The Best Physical Signs For Assessing Fitness

Vital Sign Measurement Can Help Determine Baseline Fitness

ER doctor talks with injured soccer player

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Vital signs are measurements of the body's most basic functions. The classic vital signs are blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature, which you would expect to have measured in a health checkup or when you are having a medical emergency. For fitness monitoring, there are a couple of other values that don't change as swiftly but are important indicators, your height and weight. The most common vital signs routinely monitored by medical professionals and fitness experts include the following:

Standing Height

Height is measured while standing tall with shoes off. It is used to determine if children are growing adequately and to determine if older individuals are developing bone loss, often related to osteoporosis.

Body Weight

Bodyweight in pounds or kilos is a simple measure that tells you your total body weight. This measurement is not necessarily helpful in determining your body composition or body fat or your fitness levels. Weight and height together can be used to determine a person's body mass index (BMI). While there are some limitations to the BMI measurement, it provides a good estimate of health risk that may be related to being overweight.

The best use of the scale is to track body weight over time. It is also helpful to determine your level of dehydration after a particularly tough or long training session. Just keep in mind that the scale doesn't distinguish between lean mass (muscle and bone) and fat.

Resting Heart Rate

Resting heart rate (RHR) is the number of times a person's heartbeats per minute while at rest. The best time to measure your resting heart rate is in the morning, after a good night's sleep, and before you get out of bed.

For most people, the heart beats about 60 to 80 times a minute at rest. RHR tends to increase with age. It also tends to be lower in physically fit people, because endurance training makes the heart stronger so it can pump more blood through the body with each contraction. The heart rate changes based upon the body's need for oxygen, most notably, during exercise.

Resting heart rate values:

  • Average resting heart rate = 72 bpm
  • Normal resting heart rate = 50 to 100 bpm
  • Physically fit resting heart rate = 50 to 65 bpm
  • Elite athlete resting heart rate = 40 to 50 bpm

Resting Blood Pressure

Blood moves through the body in small surges each time the heartbeats. Blood pressure is the force of the blood pushing against the artery walls as it circulates through the body.

The heart is a pump, and when it beats, it pushes blood into the arteries. This pumping action results in the highest pressure on the artery walls. This is the systolic blood pressure, and it is recorded as the top number in a blood pressure reading. Between heartbeats, the pressure on the artery walls decreases to its lowest point. This is the diastolic blood pressure, and it is recorded as the bottom number in a blood pressure reading.

High blood pressure readings often warn of increased cardiovascular disease risk. Optimal blood pressure is approximately 120/80 mm Hg. For those with a blood pressure of 140/90 or higher on at least two separate blood pressure measurements over time, your doctor may recommend treatment with exercise, lifestyle changes or medications.

Blood pressure values:

  • Low Risk = 120/80 mm Hg or lower
  • Moderate Risk = between 120/80 and 140/90
  • Increased Risk = 140/90 or greater on more than one test

Body Temperature

Normal body temperature varies quite a bit from person to person and depends on gender, recent activity, food and fluid consumption, time of day and hormones. Normal body temperature, according to the American Medical Association, can range from 97.8 degrees (36.5° Celsius) to 99 degrees (37.2° C). Body temperature may be high due to fever or low due to hypothermia.

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Article Sources
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  • MedlinePlus, Vital Signs, 1/18/2007
  • The American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary, 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.