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January 21, 2024 5 mins

From the outdated Presidential Fitness Test to today's FITNESSGRAM, Americans have been giving standardized fitness tests to middle school kids for decades. Learn the past and present of these exams in this classic episode of BrainStuff, based on this article: https://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/diet-fitness/exercise/could-pass-kids-middle-school-fitness-test.htm

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, a production of iHeartRadio. Hey brain Stuff,
I'm Lorn vogel Bomb, and this is a classic episode
of the podcast. Today's delves into the strange history of
why we Americans have standardized tests for our middle schoolers' fitness.
Of course, fitness is important to feeling good, but why

(00:24):
the tests? Hey brain Stuff. I'm Lauren vogel Bomb, and
believe it or not, I was never particularly the athletic type.
I have vivid middle school memories of being administered a
standardized fitness test during gym class. I don't recall ever
being taught how to do pull ups or curl ups,
but I sure remember being tested on how many I
could do in front of my class. The Presidential Fitness

(00:47):
Test was a battery of physical feats designed to assess
the health of school age American children. The test has
since been retired and replaced by the less arbitrary and
more forgiving physical fitness test known as Fitness Graham, but
it left a significant mark on scholastic history. It all
started in the early nineteen fifties, when fitness activists doctor
Hans Krauss and Bonnie Pruden administered exercise tests to thousands

(01:09):
of kids throughout the United States, Switzerland, Italy, and Austria.
US kids came up shockingly short. Fifty eight percent of
them failed the tests, compared to just eight percent of
the European kids. Then President Dwight Eisenhower was not pleased.
He took action by forming the President's Council on Youth
Fitness in nineteen fifty six to seek out strategies for
improving American kids fitness scores. Concern mounted by the time

(01:33):
John F. Kennedy took office in nineteen sixty he penned
a Sports Illustrated op ed about the perceived problem, an
excerpt in a very real and immediate sense, our growing softness,
our increasing lack of physical fitness is a menace to
our security. And so in nineteen sixty six, the Presidential
Physical Fitness Challenge commenced, a competition of sorts designed to

(01:54):
get kids excited about physical fitness as it related to
military service. The challenge included activities like a softball throw,
a long jump, and that dreaded pull up, all meant
to mimic military tasks like grenade throwing and ladder climbing.
To earn the coveted physical fitness awards, kids would have
to place in the top eighty fifth percentile based on
national standards. The problem with all this testing, which by

(02:16):
the way, was usually done in front of one's peers,
was that, according to experts, it didn't resemble the Krause
Weber tests in any way. Rather than focusing on core
and arm strength and improved flexibility, the Presidential Physical Fitness
Challenge simply reflected the goals and priorities of the country
and people who had formed their fitness philosophy during training
in World War Two years later, in twenty twelve, the

(02:39):
test was finally abolished and replaced by a more comprehensive
fitness program designed to support individual goals rather than prescribe
as standard fitness regimen. The change was the result of
decades of negative feedback from both students and teachers. Physical
education teacher Joanna Faber told NPR the test was totally backward.
We knew who was going to be last, and we

(02:59):
were in embarrassing them, We were pointing out their weakness.
So where does that leave us now? And why are
teachers still testing kids at all? We spoke with Marisol Visali,
a San Francisco Bay Area physical education teacher and massage therapist.
She said, the reason for the tests, I believe is
basically to collect data so the state knows fitness levels

(03:20):
of different demographics and counties, schools, cities, etc. But we
teachers do our best to turn it into goal setting
and teaching students about their bodies. We also turn it
into awards for students with the most improvements or best
scores to create some buy in and get them motivated
to be fit people. While the current program continues to
focus on specific areas of fitness, there's a decidedly less

(03:42):
militaristic approach to it. For instance, Fasally says there are
different options for each of the five categories that are
tested cardiovascular fitness, muscular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, and body
composition which is muscle to fat ratio. These options acknowledge
different types of fitness far better than the original test
in taking into account the different ways kids' bodies work

(04:03):
based on age and sex, and acknowledging that fitness is
a spectrum. So how many kids do well on this test?
Zali said the number of kids that pass usually depends
on the school. In Burlingame, California, for example, where I teach,
most kids pass I'd say eighty five percent, but that
has to do with a lot more than just our
awesome physical education teachers. She explains that the kids in

(04:25):
her community are really active outside of school, whereas in
poorer areas the number of kids that pass could be
much lower. For many reasons, children might not be active
outside of school due to lack of local programs, time,
or funding. Punishing and humiliating tests certainly aren't the way
to get kids in shape, but encouraging physical activity of
some kind is important, since it's been shown to help

(04:46):
kids build cardio fitness, strong bones and muscles, and even
reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. According to the Centers
of Disease Control and Prevention, only twenty one point six
percent of six to nineteen year old children and adolescents
in the United States get sixty or more minutes of
moderate to vigorous physical activity at least five days per week.
But don't be discouraged. Any activity is better than no activity.

(05:08):
There are lots of guides online to making fitness fun,
even for the less coordinated among us. Today's episode is
based on article could you pass your kids middle School?
Fitness tests on how stuffworks dot Com, written by Michelle Constantinovsky.
Brain Stuff is production of by Heart Radio in partnership

(05:31):
with HowStuffWorks dot Com and is produced by Tyler Playing.
Four more podcasts from my heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app,
Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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