Friday, September 25, 2020

For Many Kids, Presidential Physical Fitness Testing Was Traumatizing

When I was in the 4th grade, back in 1974, I received the Presidential Physical Fitness Award and it bears the signature of Gerald Ford -- who was President of the United States at the time. It would be the first of several such awards I would receive during elementary and junior high.

The Presidential Physical Fitness Test was introduced by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 as a way to encourage health and exercise among children through a variety of challenges. Those who scored in the top 15th percentile in all categories were given an award. The test was discontinued in 2012. During the years that I took the test (between 1974 and 1979) the categories included pull ups for boys, or flexed arm hang for girls; sit-ups; a shuttle run; standing broad jump; 50-yard dash; softball throw for distance; and, a 600-yard run. The test scores were based upon the age, height and weight of each individual student. Norms or percentile scores were based upon tests taken previously by students throughout the United States. I was fortunate to consistently place either first or second in each category tested.

This gym-class tradition happened on an annual basis, requiring students to undergo the physical challenges to test their endurance, agility, flexibility, and muscular strength. However, today you can find countless stories on the Internet about humiliation, embarrassment and trauma resulting to some children due to the annual test -- with the impact of it extending into their adult years. Some people were so humiliated having to perform the test in front of their classmates they actually spent years not exercising because of the bad memories. There are stories of gym teachers belittling children if the child didn't perform well, kids crying due to feeling like failures, and students lying or faking injury. The Presidential Physical Fitness Test existed for 36 years and in many ways ended up doing more harm than good for countless students. It was only motivating for those who were right on the cusp of being in the top 15th percentile -- those who were knocking on the door of achieving "the award."

I remember feeling rather proud when I achieved each of my five Presidential Physical Fitness Awards. The high school I attended did not offer the test, so my last time taking it was in the 8th grade. In a scrapbook, I still have the awards. I look back on those days and recall kids who excelled and those who were clearly humiliated and embarrassed. Today, as a father of adult children, I can see that The Presidential Physical Fitness Test wasn't an effective test of overall fitness -- and it certainly wasn't motivating or encouraging for many children who had to endure it. Thankfully, we've learned a lot about youth fitness over the past 50 years and how to best get kids active and moving toward a healthier lifestyle.

Keep Reaching For Life's Mileposts,