Author: Maria Fischer • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • June 15, 2021
According to The US Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report published in 2019 by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), there are several components of physical fitness in a healthy exercise routine. These factors can help you understand what exactly being “fit” entails and how you can go about achieving total fitness.
So what are these components of fitness?
The five components of fitness are:
For optimal fitness, you want an exercise routine that works to strengthen each component.
Cardiovascular endurance is also known as cardiorespiratory endurance or aerobic fitness, and it refers to your body's ability to effectively take oxygen in and supply it to your body's tissues. Cardiovascular endurance is often used as an indicator of heart health and lung health, as well as muscle function. By measuring your cardiovascular endurance, you’re able to assess your body’s performance during high intensity exercise and its ability to remove carbon dioxide and pump oxygen-rich blood to your organs. If you have high cardiovascular endurance, that means you’re able to perform intense exercises and workouts longer than someone who has low cardiovascular endurance.
So how do you figure out how your cardiovascular endurance is measuring up? Think about your breath during exercise. When you breathe, your body is drawing in oxygen and filling your lungs with air. Some of this oxygen helps you continue breathing, while other oxygen atoms enter the bloodstream. This oxygen-rich blood then moves to the heart where it’s pumped out to your muscles, cells and organs by way of your blood vessels. When you engage in physical activity, your muscles require more oxygen than when you’re resting, so your cardiovascular system works harder than usual to pump oxygenated blood to those muscles. If you have low cardiovascular endurance, your body won’t be able to efficiently or effectively get enough oxygen to your muscles, so you’ll start to breathe heavier and experience fatigue much sooner. If you want a formal measurement, you can go to a sports clinic or medical office and ask to get a test often called a “stress test.” For this test, you’ll ride a stationary bike or run on the treadmill while your doctor tracks your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing using electrodes. Metabolic equivalents (METs) is a ratio of the amount of oxygen you use at rest compared to when you’re exercising. The number of METs you expend during exercise indicates how much harder your body is working.
If you’ve determined your cardiovascular endurance isn’t to the level you want it to be, there are plenty of ways to improve it. Aim to engage in some sort of cardio exercise — whether that’s running, cycling, swimming, hiking, dancing, boxing or even just walking — for 30 minutes several times a week. You’ll find that as your cardiovascular endurance grows higher and higher, working out will become less and less challenging for your heart and lungs. The physical challenges of everyday life will even become much easier. Internally, you’ll improve the efficiency of delivering oxygen throughout your body and enhance your cellular metabolism, and your risk of developing heart disease will be much lower, per a 2018 study titled “Cardiovascular Effects and Benefits of Exercise” published in the journal Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. This is especially important, as heart disease accounts for roughly 655,000 deaths in the United States per year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Muscular strength refers to the amount of force a particular muscle group can produce in a single, all-out effort. Think: your one-rep maximum. To test your muscular strength, you want to lift heavy weights and access your “one-rep max” for a number of different muscle groups. Remember: Muscular strength is muscle group-specific. You could have one set of muscles that are incredibly strong, while another is comparatively weak. (Just think about all those jokes about gym-goers skipping leg day.) For peak muscular strength and overall fitness, you should aim to follow a well-balanced strength training program that targets all of your major muscle groups.
Try lifting heavy weights for a few repetitions, and be sure to focus on different muscle groups. Common exercises that focus on muscular strength include loaded squats, leg presses and bench presses. The benefit of maintaining your muscular strength and fitness is that you’re better able to enjoy all the activities that you enjoy throughout your entire life. Strength training isn’t all about seeing a huge change in muscle size — it’s about making sure your muscles can support you throughout every age and life stage.
While muscular strength refers to the amount of force a particular muscle group can produce in its one-repetition maximum, muscular endurance refers to how fatigue-resistant a particular muscle group is. That means that like muscular strength, muscular endurance is also muscle group specific. To test your muscular endurance, you should activate a muscle group for a long period of time and assess the ability of your muscles to resist, withstand and recover from fatigue. In strength training, this might involve seeing how many times you can do a sit-up, a push-up, a full squat or a bicep curl with a light or moderate weight before breaking form.
Not only does muscular endurance allow you to better compete as an athlete, it is important for completing everyday activities. You need muscular endurance to do tasks like walking up several flights of stairs, carrying a heavy bag of groceries or lugging a suitcase across the airport. According to a 2017 review titled “Systematic Review of the Association Between Physical Fitness and Musculoskeletal Injury Risk: Part 2-Muscular Endurance and Muscular Strength” published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, muscular endurance combined with muscular strength helps reduce your risk of injury, both inside and outside of the gym.
To improve your muscular endurance, do muscle group-specific exercises using light weights (or your body weight for exercises like push-ups). Try to do a high number of reps, or as many reps as possible. According to the ACSM, continually working your way up to more reps and slightly heavier weights has proven to be the most effective way to improve your muscular endurance.
Another important aspect of fitness is flexibility, which refers to the range of motion around a given joint. Flexibility is joint-specific, which means you may find one area of your body is much more flexible than other areas. For example, you may be able to do a split fairly easily, but your shoulders are much more tight.
While many athletes or gym-goers tend to zero in on improving their cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance and muscular strength, your body’s flexibility shouldn’t be overlooked. Flexibility is essential to your movement and can affect your balance, coordination and agility. By maintaining a full range of motion through your joints, you reduce the risk of injury and ease the process of aging. Just picture elderly individuals who have a difficult time bending down, sitting in a chair or even reaching their arms over their heads. Flexibility is also essential for optimal athletic performance. According to a 2016 study titled “Impact of 10-weeks of yoga practice on flexibility and balance of college athletes” published in the International Journal of Yoga, regular stretching through the practice of yoga actually enhanced the performance of college athletes, proving that flexibility is an important aspect of athletic training and any workout routine.
To help improve or increase your flexibility, try engaging in flexibility exercises 2-3 times a week. This may include static stretches (such as a touching your toes or holding a butterfly pose), dynamic stretches (such as yoga or pilates), active stretches (such as lifting your leg up and holding it, using the contraction of the opposing muscle to relax the muscle being stretched) or passive stretches (such as stretches using a strap or a partner for assistance).
A final factor to consider when assessing your overall fitness is body composition, or your body's ratio of fat mass to fat-free mass. High levels of fat mass are associated with negative health outcomes, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. One 2018 study titled “Study on the body composition and its correlation with obesity” published in the journal Medicine notes that high levels of fat are closely related to lipid metabolic disorder diseases, such as obesity, diabetes and other diseases, and may be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. That’s why maintaining a healthy body composition is an important aspect of fitness.
Weighing yourself won’t tell you much about your current body composition or your amount of fat mass, as weight by itself doesn’t reveal the makeup of your internal tissues. To determine your body composition, ask a trainer or doctor to test your body fat percentage or undergo hydrostatic testing. This test involves getting weighed on dry land, then sitting on an underwater scale. The greater the fat composition, the lighter the underwater weight will be. While body mass index (BMI) has been used for years as an indicator of body fatness, the CDC warns that it is not an accurate way to determine your body composition, as BMI measures excess weight rather than excess fat.
Once you’ve determined your fat mass to fat-free mass ratio, you can decide if you want to maintain this ratio or improve it. If your goal is the latter, the best thing you can do is work on the other four components of fitness. If you're regularly doing cardio, strength training exercises, working on your muscle endurance and stretching, you're actively developing muscle mass while reducing fat mass — aka improving your body composition.
Now that you’ve got all the components of physical fitness down, it’s time to turn your attention to nutrition. Remember: Nutrition and fitness go hand-in-hand. In fact, several studies note that nutrition has more of an impact on our fitness than any singular exercise. You won’t have optimal fitness if you aren’t getting proper nutrition.
The key to a healthy lifestyle is filling your diet with nutrient-dense foods. Both macronutrients and micronutrients are essential for overall health, and every person has a slightly different breakdown. To determine your best nutrition plan, get in touch with your doctor or a Registered Dietitian who can best access your needs and help you figure out the amount of protein, carbohydrates and fats you should aim to consume per day.
Gainful believes there’s nothing more personal than your fitness and nutrition because everybody — literally, every body — is different. That’s why Gainful offers a personalized nutrition system that includes everything from a protein powder to a hydration formula and pre-workout to help support your body with additional nutrients. Proper nutrition will fuel your body through your workouts and help enable you to hit every component of fitness in your exercise routine.
Start by taking Gainful’s quiz to determine your nutrition system. Then you’ll be connected to a personal Registered Dietitian, who is there to answer any questions you may have about maintaining a balanced diet and incorporating nutrient-dense foods into your meals. Your R.D. can also address any concerns about your exercise routine and help you find a regimen that works to improve all five components of fitness.
Gainful is here to serve as both your trusted nutrition resource and your trusted fitness resource.
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