• What our fitness tests look like – and why you need one!

    Fitness testing

     

    Our comprehensive Fitness Assessment is THE best way to start a new fitness program. We strongly believe you need to know where your fitness is RIGHT NOW, so you can draw a line in the sand and decide: “That’s it – from now on I am getting fitter.” If you’re serious about exercise then you have to measure your fitness level at the start of your journey, then at regular intervals as you go along, to chart your progress.

    Here at The Fitness Factory the level of personal attention and care that you receive is in a totally different league to what you get from large, impersonal, multi-national gym chain corporations; you get even less at shabby local leisure centers. To them you’re just client number 12542, Direct Debit ref: XF4-TG-45.

    To comply with Health & Safety laws on your first day at traditional gyms you will receive a so-called “induction”. This is usually a perfunctory 10-minute overview of the facility and equipment. If you’re very lucky they might give you a blank card on which you can write your own program down as you go along. After that you’re on your own.

    It’s no wonder that within 12 weeks of starting a new gym membership 75% of members stop attending, yet they have to keep paying their fees for the rest of the year.

    Those that do make it through their first year may – or may not – renew their membership, but even after showing loyalty to their gym they still won’t know whether they have improved or not, and they still have no idea by how much their performance has changed, if at all. Apart from highly subjective self-assessments like “I’ve lost around a stone” or “my clothes feel looser” they really have no idea if their program is working, or if they are wasting their money and time.

    Fitness assessments: Why? How? When? Who for?

    At The Fitness Factory we take a completely different approach. We get to know each and every one of our clients. We greet them by name each time they walk through the door. We understand their injuries and physical limitations. We assess their current level of fitness and discuss their short, medium and long-term fitness goals.

    The way customers get to know us, and we them, is through our fitness testing program.

    ALL newcomers are offered a free fitness assessment on day one. Annual re-testing is then also free for all priority members, and available at reduced personal training rates for voucher members.

    It is only through this regular testing and re-testing that we scientifically and empirically PROVE to you that you are getting fitter. Not just approximately how much, but EXACTLY how much fitter.

    Are you on target? Ahead? Behind? Do you need to up your game or can you afford to coast along on two sessions per week? Our testing gives you all this information and helps both to motivate you and keep you on track.  The rest of this article explains what we test, how we do it, and what we aim to discover and reveal to us both about your basic health and fitness levels.

    Pre-Activity Readiness Questionnaire – PAR-Q

    Before starting any test or conducting any exercise at The Fitness Factory, we require you to fill out a “medical history” kind of questionnaire. So if you suffer severe hypertension (high blood pressure) and your BP is above 150/100 we may need to refer you back to your GP for written permission to carry on, maybe suggesting a review of any medications you’re on.

    For 99% of all other cases we are qualified to assess your answers and if any “YES” answer is noted, to ask you about it. For example, if you tick that you have asthma it would not preclude you from working out, but we might verify you had a Ventolin aspirator on you at all times. Or if we noted you had Type I diabetes, we would ask about your insulin hypos and glucose supplements.

    Cancer, epilepsy, arthritis and a thousand other ailments need not stop you. We have members that have safely trained through all this. Other things that could cause us to pause and ask you about include pregnancy, but here too it need not preclude you from exercise – we simply need to know. As it happens, over the last 12 years we have had more than 20 babies at the Fitness Factory! In most cases the women worked out up to month 7 or 8 of their pregnancy and came back to us 3 or 4 months after birth. Nothing like a good spin class to burn off some pregnancy fat!

    We have only ever had to refer a handful of new members back to their GPs before they could start, and of those all but one came back with a consent letter, and all have made huge progress in their fitness and health profile.

    Physiological Changes – Measurable Fitness Improvements

    Exercising causes the body to change. You begin to feel stronger, more capable, more self-assured. We experience improved fitness at the emotional level as our confidence levels grow with our self-esteem and body-image. These are perhaps the most important rewards we receive from exercising, but they are subjective perceptions – not easy to measure or empirically quantify.

    There are many physiological markers that denote improved fitness that can be measured, but most require specialist equipment and/or laboratory analysis so are inappropriate tests for The Fitness Factory. It is of interest to note, however, that physical changes go WAY beyond merely losing weight or “toning up”. For completeness, here is a partial list that we will cover in a future blog:

    Neuronal Improvement (N) Increased motor neurone-to-muscle synapses improve co-ordination/recruitment.

    Acid metabolism (A) Increased tolerance and metabolysis of lactate. Measurable improvement is seen in a users’ Anaerobic Threshold. The AT threshold is a heart rate / effort level above which lactate starts building up sharply and is a major performance-limiting factor.

    Energy Pathways (E) The body learns to burn fuels more efficiently while our cellular energy factories, called mitochondria, multiply.

    Vascularization (V) Capillary growth within the muscle improves flow of blood/oxygen/fuel to the muscles and improves the removal of lactic acid and other exercise metabolites from the muscle.  

    Heart muscle and arteries (H) Strengthening of the heart increases cardiac output, while flexible, unclogged arteries transport more blood to the muscles.

    Pulmonary (P) Strengthening the breathing muscles (diaphragm and intercostals) improves our lung volume (tidal volume) and capillary growth in the lungs improves gas exchange.

    Vo2 MAX (Vo2) An improvement is measurable in the amount of oxygen an athlete can absorb at peak effort. Vo2 MAX is linked to the concurrent improvements in measures E, V, H and P above.

    Connective Consolidation (C) Strengthening ligaments, tendons, and their attachments to the bones helps to stabilize joints and reduce injury.

    Bone Mineral Density (B) Increased density of bone and strengthening of soft-tissue attachment points.

    Muscle Hypertrophy (M) Increased number and thickness of actin / myosin strands within the muscle.

    Spindle response (S) Habituation of muscle spindle (propriocepting neurone) for greater flexible range.

    Each on its own is a desirable goal to attain for any user, in any shape, at any age, and with whatever physical limitations. Improving all of those items means you will live longer, heal quicker, be healthier and stronger, and enjoy better quality of life at each of its various stages.

    These physiological changes happen as a direct result of exercising in a variety of different ways. I will refer to them again in a paper discussing how the different types of exercise we offer (for example Boogie Bike, Pilates, and BodySculpt) all affect the body in different positive ways, each touching upon some of the above. By doing a few of all three types of class you would be covering all of them. Watch this space for further blogs!

    HEART RATE TESTING

    What IS available for us to test is your Heart Rate response. In a nutshell, for any given effort, someone with a good level of fitness will display a lower heart rate than someone less fit. Monitoring over time how your Heart Rate response becomes lower for a pre-set challenge, proves and validates your fitness improvement. The rest of this article explores how we test you at The Fitness Factory.

    Sub-Maximal Fitness Testing

    For newcomers and experienced athletes alike, the safest, quickest, most repeatable, most revealing and least-taxing form of fitness test is sub-maximal i.e. BELOW your maximum fitness capacity.

    Clearly it would be dangerous and irresponsible for us to subject newcomers to maximal fitness tests. They are a completely different beast! We do perform them with a small sub-section of our elite athletes, but being all-out measurements of their maximum performance, this is a grueling and painful process. Doing this to a newcomer could put them off, maybe forever, and would have a strong risk of causing injury. As such we keep the effort level in our testing well below 100%, hence the “SUB” maximal prefix.

    Current Heart Rate v. Maximum Heart Rate Estimate

    Note the word “estimate” above: in order to safeguard newcomers’ safety we need to find a way of estimating their Maximum Heart Rate without undergoing a maximal fitness test. It’s against this number that we compare all Heart Rate (HR) readings taken in the test. The universally agreed formula used to estimate users’ Max HR differs between male and females.

    For women the formula for Max HR is: 226 – Age.

    For men the formula for Max HR is: 220 – Age.

    Armed with this number we lend you a HR monitor (HRM), which becomes a kind of window into your body, telling us how hard your heart is working at that moment.

    There are then three sets of readings we take of your HR: before, during and after exercise.

    Part 1 – Before Exercise – Resting HR versus Maximum HR

    Your HR at rest already tells us a great deal about your fitness and we haven’t even started moving yet! In fact we sit you down for ten whole minutes before starting, to give your HR the chance to settle down from its slightly elevated state from arriving, changing and coming up the stairs.

    We need to observe your HR quietly ticking along as we chat. For newcomers, the time is spent explaining the conduct of the test going forwards. For repeat tests, we chat about anything at all!

    The reason your HR at rest is indicative of fitness is that as you train over the years your heart muscle becomes stronger, the heart walls become thicker, and with each heartbeat your fitter heart pumps out more blood that it did before. This is called your heart’s STROKE VOLUME, which increases with fitness. Each heartbeat puts out more blood, so as your fitness improves your resting HR goes down.

    For example, my resting HR this morning was 45 beats per minute (BPM), nice and slow. Compare this with the resting HR of a client we tested recently: 85 bpm. It is immediately obvious that my heart is doing much less work than hers, even while at rest.

    Another reason resting HR could be elevated is if you’re overweight, which often goes hand in hand with being unfit. Having a layer of fat round the body requires it to grow thousands of extra miles of capillary blood vessels, just to keep this useless fat alive. Capillaries are extremely narrow vessels, thinner than your hair, so the heart needs to work much harder than it should have to, just to pump blood and oxygen round the extra pointless miles of narrow pipework.

    Many of the ailments arising from being overweight are caused by this extra strain on your CV system, including hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes. That is one of the main benefits of exercising and losing weight: both help you to reduce your resting HR and give your heart muscle a much easier time keeping you alive and well.

    We compare your HR at rest as a percentage of your MAX HR Estimate to yield the following results:

    Resting HR as % of Max HR Result

    Less than 30% Excellent

    30-40% Good

    40-50% Average

    Over 50% Poor

    These measurements are highly individualized, and specific to the gender, age and fitness level of the newcomer.  Just by wearing an HRM for ten minutes, sitting down to chat with me, and already I know A LOT about your fitness level and we haven’t even really got going yet!

    Part 2 – During Exercise: Peak HR versus Maximum HR

    Our test protocol is very simple: three minutes of a standardised, mild fitness challenge, during which we take readings of your HR every 30 seconds. We can then plot these on a graph to display your results as below. We lay out a Reebok Deck which is an 8-inch exercise platform on to which you step up and down. The rhythm is 64 bpm, so you are performing 192 transitions from up to down and back up again. That’s approximately like going up 8 flights of steps, assuming 12 steps per storey. Using rhythm this way allows us to repeat the test any time, EXACTLY the same. That’s the basic principle that underlies the scientific method: tests must be repeatable and test conditions must be identical each time.

    For somebody young and slim this test is very easy. For somebody less young and less slim, it can be a bit more of a challenge. For someone severely overweight or obese, the test could be a huge task sometimes too much. The protocol allows us to measure and test a wide range of different users’, at different ages and different fitness profiles, yet the results are universally applicable and individually specific.

    Obviously a trained athlete would hardly break into sweat going up 8 flights of stairs. Equally obviously, a 70-year-old with 30 spare kilos (four stone+) would struggle to complete the three-minute challenge. For someone like this, our sub-maximal test could all too easily turn into a full-on MAXIMAL test.

    For the reasons stated above we cannot risk this, so we clearly explain and establish the ground rules before the outset: if you are over 65 and/or obese and/or hypertensive, when or if your peak HR breaches 90% of your Estimated Max HR we immediately STOP the test and let you sit to recover. The rest of the test is then cancelled. We cannot take a risk with your health, so interrupting the test at 90% is a safety measure. 90% or more is indicative of “Poor” fitness. For those under 65, and without medical issues, breaching 90% Max HR need not terminate the test, but still results in a “Poor” test score result.

    Peak HR as % of Max HR Result

    Less than 70% Excellent

    70-80% Good

    80-90% Average

    Over 90% Poor

    The concept is simple: if you are fit, a given challenge will exert you less than if you are unfit. Less exertion means lower HR, so measuring your HR during exercise is the most expedient and scientifically accurate way of assessing your performance against a standardized and repeatable test.

    Part 3 – After Exercise: Initial (Resting) HR versus Final HR (at six min)

    Finally, after the three minutes of exercise are finished, we sit back down again and observe your recovery. For us, that is one of the clearest indications of your fitness improvement: being able to recover is the hallmark of the trained athlete. At the biological level, what is happening is that your body produces Lactic Acid during exercise. As this accumulates in your bloodstream, your brain makes your heart and lungs pump harder. At the same time, your liver begins to break it down, and Carbon Dioxide (Co2) and water are exhaled as you pant, gradually lowering your blood acidity and returning to normal.

    Your ability to metabolise lactate (break it down) improves with training, so the speed with which your HR returns to normal is highly indicative of your fitness status. The trouble is we only give you three minutes to recover – the same time you exercised for. Most people (and nearly ALL newcomers) fail to recover to the same low resting HR at which they began the test. The question we seek to answer is this: how close to your original Resting HR can you get in three minutes of recovery?

    Initial HR v Final HR as % Result

    Over 90% Excellent

    80-90% Good

    70-80% Average

    Less than 70% Poor

    That’s it! In six minutes we have measured three different aspects of your fitness – your Resting HR, your Peak HR, and your Recovery HR, all of which are indicative of different elements of your cardiovascular (CV or aerobic) fitness. The beauty of this test protocol is that once explained and performed for the first time, repeat tests only take six minutes plus five minutes of rest at the outset.

    Repeating the test each year provides you with a graphical, scientifically accurate measurement of your fitness improvement. See below for an example of the graph that is produced on your test sheet, that we email you and print off as a souvenir of your test. Observing this graph, you can see how over the years the test subject HR values have DROPPED across the board. Note in particular how in her first test, she failed to recover fully, and her HR was still rising sharply, whereas in her third test she recovered fully with 90 seconds to spare, and her HR curve was FLAT.

    This indicates she was metabolizing (breaking down) Lactate at the same speed at which her body was making it. I.e. she had reached an excellent level of fitness, and this mild form of testing was no longer taxing her at all – she could have continued stepping up and down and her HR would have stayed flat.

    Heart rate improvement over three years

     

     

    Other tests on day 1

    There are five other measurements we take on your first test: before starting we measure your Blood Pressure (we always do this for those over 65, and for anyone else that indicates medical hypertension on their Par-Q). Then after the Sub-Max cardio test we measure your height (in centimeters) and your weight (in kilograms). From this we can work out your Body Mass Index (BMI). Still on the weighing scales, our special machine then measures your body fat percentage, which is a different and far more relevant number than BMI alone, which can sometimes be a crude and misleading measure when taken in isolation. Finally, we test your flexibility, one of the “S” (Suppleness) of your 5-S Fitness Profile (see previous blog post).

    Body Mass Index and Body Composition (Fat %)

    There is a lot of misunderstanding around this subject, perhaps because in Britain people are still uncomfortable with kilos and centimeters. Nevertheless, it’s a global and standardised metric which expresses the relationship between your height and weight as a number. If this number is bigger than 25, you are medically overweight. If this number if greater than 30 you are medically obese. If it’s greater than 35 you are medically referred to as morbidly obese.

    The word “obese” itself is highly stigmatised, however it should not be – it’s no different to “diabetic”, “asthmatic”, “cancer sufferer” or “alcoholic”. It is a form of illness. Obesity in our view is just as much a psychological illness (with the person’s relationship to food) as it is a physical one, and we don’t judge people when their BMI is over 35 – we want to help them, are able to, and the only thing needed is commitment and desire to change.

    Below are three charts showing the relationship between height, weight and BMI of three imaginary people: Man2, Lady2, and Man3, illustrating how the relationship between height and weight can be viewed and showing in one case how BMI is misleading and ought never to be considered in isolation without also looking at the person’s Fat Percentage as well.

    Body Mass Index examples

    As you can see the BMI / Height / Weight and Fat % values for all three people vary considerably.

    It is interesting to note how both Man2 and Lady2 have normal BMI values (i.e. lower than 25, higher than 19) however even though Man2’s BMI is higher (23.9) than Lady2 (21.08), he is actually carrying less fat (12.5% versus 28.5%). It is perfectly normal and very common for women’s Fat % to be higher than men’s, often considerably higher, but that is a biological reality. As such we assign different targets for men and women to aspire to. For men who are overweight we initially target a reduction down to 20% Body Fat. For women the initial target number is 25%.

    Note also how Man3 has a BMI of 35.38. That would make him medically MORBIDLY OBESE! He is the same height as Lady2, yet is 38kg heavier. However if you take note of his Body Fat, which is just 4%, making this man out as a body-builder i.e. very (VERY) muscular and with almost no fat on him whatsoever (just shy of 4 kg). Although he is 38kg heavier than Lady2 and 13kg heavier than Man2 he has only a fraction of their fat. These are great examples of how important it is to measure both BMI and Body Fat %, since either one taken in isolation could be deeply misleading.

    Flexibility Test

    Finally, we measure your flexibility. There are dozens of joints and muscles in your body we could choose to test so we plumped for just two – the lower back / hamstring complex. The 30-second test sits you on the floor with your feet against a graduated scale, and you push a marker away from you. If you were standing it would be akin to trying to touch your toes. If you are nicely flexible, you might be able to place both palms flat on the floor: this in our test would be like pushing the marker beyond the 15cm offset the equipment is built to. In other words, after 15cm your fingers are penetrating an imaginary floor. We have recorded values between 0cm to over 30cm, which we then refer to an age (and gender) chart from which we read out your flexibility rating using the same crude markers already mentioned: Excellent, Good, Average or Poor.

    That’s it!

    This initial test routine takes just under one hour, needing over 20 minutes to explain the first time only – subsequent re-tests take just 11 minutes.

    Monthly weigh-ins (and measurement of BMI / Fat%) are encouraged and we log these electronically for you on your personalised program chart. Annual retesting is also encouraged.

    Considering how important it is to be fit and healthy, going about it in a methodical, scientific, repeatable and time-efficient manner is the best way to stay on track, keep you motivated and keep you progressing.

    So, to conclude; in answer to the questions at the head of this blog – Fitness Assessments. Why? How? When? Who for?”

    Why? – They keep you motivated, chart your progress, and give you direction

    How? – Easy! See above!

    When? – 60min on day 1, then 11 min once (or twice) a year!

    Who For? – Easy – EVERYBODY!! 16 to 80+. Safe, simple, and hugely informative!

    The next article will be about spinning and what to expect from your first class. Watch this space!  

    Appendix 1

    Fitness Test example results

    The above is an Excel spreadsheet showing test protocol and results example (name changed to protect anonymity). This is the outcome of our fitness test and is what we email electronically and hand out to you – as a souvenir – and update annually.

     

     

     

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