The origins of the presidential aptitude test

It was born out of Cold War fears of an overweight and sluggish population. He tormented the students, who looked on in fear. And while educators were unclear about its benefits, it endured for generations.

It was the presidential (or presidents) fitness test. For decades, students took it (or underwent it, depending on their view), proving their physical fitness through running, sit-ups, and pull-ups, among other tests.

And then he was gone.

The presidential fitness test, like many things in modern American life, grew out of fears of national defense.

The US military increased its study of nutrition during the World War II era, largely because of the decade that preceded it. The Great Depression led to widespread starvation; immediately before the war, it was estimated that one-third of draft rejections were related to poor nutrition.

But by the 1950s, a different problem was beginning to develop. The Cold War was in full swing, and with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the United States was losing the space race. There were concerns about a missile gap and there were also concerns about a fitness gap, thanks to the fact that Americans had a standard of living unmatched in the world.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Dwight D. Eisenhower. / Fox Photos/GettyImages

In 1955, Jack Kelly, an Olympic rower turned construction millionaire (and father of actress Grace Kelly, the future princess of Monaco) brought a troubling study to the attention of Pennsylvania Senator James Duff, who he shared it with President Dwight. Eisenhower. Soon, the president, Senator Kelly and more than two dozen other sports figures gathered at a White House luncheon to learn about the study directly from its co-authors: Hans Kraus, a physician and associate professor at New York University . , and Bonnie Prudden, director and owner of the Fitness Institute in White Plains, New York.

The scientists revealed that nearly 58 percent of young Americans failed at least one of the six mobility tests administered, which included whether they could do sit-ups and touch their toes, and if that wasn’t worrying enough, only 8.7 percent of European children failed at least one. proof

In its August 1955 issue, a new magazine named Sports Illustrated called it The report that shocked the president and quoted Kraus, who said: They were paying the price of progress The older generation was tougher because they had to undergo adequate physical activity in the normal routine of life. We don’t want to change the standard of living by trying to do away with the automobile and television. But we need to make sure we compensate for this loss of physical activity. In other words, we eliminate the benefits.

Eisenhower took action in 1956, signing an executive order to start the Presidents Council on Youth Fitness with Vice President Richard Nixon as chairman. The following year, a conference was held at the United States Military Academy (Eisenhower’s alma mater) to develop a plan, and in 1958 the first youth aptitude test standards were announced: a career with shuttle (a round trip between two markers to test). speed and agility), a 50-yard dash, a 600-yard run/walk, pull-ups, standing long jump, sit-ups, and a softball throw (which, it was allegedly noted, demonstrated the same skill set as throw). a hand grenade).

Eisenhowers time in the White House ended in 1961; his vice president, Nixon, was defeated in the 1960 presidential election by Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was a marked change from his predecessor: Eisenhower was old enough to be his father (so was the Nixons) and, after establishing the council, had very little to do with it. The new presidents have a vigorous activity (which belied serious health problems, including back pain, colon problems and Addison’s disease) led him to encourage others to stay active and healthy.

Kennedy, who thought fitness was not just a youth problem, wrote in the December 26, 1960, issue of Sports Illustrated that human activity, the work of the human body, is rapidly being designed out of working life. Echoing some of the same points made by his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt in his 1899 speech The Strenuous Life (which he even directly quoted), Kennedy noted that, in a very real and immediate sense, our growing softness, our growing lack of physical fitness, is a threat to our security, such softness on the part of individual citizens can help strip and destroy the vitality of a nation. In 1962, Kennedy found one of Roosevelts executive orders urging US Navy officers to walk 50 miles in 20 hours over three days, which his council turned into a national fitness campaign , complete with an advertising bombardment (Kennedy’s brother, a lawyer). General Robert F. Kennedy, made the trip in his Oxfords). Kennedy also renamed the council the Presidents Council on Physical Fitness.

Kennedy’s council developed a curriculum to improve physical fitness and encouraged participation. Lyndon Johnson, who became president after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and was elected to a full term in 1964, undertook another presidential fitness survey in 1965. The results were markedly better than the previous decade. In 1965, he implemented the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, which was given to students who scored 85th percentile or higher on a series of physical fitness tests similar to the 1958 test (at the time, a flexed arm had replaced the modified girls traction). -ups, apparently because it produced more reliable scores). He also changed the council’s name once again, this time to the Sports and Fitness Presidents Council. The president’s fitness test had taken its full, but not final form.

Almost as soon as it was introduced and for generations after the presidential aptitude test was absolutely traumatic. The worst part of the fitness test for an out-of-shape kid wasn’t the actual exercise, Rodger Sherman wrote at SBNation. It was the fact that everyone in your class would see you trying to exercise and see how bad you were at it, so many of us were humiliated.

Even gym teachers realized that the effectiveness of the tests was countered by embarrassing students enough to fear it. We knew who was going to be last and we were embarrassing them, physical education teacher Joanna Faerber recalled to NPR in 2014. We pointed out their weakness.

The test was modified again in 1976: the softball throw was dropped (the throw was theorized to be a test of skill, not fitness), the sit-ups were changed from straight legs to a timed sitting and flexed leg. ; and longer runs were added as options. Another survey was conducted a decade later, with additional changes to the test (including the addition of the dreaded sit-and-reach), but none has been conducted since then. In fact, if there’s one thing the Presidents’ Council on Sports and Fitness later became known for, it’s for its litany of celebrity presidents, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Florence Griffith Joyner and Lynn Swann.

In 2012, the President’s Fitness Test was replaced by the Presidential Youth Fitness Program as part of the Lets Move! initiative, which sought a more holistic approach to keeping children physically active and teaching lessons to ensure good choices in health, activity and nutrition. The youth fitness program includes an assessment, but the skills tested and parameters are very different.

The thinking has totally changed, Faerber told NPR. Now you want to get into the healthy adjustment zone, instead of being the person who can throw the softball the farthest.

What began as the Youth Fitness Test has evolved in both skills and name since it was created in 1958. Originally, the test was based on the work of the American Association for Health, Physical Education and Leisure (AAHPER; later, they will change). association a allianceand later still add dance and become AAHPERD). In the mid-1980s, The Presidents Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (later the Presidents Council on Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition, abbreviated PCPFS and PCPFSN) took the lead; they changed the test significantly and will continue to adjust it until 2012. While other school fitness programs emerged around this time, here’s how the skills included in most government-sponsored tests have changed over the years.

1958

1965

1976

1986

1997

Shuttle run

X

X

X

X

X

50 yard board

X

X

X

600 yard run/walk

X

X

X

pull-ups (kids)

X

X

X

Modified pull-up (girls)

X

Bent Arm Hang (Girls)

X

X

Pull-ups (both)

X

Softball throw

X

X

Standing long/broad jump

X

X

X

Squat (straight leg)

X

X

Squat (bent leg)

X

Curl-ups

X

V-its scope

X

Sit and come

high

One mile run/walk

X

Curl-ups OR partial curl-ups

X

V-sit reach OR sit and reach

X

One mile race OR distance option

X

Pull-ups OR push-ups at right angles

X

Sources of the table: AAHPER Youth Aptitude Tests Manual, 1958; Emblem to boost the presidents drive for exceptional fitness, The Durham Sun, 1966; AAPHER Youth Aptitude Tests Manual, 1976 [PDF]; The Presidential Fitness Awards Program, which includes the President’s Challenge. Teacher’s Guide, 1986 [PDF]; Get fit! How to get in shape for the President’s challenge. A handbook for young people aged 6 to 17, 1997 [PDF]; The state will evaluate a new test as a measure of physical fitness, Hartford Courant1997

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