The Youth Fitness Test that was first implemented in 1966 was designed to do something very specific and relatively straightforward—to measure each student’s physical ability and compare it to the physical ability of other boys and girls of the same age. However, as times have changed, public health officials have recognized a need to expand their approach to assessment and to make it more useful for students, parents, teachers and school administrators alike.
Shellie Pfohl, executive director of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, believes the old Youth Fitness Test had some basic design limitations. Its definition of fitness was too narrow, it was too focused on peer comparison and it provided little actionable information about each student’s actual health. These limitations have become more important in light of today’s public health challenges. Rates of chronic disease are growing rapidly and most experts agree that a lack of exercise is a major contributor to the problem. According to Ms. Pfohl, “What is really apparent is that we have an obesity epidemic in our country, so we feel like we now need to focus on health versus athletic performance… By design, the old test compared kids against each other, so by design 50% failed.”
In response to concerns like these, the test has recently been given a major overhaul and the new Presidential Youth Fitness Program has been revised to promote exercise as a means of achieving good overall health. Under the new health-based approach, kids are now evaluated periodically using a broader set of measurements called the Fitnessgram® assessment. The assessment measures five aspects of health-related fitness: body composition, muscle strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular fitness or aerobic capacity and flexibility. Students’ scores in each of these areas are compared to a set of Healthy Fitness Zone standards, and the overarching goal is for them to show improvement over time. In other words, it’s about progress rather than point-in-time performance.
The new Presidential Youth Fitness Program encourages students to develop personal fitness goals that will hopefully remain with them throughout their lifetime. First Lady Michelle Obama launched the “Let’s Move!” initiative in order to help solve the growing problem of childhood obesity. She said of the revised youth fitness program, “One of the reasons I’m excited about the new program is because kids won’t be measured on how fast they can run compared to their classmates, it’ll be based on what they can do and what their own goal is. This is important because we want physical activity to be a lifelong habit.”
The Fitnessgram® uses a skin-fold test to measure body composition (the amount of body fat in relation to weight and height, also referred to as BMI). It uses push-ups, modified pull-ups and curl-ups to measure muscle strength. Aerobic capacity is measured by a PACER (Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run) test. Finally, the sit-and-reach test measures flexibility.
When students score within the Fitnessgram® Healthy Fitness Zone standards in at least five test categories, they are eligible for a Presidential Youth Fitness award. Those who score below these standards will be given information about the health risks associated with scoring low in the designated areas and will be instructed on ways to achieve better physical fitness.
This program is voluntary for schools, and experts stress that it is just as important to encourage physical activity at home. As Dr. Kent Adams, professor of kinesiology at California State University at Monterey Bay notes, “Schools are important, yes. But we have an obligation in our homes and communities to be partners in promoting a healthy lifestyle in our daily lives.”