Fitness Tips

This Functional Fitness Test Measures Agility and Strength for Adults Over 60

Photo: Getty Images/Longhua Liao
If you’re over the age of 60 and you’re looking to test your health and fitness level, you might want to familiarize yourself with the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (AAHPERD) functional fitness test.

The AAHPERD functional fitness test is a battery of tests designed to assess multiple dimensions of fitness in adults over 60 years old. “More specifically, the AAHPERD looks to measure body composition, full body flexibility, lower body agility, upper body motor control, upper body endurance, and cardiovascular endurance,” explains Cameron Yuen, PT, DPT, CSCS, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City. “Each of the tests included were selected for safety and approximation to activities of daily living.”

Why was the AAHPERD functional fitness test created?

As we age, physical capability becomes crucial for safety and quality of life, and the human body loses physical capabilities in a predictable manner. However, not all physical qualities are equally important.

“Some qualities … are more important than others, and should therefore get priority when it comes to testing and training,” explains Yuen. Those include lower body muscular power, cardiovascular endurance, and full body mobility. “The AAHPERD test was created to measure specific physical qualities that are uniquely important to individuals over 60 years old.”

What does the AAHPERD functional fitness test measure?

The AAHPERD Functional Fitness Test is actually a battery of six tests, each measuring a different aspect of fitness—all especially important to adults over 60. People taking the AAHPERD test don't have to take all six; an individual’s fitness level, injuries, contraindications, and goals will determine which of the six tests he or she takes.

The first test is a body composition test called the Ponderal Index. “This test uses your body mass and your height as a ratio to estimate your body composition,” explains Yuen. A high mass to low height ratio would indicate higher body fat, while a lower mass to higher height would mean lower body fat. “The test is more accurate than body mass index (BMI), and has been shown to be a valid and reliable way to estimate body composition," Yuen says.

Next is the sit and reach test. The test is performed sitting with the legs extended straight out in front, with the participant then attempting to reach as far forward as they can. This tests the ability of the entire back side of the body to lengthen, and it requires some mobility and flexibility of the joints and muscles of the back, hips, and legs. “This mobility and flexibility is important for joint health as well as for functional tasks like bending, kneeling, and squatting,” Yuen says. “This test is a valid and reliable measurement of gross flexibility of the back of the trunk and legs.” Because of how simple it is, anyone can "administer" it, too.

Then we have the agility test, which assesses dynamic balance, strength, coordination, and power—all physical qualities that diminish with time and are also extremely important for fall prevention, explains Yuen. To perform the test, a stopwatch, a chair, and two cones are required. When the timer starts, the participant stands up from the chair, turns right and walks around one cone and returns to sitting, then immediately gets up again to walk around the cone to the left before returning to sitting. The timer is then stopped. “This test is a valid and reliable measure for agility with this population and is a valuable data point in preventing falls,” says Yuen. “Like the other tests, it requires very little equipment and specialized training.”

The upper body coordination test comes next. This test looks to measure fine motor skills in the upper body, which is important for dexterity of everyday tasks such as using keys to open doors, buttoning coats, or using a knife to cut food. “To accomplish these tasks, we need supporting musculature of the upper body, as well as precision at the fingers,” says Yuen. For this test, the participant is asked to flip three full cans into adjacent circles and then flip them back in the same order. This test is timed and takes into consideration precision as well as speed. Again, it requires little equipment or prior training to administer it.

After that is the upper body strength and endurance test, which requires the participant to sit in a chair and use their dominant arm to curl a weight as many times as possible in 30 seconds. “This test specifically looks at the endurance of the dominant arm's bicep, but does work as a rough proxy for upper body endurance, especially in a functional sense as one ages,” explains Yuen. “The test is a valid and reliable way of testing upper body endurance with this population, and requires some equipment and precision in scoring for accurate results.”

The last test looks to measure cardiovascular endurance by having the participant walk one half-mile as quickly as possible, either outside or on a treadmill, and using a stopwatch to time the walk. “Cardiovascular health is extremely important for health, lifespan, and function, but tends to worsen with time,” says Yuen. “This test works well because there is a distance and time component, so a faster speed will indicate greater cardiovascular endurance, and a slower speed means poorer cardiovascular endurance.”

How are the results measured?

Now that you understand how the tests are performed and supervised, it’s important to understand how to interpret the results. Because the AAHPERD is a battery of tests, individuals aren’t given an overall composite score, but rather individual scores based on different physical qualities. “The scores are based on population norms, so individuals are scored based on how others in the same demographic score,” says Yuen. “This is important for making sure the right individual takes the right test. They all capture fitness information in slightly different ways, but nearly all are valid and reliable so long as they are matched to the correct population.”

Who can administer the AAHPERD functional fitness test?

The biggest reason that the AAHPERD Functional Fitness Test is so useful and still exists today is that the battery requires little to no equipment and zero prior instruction, skill, or training to administer. Translation: Anyone can supervise the test. “It’s very practical, and works well as estimates of physical fitness for this population,” explains Yuen. I personally use variations of these tests for clients over 60 years old.” So if you were born in 1962 or earlier, you know what to do.

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