Starting a fitness program without testing your fitness level is like beginning a journey without knowing exactly where you and having no map to guide you to your destination. Fitness testing establishes your starting point. Plotting out check points along your fitness pathway can direct you toward achieving both short-term and long-term goals.
Seven reasons for fitness testing before and during your exercise program are to:
1. Establish your baseline. When you know initial fitness status, you know how far you have to go to reach your goals. Testing helps you set specific, achievable yet challenging goals with realistic target dates.
2. Compare yourself to others. Many tests are standardized. They provide norms, so you know where you stand in relationship to the “average” person’s score.
3. Individualize your program. Knowing your fitness level springs you out of the one-size-fits-all exercise mold and jumpstarts your personalized, streamlined training path.
4. Know how hard to work. You can estimate your optimum training range using maximum or predicted maximum fitness scores. For most phases of training, exercise intensity is typically performed within a target zone of 60-85% of your maximum cardio or strength level.
5. Evaluate your progress. When you measure your progress regularly, you can see how far you have advanced from your baseline fitness level. Each milestone that you achieve is a great confidence booster that propels you on toward your goals.
6. Revise your program. Regular fitness evaluations indicate areas where you are make great strides, and other areas that demand more emphasis. Intermittent testing drives data-driven decisions, eliminating much of the guesswork about how to adjust your program to keep you on target.
7. Achieve your goals. The concrete path set by the fitness score patterns leads you on a nonstop journey to your final fitness destination. Once you achieve your goals, continued testing helps monitors your fitness level maintenance.
While some assessments are more complex, many fitness tests are simple to conduct. For example, your resting heart rate (RHR) is an indicator of cardiovascular fitness. As you exercise, your heart gains the capacity to pump more blood with each stroke, so it beats fewer times per minute. Take your pulse as soon as you wake up in the morning and note the weekly changes over time.
For weight loss, use an online calculator to estimate your body mass index, an indicator of body fat based on height and weight. Online calculators (i.e., basal energy expenditure and physical activity calculators) can also estimate the number of calories you expend each day. This allows you to more accurately plan exercise activities and food intake over time. Remember, every 3500-calorie deficit equals one pound of body fat loss.
For strenuous performance tests, it is not advisable to attempt maximum efforts before you have completed a conditioning phase, unless you are supervised by a health professional. For strength, use submaximal attempts (e.g., maximum weight lifted for 5 or 10 repetitions). For cardio, use a calculator (or the Karvonen formula) to determine your maximum predicted heart rate based on age.
Treat test results as estimates–not absolutes. All measurements are subject to error. Look for consistencies and trends over time. Do not be discouraged by minor deviations in your scores that may well be due to testing error.
Keep a journal to record your quantitative (numeric) test scores, as well as qualitative results—your perceptions and observations about exercising. You can accelerate progress toward your goals when you (a) follow your fitness testing mile markers, (b) listen to your body, and (c) revise your training program accordingly.