The TV show, “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” is fun because it highlights how much young students know that their parents have long forgotten or never knew.

But, measuring up to fifth-graders is equally difficult in other areas. For instance, how would most adults answer this question: “Are you as fit as a fifth-grader?”

“It’s likely that most adults don’t know how fit they are and they are probably less likely than fifth-graders to be able to find out,” says Dr. Michael Parkinson, senior medical director of Health and Productivity, for UPMC Health Plan. “Many employers do health risk assessments for their employees, but they do not realize that the absence of risk does not equal fitness.”

Smart Business spoke with Parkinson about how employers can better gauge and encourage fitness among their employees.

Why compare an employee’s fitness to that of a fifth-grader?

That is certainly an arbitrary standard, but what got me thinking about it was when my fifth-grade son came home with what was called a ‘Fitness Gram’ that showed how he scored in a number of physical tests designed to measure his fitness. What struck me most was how detailed the test was, most especially when you compare it to anything that could pass as its equivalent in the corporate world.

Employers have been measuring and promoting workplace wellness primarily through use of a health risk assessment that measures personal health behaviors and self-reported height and weight, or body mass index (BMI). Many employers add biometric screenings, which include blood pressure and lipid or blood fat levels, as well. And, of course, all employers are now required to pay for preventive care at no cost to their employees.

Are health risk assessments ineffective in measuring fitness?

They have a purpose, certainly, but they can be misleading. In health risk assessments, those whose scores indicate low risk are considered to be the most healthy. But what employers do not realize is that an absence of risk does not equal health. Absence of risk does not equal fitness. To be blunt, in the corporate world, the bar has been set too low on wellness.

How can the bar on fitness be raised?

One of the tests my fifth-grader had to take measured his aerobic capacity and is known as ‘VO2 Max.’ Aerobic testing is rarely, if ever, a part of any corporate wellness test for an adult, even though the information is vital.

Aerobic capacity shows the maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and use oxygen during incremental exercise. It is widely recognized as the test that best reflects the physical fitness of an individual.

It is also been shown to be the best single predictor of ‘all cause mortality,’ or how long we’ll live. Greater aerobic capacity has been associated with the ability to better perform both physical and mental work, clearly required in today’s demanding and competitive workplace.

Why should the fitness of employees matter to an employer?

Fitness tests generally assess muscle strength, endurance and flexibility, all of which are of great importance in the workplace. However, unlike elementary students, adults are rarely tested in these areas. Musculoskeletal injuries such as strains and sprains are due often to obesity, lack of core body strength and fitness.

Musculoskeletal injuries are a leading cause of lost workdays, as well as medical and disability costs. Back injuries, slips and stretching mishaps are common work-related incidents that employees face and that could be avoided with improved core body strength.

Is BMI an important measure of fitness?

Body mass index, or BMI, is a measurement test that is a common feature of most health risk assessments and it is used to determine whether an individual’s body weight differs from what is normal or desirable for a person of that height.

BMI is a measurement based on a formula that takes into account your height and weight in determining whether you have a healthy percentage of body fat. In general, BMI is an inexpensive and easy-to-perform method of screening for weight categories that have the potential to develop into health problems. But, again, it doesn’t indicate anything in terms of fitness levels and it doesn’t really say how healthy you are, just that you might be at risk for obesity.

How can employees raise their fitness levels?

Fifth-graders are often more fit than adults because, generally speaking, they are more active. In order to improve fitness, people need to participate in some kind of moderate aerobic activity for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. It does not matter if the 30 minutes is broken into three 10-minute segments.

What’s important is to try to get moving. Some exercise at any level of intensity is better than none as you start to build endurance.

It’s funny to think about comparing employee fitness levels to that of fifth-graders, but the message is serious. Any company that wants to take wellness to the next level should think about measuring fitness the way fifth-graders do, and, in the process, see how their employees measure up.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by UPMC Health Plan.

Published in Pittsburgh