Does fitness matter?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

June 2008

The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports believes that it does. But does it matter to you?

Living the life of a couch potato seems painless because the effects of a lack of exercise are so subtle and so drawn out that most persons don't recognize them until it's too late. For instance, if you strapped a 30-pound sack of sand around your waist before breakfast you'd be sore and tired by bedtime. Do that for a couple of days and your knees and back would be crying for relief. When you add one pound a year for 30 years the discomfort accumulates slowly but the end results are the same.

The President's Council has unveiled a fitness test that is simple but it addresses the factors that lead to premature disability from heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis and a host of other problems that make aging so uncomfortable. These include blindness, dementia and osteoporosis. The tests measure body composition, aerobic capacity (how well your heart and lungs work), muscle strength and flexibility. The good news is that no matter how poorly you do in these measurements you can improve your results — and slow down or avoid all the conditions I mentioned above — without becoming a fitness fanatic.

Any web browser will take you to the Adult Fitness Challenge where you'll find the really simple guidelines. You can enter the results online and find out how you compare with the rest of Americans who have taken the test.

Body composition is based on BMI (Body Mass Index) and waist circumference. A high BMI usually is a tattle-tale for high body fat but a muscular athlete can also have a high BMI. Waist circumference reveals the truth: if it's big, it ain't muscle. (You can calculate your BMI in seconds at the Centers for Disease Control web site, www.cdc.gov.)

The aerobic portion of the test consists of a one-mile walk or a 1.5 mile run. Simple push-ups and half sit-ups make up the strength test.

There's no passive pathway to aerobic fitness and muscle strength but it only takes about half an hour devoted to each most days of the week to get there. The payoff is enormous even if you don't get back to what you weighed in high school. As your fitness improves so will your blood pressure, a major factor in heart attack and stroke. When your body fat (as measured by BMI) and waist circumference get smaller so will your risk of type 2 diabetes. Even if your blood sugar is a little out of wack (prediabetes) it's less likely that you'll develop the worst complications of this disease, blindness, kidney failure and leg amputation.

Flexibility is another component of the President's Council test. It will get better as your overall fitness improves but you do need to work at it. Even regular exercisers usually ignore stretching though it only takes about 5 minutes and should always be part of your workout or walk. It's a mistake to stretch before exercising because without warming up you risk damage to tendons and ligaments and it just isn't comfortable.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.