Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The President's Fitness Challenge

A great idea that has never really been implemented
What happened to the President's Physical Fitness Test that we used to take as kids in PE class?  I remember struggling through it in elementary and middle school.  We didn't really prepare for the test--it sort of just got sprung on us randomly.  The pullup portion was humiliating to me since I couldn't even do one until I focused on practicing them consistently as a 6th grader.  Having a Marine for an old man provided that not-so-subtle external motivation for me.  I would have disliked it as a kid, but having guided training sessions to the Fitness Test standards would have been so much better for my physical development and sports performance.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the test standards and I'm rather impressed with it.  Covering many aspects of fitness, kids have to really focus their physical activities towards the skills covered to pass their age standard.  There is also a test for adults which is rather easy but could be a fun program to mix into your daily exercise regimen.  I wonder what percentage of kids by age group even attempt the challenge these days and what percentage can meet the age group standards?  Probably not high percentages in either case, but I don't think the numbers for kids when I grew up in the 1980's were much better.
Pullups are a key movement for determining overall fitness
It's odd to me that this program hasn't become a bigger focus for our educational system.  The mind-body connection for learning is well established.  Kids need to get their excess energy out before they can focus on mental tasks (I still have this problem).  We knew as early as the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations that American youth were lagging the physical condition of European counterparts.  The health of boys has been essential to national security since ancient times since they are the future soldiers that defend the country.  Boot camp is only a few weeks long; not nearly enough time to erase a lifetime of physical neglect.  The first organizers of the President's Council on Youth Fitness faced criticism that state ordered fitness programs were paradoxically both communist and fascist.  In any case, the laissez-faire attitude towards developing youth health and fitness hasn't seemed to work very well for us.

China seems to have a stronger focus on the health and wellness of its people than what we see from our government here (maybe the critics during the Eisenhower administration were right!).  On a recent trip, I saw publicly available outdoor fitness equipment with clear usage instructions throughout the cities that we visited.  Cities organize morning tai chi sessions in public parks and hold line dancing in the evenings.  Bike riding used to be just for transportation, but now is becoming a fitness pursuit for middle class Chinese people.  The Chinese culture honors athletics while we tend to prioritize games.  Because of all this, my bet is that Chinese kids are on average stronger, faster, leaner, and healthier than American kids.
Outdoor playground for adults in Shanghai, China
Developing human feed stock for the army isn't the only reason for a country to want fit kids.  Most countries have national health coverage paid by the state through taxes.  This creates a direct motivation for the state to reduce lifestyle-related diseases whose treatment cost the taxpayers more than the cost of nutrition and activity programs.  With our privatized healthcare system here in the US, it seems we have less of a motivation to help kids learn to be healthy early in life.  Maybe at the school district level, administrators  have gotten so out-of-shape themselves that they can't stomach the hypocrisy of prioritizing physical education (both activity and instruction) higher.  Restricted class time and money pop up as the reason for PE cutbacks, but I don't buy the argument that they are the primary limiting factors for health education.

I think institutionalized laziness has woven itself into our cultural framework.  Play and games are viewed as just for kids.  Without a sport to train towards, many former athletes stop training all together.  Fitness as a goal in itself is growing as a movement, but our national waistlines still continue to grow.  We spend our time and money on what we prioritize highest.  30-60 minutes per day for developing physical health awareness would be energy well spent for all ages.  The earlier we start, the easy it is to make fitness a life long habit.
Kids learn whatever we teach them; what are we teaching them about their health? 

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