Whether you relished the challenge or dreaded it, the Presidential Physical Fitness Test was likely a part of your childhood experience.
Developed in the 1960s and administered yearly for several decades, the Presidential Fitness Test involved performing challenges with your peers, purportedly designed to assess your level of physical fitness. You may remember the 1-mile walk/run, the sit-and-reach test and the 90-degree push-up. Or if your school days are further behind you, you might recall the broad jump, the shuttle run and the 50-yard dash.
In recent years, however, the Presidential Physical Fitness Test has been replaced by a less competitive, more well-rounded assessment called FitnessGram. Take a look at the differences, and then challenge yourself to see how you’d fare.
Old Test Fails to Encourage Fitness
With the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, if you scored in the top 15 percent of test-takers you got a badge and bragging rights. If you didn’t make it into that precious percentile you got nothing.
At least that’s how exercise physiologist Tom Holland remembers it. “Back in our day you were tested and it ended there. You either got it or you didn’t,” Holland recalls.
There was very little preparation, follow-up or education about physical fitness and how to achieve it, Holland explains. In his memory, the test was “deeply flawed” and “a net negative.”
New Model Stresses Education, Not Competition
Dubbed a “health-related fitness assessment” rather than a challenge, FitnessGram aims to reduce the competitive focus of the old test and increase education around the importance of lifelong physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle.
“The Presidential Physical Fitness Test was very much competitive and skill-related and performance-based,” says Claire Leigh Kinzy, vice president of communications and public affairs at The Cooper Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization in charge of developing FitnessGram.
“The new model really focuses on every child and the whole child so that it’s not a competition between each student but more about a student’s personal health and well-being,” Kinzy adds.
Many of the testing protocols have remained unchanged, but there is a new emphasis on encouraging kids to practice the exercises and use them as a means to improve strength and year-over-year testing results.
“The idea is for [students] to get an understanding of what the health-related fitness components are and why they are important,” explains Kinzy. Rather than simply giving students the results, the new assessment helps children and teens understand where they stand and what they can do to improve.
One Big Change: No More 1-Mile Run/Walk
Unless you were athletically gifted as a kid, you probably dreaded the 1-mile run/walk. Anyone at the back of the pack will recall the embarrassment of huffing it through the final lap while your peers looked on. If you didn’t hate running before, you almost certainly did after crossing the line last in front of a crowd.
Today, FitnessGram offers a more fun, less intimidating aerobic endurance test. Instead of running a set distance, students perform 20-meter shuttle runs at the pace of a recorded beep. The beeps get faster every minute, and you’re out when you can’t keep up.
Results are based on the number of laps the student completes.
The Curl-Up Test Remains, Despite Drawbacks
The good-old curl up remains the default test of abdominal strength and endurance throughout the test’s history and right up to today.
Some experts still have issues with this. “Where is the correlation between how many times I can curl my body up and health? I just don’t know,” says exercise physiologist Tom Holland. Even the FitnessGram test instruction guide states, “Few results are available on the consistency and accuracy of the curl-up.”
In the current version, a tape is placed on the floor underneath a student’s knees in the curl-up position. With feet unanchored, the student has to curl up until his fingertips touch the tape.
The curl-ups continue until the student has completed 75 reps, until proper form breaks down or until he simply can’t do any more.
New Version Adds Lower-Back Assessment
FitnessGram has introduced a trunk-lift test to assess trunk extensor strength and flexibility, which is related to low-back health. To do the test, students lie facedown with their hands under their thighs, then lift their torso off the ground as far as possible.
The test is actually “a minimal assessment of the components of trunk strength and flexibility” that most school-age children will pass easily, according to the FitnessGram instructions guide.
However, it also says the real value of the test is simply doing it. “Students will learn that trunk extensor strength and flexibility is an important aspect of maintaining a healthy back,” the guide states.
Flexibility and Push-Up Tests Persist
Just like the Presidential Fitness Test, FitnessGram uses push-ups to assess upper-body strength. It requires no equipment, multiple students can be tested at once and it’s rare for a child to score a zero, which can prevent embarrassment and negative associations.
The FitnessGram guide also states that teaching kids push-ups is important because they are an exercise that can be used throughout life for both conditioning and self-testing.
The old sit-and-reach test is still the norm for assessing joint and muscle flexibility, but FitnessGram has tweaked it slightly and renamed it the “back-saver sit and reach.”
Now the test is performed on one side at a time, which helps identify imbalances in hamstring flexibility and prevents hyperextension of both knees. The student sits in the figure-four position, with one leg bent and the other straight.
Tracking Childhood Obesity
The last area of the FitnessGram testing protocol, body composition, is a sensitive subject, but it’s important for many reasons, says Kinzy. Body composition is a major determinant of health for kids and adults.
Although three body composition testing options are offered, body mass index (BMI) is the preferred method. “Body mass index is used primarily because it’s easy to administer and there is a low rate of error in it,” explains Kinzy.
Administering the test yearly helps kids identify where they are in terms of body composition, where they need to be and how to get there.
The President’s Challenge for Adults
If you’re inspired to see where you stand fitness-wise, the President’s Challenge website offers a fitness test for adults. It’s pretty basic, but it tests all the same areas — aerobic capacity, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility and body composition.
Visit adultfitnesstest.org for detailed explanations of the test components. You don’t need any special equipment, although a partner to record your scores is helpful.
To test your aerobic capacity, complete one of the following:
400-meter walk: Recommended for people ages 60 to 90, and results are based on the time is takes to complete the distance. You also have the option of results based on your 60-second heart rate immediately upon completion of the test.
1-mile walk: Suggested for people who routinely walk 15 to 20 minutes several times a week. Results are based on time and heart rate.
1.5-mile run: Suggested for people who run continuously for 20 minutes or more at least three times a week. Results are based on time.
To test muscular strength and flexibility, complete both of the following:
Half Sit-Up: To test abdominal strength and endurance, you’ll see how many times you can reach past a strip of tape on the floor. Results are based on how many repetitions you can complete in one minute.
Push-Up: To test upper-body strength, you’ll see how many push ups you can do. Males of all ages should perform standard push-ups; women older than age 60 should perform modified push-ups with the knees on the floor, and females under 60 have a choice of standard or modified push-ups.
The sit-and-reach test is used to assess flexibility. Results are based on how far you can reach between your legs when seated with your legs extended in front of you. You’ll record your best measurement out of three attempts.
Body composition is measured using body mass index and waist circumference.
How to Interpret Your Results
Once you have completed the tests and recorded your results, you can input your information into a form on the website and you’ll be provided with your scores.
In all of the categories except body composition, you’ll be given your score as a percentile. Scoring is based on normative data, representing the average achievement of people in your age group. In general, the higher your score on each test, the fitter you are compared to your peers.
Body composition is assessed as “underweight,” “normal,” “obese” or “extremely obese.”
Getting Past Your Score
If your scores weren’t as good as you hoped, don’t be too hard on yourself. “You’re in good company, I’m sure,” says exercise physiologist Tom Holland.
Probably the most important predictors of health are BMI and aerobic capacity. If you scored lower than the 75th percentile in the aerobic capacity test or you ended up in the “obese” or “very obese” categories, it’s time to make a change.
Poor cardiovascular health and being overweight set you up for myriad potential health disasters, including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer. Getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet will set you on the right track.
As for the push-up and sit-and-reach tests, don’t sweat them too much. According to Holland, these are largely skill-specific and not necessarily a predictor of health.
Holland recommends using your results to identify your weaknesses and then develop a plan of action. “Just decide where you want to improve and get better,” he says.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you think the new test is any better than the old one? What are your memories from the Presidential Physical Fitness Test? How would you make the assessment better? How did you do on the adult version of the test? Let us know!