MARQUETTE - We spend most of our lives comparing ourselves to those around us - test scores in school, how our friends and family are doing in their careers, how we look compared to celebrities. But physical fitness is one area where you should compare yourself to only one other person - yourself.
"Start with what you can do and see how you can add to that," said Barb Coleman, certified exercise specialist and professor at Northern Michigan University.
Although at home fitness tests are available, such as seeing how quickly you can walk a mile or how many pushups you can do in a minute, Coleman said formal tests such as those should only be completed with the supervision of a trainer or other exercise professional for safety reasons.
A pair of walkers make their way around the Superior Dome in Marquette. Self assessment is a key in improving one’s fitness, experts say. (Journal file photo)
Instead, Coleman said those who are new to exercise and want to get a baseline or benchmark for what they are physically capable of should start with simple tasks they do every day.
"What I find is the simplest things make the biggest difference," she said.
Before starting any sort of exercise program, Coleman suggested going to easyforyou.info/index.asp, to access a simple, online assessment tool to help you determine whether you are probably ok to start exercising or whether you should consult your health care professional.
The EASY (Exercise And Screening for You) assessment tool, developed by the School of Rural Public Health from the Texas A&M Health Science Center, asks a series of yes or no questions about whether you have pain or tightness in your chest during physical activity, if you experience dizziness or lightheadedness, if you have high blood pressure, if you have pain or swelling that limits your activity and if you have a history of falling or feeling unsteady.
Based on your answers to those questions, the assessment tool may suggest you talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise program.
Another at-home assessment you can do is the waste measurement test. Simply measure the circumference of your waist. Because carrying most of your fat around your waist rather than your hips can put you at higher risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends men have a waist measurement of less than 40 inches and women a measurement of less than 35 inches.
"Reducing that measurement doesn't mean doing sit-ups," Coleman said.
The key is a healthy diet and regular exercise to help maintain a healthy weight.
Once you do decide to start exercising, don't set out to run five miles right away. Start with what you can already do and build onto that, Coleman said, building up to what you want to be able to do.
"How fit you need to be relates to what you need to or want to do," she said. "If you discover that you can no longer reach the top shelf that you used to be able to, you may have simply not kept those muscles and joints flexible enough to do so and need to work on that very movement every day or so to improve your flexibility."
If getting out of a chair is a struggle, practice that movement until you gain strength to be able to do it easily. If carrying groceries from the car to the house is difficult, practice picking up similarly-weighted items several times a day to help build up the endurance and strength.
A simple way to build on fitness activities you are already capable of is to purchase an inexpensive pedometer and use it to gauge the number of steps you take in a day, Coleman said.
Once you know how many steps you take in a day, set a goal to improve that number over time, giving your body a chance to adjust to the changes you are making.
A similar step can be walking to the end of the block. Once you can do that, try to increase the distance bit by bit.
"Can I go this far? Can I go that far?" Coleman said. "What am I doing now and how do I add to that."
Once you decide to incorporate more fitness into your life, Coleman suggested tracking that activity, using whatever tool you want - online trackers, putting a note on your calendar, whatever is most useful to you.
"The most basic recommendation is to accumulate 30 minutes per day of moderately intense activity most days of the week," she said.
If you are already capable of getting that much exercise, make it a goal to meet that recommendation each week. If you're truly an exercise beginner, start from where you are at and work up to it.
The important thing to remember, Coleman said, is to look at your efforts based on what you know you are able to do, not what others are able to do.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401.