battle by learning to show up to exercise and sticking to plans and routines. That habit served me well. I don’t need to convince myself to engage in “fitness actions”. But, understanding my physiology, psychology and accurately measuring my physicality was the next part to get me working smart as well as hard.  I built the habit of “fitness” long ago, but as time went on, to keep fitness and increase it, meant I needed more understanding about how my body worked and I needed to switch strategies at the right time to maintain the overarching and unwavering goal; look good, feel good, perform good.

Many people engage in “fitness” activities to some degree but few people are truly fit. Why is that?  How do we measure our own fitness? What gives us the best “window” into the actual state of our health without needing a medical degree or much higher education? Weight lifted? Number on a scale? What we see in the mirror? How confident you feel on any given day? If health and fitness are words the are meant to convey a fuller picture of who you are physically and psychologically, then to be “fit” and to be “healthy” is something broad and comprehensive, and cannot be expressed through a singular measurement like a scale number or a certain appearance only. That will only be part of the whole picture; one data point. No one data point of fitness on it’s own is a reliable measurement of your “fitness” as a whole.

Try on these definitions:
Health is; mental and physical well-being, minimal disease and dysfunction and the presence of physical ease and function. Health is time-dependent. Your health will deteriorate to some degree as you age.

Fitness is; the ability of your body to survive and thrive physically as you age. Fitness is not time-dependent. You can be fit at any age.

These definitions I’ve come up with are not very elegant as of yet. Describing and defining something as complex as “health and fitness” is difficult. It involves so many variables. The best we can is to zoom out and see the bigger picture and think about the whole definition contained in those words, as we reflect on the parts that make up what we are attempting to describe; a state of being well and of getting better, respectful of time and regardless of time.

Before you consider what you need for better health and fitness, consider how you define health and fitness. Health is not only “abs” or “being 125 lbs”. Fitness cannot only be “being able to do more burpees” or “squatting my bodyweight”. Those are parts we measure to define the whole. They are incomplete and very fallible measurements of fitness on their own. Attempts at quantifying a state of fitness through one measurement, cannot tell us everything about the broad, general and complex phenomenon that is; good health and superior fitness.

Health and fitness, as terms, are often used independently of each other, but they overlap in definition and use. Like our body and brain, we often think of health and fitness as separate when they cannot truly ever be so.

Health includes physical fitness, and physical fitness leads to better health. Those who appear fittest are not necessarily healthy, and those who have good health don’t necessarily appear to be spectacularly fit. Health requires good habits mentally and physically. Increasing fitness requires appropriate exercise and recovery strategy. Physical fitness is a part of health and your overall health determines your ability to “get fitter”. So what are we aiming for? How do we measure our own fitness or know where to start?

Understanding and improving your own fitness starts with understanding how the body and brain work together, and how your nervous system works to direct the functioning of your body (“it”) and brain (“you”), and then to consider how YOUR nervous system works.

What we are measuring matters as much as how we are measuring it. There are reliable and simple tests that can clue us in to the true state of our baseline (current) fitness and give us a more accurate “snapshot measurement” of our nervous health and fitness abilities, than the weight scale or our “feelings”, regardless of appearances (“I can see abs but I have no energy”) or perceived effort (“But I work out all the time!”)

Underneath all the actions we do for our health and looks, is the functioning of our nervous system, directed by our brain, through which we stay alive and an active participant in our world. Without a nervous system, there is no life. Our nervous system holds the reins, but we choose the road. To disrespect the needs of our physiology is to disrespect ourselves.

As an example: Is a brain-dead person alive? No. Yet, technology can allow their body to “live” artificially through the use of machines, for as long as those machines stay connected to electricity. But without the brain and nervous system, there is no active “you”. Just a body left over. Your nervous system plugs you into actual life. It’s functioning, over time, decides how “healthy” or “fit” you are or can be, regardless of appearances or actions. It determines how well you age, and how healthy you stay as you age.

What does our nervous system respond to, adapt to, change for or regulate for? Stress.

Stress is not strictly negative “events” (My boyfriend yelled at me, or my dog died).

Stress is: the sum total of everything in your life acting on you, and you on it, internally and externally, either negatively (distress) or positively (eustress).  Stress is not only *bad things*. Stressors are what is in your life. Positive stress means that after the stress, we adapt to BETTER. Negative stress means that after the stress, we adapt to WORSE.

Exercise is a NEGATIVE stress for the muscles and nervous system that results in POSITIVE adaptations, or so we hope. But exercise can also be a NEGATIVE stress that results in NEGATIVE adaptations over time (joint pain, less energy, “I feel bulky”, “I can lift but not climb stairs”, etc). If you have the wrong exercise strategy for your needs, no amount of work will change that fact.

Working hard for your fitness should result in positive adaptations for your fitness. If the amount of work you do does not result in the amount of progress you seek, it is usually a matter of a lack of education and/or a lack of a strategy that suits you; as a person, as “a” nervous system. To get fitter, you must get what you want from the work you put in, or the work is not the right work.

Exercise is DIStress (bad) to our muscles and heart. But the result (IF we recover) is positive; EUstress (good). Allowing us to handle more negative physical stress next time, and adapt again. Laying on the couch watching Netflix when we “should” be going to bed earlier is EUstress (it feels good) tthat results in a DIStressful adaptation; we are fatigued the next day (we feel bad).

What about aging though? Surely we can’t adapt positively forever?

Yes and no. Death and aging are inevitable. But we have a large amount of control over how fast or slow we, (our cells, nervous systems, skeletons, organs etc) age and how we age.

We know from research and from experience that we have immense control over the quality of our lives physically and psychologically.

Death is inevitable, poor quality of life and health is not. You will not maintain the same TYPE of fitness you had in youth (a sprinter will not sprint as fast as he once sprinted when he gets old). Even the most genetically blessed will not out-work aging. You will slow down, your joints will deteriorate in quality, your cells will regenerate slower, your heart will get weaker. To what degree, is often very much in your control (barring severe medical conditions).

Progress can always be made, if we respect where we are, how we got to this point in time, and commit to the idea that progress is always possible when strategy and physiology are respected. How well you handle physical stress is dependent, first and foremost, on the functioning of your nervous system.

This is a principle of fitness.

Your nervous system is the “machine” the stressors in your life are fed into. It is the processor of our actions, environmental influences, and conscious choices. We are always adapting in some way at all times. We are either speeding up death and decay, or slowing it down. The health of your nervous system, and through that your physical and mental health, is determined by how well you keep up with your needs. And how well you understand those needs at different times in your life.

Our nervous system filters what happens in our lives (stressors) and directs our choices (unconsciously or consciously) and the state of our body at any given time (sickness or health, fitness or fatigue, high energy or low energy). Our bodies, biologically, don’t “care” about the schedules we impose on ourselves (late night drinks often? 12 hour work days? poor sleep habits? weekend couch crashing? fighting with our loved ones?). Our physiology responds to our schedules and our habits, always attempting to bring us to balance, known as homeostasis.

We are dependent on our nervous system to function as a living being. The health of our nervous system depends on how we choose to live our lives.

Our bodies are complex. Our brains are complex. We are not even close to knowing all there is to know about how our bodies and brains work. How they respond, adapt and grow to what is without (environment, other people, where we live). Yet, we can have a “peek”, so to speak, into how well our nervous system functions in our present, in several simple and reliable ways for the purpose of discovering our current state of fitness or overall health.

Two simple measurements supported by research, usable by ANYONE, that can help us accurately measure the current state of our fitness and our “nervous health” are:

Resting heart rate – Your resting heart rate is the easiest and most accessible way to peek into your personal stress “style”.
A lower resting heart rate is currently considered better for overall health (1,2,3) but it doesn’t mean unequivocally that you are fit. Your resting heart rate tells you first about how you handle stress physically and how you tend to react to stressors in your environment.

Your heart rate changes often, sometimes minute to minute (have someone scare you, and your heart rate will shoot up). Your resting heart rate, taken first thing in the morning, after prolonged physical rest, is a fairly accurate view of how you process stress in general. Higher resting heart rates are associated with more risk for your health and a greater risk of death across many population studies (3,4). There is much support for resting heart rate as a prognostic tool (5). That means it can tell us something important, but it cannot in of itself, tell us all. Not everything, but something. Something important. That something is how you tend to respond to stress in general. The most common description of this is “a type A person”. Bet you’ve heard that one before. A higher resting heart rate is correlated pretty strongly with higher levels of anxiety or poor stress management.

Note: there is much research support on this, and it is a fairly uncontested claim per research, so far. I have not listed as many papers that *could* be listed on heart rate and maximum isometric contractions as a measurement of strength, because I am not presenting a new claim in any way, but one well-established, currently.
A maximum isometric contraction – This is well-known in sport as your “one rep max”. How well you can voluntarily contract all your muscles to overcome resistance. Most general populations exercising for health and fitness cannot use a barbell lift to test their one rep max effort. Testing someone in something they cannot do well, will not give you an accurate picture of their starting point. The test will not fit the testee (is that a word?). If someone is learning form, or has not trained a movement (squat, bench, deadlift, clean and jerk or snatch) enough with high enough quality, their “one rep max” does not yet exist to be tested.

A max isometric plank with good form (no hunching, no sagging, no head bobbing….) is a much better tool for testing “max strength” for any average person. The inability to do a plank will also say much about structural and postural endurance; how well you can place your body in the “right” stable position to perform the plank. Simple tests can tell much. Simple tests must allow us to deduct certain conclusions as close to as accurately as possible.

No one test or measurement can tell us everything. But better testing gives us better information to work with.

Most people, exercising for fitness, cannot use a max squat (or other lift) as an accurate measure of their “max strength”, until they learn those lifts and learn them with a high enough degree of quality. That takes time. Accurately measuring your strength progress starts with understanding what the minimum requirements for strength should be.

Putting yourself on the path to better fitness starts with accurate knowledge about where you are starting from.

Your nervous system and brain control your muscles and how hard they can contract at any given time. Losing fat, looking good and getting strong, starts with caring about the health of your nervous system.

Your ability to lift, run, explode, last longer, bend, twist, etc is developed through training. But your training quality is only as good as your “nervous” quality over days, months and years.

It is pretty safe to say that those who are more athletic, function physically at a higher level. You could say they have “higher functioning nervous systems” to whatever degree their sport demands of their muscles, movement and skeletal structure.

Developing fitness is not at the mercy of age or ability. Fitness; how well you respond to the physical demands that occur in your life and how well your body maintains the ability to do work (exercise, get off your toilet, climb stairs, pick up your kid, play beach volleyball, do a clean).

When we want to be fitter, essentially we want our body to function better. If want to be stronger, we want our muscles to work better. If we want to lose fat, we want our metabolism to work better.

Getting fitter means getting better somehow. But doing more of anything without knowing what you need to do, can lead to spinning your wheels.

Physical performance and looking good, start with good health.

The starting point of finding what you need to get fitter, is knowing the current health of your nervous system, and knowing how you handle stress.

Resting heart rate gives you a peek into your style of stress management

A Max isometric contraction (with proper form or it doesn’t count) gives you a peek into current physical ability; how well your muscles and skeletal structure (posture, balance, good form) handle physical work.

To know what to do, you need to know where to start.

Shameless self-promotion: If you like what you read here, and think my coaching style might suit you, I will be re-starting my small group coaching online in the new year. If fat loss and great exercise form are your goals, the first round of group coaching will be focused on helping you individualize your strategy to suit your body’s needs and learn to exercise and lift really well. Shoot me an email @ and I’ll add you to the list to be notified. 







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