Sure, you get your temperature checked all the time now. And traditional vital signs like that—plus heart rate and blood pressure—can say a lot of important things about you really quickly.
But if you haven’t set foot in a doctor’s office since the pandemic started, you probably don’t know how you’re really doing (other than that you don’t have a fever at whatever moment in time you walked into the place that measured it).
There are a number of tests you can do at home—for free—that give you a feel for whether your body is in top shape. We’re calling them the new vital signs. Here’s how to check yours—and act on them if your body’s telling you it needs some attention.
New Vital Sign #1: Heart-Rate Recovery
Can tell you about: Heart health
Your body’s ability to ferry oxygen to your muscles during exercise—known as cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF)—is such a powerful predictor of how long you’ll live that the American Heart Association has suggested making it an official vital sign. The gold standard for measuring CRF is a VO2-max test (in an exercise lab or with a fancy watch). But there’s a way to estimate it easily and track its progress at home, says L. A.–based trainer Matt Berenc, C.S.C.S.
Test it: The fitter and healthier your heart is, the more quickly it adapts to the demands of exercise and the faster it slows down when you’re done. So right after intense exercise, stop and check your heart rate. Check it again after a minute of rest (really just stand there; don’t move around). A difference of 20 beats per minute or more points to good heart health.
Improve it: Consistent exercise gets this number where you want it. For a more immediate drop after a workout, breathe exclusively through your nose as soon as you’re able. This forces your breathing to slow down and activates your body’s natural rest-and-relax response, Berenc says.
New Vital Sign #2: Sit-to-Stand Agility
Can tell you about: Longevity
How well you can sit on the floor and stand up unassisted (harder than you think!) can give clues as to how long you’ll live. Needing support means you’re at risk of muscle imbalances, mobility issues, and, later on, falls.
Test it: Start standing and give yourself 10 points. Sit on the floor cross-legged. Stand back up. Subtract a point every time you use your hand, knee, forearm, or side of your leg to help. Research found that those who scored 0 to 3 were five to six times as likely to die over the next six years as those who scored 8 to 10.
Improve it: Work hip mobility with figure 4 and pigeon stretches so you can better position your feet to stand. Also build strength with squats, lunges, and hip bridges.
New Vital Sign #3: Morning Wood
Can tell you about: Heart health
Dawn erections prove your sexual machinery’s blood vessels work. Not having them means blood isn’t getting where you want it, possibly due to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes. “Because the blood vessels that supply the penis are so small and delicate, they’re often one of the first areas of the body to show signs of disease,” says MH advisor Elizabeth Kavaler, M.D.
Test it: When you wake up, ask yourself: Is my penis strong enough for sex? In your 40s, you might start to notice a change in how hard you are or in how many mornings a week you wake up hard. But you should always be able to complete whatever sexual act you want to complete, says Dr. Kavaler. If you routinely can’t, call your doc.
Improve it: Take care of the blood flow to your penis the way you do for your heart: Do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week, eat well, get enough sleep, and make an effort to reduce stress.
New Vital Sign #4: Semen Quality
Can tell you about: Urinary and reproductive health
Ejaculate is a little bit like saliva: It can indicate how functional or how irritated the glands that make it are. And you can catch potential problems by regularly looking at it. (Caveat: If you’re concerned about fertility, a glance won’t reveal the quantity or quality of your sperm. You’ll need to talk with a doc about being tested for that.)
Test it: There’s no one way everyone’s ejaculate should be; the key is to keep an eye out once a week for changes in color, smell, or volume. These can point to trouble in your urinary tract, the glands that make semen, or your prostate, Dr. Kavaler says.
Improve it: Call a physician if you see blood (could be an infection), if you are producing less than a third of a teaspoon, or if a smell or volume shift lingers a few days (could be a cyst or prostate issue).
New Vital Sign #5: Alcohol Use
Can tell you about: Drinking control or alcohol use disorder
Official guidelines say guys should cap booze at two drinks a day. But “there is good evidence that one drink a day has a lower risk of death and other problems,” says Tim Naimi, M.D., M.P.H., a physician and alcohol epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center.
Test it: Check if a six-pack lasts you a week.
Improve it: Of course you’re going to reach for the beer if there’s nothing else enticing. Fill your fridge with some of the new, surprisingly good nonalcoholic beers.
New Vital Sign #6: Feeling Awe
Can tell you about: Emotional health
Positive emotions can help sink stress, and one that does it better than others is awe—the wonder you feel when you see a shooting star or an amazing sunrise. Stress can cause anxiety and rumination and make you turn inward. Zooming out helps you decenter and break that cycle. “Awe is a major trigger of decentering,” says Paul Piff, Ph.D., who studies the emotion at the University of California, Irvine.
Test it: It’s as simple as asking yourself if anything struck you as awesome today.
Improve it: “Shots of awe are easy to find,” says Piff. The TED talk that completely changed your understanding of something, the colors that show up in grease floating on a puddle—awe can strike you anywhere. Let it.
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