Want to Live Long? Master These Seven Functional Measurements

Master these seven functional movements for optimal health and longevity.

heart healthAs a biomedical engineer, physician and human performance and longevity enthusiast, I am super excited about the bevy of ways I can track my health and performance at home. I currently have tracking devices at home that allow me to measure my sleep length and quality, heart rate variability and recovery, arterial elasticity, on demand continuous blood glucose levels, gut microbiome and more.

But as powerful and useful as this information is if we are not able to perform basic functional movements due to injury, loss of strength and flexibility we will all become more and more static and our life and health will suffer.

In a recent study that has been getting a lot of press play, it was found that men who could get through 40 or more push-ups had 96 percent less risk of heart problems in the next 10 years than those who quit at 10 or fewer. Pretty interesting. Please note this did not include woman, but clearly if you can do 40 pushups or the equivalent for woman, you must be physically and functionally healthier than somebody who can barely do 10.
The results suggest that push-up ability might be a simple, reliable and D.I.Y.-in-your-living-room method of assessing heart health, while at the same time helpfully strengthening the triceps and pectorals.

Here’s the story as reported in the New York Times and keep reading to learn the seven at-home functional fitness markers we should all aim to master.

As almost all of us know, cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death globally. Heart attacks and strokes also lead to considerable disability, lost work time and otherwise circumscribed lives and abilities. But avoiding or treating cardiovascular disease requires recognizing that it might have begun or is on the horizon. Many medical tests of heart health, however, such as treadmill exercise-stress testing or heart scans, are expensive and complicated and can be difficult to interpret.

Many of these tests also generally are designed to pick up heart disease after it has started, not to predict the likelihood that it might develop. Meanwhile, mathematical risk scores that evaluate information about a person’s weight, cholesterol profile, smoking history and other health data are predictive, but in a way that is broad, impersonal and abstract.

That void prompted researchers at Harvard University, Indiana University and other institutions recently to consider the health and fitness of a group of more than 1,500 Indiana firefighters. The firefighters reported each year to a single clinic in Indiana for a medical checkup that included the standard assessments of each firefighter’s weight, cholesterol, blood sugar and other health data. They also completed a submaximal treadmill stress test that estimated their current endurance capacity.

The researchers originally were most interested in that last measurement. Plenty of past studies have linked high aerobic fitness with a reduced risk for later heart disease and vice versa. The researchers thought that they might be able to quantify how well the treadmill test predicted future heart problems by using the database of firefighters’ health information.

So, they gathered information about each man’s stress test results — few women were working as career firefighters in this group, so only men were included. They also recorded any cardiovascular problems reported to or uncovered by clinic physicians in the 10 years after each firefighter’s first appointment. The data about heart problems was fairly comprehensive, since the firefighters needed their physician’s approval to return to work after even minor heart concerns. The researchers planned to compare stress test results to subsequent cardiovascular problems to get a sense of how prescient the treadmill testing might be.

Then, almost incidentally, the researchers noticed that more than 1,100 of the firefighters also had completed push-up tests during their yearly exams. That testing had been bracingly analog: a clinic staffer counted how many push-ups each man could complete before his arms gave out or he reached 80 and was told he could quit showing off and stop. Since they had the push-up data, the researchers slipped it in as a second data set in their examination of current fitness and later heart problems, categorizing the men by how many push-ups they could complete: zero to 10; 11 to 20; 21 to 30; 31 to 40; and 40-plus.

They then ran numbers.

push upsAnd to their surprise, push-up capability proved to be a better predictor, statistically, of future heart problems than the treadmill tests. Men who could complete at least 11 push-ups had less risk of developing heart problems in the following decade than those who could complete fewer than 10, they found. This risk reduction mounted impressively at the highest level of push-up ability. Those men who could get through 40 or more push-ups had 96 percent less risk of heart problems in the next 10 years than those who quit at 10 or fewer.

The findings suggest that push-up capability might be an easy-to-use marker of cardiovascular disease risks, the researchers concluded, at least in men who resemble the firefighters. Of course, this study was observational. It can show that more push-ups are linked with fewer heart problems, but not that arm strength directly improves heart health or whether becoming able to do more push-ups will drop the risk for heart problems over time. It also cannot tell us how the two might be linked.

But “muscular strength is one component of good fitness,” says Dr. Stefanos Kales, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and senior author of the new study. Push-up proficiency probably also indicates an interest in healthy eating, regular exercise and normal weight, he says, all of which could contribute to stronger hearts.

Best of all, push-up testing is simple, requiring only the ability to count.

Cool stuff but push-ups are really only one off a number of key functional markers of life expectancy and health and beware for those of who hated gym class as a child.

There’s a slew of new research suggesting that how well you complete certain exercises can dictate just how healthy you are and, in turn, how long you can expect to be on this planet. The intuitive logic here is almost any bodyweight exercise or test of strength, coordination, and fitness is highly predictive of lifespan as frailty, inactivity, and low fitness do not bode well for people in the long run.

Here’s the seven to assess:

Having a firm handshake isn’t just important for sealing the deal after that job interview. Studies show that the firmness of your hand grip is correlated with heart health, and can be an indicator of your risk of early death, disability, and illness. In fact, researchers say a simple hand grip test can be better than your blood pressure at assessing your health. In this study, people were between the ages of 35 and 70, but younger people would we be wise to take this test as well.

How it works: You’ll need a device called a Dynamometer ($30; amazon.com). Follow specific instructions for your device and check out how your grip strength measures up depending on your age.

This simple test measures your aerobic capacity, which can tell you about your heart health as well as neuromuscular function. The distance people can walk in six minutes is highly correlated with aerobic capacity. High aerobic capacity means the heart and lungs are in good shape and is also inversely proportional to death from cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.
How it works: Use a GPS watch or pedometer to calculate distance while walking on a hard, flat surface for six minutes at your own pace. Here are the specific guidelines from The American Thoracic Society.

This test determines how flexible and strong you are. “The key is that, to do it quickly, you have to have enough quad strength and balance to get up,” says Joyner. As we age, having quad strength is important for reducing the risks of slips and falls, he explains. “Also, if you can’t do this easily you are more likely to become frail, and frailty is a bad sign for longevity.”
How it works: Sit on the ground with legs crossed Indian style. Get back up without using hands (it’s tougher than it sounds!). For details and how to score yourself click here.

To do this repeatedly you have to have quad strength, balance, and also some endurance—all of these are the opposite of frailty.
How it works: Set a timer for 1 minute and stand in front of a chair. Sit down and stand up as many times as you can before the timer goes off. In one study, women were able to do between 21 to 36. See how you stack up here.

Being able to balance is linked to longevity because it’s strongly related to coordination—and it prevents injury. The stork test can give you a sense of where you stand (or wobble) balance-wise.
How it works: Set a timer or have a friend time you. Stand on one leg and place the other foot at your knee (see exactly how to do it, plus what the results mean here). Rise up onto toes and hold the position as long as possible. When you fall, stop the timer.

This simple exercise is a great test of your overall strength. Specifically, it’s a test of the endurance of your chest, shoulders, and triceps, per the U.S. Army, which uses the move as part of its physical fitness test.

How it works: Perform as many pushups (no going down to knees!) as you can in 2 minutes. Here’s how the military judges results for women:

Ages 22 to 26: 17 to 46 pushups
Ages 27 to 31: 17 to 50 pushups
Ages 32 to 36: 15 to 45 pushups
Ages 37 to 41: 13 to 40 pushups
Ages 42 to 46: 12 to 37 pushups
Ages 47 to 51: 10 to 34 pushups

This test measures your cardiovascular health by determining what percentage of your max heart rate you get to before quitting. A score of 100+ means you have a 98 percent chance of making it through the next decade.

How it works: You’ll set the incline at 10 percent and start walking at a slow 1.7 mph speed, then increase your speed every three minutes until you’re completely spent. You can find out more about how to do it in Can Your Life Expectancy Be Determined By a Treadmill?

So get cracking, your healthy long life will depend on it!