As someone who’s spent countless years as an athlete, trainer, journalist, and wellness advocate, I’ve often found myself underwhelmed by many so-called "trends" over the years. As I unlearn a lot of things we’ve been conditioned to believe, especially when it comes to people’s well-being, I've found these fads don’t do anything to improve people's wellness—they’re just rooted in capitalism.
However, one I align with (which does somewhat fall into capitalism, but can organically help improve one’s well-being), is the shift toward an individualized, holistic approach. In particular, the rise of wellness tests that can provide a wealth of insights into how your unique body functions. As these screenings grow more widely available, they offer everyday fitness enthusiasts information that can help them achieve their optimal well-being, targeted to their individual physiology and fitness level.
Which can ultimately make every workout you do that much more effective.
The rise of individualized fitness tests
Performance tests like the VO2 max (which measures how much oxygen you use as you exercise) and the DEXA scan (which measures your lean muscle mass, body fat, and bone density) have been around for years. They were initially designed to help athletes get data to assess their progress, design training programs, and improve their overall performance.
Today, these tests are far more widely available, providing regular gym-goers with a bevy of insights about their wellness.
Taking one of these screenings can give you precise data about your fitness levels at a specific moment in time. It can also arm you with insights that will help you (or a professional trainer or coach) design a program to reach your goals based on your unique physiology. “You can really reap the benefits of exercise to its maximal capacity,” says Neil Panchal, MS, ACSM-CPT, exercise physiologist at the University of California San Francisco Human Performance Center.
“We use these different tests to assess how well [the client is] really working, and how well an intervention may be helping, whether it’s a patient or athlete or whoever,” says Panchal.
Whether you’re just getting into a fitness routine and aren’t sure where to begin, or you’re looking for that small advantage to take you to the next level as a pro, these tests can tell you the areas that you're deficient in, and how to improve upon them.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the traditional approach of following standard fitness formulas during your workouts, such as doing three to five sets of 12 to 15 reps for a given exercise. But, as Panchal explains, “Getting these tests done really helps you individualize what we can prescribe. Maybe not always, but more times than not, it will probably lead to the most efficient way to help individuals improve themselves.”
These tests can also provide insights into how your body is functioning, and be used to signal the need for preventative wellness measures, like if your bone density is decreasing, for instance.
Over the years, I myself have used these tests to gain objective insight into where I’m at physically in conjunction with my training. I’ve learned that as I continue to age, my bone density is increasing, thanks to my strength programs. My body fat percentage continues to stay in the same range and, at times, I become leaner, which lets me know that my strength and speed programming are effective. And as I begin to do more testing, such as the resting metabolic rate test—which lets you know how many calories your body needs at rest to perform basic functions such as breathing and from that information how many calories you need to support your lifestyle—I learn more about what I need as an individual, and as an athlete, to function optimally.
The most popular fitness tests
Three of the most common fitness tests today are the DEXA scan, the VO2 max test, and the lactate threshold test. Although they are becoming more readily available, you most likely need to visit a sports performance center or a lab to get them done. The costs vary based on location and provider, but tend to range from $50 to $400 (and, unfortunately, typically are not covered by insurance).
If you want to learn more about your body composition—specifically how much muscle and body fat you have and where, and what your bone density looks like—a DEXA scan is the gold standard. For this test, you lie flat on your back on an open X-ray machine while a scanning arm passes over your body for about 10 to 20 minutes.
“The DEXA scan is an X-ray-based body composition test that helps you understand what your body is composed from,” says Laila Zemrani, co-founder and CEO of Fitnescity, a platform that provides people with access to health and wellness tests. “What this test allows you to do is understand: Are you actually losing body fat and are you preserving your muscle or, even better, growing your muscle mass?”
Knowing where your body fat is distributed can help with your health by quantifying your visceral fat—the fat found in your abdominal cavity that wraps around your organs. You’ll also be able to find out if you have any asymmetries or muscular imbalances between the right and left sides or upper and lower body, which can allow you to strengthen specific areas to prevent injury and get stronger.
You can get this test done as often as you’d like, but Zemrani says in her experience, most elite and professional athletes get tested once a month, and those who aren’t athletes might do it two to three times a year on average.
Whether you’re an everyday fitness lover or a professional athlete, Panchal recommends getting a VO2 test (aka volume of oxygen) or a lactate threshold test. Both can make it easier to design an efficient training program. “The biggest difference when it comes down to recommending one or the other is safety,” he says. “VO2 max requires max effort. You have to do an all-out effort to get that true value as opposed to blood lactate, which could be sub max.”
Panchal says VO2 max also provides you with more accurate heart rate values and can help determine more spot-on zones to prescribe in training.
You perform this test either on a treadmill or stationary bike while wearing a heart rate monitor and a mask to measure the volume of the oxygen you inhale and how much air you exhale. It typically takes anywhere from eight to 15 minutes. Panchal says he starts the test at approximately 60 percent of the client’s theoretical heart rate max, gradually increasing the speed and grade simultaneously in one-minute intervals until they’ve maxed out. The goal is to achieve physiological fatigue while maintaining proper mechanics.
Ideally, you want a high VO2 max, but this number will vary depending on your age, genetic limitations, and other variables. Most Olympic athletes are in the high 80s, while in sedentary populations, the average can vary from 15 to 40.
If your VO2 max increases over time, it means you're getting stronger. Generally, people will get this test done every four to six months to allow adequate time to see progress, Panchal says.
Lactate threshold test
If you don’t have as much experience training but want to learn where you're at fitness-wise, Panchal recommends the blood lactate test (measuring lactic acid—a byproduct produced by the body during metabolism and exercise) because it doesn’t require a max effort performance like the VO2, but provides you with the same basic data.
“During an exercise session you can see when lactate really begins to accumulate a lot quicker and in larger amounts than what can be utilized and removed, which ultimately translates over to what people call anaerobic metabolism shift,” Panchal explains. Essentially, this test lets you know the pace you can maintain for an extended period of time without fatiguing.
“We collect little drops of blood, similar to how blood sugar is collected, and we monitor it in real-time and match it with heart rate throughout the test to determine where the thresholds occur,” says Panchal.
This information can tell you whether you should focus more on building endurance or more on speed in your weekly training plan, providing insight on how to set up your working and recovery intervals, and where your heart rate should be to maximize your stamina and aerobic capacity, says Panchal.
Of course, the tests have their limits
These aren’t the only fitness and health tests available. Wellness assessments like the resting metabolic rate test can give you insight on your metabolism and nutrition; the FatMax protocol measures your body’s ability to burn fat at different exercise intensities; the 24-hour metabolic chamber allows you to better understand your caloric burn during rest, sleep, exercise, eating, and other daily activities.
There are also more accessible (and affordable) options, such as wearables like the Whoop and Levels devices, which can provide you with insight and data into the present state of your training and overall health.
Even though they’re becoming more mainstream, there are still many barriers to accessing these tests—especially for those from marginalized communities—due to high costs and the limited geography of the providers, most of which are located in major cities (although companies like Fitnescity have expanded to all 50 states).
Still, it seems we'll only be seeing more tests offered more widely, and in more and more accessible ways. “I think [wellness testing] really is the future,” says Panchal.
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