We’ve all heard the advice before starting an exercise program: “See your doctor before you begin.” Often, many adults disregard this advice, presuming that it doesn’t really apply to them. However, regardless of your age, your current fitness level, or your health history, it’s always important to make sure that exercise is safe and appropriate for you before embarking on a new exercise program.
Fitness assessments — also known as pre-participation health screenings, or fitness tests — are important screening tools to determine the presence of risk factors and any symptoms of cardiovascular, pulmonary, and metabolic diseases, as well as other health conditions which may be adversely affected by exercise. The fitness assessment provides key information that can be used to develop a prescription of exercise that helps you achieve your health goals quickly, but safely.
These can range from simple self-administered questionnaires, to a physical examination and even complex diagnostic screening tests. Typically, the physician creating your exercise prescription will determine the screening procedures appropriate for his or her patient population.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggests three levels of fitness testing prior to participation in an exercise or sports program. In a Level 1 Screening, only a self-administered questionnaire is completed. The Level 2 Screening is more detailed, and can involve a medical history, physical examination, and laboratory testing. Level 3 Screening involves an even more detailed physical examination and exercise stress testing.
Most often, only the first level screening is performed. However, according to the ACSM, it is not inappropriate to perform all three levels of fitness testing, since the information obtained from all three screening steps can actually enhance your exercise prescription’s safety and effectiveness.
Fitness assessments typically focus on identifying the presence of major cardiovascular risk factors, looking for symptoms suggesting possible cardiovascular, pulmonary, or metabolic disorders. However, other important areas of consideration include your baseline joint range of motion and level of flexibility, since design of your exercise program should ideally take these into consideration in order to be completely safe. Your body composition and a test of your strength and endurance should also be performed, primarily to obtain a baseline so that you can see how much you’ve improved by the end of your exercise prescription.
Finally, perhaps the most important part of a fitness test is to make sure that those who have demonstrated some risks or health concerns are referred for additional evaluation. The presence of health risks doesn’t necessarily preclude you from participating in a fitness program, but your exercise prescription may need to be altered to allow for safe participation and to maximize health benefits.