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February 12, 2023 6 min read

What is the Presidential Fitness Test?

The President's Challenge Program (also known as President's Champions) encourages kids to have an active and healthy lifestyle through the Presidential Fitness Test Standards. These standards have been adjusted over time and involve activities such as sit-ups and pull-ups.

Though the school program involving the fitness test ended at the end of the 2012/2013 school year and the awards program for the President's Challenge ended in 2018, the ultimate benefit is still improved health!

History of the Presidential Fitness Test

Dr. Hans Kraus, a physical medicine specialist, and his colleague Dr. Bonnie Prudden first raised an alarm about the sedentary lifestyle of many American children in 1953. In their paper, they expressed concern that this way of life was turning kids into “couch potatoes.”

The researchers, out of curiosity, tested children from different countries with a particular physical fitness assessment.

The results revealed that children from European countries like Italy, Austria, and Switzerland had an extremely high success rate, with only approximately 8% failure, while those in America had a significantly lower success rate of 58% failure.

Kraus and Prudden presented their discoveries to the federal government in Washington and on July 16, 1956, President Eisenhower acted with an Executive Order that established the “President’s Council on Youth Fitness”, which is now known as the “President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition”.

This council endorsed physical fitness for children and asked for help from local groups, schools, and researchers to find ways to encourage physical activity throughout the United States. One of the solutions was the Presidential Fitness Test.

From left to right, President Harry Truman, Dr. Winston E. Bur dine, National Commander of AMV ETS, Bonnie Prudden, Institute of Physical Fitness, 1958-1959 – Image from commons.wikimedia.org

The Original Presidential Fitness Test

The Presidential Fitness Test was developed in the 1950s by the Youth Fitness Program of the President's Council on Youth Fitness, which was created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The original test consists of 6 parts:

  1. Pull-ups (for boys), modified pull-ups or arm hangs (for girls)

  2. Sit-ups

  3. Shuttle run

  4. Standing broad jump

  5. 50-yard dash

  6. Softball throw for distance

  7. 600-yard walk-run (which was added at a later stage)

Children were tested bi-annually and the purpose of the test was to assess the physical fitness of American schoolchildren and give them the incentive to stay physically active.

The test has evolved over the years, changing during the different presidencies, but its goal remained the same: to promote physical fitness among American youth.

Vintage Children's PT Class – Photo by Eric Bard-Corbis

Here’s how the U.S. Presidents felt about fitness among the youth.

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy's ascension to the presidency signified the beginning of a new period for the Fitness Test. Prior to assuming the role of president, Kennedy wrote an article for Sports Illustrated titled “The Soft American” which promoted physical exercise among young people.

Kennedy expressed worries about kids spending a lot of time in front of the TV rather than working out and becoming physically fit. He connected the physical health of American children to the nation's long-term safety and prosperity, laying the foundation for his administration's Fitness Test initiative.

Kennedy changed the name to the President's Council on Physical Fitness with the aim of addressing all age groups instead of only children.

Lyndon B. Johnson

In 1966, the Presidential Physical Fitness Award Program was created by Lyndon B. Johnson's President's Council, honoring those young people who achieved 85th percentile or better on all seven test items. This program sparked a lot of criticism, as it promoted competition and reintroduced relative standards into physical education classes throughout the country.

Carter and Reagan

Throughout the 70s and 80s, the Physical Fitness Test was revised. In 1976, the softball throw was eliminated, the sit-up was changed, and distance running was added as an option.

The Presidential Fitness Test was still widely used, and the Award program was enlarged to incorporate sports during the Carter and Reagan presidencies. The emphasis stayed on the impressive achievements of individual students, honoring those who achieved the highest marks.

Clinton and Bush

Under Bill Clinton, the Presidential Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition launched initiatives to include all children and not just those who achieved the best results in physical fitness tests.

George W. Bush's Council kept this focus on involving less able kids and highlighted the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award, aiming to encourage Americans and especially children to get active every day.

President George W. Bush discussing the President's Challenge Physical Activity Program Image from commons.wikimedia.org

Obama

During Obama's time in office, the Presidential Fitness Test was replaced with the Presidential Youth Fitness Program in 2013. This program was designed to promote the physical and mental health of young people across the US, and it used science and technology to do so.

Many Americans were pleased with the change, describing the previous forms of the presidential physical fitness test as demoralizing to children. The intention of the program was to encourage kids to be physically fit and healthy, and those who ranked in the top 15% were given awards to recognize their work.

Many objected that this strategy only bolstered those students who were already in good shape and had high fitness levels. This sparked the idea that kids who weren't so adept at sports and failed to perform well in youth fitness tests were made to struggle and embarrass themselves in front of their peers, causing them to develop an aversion to physical fitness and working out.

Are you Fitter Than a 5th Grader?

Although it is no longer part of school curriculums, many fitness enthusiasts still subject themselves to a fitness challenge with the Presidential Fitness Test – often wanting to prove they are fitter than a 5th grader!

This is what the test entails:

Sit-ups: Attempt to do as many sit-ups, aka curl-ups, as you can in 60 seconds while following the correct technique.

  1. Lie down on your back with your knees bent, feet planted flat 8-to-12 inches from your buttocks.

  2. Cross your arms over your chest and curl your torso up towards your knees until your back is close to being perpendicular to the ground.

  3. Reverse the motion to return to the starting position.

  4. Keep your feet flat on the ground for each rep and make sure your head touches the floor before proceeding to the next one; if not, the rep won't be counted.

Push-ups: Do as many push-ups as possible without stopping.

Start in a plank position with your hands slightly wider than your shoulders and your feet extended behind you. Keep your body in a straight line from head to toe, making sure not to lift up your lower back and hips or sag your butt.

  1. Lower your chest to the floor until your elbows form a right angle, and then push your body back up to the starting position.

  2. Each repetition must meet these criteria for it to count.

Shuttle run: Draw two lines on the floor 30 feet apart. Place two items, such as plastic cups, yoga blocks, or water bottles, behind one of the lines.

  1. Stand at the other line and set a timer.

  2. Sprint to the objects, pick one up, and run back to the starting line.

  3. Place the item behind the line and sprint back to the objects to pick up the second item.

  4. When you cross the starting line with the second item, stop the timer to record how long it took. You will have run a total of 120 feet (30 feet four times).

V-sit and reach: Draw a two-foot-long line on the floor (this is the “baseline”), then place a measuring tape perpendicular to the line's midpoint. Sit on the opposite side of the baseline with your legs outstretched and feet about 8–12 inches apart, your heels right behind the line. The tape measure should line up with the middle of your body.

  1. Hold your arms out in front with your palms facing down and overlapping your hands,

  2. Without bending your knees or moving your feet over the baseline, reach forward and touch the tape measure.

  3. Have a partner record how far you reach. (This may sound complicated, but it is clearly demonstrated in the video below).

One-mile endurance run: Run one mile at top speed, preferably on an outdoor track, which many high schools provide for free. If that isn't an option, you can do it on a treadmill.

  1. Note how long it takes you to complete the one-mile run.

How do schools deal with fitness now?

The new program, the Presidential Youth Fitness Program (PYFP), is optional and offers a body composition assessment, as well as professional development and encouragement to stimulate young people to become more active.

The main difference from the existing test is the shift from evaluating athletic capability to gauging health-related fitness and offering physical education programs. Now, the emphasis in fitness goals is not solely on physical activity, but also on healthy eating habits and awareness of body weight-related health issues. There are many examples of positive effects to being physically active. Some huge pay offs include brain health.

The Presidential Active Lifestyle Award, or PALA+, honors both physical exercise and healthy nutrition and is open to people of all ages.