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The human body is miraculously designed to maintain optimal functioning of our internal organs. Our organs work as individual units and they also work together to coordinate various essential bodily functions to maintain good health.

Most of us have had the experience of having a health care visit where we had our vital signs measured by a nurse or other health practitioner. Vital signs traditionally consist of four measurements which serve as an early warning system to alert the health care provider of deviations in normal functioning and sometimes impending illness.

The four traditional vital signs include temperature, pulse, blood pressure and respiration. Normal body temperature has a narrow range of about 97 degrees F to 99 degrees F. Any deviation from this range can be an indicator of an infection or other sickness.

The pulse rate is a measurement of how many times per minute that the heart beats. In most cases, the normal range is 60 to 100 beats per minute. A pulse rate that is outside this range can sometimes be found in a person who seems completely healthy, although an abnormal pulse rate can also be an indication of underlying illness.

Blood pressure is a measurement of the amount of pressure that is exerted inside of our arteries when the heart contracts and then relaxes. Normal blood pressure is less than 130/80 for most people and a higher than normal reading can be an indication of increased cardiovascular risk.

The respiratory rate consists of the number of breaths per minute that a person takes, which normally ranges between 12 and 18. Again, any reading which is outside of this normal range can be an indicator of possible illness.

In many offices, a fifth vital sign is taken which is called oxygen saturation. This is measured with an instrument called a pulse oximeter. Oxygen saturation, how much oxygen is getting into our bodies, should normally be above 95% and is an excellent indicator of how well our lungs are functioning to transfer oxygen from the air that we breathe into our blood stream. This is an extremely important function because all of the cells and organs are highly dependent upon oxygen as an energy source in order to be able to function normally.

It has been suggested that a sixth vital sign, called cardiorespiratory fitness, be added to the other five vital signs. CRF has recently been identified by the American Heart Association as a strong predictor of cardiovascular health or disease. CRF can be measured by testing a person’s capacity for exercise through a stress test, or by simply answering questions designed to determine how long and with what intensity a person is able to exercise. For those people with low cardio-respiratory fitness, an exercise training program can be designed to improve one’s level of fitness and to reduce one’s cardiovascular risk profile.

Dr. Mark Roth writes about internal medicine for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is an internal medicine physician with University Hospitals.

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