The 5 Health-Related Components of Fitness
You already know that benefits come when you prioritize physical fitness. The trick is understanding what, exactly, “fitness” is and how you can go about achieving it. That’s where the five components of fitness come in. They are the blueprint for the American College of Sports Medicine’s (ACSM’s) physical activity guidelines and serve as a helpful tool for organizing and executing your own well-balanced workout routine.
The five components of fitness are:
- Cardiovascular endurance
- Muscular strength
- Muscular endurance
- Body composition
Creating a fitness plan that incorporates each of these elements can help ensure that you get the most health benefits from your routine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) links regular physical activity to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, improved bone health, enhanced mental health, and improved quality of life with age.
Cardiovascular endurance (also known as cardiorespiratory endurance or aerobic fitness) refers to your body’s ability to efficiently and effectively intake oxygen and deliver it to your body’s tissues by way of the heart, lungs, arteries, vessels, and veins. By engaging in regular exercise that challenges your heart and lungs, you can:
- Maintain or even improve the efficient delivery and uptake of oxygen to your body’s systems
- Enhance cellular metabolism
- Ease the physical challenges of everyday life
Given that heart disease accounts for roughly 630,000 deaths in the United States each year, starting a workout program that enhances cardiovascular fitness is of particular importance. Running, walking, cycling, swimming, dancing, circuit training, and boxing are just a few of the many workouts designed to benefit heart health.
The ACSM’s physical activity guidelines call for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise.
The key, of course, is consistency. It may sound like a lot, but 150 minutes breaks down to just 20 to 30 minutes of exercise per day, five to seven days a week, depending on how hard you push yourself.
Muscular endurance is one of two factors that contribute to overall muscular health. Think of muscular endurance as a particular muscle group’s ability to continuously contract against a given resistance.
Long-distance cyclists offer a clear example. To continuously pedal a bike over a long distance, often up steep inclines, cyclists have to develop fatigue-resistant muscles in their legs and glutes. These are evidence of a high level of muscular endurance.
Likewise, holding a plank to develop core strength is another example of muscular endurance. The longer you’re able to contract your abdominals and hold your body in a steady position, the greater endurance you have through your hips, abdominals, and shoulders.
The extent to which you choose to focus on muscular endurance should be directly related to your own health or fitness goals. It’s important to realize that muscular endurance is muscle group-specific. This means you can develop high levels of endurance in some muscle groups (like cyclists building endurance in their legs) without necessarily developing the same level of endurance in other muscle groups, depending on your needs.
For Everyday Health
For general health purposes, you may want to develop enough endurance to simply climb up several flights of stairs or to lift and carry groceries from your car to your house. Low-intensity weight-bearing or strength-training workouts will help you build up that endurance.
For Fitness-Related Goals
But if you want to become an endurance athlete capable of competing in sports that require continual muscle contraction, such as obstacle course races, CrossFit, or cycling, you may want to place a higher focus on training regimens that use high-repetition strength training and sport-specific activity to make you a better athlete.
While muscular endurance refers to how fatigue-resistant a particular muscle group is, muscular strength refers to the amount of force a particular muscle group can produce in one, all-out effort. In strength training terms, it’s your one-rep max.
Like muscular endurance, muscular strength is muscle group-specific. In other words, you may have incredibly strong glutes, but comparatively weak deltoids; or incredibly strong pectoral muscles, but comparatively weak hamstrings. This is why a well-balanced strength training program that targets all of your major muscle groups is so important.
Consider Your Goals
The extent to which you train for strength is, again, determined by your own health and fitness goals. For instance, if your focus is on health, you know you should be strong enough to lift a heavy box or to easily stand up from a chair. In this circumstance, enhanced muscular strength may be a by-product of a workout routine focused more on developing muscular endurance.
If, however, you want to develop muscle mass or to be able to lift heavier weights at the gym, your training regimen should be focused more on lifting heavy weights.
To Improve Muscle Strength
- Use heavier weights with fewer reps, taking your muscles to fatigue with each set.
To Improve Muscular Endurance
- Use lighter weights and higher rep counts to increase endurance over time.
It’s possible to improve muscular strength and endurance at the same time. This can be done in conjunction with cardiovascular training. For instance, circuit-training routines that combine strength exercises and cardio into a single bout of training can make your exercise program more efficient.
The ACSM’s guidelines state that adults should perform strength training exercises two to three days a week using a variety of exercises and equipment to target all the major muscle groups.
Flexibility refers to the range of motion you have around a given joint. Like muscular strength and endurance, flexibility is joint-specific. For instance, you may have very flexible shoulders, but tight and inflexible hamstrings or hips.
Flexibility is important at any age. It plays a role in unhindered movement and can affect your balance, coordination, and agility. Maintaining a full range of motion through your major joints can reduce the likelihood of injury and enhance athletic performance.
As you get older, the importance of flexibility becomes even clearer. Think of individuals who are elderly: Many may walk with a shuffle or have a hard time reaching their arms over their heads. This may affect their quality of life, making it more challenging to perform activities of daily living, such as reaching items on high shelves, picking up items off the floor, or simply moving effectively to catch their balance if they start to fall.
While completely stopping the aging process isn’t possible, protecting your joints and maintaining mobility can help keep you spry well into your later years.
The ACSM’s physical activity guidelines call for adults to engage in flexibility exercises at least two or three days each week.
How to Increase Flexibility
There are simple ways you can work flexibility exercises into your day:
- Static stretching, where you hold a stretch for 10 to 30 seconds at a time
- Workouts that take you through dynamic stretching exercises, such as barre, yoga, Tai Chi, or Pilates
- Active stretching, such as lifting your leg up high and holding it there, uses the contraction of the opposing muscle to relax the muscle being stretched.
- Passive stretching, also called relaxed stretching, where you assume a stretch position and hold it with assistance of another part of your body, a partner, or apparatus, like a strap.
- Isometric stretching, a type of static stretching, uses resistance to alternate between relaxing and contracting the muscle.
Body composition, or your body’s ratio of fat mass to fat-free mass, is the final component of health-related physical fitness. Because high levels of fat mass are associated with negative health outcomes, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, attaining and maintaining a healthy body composition is a goal of just about all regular exercise routines.
Measuring Body Composition
To see improvements in body composition, you need to know what your starting point is. Weighing yourself on a scale won’t do the trick, as weight alone tells you nothing about the makeup of your internal tissues.
Instead, talk to a trainer about having your body fat percentage tested, or consider purchasing a scale that uses bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) to estimate body fat percentage.
Hydrostatic testing is currently the gold-standard of measuring body composition. It involved being weighed on dry land followed by sitting on an underwater scale. The greater the fat composition, the lighter the underwater weight will be.
DEXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry) scans, typically used for measuring bone mineral density and assessing for osteoporosis, can also be used to accurately measure body composition. DEXA scans are usually performed at radiology centers and may or may not be covered by insurance.
Though not as accurate as a DEXA scan or hydrostatic testing, you can also take your own measurements and plug them into a body fat percentage calculator. The results are estimates that typically fall within three to four percentage points of your actual body fat percentage, so it’s important not to get too hung up on the specific numbers.
Improving Body Composition
The good news is, improved body composition is often an outcome of working on and improving the other four components of fitness. If you’re regularly hitting the gym, doing cardio, strength training, and working on flexibility, chances are you’re developing muscle mass (fat-free mass) while reducing fat mass.
- King AC, Powell KE, Kraus WE. The US Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report-Introduction. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019;51(6):1203-1205. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000001946
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart Disease Fact Sheet. https://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_heart_disease.htm. 2017.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy Places: Physical Activity. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyplaces/healthtopics/physactivity.htm. 2017.
- Silverman M, Deuster P. Biological mechanisms underlying the role of physical fitness in health and resilience. Interface Focus. August 2014. doi: 10.1098/rsfs.2014.0040.
- Smith JJ, Eather N, Morgan PJ, Plotnikoff RC, Faigenbaum AD, Lubans DR. The Health Benefits of Muscular Fitness for Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine. September 2014. doi: 0.1007/s40279-014-0196-4