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Details: New Presidential Youth Fitness Program

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD

Sept. 13, 2012 -- Goodbye percentile scores, hello "healthy fitness zone."

A new presidential youth fitness program is replacing the old presidential fitness test that most adults grew up with in physical education (PE) classes in school.

The updated program does away with comparing students' performances on athletic tasks like sit-ups and push-ups and then rating them on a percentile scale vs. their peers.

Instead, the new program measures students' health-related fitness based on what current research shows promotes good health and lowers the risk of disease.

"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," says Shellie Pfohl, executive director of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. She announced the new program this week.

Pfohl says that when the original presidential fitness test was developed almost 50 years ago, it was designed to measure children's athletic performance and abilities -- particularly in case they were called into military service.

"By design, the old test compared kids against each other, so by design 50% failed," Pfohl tells WebMD.

Rather than comparing children against each other, Pfohl says the most important difference about the new program is "helping kids reach a healthy fitness zone."

Updating the Fitness Test

Modernizing the presidential fitness test was a recommendation of the president's council's science board and the White House's 2010 task force on childhood obesity, which inspired first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative.

"We have a better understanding of what it means to be a healthy kid," Mrs. Obama says. "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 new "Fitnessgram" fitness assessment analyzes the students' performance on evidence-based criteria in five different areas:

  • Cardiovascular fitness or aerobic capacity
  • Body composition
  • Muscle strength
  • Muscular endurance
  • Flexibility

Fitnessgram is a fitness assessment and reporting program developed by the non-profit Cooper Institute. The software and support materials for the program are available free to schools online.

The assessment uses a variety of tests, such as a skin-fold test to measure body composition, and exercises like curl-ups to gauge muscle strength and endurance.

Understanding the Results

Each test score is then evaluated using the "Healthy Fitness Zone" standards. A student who scores in the healthy fitness zone in five out of six events is eligible to receive the Presidential Youth Fitness Award.

Students whose results are below the healthy fitness zone standards are placed in the "needs improvement" zone. Within the needs improvement zone there are two levels based on how far below the standard they fall: "needs improvement - some risk" and "needs improvement - high risk."

Children who need improvement are given information on the health risks linked to low fitness in these areas. They're also taught ways to reach the healthy zone and improve their physical fitness.

Officials say most students who are physically active for at least 60 minutes a day should be able to get a score that places them in the healthy fitness zone.

Is It Enough?

The new physical fitness program has the backing of several major health organizations and physical education professional groups.

But this program, like the old one, is completely voluntary.

That has some physical education experts questioning whether it is enough to combat the childhood obesity epidemic at a time when many schools are cutting PE due to budget constraints and academic performance pressures.

"It's a good thing that we now have a plan in place to identify youth in America with low physical fitness and high body fat," says Avery Faigenbaum, EdD, professor of exercise science at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, N.J.

"But there is no incentive to participate or to even offer physical education," says Faigenbaum. "We can only hope physical education teachers will hop on board."

But Kent Adams, PhD, kinesiology professor at California State University at Monterey Bay, says the incentive is there.

"I think the incentive is the health and well-being of our children, which equates to the health and well-being of our country," he says.

"It's not fair to say it's in the lap of our public schools," Adams tells WebMD. "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."

SOURCES: News release, Presidential Youth Fitness Program. Shellie Pfohl, executive director, President's Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. Avery Faigenbaum, EdD, professor of exercise science, The College of New Jersey, Ewing, N.J. Kent Adams, PhD, professor and chair, kinesiology department, California State University, Monterey Bay. American Academy of Sports Medicine.

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