Baseline Measurements Before Starting a Fitness Progam

Impressive jump!

Before beginning or modifying a fitness program, it’s important to take some baseline physical measurements.  Re-measure periodically.  That way you’ll know whether you’re making progress, holding steady, or regressing.  Seeing improvement in the numbers also helps to maintain motivation.   

Not taking measurements would be like starting a weight loss plan without a baseline and subsequent weights.

Around this time last year, I finished a home-based, 15-week, six-days-a-week fitness program called Core Performance, designed by Mark Verstegen.  I was pleased with the results.  The only problem is that it’s very time-consuming.  Perhaps fitness just has to be that way.

I regret that I didn’t take any fitness measurements before and after starting Core Performance.

For much of the last year, I modified Core Performance to a thrice weekly, then twice weekly program, until a couple months ago when I pretty much abandoned it.  I miss the benefits now, but just didn’t want to put in the time to achieve them.  In other words, I lost my motivation.

Who needs this much flexibility?

Intellectually, I know that regular exercise is important.  I’m starting to get motivated again.  Not sure why.  Perhaps because I’ve read that you can be fairly fit with as little as 30 minutes of exercise a week.  I’m not convinced yet.  I’ll be test-driving some of these time-efficient programs soon.

This new style of fitness is promoted by the likes of Dr. Doug McGuff, Chris Highcock, Skyler Tanner, Nasim Taleb,  and Jonathan Bailor, among others.

What to Measure

  1. Weight
  2. Blood pressure
  3. Resting heart rate (first thing in the AM before getting out of bed)
  4. Waist circumference (upright and supine)
  5. Height
  6. Body mass index
  7. Mid-arm circumference, both arms, hanging relaxed at your sides
  8. Maximal calf circumference, both calves, while standing at ease
  9. Maximum number of consecutive pull-ups
  10. Maximum number of consecutive push-ups
  11. Maximum number of consecutive sit-ups
  12. Run/walk one mile as fast as you can
  13. Maximum vertical jump (stand by a tall wall then jump and reach up as high as you can with one arm, noting the highest point above ground your fingers can reach)
  14. Can you touch your toes?  Stand up straight, locking knees in extension, then bend over at your waist and touch your toes with your fingertips.  If you can touch toes, can you flatten your palms against the floor?  If you can’t reach your toes, measure the distance from your fingertips to the floor.
  15. Optional blood work for special situations: fasting blood sugar, hemoglobin A1c, triglycerides, cholesterols (total, HDL, LDL, sub-fractions)

The particular aspects of fitness these measure are strength and endurance in major muscle groups, cardiovascular and pulmonary endurance, a little flexibility, and a hint of body composition. 

You may appreciate an assistant to help you measure some of these.

Record your numbers.  Re-test some or all of these periodically.  If you’re in fairly poor condition at the outset, you’ll see some improved numbers after a couple or three weeks of a good exercise program.  It takes months to build significant muscle mass; you’ll see improved strength and endurance before mass. 

Am I missing anything?

Steve Parker, M.D. 

Update April 4, 2012:  I added the sit-ups today after finding out that’s one of the measurements the U.S. Army monitors in soldiers twice yearly.

11 responses to “Baseline Measurements Before Starting a Fitness Progam

  1. I was just interested in increasing my basic fitness level and have never been concerned with optimization. I did some initial measurements when I started to exercise seriously and diet going from a BMI of 29.0 to 20.2 and having my fitness level improve dramatically. I’ve been holding weight and becoming a bit more fit for three years now but this involves about 90 minutes of aerobics five or six times a week and shorter ten minute resistive sessions a few times a week – along with replacing my noon hour in a lunch room with an hour walk with my lunch.

    For me it was important not to get involved in tracking and optimizing – it would have been too diverting in my case. The best thing I did was to use a trainer who came up with the program setting exercise goals. She updates these along the way. This isn’t constant trainer use – I hire her four or five times a year for progress and goal setting. Some of the best money I’ve spent.

    The numbers from tests for my annual physicals have improved dramatically.

    So I may be obsessive about doing the exercise, but not about measurements and results – those just come.

  2. steve, that’s an impressive amount of exercise. You can see and feel results without compulsive measurements.

    Like most people, I’ll never do that much exercise at my age, 57.

    I just discovered that I can no longer bend over and touch my toes like I could four months ago (thanks to Verstegen’s program). I miss them by 23 cm now. I’m not sure how much I’m willing to work to get that flexibility back.

    I’m more concerned with efficiency than optimization. I’d be satisfied with 75% of maximal total benefit if I can achieve it in 30-60 minutes a week.

    The proposed measurements are just suggestions, of course. For a minimalist, I’d just do the functional testing: 1-mile run/walk, max number of push-ups and pull-ups, etc.

  3. For what its worth I’m 59. A good deal of my motivation came from studies on why dieting fails and everyone, including my primary care physician, telling me that I would probably fail. It took about six months to build up to the time I spend and, with time shifting using my iPod and getting my main exercise done before breakfast, I find it isn’t a terrific burden.

    It is undoubtedly non-optimal, although my coach has given me a path to progress and I’m still improving – albeit slowly. I probably am in the best shape I’ve been in since I was in college 35 years ago. That is a nice reward. It has the added benefit of keeping me at my target weight, which is something I’m sure I would have failed at without a radical approach like this.

    It may not be that radical from the standpoint of the activity levels our bodies regularly did during pre industrial times. The amount of physical work I do is nothing when compared with the physical effort of a farm laborer. A friend in Copenhagen doesn’t have a car and uses a bike to commute to work and run her errands. She figures she is probably on the bike for something over an hour a day and she’s in incredible shape. You see a very low percentage of obesity in Denmark and the Netherlands where bike travel is common. I don’t think exercise is a magic silver bullet but at the same time I think it is an essential component.

    • “I don’t think exercise is a magic silver bullet but at the same time I think it is an essential component.”

      I agree 100%. You remind me that, at our ages, exercise is a figurative fountain of youth. I see the effects in the elderly (65+?!!) I admit to the hospital for various reasons.

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