If you've ever tried to set a fitness goal, you know it can be tricky business.
Set the bar too low and you may find you're lacking motivation. Aim too high--think a four-minute mile--and you're bound for disappointment.
So how do you set goals that are right for you? One way to go, fitness experts say, is to assess and record your baseline fitness scores for such yardsticks as your body mass index or how many sit-ups you can do in a minute. These benchmarks, and others like them, can help you figure out what to shoot for and measure your progress along the way.
In Pictures: Best Fitness Benchmarks
Jeff Padovan, president of Polar Americas, the heart-rate monitor maker, likens not setting condition goals or measuring your progress to driving a car without a speedometer. With so many people struggling to find an hour to workout, it only makes sense that they should want to maximize their results.
"If you're only able to devote two days a week, 20 minutes a day to exercise, you want to get the most out of that," Jeff Padovan says. "If you're not getting value out of the time you're spending there, it's a waste."
If you have a history as a couch potato, before you get caught up in the numbers you can evaluate your fitness level simply by determining how much time you spend breaking a sweat each week, says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise.
The American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine's latest physical activity guidelines recommend that all healthy adults ages 18 to 65 perform moderately intense cardio 30 minutes a day, five days a week, or vigorously intense cardio 20 minutes a day, three days a week.
Once you're meeting those minimums you can measure your physical abilities and use them as personal benchmarks or starting points for an exercise program. Try testing, for example, how many push-ups you can complete without rest. To set a goal for improving your results, experts suggest following the S.M.A.R.T. formula, making them specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.
Fitness norms, such as general population mile times, also can help you figure out where you stand and pick a long-term objective. Just don't aim too high right away.
"People look at norms and tables and they want to be excellent, even if they haven't been doing anything," Bryant says. "That's not realistic."
Instead, shoot for average fitness levels. For push-ups, the average 30- to 39-year-old man can perform 17 to 21, while women can do 13 to 19, according to data from the American Council on Exercise. The Web site ExRx.net also has a variety of fitness test calculators to see how your results compare to others'.
Once you've determined a personal benchmark and set a goal, don't go too long without measuring your progress. Neal Pire, president of the health, performance and fitness training company Inspire Training Systems, says weekly checkups should help you focus and give you lots of chances to modify your routine or behavior.
And remember that you're much more likely to achieve fitness goals with meaning or a direct benefit, such as being able to regularly play 18 holes of golf or just keeping up with your kids or grandchildren.
"Make it make sense," Pire says, "and make it emotional for you."
1. Heart Rate
One way to measure your initial fitness level and monitor your progress in a program is to keep an eye on your heart. Start by calculating your maximum heart rate, about 220 minus your age. Your target heart rate zone is 50 to 85% of your maximum heart rate. The American Heart Association recommends aiming at the lowest part of your target heart rate during the first few weeks of an exercise program and gradually building up to about 75%.© Comstock
2. Gym Time
The American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine's physical activity guidelines include goals everyone should shoot for but few follow. The guidelines recommend that all healthy adults ages 18 to 65 perform moderately intense cardio 30 minutes a day, five days a week, or vigorously intense cardio 20 minutes a day, three days a week. Additionally, eight to 10 strength training exercises, with eight to 12 repetitions each, are recommended twice a week.
3. Weight Loss
The thing about weight loss goals is you want to keep them small and achievable, experts say. No matter what you'd like the scale to read in the long run, you're more likely to follow through if you make your objective attainable. To check out how your weight stacks up and determine a goal, consider calculating your body mass index, your weight divided by your height in inches squared, multiplied by 703. A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered normal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
4. Running Time
Walking and running are great options for anyone looking to get fit. Want to know where you stand? According to the American Council on Exercise, the average man who is over 40 can walk a 16.5 to 19 minute mile, while the average woman can do it in 17 to 19.5 minutes. If you're looking to set a basic goal for yourself, Sonnemaker suggests trying to increase the length of time you run, which will improve both your mile time and your stamina
Ever notice that you can't move the way you used to? If becoming more flexible is your goal, consider talking to a certified trainer, who can perform assessment tests to figure out if muscle imbalances are causing the problem, Sonnemaker says. You can also test yourself by measuring how far you can reach while seated on the floor, legs 12 inches apart. According to the American Council on Exercise, the average 36- to 45-year-old man can sit and reach 15 to 16 inches, while for women the range is 17 to 18 inches.
6. Weight Training
If you're looking to set a goal in the weight room, you've got options, Sonnemaker says. Those interested in increasing their muscular endurance should try to increase the number of repetitions they perform, within the range of eight to 15. Want to increase your absolute strength? Try increasing the amount of weight you're lifting.
7. Overall Aerobic Fitness
For those interested in improving their overall aerobic fitness, the Polar F11 heart rate monitor's Polar OwnIndex is a great tool. As you lie still for five minutes, the monitor measures your heart rate and the variability between beats, factors in your sex, weight, height, age and activity level, and gives you a number indicating your aerobic fitness level. Top male athletes tend to score above 70 and women above 60. A moderate score for men ages 35 to 39 is somewhere between 39 and 43, while for women it's 32 to 35.
Common components of fitness tests are push-ups and curl-ups, aka neck and back friendly sit-ups. If you'd like to improve your bragging rights, not to mention your strength, check out where you stand and set a realistic goal. According to the American Council on Exercise, the average 36- to 45-year-old man can perform 33 to 42 curl-ups per minute, while women can do 30 to 34. The average 30- to 39-year-old man can perform 17 to 21 push-ups without rest, while women can do 13 to 19.
9. Metabolic Age
If you want to know your body's physical or metabolic age, Tanita Corporation of America's BC-554 Ironman InnerScan Body Composition Monitor can help you do it by comparing your basal metabolic rate to the average age associated with that metabolism level. Tanita suggests shooting for a metabolic age that's lower than your actual age by building lean body mass.
Balance is one of those things we take for granted until it starts to deteriorate. To test your balance, time how long you can stand on one leg with the other leg slightly elevated. Perform three attempts on each leg. If there is more than a 10% discrepancy in results between sides, make it a goal to address the weaker one, Sonnemaker says. Try spending time balancing on that leg when you're standing in line and brushing your teeth, or practice single leg squats.