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COL Tests indicate overall fitness level

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All things considered, it's a pretty good bet that the guy in the corner of the gym bench-pressing his body weight is in decent shape, right? Well, maybe, but it's really not that simple. There are three unique components to fitness: strength, flexibility and cardiovascular capacity, and it takes all three to be truly fit.

Physical fitness isn't just about how much you can lift or how far you can run, and a person who excels in one area could be floundering in another, and not even know it.  

; Fitness tests are administered by institutions like the Army, police/highway patrol academies, professional and community sports organizations, gyms and schools. These tests will give you a sense of your own physical strengths and weaknesses, indicating areas you may be neglecting in the course of your usual exercise program.

FLEXIBILITY: The flexibility of tendons and muscles determines how freely you can move your joints.

"As we become less flexible, we become less functional. Things like reaching or turning your neck when driving to see the car behind you can become difficult. We're not just talking about quality-of-life issues but about the ability to function in life," explains Mitchell H. Whaley, professor of exercise science at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. If you're flexible, you feel better physically, which is why more and more people are doing activities such as yoga and Pilates.

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SIT AND REACH TEST: The easiest way to test for flexibility is to grab a yardstick and have a seat on your living room floor with your legs extended in front of you, allowing about 12 inches between your feet. Place the yard stick between your feet so that it points away from you. Line the soles of your feet up to the 15-inch mark on the yardstick. Then slowly bend forward with your arms extended, reaching as far past your ankles as you can.  

; "This test is a great measure of hamstring and lower-back flexibility, and it has some validity for shoulders. But to generalize and call it a measure of overall flexibility is inaccurate," says Patrick Hagerman, a professor of exercise science at the University of Tulsa.

STRENGTH: The experts call this muscular-skeletal fitness -- basically testing for both muscular strength and muscular endurance. Strength training builds and maintains muscle mass and strong bones.

Muscle strength and endurance also makes you more functional. For instance, maybe you can't move your own body weight in and out of a chair or can't carry groceries to and from your car, or you get jerked around when you take dog out for a walk. The more body strength you have, the fewer potential injuries from these activities. However, unlike increased aerobic or cardiovascular fitness, which reduce the risk of disease, there is no epidemiological evidence of a reduction of disease risk when you increase muscular strength or endurance.

CRUNCH TEST: This test is a popular method of assessing your abdominal strength, but it's not without critics. "While the crunch test may be a good indication of superficial abdominal muscle strength, it is often done incorrectly," warns Mieke Scripps, an orthopedic physical therapist for the Miami City Ballet. So if you're going to try it, make sure you're doing it right.

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet planted firmly on the floor. Press the small of your back down and then lift your upper body until your shoulder blades are off the floor. You can tuck your hands behind your head to support it, but make sure not to pull up with your arms -- you can seriously injure yourself that way. Instead, focus on using your constricted abdominal and back muscles to complete the crunches. See how many you can do without resting.

PUSH-UP TEST: To test your upper-body strength, get down in push-up position. Start from the up position with your arms almost fully extended, palms flat on the floor and a little more than shoulder-width apart, balancing on your toes with your feet together. Movement: Bend your elbows at right angles to lower your body (without your stomach touching the floor), and then straighten your arms as you exhale while raising your body. (If you can't do a standard push-up, put your knees on the floor instead of balancing on your toes.) Keep your back straight by tightening your abdominal muscles. Your body should stay as stiff as possible during the whole movement -- your arms should be the only body part moving. Keeping the pace slow and steady, see how many you can complete without stopping.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a syndicated health, nutrition and fitness columnist and founder of iWellness Solutions. He can be reached at info@dietdetective.com.

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