The shuttle run! The flexed arm hang! The v-sit reach! These terms are seared into the memories of an entire generation of American schoolchildren. But did the President's Physical Fitness Test actually make us fitter? (Spoiler: lol no)
Thanks to Ashley Smith for editing assistance and Doctor Dreamchip for our lovely theme song!
Aubrey: Hi everybody. And welcome to Maintenance Phase where we will tell you all about the hidden histories of health, wellness, and you know, your worst memories from childhood PE.
Mike: That's remarkably accurate today, unfortunately.
Aubrey: I don't know anyone who felt affirmed by this particular thing. I'm Aubrey Gordon. I'm a writer, and author, and fat lady about town. And I can't shut up about my new dog.
Mike: Oh yeah. We have a special guest today sitting on your bed behind you.
Aubrey: Yeah, that's right. Fin Diesel. I'm here with the, with my cohost, Michael Hobbes.
Mike: Petless Michael Hobbes, a reporter for HuffPost. And today we're talking about the president's physical fitness test, which is a site of intense trauma for, it appears like 97% of American children. I've seen very few people that are like, that was great, glad I did it.
Aubrey: I will say I have like a couple of good, like, I really liked being like a surprisingly flexible fat kid. There were a couple of things that I was really good at, but pull-ups are a nightmare that never ends.
Mike: Unbelievable nightmare.
Aubrey: I have a vague recollection also of being like, you have to be on the bar for like 15 seconds or 30 seconds or something. Even if you don't do one.
Mike: That's the flexed arm hang. That was the one that I always did because I couldn't do one pull-up. Where they would lift you above the bar. Your chin was above the bar and then you just had to hold yourself there for as long as possible.
Aubrey: Yeah, that's right.
Mike: And like you would start shaking. It was like, it was just awful.
Aubrey: I don't remember if the wall sit was part of that or if that was just a different thing that those PE teachers did.
Mike: Well, as we will learn, the program wasn't very well organized. And it was kind of up to individual schools and individual teachers what they wanted to include on it. So fun fact, the rope climb was never on any official fitness test ever.
Mike: Yes. There was no instruction to make kids climb a rope. They just did that because they had one. So at your school, maybe they did the wall sit because your gym teacher wanted them.
Aubrey: Oh my God.
Mike: That was how scientific it was.
Aubrey: Also what kind of jerk is like these kids gotta be able to climb to the top of that rope.
Mike: These kids need someone to look at them from below. That's the thing that helps with all of their self-esteem no matter what. Do you want to summarize? Like what is the president's physical fitness test?
Aubrey: So the President's Physical Fitness Test. My recollection just as a consumer of it was that every classroom in the U.S. did this, and it was like a little battery of physical tests that always seemed sort of old fashioned to me. You know, you had to do a pull up and you had to do sit ups and you had to sit with your legs flat on the floor and sort of reach along a yardstick to see how many inches you could reach. We didn't have a ton of pull up bars. We had like one or two, so everybody's watching those one or two kids fail to do a pull up. And I also remember seeing kids who were like totally star athletes not be able to do some of this stuff.
Mike: Yes. And remember how there was always like one random goth kid who was like in theater, who could just do like 55 pull-ups. I don't know what it was like, Trevor, really what? It did not correspond to kids' actual physical fitness in these like extremely obvious ways.
Aubrey: Yes. There was a kid in our school who was super good at pull-ups and she was a Marilyn Manson superfan, and had little cat ears that she clipped into her hair every day. And she wrecked the President’s Physical Fitness Test.
Mike: I also think a really big thing that people remember about the President's Physical Fitness Test is that it was quantitative. At the end you got an actual score. And of course, kids started competing for it. Right. Like, you can only do three pull-ups, but like I can do 12. And why can't you do as many? I mean, it was just so perfectly designed for kids to rank each other and to make fun of each other, because there was a literal number right there on the paper.
Aubrey: You sort of publicly see people feel betrayed by their own bodies, right? With a bunch of kids who, for the most part, didn't feel comfortable being vulnerable in front of each other.
Mike: Yeah. It was also the most vulnerable kids feeling the worst. Right? In that it was the fat kids. It was like the kids who had asthma, who their teachers made them run the mile anyway. It was specifically structured to be the most humiliating for the least well-performing kids. Right. So all of that said the purpose of this episode is to try to tell the story of the President's Physical Fitness Test, how we got it, how the justifications for it changed over time. and what happened to it. But what's really surprising about this to me is that I have researched probably 50 episodes of You're Wrong About by this point, I have never researched a podcast that was so difficult to find basic information.
Mike: So the President's Physical Fitness Test at one point was used by 75% of schools. This was a massive nationwide program. And yet it's amazing. You look through the old historical accounts and there'll be like the 1950s, and then George W. Bush expanded the program. And you're like, wait, isn't there some information in between JFK and George W. Bush? I'm sorry.
Aubrey: Didn't you skip half of a century.
Mike: So at one point I emailed one of the few researchers I found. It was a historian, literally a historian of fitness tests. I emailed him like, am I losing my mind? I cannot find any reports about this test or how it came about or what the debates were at the time. And he wrote back, and he basically said like, “Yeah, we don't do that in exercise studies”, because even in academia, everyone just accepted all of the precepts of fitness testing as gospel. Nobody really asked basic questions of like, is this helping? Should we be doing this? Are there other ways to achieve these goals?
Aubrey: This is so bizarre. And it feels like in some ways it feels like a little encapsulation of a challenge that we have with health and wellness in general. Right.
Mike: Oh yeah.
Aubrey: That there is this sort of very uncritical acceptance, and you have to be able to do these things. You have to look this way. You have to have these numbers in your chart and your blood work and all that kind of stuff. Like this just is what it is and you don't question it. Right. So I don't actually know where this, uh, where this all got started. It feels very sort of like mid-century, fifties, sixties kind of time.
Mike: Oh my God. Yes.
Aubrey: So I'm curious, like where did this all start? And do you have any sense of what was the buildup to getting to this point to have like a national fitness test for kids?
Mike: This is actually one of the few areas that we do know about. So the origins of this start with two doctors named Hans Kraus and Sonia Weber, who are, what was known at the time as ‘posture physicians’. This field eventually becomes basically physical therapy. There's, you know, if you have lower back pain, there's exercises that you can do and stretches that you can do. Or, you know, if your hips hurt.
Aubrey: You're strengthening some muscles so that others can rest a little more, basically.
Mike: Right. We had this sort of emerging physiology of like, why do so many Americans have back pain? This is something that had appeared after World War II. Basically it's like a lot of Americans were moving into sedentary jobs. And so the muscles that you're using to sort of move around and twist all these posture muscles were starting to atrophy. And so a huge number of Americans in their thirties and forties were showing up with back pain and shoulder pain and wrist pain. This was a new thing in the 1950s in America. And so these two doctors just started noticing that once they started doing these sort of sit up exercises and stretching the hamstrings and that kind of thing, oftentimes their pain would go away. And they became convinced that the real problem was that kids were not getting these skills in childhood. And so these two doctors come up with something called the Kraus Weber test, which is a six part test that is just measuring sort of your basic fitness, your basic like posture muscles. And so I'm about to tell you these six exercises, are you ready?
Aubrey: Yes, let's do it.
Mike: It's a very different test than the president's physical fitness test because it's not measuring a sort of peak of performance or average performance. It's just a binary test that measures minimum fitness. So each one of these exercises, you only have to do one.
Mike: Okay. So the first one is you're lying down on your back with your legs straight, your arms, straight at your sides, and you just sit up. That's it. You're not doing 50 sit ups. You're literally just like, you're lying down. And then you, you move into a seated position. And there's also the same one, but with your knees bent and your feet on the floor, and you just sit up into a seated position.
Aubrey: So that one's like a single sit-up, yeah.
Mike: So then you roll over, you're lying on your stomach, and then can you raise your head, chest, and shoulders off of the ground. Kind of like a reverse crunch. And then still lying on your stomach, can you raise your feet off of the ground, yes or no? And then there's one flexibility test, which is the one we've all done a million times. You're just standing there and then you reach down, and you touch your toes for three seconds.
Aubrey: All right.
Mike: And so it's a very quick test. It's a very easy test and it gives you these really useful results because it's just like, yes, yes, no, no, no, yes. And you're like, okay, this is the level of fitness that you have. This is what we need to work on.
Aubrey: It's also really interesting because a lot of this has elements of sort of like yoga and pilates, both that is just sort of like, can your body move in these ways? Which is a very different approach than do a pull up in front of the classroom.
Mike: Like, and it's also because it's a minimum test. There's really not a lot of ways to stratify kids from this because there's no difference between somebody who can do one sit up and somebody who can do a hundred sit-ups it's just, can you do one, yes or no? It's not designed to shame children as, as later tests will be. It's more a diagnostic tool, basically.
Aubrey: Great. Go for it. Sounds good.
Mike: But so in the late 1940s and early 1950s Kraus Webber, and a woman named Bonnie Prudden, who becomes a really famous exercise guru, like early exercise guru. The three of them start administering this test to thousands of school kids. And eventually in the early fifties, they go to Europe and they test 3000 kids in Switzerland, Italy, and Austria on these tests. And so the scientific result that really begins the panic that leads us to the president's physical fitness test is after these tests, they find out that 58% of U.S. kids fail at least one of these tests and only 8% of the European kids fail these tests. So Americans are failing at these like basic minimum standards of fitness, far more than the European kids.
Aubrey: Well, and if we're talking forties and fifties, right, we're sort of like in the ramp up of the space race, it's post-World War II, there's this intense sense of like establishing the U.S. as a superpower and as like dominating on a bunch of fronts. So I could imagine that results like this would be like really alarming.
Mike: It's like an existential crisis when these results come out. Because one of the things that they find within these tests is that there's no difference between rich kids and poor kids or urban kids and rural kids. Something is wrong with America and Europe is beating us at this.
Aubrey: Do they ever figure out what's at the root of that? Or are there sort of decent hypotheses about why that might be?
Mike: Yeah. Yes. So the main hypothesis for this is American decadence. So this is an article from Hahn's Kraus interpreting the results. He says, “Europeans rely less on automobiles, school buses and elevators. European children walk miles to school, ride bicycles, hike, chop, and haul wood for home heating. In contrast, American children are largely driven in cars by their parents, confined to their own neighborhoods, and obligated to perform only easy chores such as making their own beds and setting the table. Nothing more strenuous than walking the dog or mowing the lawn.”
Aubrey: That feels like such a little prototype of what's to come with sort of the obesity epidemic.
Mike: Oh my God. I know.
Aubrey: There is a really fascinating book, I think it's called, Diet and the Disease of Civilization. The idea that this author is sort of positing is that the way that we think about diet and exercise and weight loss and all that sort of stuff is as we were in the Garden of Eden and we have fallen. And the reason we have fallen is because of civilization, is because of cars and buses and industrialization and all of that kind of stuff. And that the solution to that is to get quote unquote, get back to something that is like, preindustrial is almost the idea with a lot of fitness stuff. Where I'm like, cool. We could get back to pre-industrial times, but also you want to think about what life expectancy was in those days.
Mike: Right? Exactly. Yeah. They were just like eating raw meat off the ground. Like this is not necessarily a recipe for life.
Aubrey: Yeah, that seems right.
Mike: So eventually we find out the actual reason that European kids did so much better on the test has much more to do with practice than American decadence. If the problem was American decadence, you know, we're not walking to school anymore. We're all living in the suburbs, whatever. That's actually a pretty small slice of Americans at this point. In 1950, we still had about half of American kids were walking or biking to school. It's actually very important that in these fitness tests, we don't have a stratification between rich kids and poor kids, urban kids and rural kids, because if this was about American decadence, well, they have rich kids in Europe and they have poor kids in America.
Aubrey: This also feels like just such a classic example of adult anxiety is getting projected onto kids. Right. That's like, okay, everything's gotten industrialized. Women are in the workplace to some degree or have been, right. We've got all these factories that were producing munitions that are now producing like dishwashers and shit like that. Like what's the human cost of not having to do this work. What's the human cost of living in cities and suburbs, right. Like I could imagine given the rate of change during that sort of post-war time that there would be a lot of anxiety to go around, and this seems like a weird place to put it.
Mike: Oh yeah. But then, what's really interesting about the Krauss Weber test is as Kraus and Weber themselves say, this is a test that can improve with practice. So American kids who take this test and fail it and then practice at it for six weeks, will then get the same results as Europeans. There's also the question of whether this is actually measuring fitness or is it just measuring, I mean, are you somebody who does sit ups on a regular basis? European kids, the PE that they get in school is much more like calisthenics, where it's one gym teacher standing at the front of the class and they'll do 50 jumping jacks together. And then they'll stand with their arms out and the kids have to kick up their left leg and kick up the right leg. And then they'll all do 50 sit-ups together. It's very regimented and sort of militaristic. Whereas what happened with this form of physical education, because this was actually very popular in America from around the 1890s until the 1950s, Americans did this too.
But then what they found out was that this kind of exercise was really popular with the Nazis. This was a huge thing for Hitler, was this idea of sort of physical superiority, right? That it's not just enough to be white and blondes, you also have to be white and blonde and fit. And so the Nazis in Austria and Germany were doing a lot of these group exercise programs. So Americans got kind of uncomfortable with this stuff, and American schools in the 1940s started shifting over to sports. So instead of doing these calisthenics, we're going to play baseball. We're going to play football. The culture of sports shifted very quickly because we were all watching like the triumph of the will and it just got kind of creepy and weird.
Aubrey: Well, so the interesting thing here is that this also maps on to there's a flip side of this, right? There's not just establishing superiority through this, I would imagine there's also establishing inferiority, right? You're also sort of identifying who do we not want to have around it anymore?
Mike: Well also, so, I mean, as a guy who lived in Germany for five years and has read a lot about the Nazis over the years, it's also, I think really important to acknowledge that in authoritarian regimes, there will always be another spectrum of superiority. After you get rid of the Jews, then you're just going to start stratifying people by physical fitness. And then after you do that, you're just going to find some other reason to stratify people and get rid of the quote unquote, inferior people. This is a way of looking at the world. And so it's understandable that for American kids who have grown up playing baseball and doing these other things, they can't do sit-ups because they haven't been doing sit ups at school. And once you get them doing sit-ups at school everyday, they can do sit-ups. So there's nothing magical going on here. And the fact that, you know, kids that are playing soccer every day, you know, a couple of days a week with kids in their neighborhood, maybe they can't do a sit-up, but that doesn't mean that they're out of shape. It just means that they can't do this one specific thing.
Aubrey: Well, and based on a thing that was like, do you have back pain, adult? How do we treat your back pain, adult, right. Today like we got to get in there early so these kids don't have back pain 20 years later, I guess. Like, I just, like, there's some missing connections here, so.
Mike: All of us, the reason why it's called the President's Physical Fitness Test is because Eisenhower sees these results, and he's a military guy and he immediately links the fitness of American kids to America is going to have problems fighting wars if this gets any worse.
Aubrey: That's where the rope climbing comes in.
Mike: Okay. Yeah. And also, I don't know if this is apocryphal, but Bonnie Prudden, this later exercise guru, she gets invited to the white house and she gives Dwight Eisenhower the Kraus Weber test, and he passes and then she tells him, you know, 60% of American kids don't pass these tests
Aubrey: And he’s like: *gasp*.
Mike: Yeah. And so in July of 1956, Eisenhower creates the president's council on youth fitness. And one of the reasons that he wants to do this is because he wants it to be separate from all of these other government agencies. He doesn't want it to get bogged down in all of this bureaucracy. And so this is from a Sports Illustrated article in 1955. So this is the quote from his name's Frank Carston. He's a Missouri Democrat. He says, “According to Dr. Kraus, the physical fitness of American children is eight times lower than that of the physical fitness of European children. Simply on the mathematical surface this is a ridiculous statement, and I am very much surprised that you would dignify it”, which like, yes, like people should have been more skeptical of this than they were.
Mike: He also says, “I asked the president to explore the matter through the proper governmental agencies rather than simply taking stock in Dr. Kraus’ figures”. So he's essentially saying, why are we doing this? As a completely separate thing, if this is so important, it's very strange that you're setting up this separate president's council with an executive order.
Aubrey: Right? Why wouldn't you use like health departments? Why wouldn't you use like education departments, why wouldn't you use, like, there are vehicles that are better positioned and have more infrastructure to do this kind of thing.
Mike: Yeah. And there's also policies that you could pass. One of the things that I think is actually really important and this really sets the template for the issue of youth fitness for the next 50 years, is that it is always conceived throughout every future president that touches this issue. It is always conceived as a) so important that we have to do something about it. We have to rally parents. We have to rally schools b) it's not important enough to change any actual laws or make any sacrifices. This is what Eisenhower says, “I believe you and I share the feeling that more and better coordinated attention should be given to this most precious asset of our youth. By this, I do not mean that we should have an overriding federal program. The fitness of our young people is essentially a home and local community problem. Your deliberations also reveal a need for a rousing in the American people, a new awareness. Of the importance of physical and recreational activity.” This is the Republican approach to so many things where it's like, it's really, really, really important, but not important to actually do anything about it. We're going to leave it to local communities. We're going to leave it to parents. And you know, my, my rule of thumb on this is whenever somebody says, we need a culture of X in America, we need a culture of exercise in America. That means they don't want to do anything about it. That means they want things to change spontaneously.
Aubrey: Wait, can I tell you something? Ooh, I just turned in a new piece and the title is it's time to bring a culture of consent to diet talk. I’m the problem, Michael!
Mike: You’re the enemy!
Aubrey: No, but totally like I hear you right. That if you're talking about a culture of something, then there's not necessarily like a single person who's responsible.
Mike: Yes. Yeah. One of the things that's amazing, I actually found a really fascinating article about the systemic visitation of children's play. What they find is that in the early years of this council, so right after Eisenhower sets it up, it's actually really cute and really lovely. So the first wave of this organization, what they start putting out is all these recommendations that are really about, we need to give children open-ended forms of play. And it's really important for kids to have hobbies, but it's not important what those hobbies are. So one of their, one of their first recommendations that they put out in one of these reports that comes out in 1956, it says schools should have more time equipment and personnel for physical education and should focus increased attention on children who are not athletically gifted rather than on stars. So it's already saying like, let's, let's look at the kids that need a little bit more help and let's focus on them because like the buff football jock, who's doing 24 pull-ups he really doesn't need us. It also mentioned specifically, and this is dope for 1956. It says, make sure that girls have equal opportunities for physical fitness.
Aubrey: Whoa, Hey! That's great.
Mike: This is from the, um, terrific article on this that I found, it says in the conference's final report to the president, the conferees offered a definition of fitness that encompasses the total person, spiritual, mental, emotional, social, cultural, as well as physical.
Aubrey: That is like some whole child learning that is, even today can be kind of a radical approach. That's kind of bad-ass ahead of its time thinking.
Mike: Yeah. And in their reports, they even mentioned stuff like camping and fishing and bowling, these things that are not necessarily the most athletic, right. You're not dripping sweat when you're fishing, but it's also, it's just a nice recreational activity and some kids are going to be more suited to that then they are to jogging 10 miles and that's fine.
Mike: And this is the last time that this is going to happen in this episode, but they actually propose changes to the physical environment. That one of the things they say is that cities should start closing down streets to cars so that they create time and space for children without excessive adult oversight. They're essentially saying, let kids play in the street, let them meet their neighbors. Let them play frisbee, let them ride their bikes. It doesn't really matter what it is.
Aubrey: I will say this is something that is, that we are sort of working toward in Portland, Oregon now, not for kids playing purposes, but for like maybe some streets should just be for bikes and pedestrians. And the freak out around that from folks who drive cars is like astronomical. So it's really fascinating to hear this, you know, coming around, you know, 60 years ago, plus 70 years ago now.
Mike: I mean, it is this glimpse of the health and wellness rhetoric that we could have had if we hadn't diverted into this fork of weight. You know, some kids are going to like fishing and they're not going to be able to do a pull-up and fine. Like, I don't need every kid to be getting their resting heart rate above 90 beats per minute, three times a day like this, this quantification is something that has become so poisonous around all of our rhetoric or on food and health and fitness. And this was a time when basically this council explicitly resisted calls to do that. Right. They resisted the idea of testing kids. They resisted the idea of setting a baseline for fitness. They basically said, let's not tell them what kind of play we want them to do, or what play is or what it means to be fit. There's no point in doing that. Let's just give them the space.
Mike: Yeah. Play with your army guys. Go hang out in the forest. You know what I mean? Like build weird structures that do whatever you want, like right. Like weird kid play. So I'm super curious about how we got from this point of this council resisting this kind of measurement. And then in pretty short order, it sounds like we pivot into now there's a national test.
Mike: So what happens is, and the way that we get to the president's physical fitness test that we know today is the sort of academic expert community starts to coalesce around a new way of thinking about fitness that becomes really popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There's a guy called Charles McCloy who becomes really famous by writing a bunch of magazine articles. One of his most famous articles is called, How About Some Muscle? She essentially makes the same argument that Krauss was making in 1953, kids are too soft. And the problem is we don't have any measurable goals for these kids and what the hell are these president's council, whatever, whatever people are doing that, you know, they'd been doing this for a couple years and we don't even have baselines of what kids should be able well to do. And so in 1958, the president's council gives in to this changing paradigm of fitness and this increasing quantification of fitness and produces the first official U.S. government fitness tests. I'm going to read you the activities that are on it.
Aubrey: Okay. Yes, please.
Mike: So it has eight fitness tests. So first straight legs sit ups, standing broad jump.
They're measuring how far you can jump pull-ups for boys or modified pull-ups for girls. That's the flex arm hang. The 50 yard dash. The shuttle run. That's the thing where you pick up an eraser and then you run back and then you pick up another eraser and you basically run back and forth for a couple of minutes. There's the 600 yard run. There's a softball throw where they measure how far you can throw a softball. And then there are three aquatic tests.
Aubrey: What are the aquatic tests?
Mike: I could not, I could not find this out. The test says that they're optional. I've seen no literature on schools actually implementing these because like you'd have to go to a different building.
Aubrey: Your school would have to have a pool.
Mike: Exactly. Like what's step one. Also imagine how much worse the president's physical fitness test would have been if you had to do part of it in a fucking bathing suit. I am very glad that these have been lost to time.
Aubrey: Totally. Although I will say I was like a swim team, fat kid. That was my, that was my activity of choice. I loved it and was like super good at it.
Mike: Yeah. But also if we had done that, I would have had to test my percentile rank at hiding a boner, that would have been like every other boy is going to just be like wandering around the Speedo and like doing sit-ups. I'm like, ah, I don't think we're measuring what we want to be measuring here guys. So what's interesting about these tests is that nobody knows how they were put together. We don't have clear literature on sort of who proposed them specifically, but the theory that academics have come up with over the years is that all of them are linked to military prowess. So things like the long jump, the shuttle run, all of that is, you know, running through the jungles when you're invading another country. Like these are skills that you need for doing military maneuvers. Also I signed one article, they said that the soft ball throw, how far can you throw a softball? That's linked to potentially throwing grenades.
Mike: You don't want to get too conspiratorial about these things, but it's clear that there was a military reason, a national security reason for doing these things. So that's the sort of half tin foil hat explanation of how these exercises got in there.
Aubrey: Do you know? I don't, I don't know why this is what just popped into my head, but this is such a bizarre thing that's like, we don't think of our children as soldiers, right? Like we're against child soldiers, but we are for child military readiness. Like if push came to shove, we do know how far that kid can throw a grenade or-
Mike: We want to know what is his willingness to kill? So it's the late fifties, this test has been developed, but it's not really being used in that many schools. Like there's still not a national PE program. So this obscure government body has created this test, but it's not in all of the schools yet. But then what happens is JFK comes into office.
And apparently this is one of the first times this has ever been done, that right after he was elected. But before he took office, he wrote an editorial in Sports Illustrated called the Soft American, which basically lays out exactly the same argument as Krauss and Weber had made in 1953, the American kids are soft. Their fitness is bad. The fitness of kids is actually worse in 1961 than it is in 1953. So he starts out his essay by saying, “The first indication of a decline in the physical strength and ability of young Americans became apparent among U.S. soldiers in the early stages of the Korean war. Almost one out of every two young Americans was being rejected by selective service as mentally, morally, or physically unfit.”
Aubrey: Sorry, was it physically, mentally, or morally unfit? He's going to throw in the mentally and morally and not really unpack that at all my dude?
Mike: I know it's like how much time do we have on this show?
Aubrey: Buddy that's all that was a big bucket to throw a lot of people into and then be like, they all just need some exercise.
Mike: It's like really not the point there's also, but then he does the thing he ends his sports illustrated article doing the exact same thing that Eisenhower did and that every future president will do. He says, you know, this is so important. Our bodies are getting soft. We need to beat the Soviets. We need to be a vital nation, vigorous, blah, blah, blah. And then he's like, okay, here are my recommendations. Here's what we need to do to solve this problem. I'm going to read these to you, “First establish a White House committee on health and fitness. Make the physical fitness of our youth, the direct responsibility of the department of health, education, and welfare. The governor of each state must be invited to attend the annual national youth fitness Congress.” So it's like establish a fucking committee, invite governors to a meeting? It's so important and this is the only way we're going to beat the Soviets, but you just want to hold a bunch of meetings and bring the president's council into a different government department. And so another really important thing that he does is he establishes an award. So you probably remember this from when you were a kid that the kids who scored above the 85th percentile on all six categories of the president's physical fitness test got an achievement, or I don't know if it was like a ribbon or like a metal or whatever it was, but they would get sort of officially recognized for being one of the fittest kids at school. This was seen as a way of promoting physical education and kind of fostering friendly competition amongst kids.
Aubrey: How friendly was it?
Mike: I know, you could tell from the competition in quotes, like that's such an oxymoronic phrase to me “friendly competition” in schools.
Aubrey: Also like the people who call school sports friendly competition are the people who win every quote unquote friendly competition. It's just like only the people who feel great about it, who are like, it's fine.
Mike: But so what's amazing about this entire field is that we keep having the same moral panic about the fitness of children. Right. So we had, in the fifties, we had it again in the sixties and in the 1980s, we start getting another wave of news articles coming out, saying kids are less fit than they used to be. Kids are watching more TV. It's now getting more wrapped up in the obesity epidemic. And in TV watching, which is a decades long moral panic about children. But basically, we just get a third wave of articles coming out, being like, look how unfit our kids are.
Aubrey: I feel like I'm going to end up, like in the style of Jerry Seinfeld having a clenched fist and rather than saying Newman, I'm going to end up saying Reagan. School fitness can't trickle down, but money has to.
Mike: And so in the midst of all of these swirling anxieties, states start passing laws that every kid needs to get a fitness test once per year. So this is when we get the huge explosion of the president's physical fitness test being launched into schools. We also get, in 1986, a new version of the test. This is the version that you and me remember is the 1986 version. It consists of the one mile run slash walk, curl ups, basically sit ups, pull ups, the shuttle run. The V sit reach, which is this thing where you're sitting down with your legs spread and you see how far you can reach your hands forward. And then the sit and reach, which is the same thing, but your feet are together.
Aubrey: I remember the sit and reach well, we had like a weird little like box that you put your feet into.
Mike: Remember the box.
Aubrey: And then there was like a yard stick, like glued to it or something. It was like a weirdly janky kind of thing.
Mike: Super janky. And a lot of kids that actually were flexible and like did dance and stuff couldn't do that very well because it was a very specific form of flexibility.
Aubrey: Totally. I completely forgot that the mile is part of it. I think I have blocked out the mile because it was so horrible.
Mike: One year at my school boycotted it. And I walked as slowly as I could. And I sat down and I read a Stephen King book for like 10 minutes in the middle of it. And I remember they had to delay the start of the next class just for me, because I refused to do it. I took 27 minutes to do the mile.
Aubrey: Oh my God. That's like the courage I wish I had. So we had at my school, it was a long path to get from the gym to the track. You had to like walk through this sort of like, this is very Pacific Northwest, you have to walk through this big, long, like sort of forest section. To get down to the track. So everyone had to go down to the track together. And when we would run the mile, you would just watch the fastest kids finish first without even really breaking a sweat. And it was reliably, there were two kids who were last, and it was me and this other fat kid who was a friend of mine. And there were two outcomes and both of them were mortifying to me. One was that many of the kids who finished first would get resentful, that they were like, had this potential free time and they couldn't walk back up to the gym and change and get that free time back.
Mike: Because they had to sit there and watch the fat kids, which just like, is structured to encourage bullying.
Aubrey: And the flip side of that was there were some kids who finished faster, who I think thought of themselves as nice kids. And we're absolutely trying to do a nice thing. And they would like sort of jog alongside us and be like, good job. You can do it. This is more spotlight that I do not want right now.
Mike: It's so mortifying. I fucking remember that.
Aubrey: It’s just such a creepy way to like, decide to be inspired by like to center your own reaction to what someone else is doing right. Rather than what they probably want and need.
Mike: It was just so, it was just so mortifying the entire exercise. So this is also the time in the late eighties and the early nineties when schools start doing what they call body composition tests.
Mike: As part of the president's physical fitness test, they started measuring kids' BMI's and they started doing skin fold tests. So there's something called the fitness gram, where they take a measurement of your skin fold on the back of your right arm and on your right calf. And they measure how thick the skin is. And that's a measurement of your body fat percentage, basically.
Aubrey: Totally bananas.
Mike: Totally bananas. There's also some schools that are weighing all the kids, but they only have one scale. So they have to do it in front of everybody else. And they read out the number, which is just, again, designed to shame the fattest kids.
Aubrey: Well, and it's also like, as I'm sure it's as close as you get to a guarantee of somebody in that class getting an eating disorder.
Mike: This is what happens when obesity becomes the frame through which we look at all health issues. It's not really about testing fitness anymore. It's about testing fatness.
Aubrey: I'm super curious about the degree to which there is even just a shared definition at this point of like what physical fitness consists of.
Mike: Oh my fucking God.
Aubrey: This feels like a way of defining it through negative space. Right. It's not being fat yet, which I'm like, okay, but then what isn't though.
Mike: This actually gets into the next section that we're going to dwell on for a while, which is the problems with the president's physical fitness test. So even on this, there's not as much academic literature as I would like, but there's actually much more on the challenges of the test and the deficiencies of the test than there is on its actual history. So as the test becomes much more popular, much more widespread, kids are being now required by law to get it every single year, studies started coming out about the fact that it's really not achieving any of its goals. And one of the reasons is that kids are not practicing the president's physical fitness test. I mean, this is something that really like made an audible click in my head when I was reading it that in middle school, we would just have gym class. And, you know, we'd play volleyball and whatever. And then one day a year we would do this dumb physical fitness test. And then we would just go back to what we were doing.
Aubrey: Right. You weren't doing a sit and reach every month.
Mike: Yeah. So it was basically okay, a random Wednesday. We're just going to come in, you're going to do this thing. You're going to feel like shit. And then we're never going to talk about it.
Aubrey: And then we're going to go back to playing Dodge ball and we won't test you on your dodge ball acuity or whatever, right? Yeah.
Mike: So it’s totally separated from any actual program. I mean, I could actually see some use in some of these things like, hey, we're going to help kids get flexible. So at the beginning of the year, we're going to do the toe touch. We’re going to do a bunch of other stretching exercises. Every single day for three months we're all going to do stretches together as a class. And at the end, we're going to test ourselves again and look how much you improved. I can see that being a pretty positive experience for kids. Like, look, you can train your body and you can become better at something. And maybe you'll find a love for like downward dogging or something. And maybe you'll continue doing that at home. Great. But it was never done like that. It was just like, you piece of shit. You can't even do one pull-up. Okay. See you next year where you're also not going to be able to do one pull-up.
Aubrey: So like basically the lesson that we learned that sparked this whole thing, right, that European kids were getting practice in these specific things. We then did not apply for all of this time. Right. We shouldn't be allowed to be surprised by, you didn't practice a thing and then you didn't get better. That shouldn't be, that's just like people. That's just how people work.
Mike: Totally. And another, I mean, another problem with this, and I think this is really key to almost all of these sorts of national, overall projects that we have about PE in schools is that schools, teachers were never really given very much instruction or extra resources for this. Again, it's not like this was like a six week fun program that all the kids are going to do together. And we're all going to become stronger in these specific ways. It was like, hey, PE teachers, you're required by law to give this test once a year. But we’re not really going to give you guidelines on how to do it.
How to communicate the results to kids or what the results mean. Teachers, since the 1950s, have absolutely hated this test and teachers and principals have been opposed to it from day one, but no one ever really listened to those concerns or took them seriously because like, oh, it's just teachers who cares? Only the people on whom we depend for the success of the programs. So why would we listen to them obviously? Right?
Aubrey: Right. I mean, this is sort of like a shitty, like obstructionist term that gets thrown around a lot, but like, it is a pretty classic unfunded mandate. Yeah. Just go do a bunch of other stuff and we're not going to pay you for it. We're not going to figure it out for you. You'll figure it out for yourselves and whatever, but you should definitely be very concerned about it. Like what.
Mike: I mean, this, this is one of my biggest shocks when I was researching this. And because I'm a methodology queen, I get really angry at stuff like this. First of all, the data that we get from the fitness tests is pretty shitty because the data is being gathered in such a poor way. Like they say, in the BMI test that a lot of kids are getting weighed, like with their jackets on or with their shoes.
Aubrey: That’s like fat lady 101. You go into Weight Watchers, you take off as many clothes as possible. Come on. It's like these kids don't even know how to diet!
Mike: But like this is to me is completely ridiculous that no one ever did anything with the results, the primary thing that was done with the actual numbers that were produced by millions of kids taking this test every year was they would just identify kids to get awards. So all that stuff about like percentile rankings, all of that is based on other academic studies that were done, the actual numbers that were produced by all of the surveillance of all these kids, no public health departments were plugged into that, that wasn't going to principals to like track kids over time. All of these numbers that we produced, they didn't do anything. They were just there to make us feel shitty. And then they just went into the recycling.
Aubrey: Yeah. So they weren't even like aggregated? There wasn't even like a report?
Aubrey: Ugh! Reagan!
Mike: And another thing that comes up in the studies on this is that none of the actual fitness tests measured fitness. So I found a really good meta-analysis of all of the individual tasks that were the components of the president's physical fitness tests. And there's literally no evidence that the ability to do pull-ups is related to overall upper body strength.
Aubrey: Right? If it did, no one would have any, we would all have T-Rex arms. Like of course it's not indicative of shit.
Mike: This actually comes up in this review that it's extremely strange to pick a measure of fitness that most children cannot do. You can have a lot of different kids that cannot do a pull-up and some of those kids are extremely fit and some of those kids are extremely unfit, but because all of them are putting up the numbers zero, you're not catching any of those gradations. And so what this review finds is that pull-ups are a much better measure of body fat percentage than anything else because your body weight is inversely correlated to how many pull-ups you can do. So you're basically just measuring how fat the kids are. It's not actually useful as anything else.
Aubrey: This is always sort of a fascinating thing when people talk about fitness where they're like, I don't know that fat guy gets winded real fast and I'm like, yeah, he's carrying 200 more pounds than you are.
Mike: Yes. And working harder. Yes.
Aubrey: And he's working harder every day to do everything right. I don't understand how this doesn't translate for folks, but okay.
Mike: Basically, if we were designing a fitness test from scratch, now we would not be using any of these things because they don't actually test fitness. The studies actually mention that there's no good test for fitness of kids, generally, because when we talk about, you know, how fit should kids be? It's really difficult because what we're basically trying to do is predict things far in the future, right? Which kids are going to get heart disease, which kids are going to get lower back pain, et cetera. And so it's really difficult to tell what should kids be able to do at 12? That's going to predict what happens to them when they're 50.
Aubrey: It is presenting itself as public health work. And what it is doing for sure is just ramping up weight stigma.
Mike: Oh yeah. I mean, this is one of the central criticisms of the fitness test that starts showing up in the literature around 2000, especially after the implementation of no child left behind. When a lot of schools start cutting PE programs and some schools even start cutting recess because everything becomes built around standardized test scores. And so a lot of schools cut their PE programs because they have to focus on STEM or whatever, but they still have this legal requirement to do the fitness test. So a lot of schools that don't even have PE will sort of one day a year, pull all the kids aside and make them do these humiliating fitness tests and weigh them and then just send them back into school. So it's not even like this is being contextualized in a PE class. It's literally just, you're sitting all the time and then we test you and we're like, why are you so unhealthy? And then you just go back to sitting the next day.
Aubrey: Yeah. Right. It also feels like we don't have a test once a year to see how well you can draw a still life and then defund art education. Right. Like it's like, hey man, there's a pretty clear connection here from one to the other. And the episode with this really fascinating article by Michael Gard, who's the academic who I emailed about the lack of history on the President's Physical Fitness Test. So he wrote a fascinating article called, Why is There So Little Critical Physical Education Scholarship in the United States? And it's basically about this problem, that the same articles with the same panic statistics keep getting published. And yet nobody seems to come to the obvious conclusion that fitness testing is not working. That there's an entire body of researchers that are looking at the data that is being produced by this and the experiences that kids are having and have been having as a result of these tests for almost 40 years now. And they're just like, well, it has to still be good. So what he says is, “The remarkable point here is that despite these findings widespread inaccuracies, negative student and teacher perceptions, and potentially harmful practices, the authors remain apparently unshakeable in their support for fitness testing. An interesting feature of papers such as this is the way the distaste or disinterest of people toward fitness testing is almost uniformly interpreted as a matter of communication rather than substance. Indeed, despite the widely reported resistance of parents, children, and teachers in the fitness testing literature, fitness testing is presented as a settled and unassailable practice that is inherently beneficial for individuals, families, and society.”
This shit is fire emojis. He's really mad about this. And I found a bunch of articles in the literature that illustrate exactly the point that he is making. It's amazing. There's all of these papers about sort of the ongoing debate about fitness testing. And should we keep fitness testing and it's a controversial subject and what are the pros and cons? And what is amazing about them is that when they present the pros and cons of fitness testing, all of the pros are potential things of fitness testing and all of the cons are actual drawbacks.
Aubrey: So the pros are sort of like imagined.
Mike: Yeah, let me walk you through one of these. So one of the main sorts of literature reviews of the debate surrounding fitness testing, the data surrounding fitness testing, it lists at the end of the article, the pros and the cons. What are the good, what are the bad? What do various people say? They've read all of the literature. The first benefit that he lists is tracking the fitness of youth, “Information concerning the distribution of scores can be used to track youth fitness over time.” Well, they're not doing that right.
Aubrey: In order to do that, you would have to aggregate your data somewhere.
Mike: In order to do that, you would have to do that. This paper also does something that I think is very typical, where people substitute the benefits of fitness testing for the benefits of fitness. So they say like, well, you know, fitness is really good for kids. And it's like, yeah, fitness is really good for kids, but that doesn't mean fitness testing is good for kids, right? That's not an argument to tell kids to do pull-ups and then make them feel shitty for not being able to do a pull-up once a year. That's very distinct from like, let's all play volleyball on Wednesdays.
Aubrey: If you want to foment a sort of commitment to fitness, a) you need a class and b) you need a class where instructors are aware of, you know, what makes kids take things in and what makes kids change their behaviors and that kind of thing. You're not going to do it by hiring a bunch of football coaches and then being like anyway, now care about fat kids.
Mike: Another one of the main arguments for fitness testing is that we need to raise awareness of the obesity epidemic. Like this is something you see in so many articles, it's like, oh, we need to make kids aware that the obesity epidemic is a problem. And that physical fitness is good. And it's like, again, testing them and making them feel shitty is not a good approach to this.
Aubrey: Right. I mean, it's the same reason that like, ideally if you have a math test and you have kids who have a hard time with math, you don't call them up to the front of the class and be like, Hey, look at these dummies. That's not a way that people learn, nor is it a way that people get invested.
Mike: Yes. It's like, I think all kids should learn to read, but instead of actually giving them time to read and dedicating teachers to teaching them how to read, I'm just going to test them once a year and be like, why the fuck can't you read? That's my way of raising awareness of the importance of reading. And then this is from this literature review. It says when tests are properly administered, fitness testing provides useful information for students to determine their needs, setting goals and plan programs for improvement. Well, again, they're not doing that. So yes, if they were properly administered, sure they have the potential to do that, but that's been true since the 1950s and that potential has never been reached. So I don't see why that's really relevant. Like yeah, a lot of things have potential to be good.
Aubrey: Yes, totally. There's a ton of potential. The question is, does a test fulfill that potential? Right? And it seems like we don't really know that.
Mike: I mean, maybe there's a school district in America that has done fitness testing as part of an integrated program in a way that doesn't make kids feel shitty about themselves. But as far as a nationwide program and legal requirements, it's clear that this is not working. So after listing all of these potential benefits of fitness tests, things that could come to pass, but have not, they start listing the drawbacks. First one is teacher motivation and support. Teachers are not being motivated. Teachers are not supported. Teachers fucking hate this. That's a real, like, that's not a potential, that's a real thing. Teachers have disliked this test for 70 years. Right?
Aubrey: Right. But in order to take that into account, we would have to listen to what teachers have to say about education. Michael, why would we do that? Why would we start that now?
Mike: We'd have to ask teachers what they need. This one is amazing. The second bullet point on the cons of fitness testing is student motivation and self-esteem. Of concern or the percentage of elementary school teachers reporting that students cried during testing and the reports of high school students who had negative test experiences. So, uh, kids are fucking crying and you're like, ooh, the potential of the test is still there.
Aubrey: Right? It's like, um, you know, what I love doing is things that make me cry in front of my peers.
Mike: Fucking crying taking this test, teachers fucking hate it. And we're like, well, you know, it could work, but you know, we're taking no steps to make sure that it works right.
Aubrey: And also, how else are we going to know how far a child can throw a grenade? There is essential information embedded in your mind.
Mike: Right? So this is from yet another literature review of this debate over fitness testing that says in the fucking abstract, “There is currently no consensus on the importance, need, or impact of fitness tests on student experiences in physical education. Several studies highlight the negative impact fitness testing has on students' experiences in physical education, such as the formation of negative attitudes toward PE, decreased motivation toward PE following poor test scores, and feelings of humiliation when failing in front of peers. These findings provide compelling evidence that fitness test experiences do little to promote positive feelings about lifelong physical activity and fitness.” So even on its own terms, even if you're using fitness testing as a way of quote unquote, raising awareness about the need for kids to move and the badness of the obesity epidemic, et cetera, even on those terms, it's not fulfilling its mission, because people are doing this and they're feeling discouraged from doing physical activity because their experience was so bad.
Aubrey: I would say for me personally, not only did these fitness tests not incentivize physical fitness, they attach trauma to it. So like deeply increased my, like, I was like a pretty active kid until this kind of shit kicked in where it was, became the sort of social rankings stuff. So like now when I am active, which I like I'm relatively active, right. I have to do it in ways that don't remind me of gym class, right? There's a reason I've never done another fucking pull up in my life. There's a reason I don't like stand around my house doing wall sits. Right. The reason that all of these things are like, I don't engage with them remotely anymore.
Mike: And also, I mean, Michael Gard, this researcher, one of the only skeptical researchers on this entire field. He has an entire book about how we have tried for decades to use schools as public health promotion devices. D.A.R.E is a good example. We've done alcohol education in schools. We've done physical education. We, we keep trying to use schools as a way to solve public health problems. And the fact is you can't solve public health problems without public health approaches. That if we actually want kids to get moving, we need to just make it easier for them to do that, right. Again, we need to close streets and give them a place to play. We need to make it safe for them to walk and bike to school. We need to build playgrounds and parks near them so they can use them. We need to give parents decent working schedules so they can go on walks with their kids and throw frisbees around. It's these things that will actually encourage the outcomes that we want rather than just fucking raising awareness of like exercise is good and fatness is bad, right?
Aubrey: We also don't need to tell people that smoking is bad at this point. If you are smoking at this point, it is for other reasons than not knowing, like you don't need to worry that fat people don't know that it's like bad to be fat or that it's seen as bad to be fat. Like you don't need to worry about that. That box is checked, team.
Mike: So the closest thing to a happy ending that we're going to get is it appears a lot of states are actually starting to finally get rid of these absurd laws requiring fitness tests. So California is at the Vanguard of this. There's a big debate in California right now about whether to get rid of this requirement. And interestingly it is being led by the parents of nonbinary kids.
Aubrey: Oh sure.
Mike: Because these male/female totally different, you know, binary requirements, the trans kids, nonbinary, intersex kids, and their parents are like, “Well, this is really alienating to me and fuck you.” So I hope that like this results in a broader movement to just get ready of these tests altogether.
Mike: So yeah, that's the end of my, um, long torturous depressing journey through the president's physical test. It's worse than you thought.
Aubrey: It's so much worse than I thought. but I also have to say, I feel oddly at peace and validated that it wasn't just a shit show for me and for the fat kids that I knew and the disabled kids that I know. But that it is just a garbage fire of public policy.
Aubrey: From like every angle it's like pretty indefensible at this point.
Mike: Yes. There was no evidence to do it in the first place. The evidence that it works is non-existent and the evidence that getting rid of it is good is there, so just on every level, like, yes, let's do this.
Aubrey: Listen aside from fat kids disabled, it's like, aside from everyone, who's on the downside of this really terrible activity, what’s the problem? Jocks really seem to like their trophies.
Mike: That one girl who looked like Marilyn Manson, she loves it. We’re doing it for her.