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Are Personalized Fitness Assessments Worth It?

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There’s a new trend in fitness, and it comes with a hefty price tag—we're talking $800 to $1,000 hefty. It's called a personal fitness assessment—a series of high tech examinations including a V02 max test, resting metabolic rate test, body fat composition test, and more—and it's popping up at gyms around the country. As a fitness writer and four-time marathon finisher, I've heard plenty about these—but I've never had one myself.

After all, it's easy to think, "But I already exercise regularly, eat pretty well, and am at a healthy body weight." If that sounds like you, though, experts would tell you that you may be the ideal candidate for one of these assessments. 

How come? “A lot of times very fit, motivated people plateau either because their workouts have leveled off or they have no real sense of direction,” says Rolando Garcia III, manager at the exlusive E at Equinox, who, through Equinox's T4 fitness assessment, gives people eight to nine tests to provide further insight on health measures. 

Even more: “There are a lot of great training programs out there, but everybody’s different. While something might say to exercise at 50 percent of your max heart rate, you might need to be at 60 percent because your threshold is different," says Nina Stachenfeld, Fellow at Yale’s John B. Pierce Lab where she conducts such assessments. "You can’t know without the data we can give you."

After hearing all the hype, I stopped by Equinox to get an assessment myself. The results: I had a lot to learn about my own fitness.

RMR Test
The goal: This test gets a read of your resting metabolic rate, meaning how many calories you burn at rest in one day. It required me to breathe into a tube for 12 minutes with my nose plugged to measure the amount of oxygen my body uses and how much carbon dioxide my body produces. (Quick science lesson: Oxygen combines with carbohydrates and fats to make energy, and the breakdown of those carbs and fats produces the carbon dioxide.) This info can help you keep tabs on your daily food intake—if you know how many calories your burning at rest, you can gauge how many to consume, rather than go off of “estimates” that may or may not be right for you.
My results: 1,498, which I was told is pretty good for my size and age (mid-20s, 5' 3", and 118 pounds). That means I'll maintain my weight if I can consume 1,498 calories a day, even if I don't move at all. But I was told that I can add 447 calories to that total purely due to my active lifestyle (walking to and from the subway and standing at a standing desk). On exercise days, I can add another 187 calories, meaning I can consume up to 2,132 calories per day without gaining weight. I can live with that! (If I wanted to lose weight, the results tell me I’d need to bring that total down to 1,498—even on the days I move more.) With these results, you can also see how much fat versus carbs you burn—an indicator of stress, Garcia tells me.

Body Fat Test
The goal: to measure subcutaneous fat (fat right under the skin, measured with a standard caliper test) and visceral fat (the more dangerous fat that surrounds your organs).
My results: Apparently, my subcutaneous fat is a pretty darn good: 17.7 percent. Yet my total body fat is a much higher 26.7 percent. Though still in the healthy range, it could be an indicator that my visceral fat may not be optimal—I was told I need to cut back on the vino and reduce my lifestyle stressors. (Find out 4 Unexpected Benefits of Body Fat.)

Fit 3D Test
The goal:
 This is a super cool exam where you stand on a moving platform that spins you around and takes a full body scan, resulting in a computerized image. It’s pretty crazy. It can tell you if you have postural imbalances, among other things.
My results: I have a slight shoulder imbalance because I carry my bag on my left shoulder! I'm working on that.

Functional Movement Screen Test
The goal: to determine movement issues or imbalances.
My results: One quad is apparently stronger than the other (maybe this is why just my left quad was super sore after a long run last weekend!). Luckily, there are exercises I can do to correct this, Garcia assured me. This is just one example of why I’m glad I took such a test—how could I have known this otherwise?

V02 Max Test
The goal: to tell you how cardiovascularly “fit” you are and to help determine which types of exercise you’ll be most efficient at, what types will help you get the best results, and even what intensity you should be working at in order to best metabolize fat. I was most excited about this one, I must admit, though it was no fun taking! I had to put on a not-so-comfy-or-attractive mask hooked to a machine and run at a pretty intense pace for 13 minutes while Garcia steadily increased the incline.

My results: I felt like I got an A+ on an elementary school test when Garcia told me I scored in the “superior” range. What’s really awesome: You leave with a sheet of paper that tells you the best “zones” for you to exercise in. Using myself as an example, my “fat-burning zone” is at 120 beats per minute, my “aerobic threshold” is 160 beats per minute, and my anaerobic threshold is at 190 beats per minute. What does all that mean? Many interval training programs give “low”, “moderate”, and “high” intensity measures to follow, and this will help me figure out exactly what that means for me. And while working out, I can use a heart rate monitor to make sure I’m working at the “right” intensity. 

The bottom line: Regardless of where you have these tests done, when complete, you have a sort-of fitness report card. And that means you can make some serious changes, whether it's working towards weight loss or a faster race time. After the assessment, “that’s when people start to respond to what they need to do,” says Garcia. “The more in shape you are, the more data you need to measure where you are and where you can go.”

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