Vox has an article, A brief history of the bizarre and sadistic Presidential Fitness Test, which I find that I have surprising strong feelings about.

As the headline suggests and the article explains, the whole program was wrong-headed and badly implemented. My complaint, though, is not that the whole thing was designed as if for inevitably humiliating me in front of my peers (although it did that). My complaint is that I could actually have done great on the test, if only PhysEd class had taught what we were going to be tested on.

I don’t remember the details—I last took the test in 1970, give or take a year—but I do remember that I was able to do 1 pullup, and almost able to do a second.

The amount of practice is takes to go from being able to do one and three-quarters pullups to being able to do the six or seven pullups that would have been a passing score is really small. A few weeks of my PhysEd instructor spending a few minutes of class time having us actually do pull-ups would easily have done the trick.

The same for all the other exercises. I might not have beaten the speedy kids at the shuttle-run, but I could have gotten to a passing score. There’s a pretty good chance I was already making the mark on the sit-and-reach (I was a flexible kid), and I was definitely killing it on the situps (I could routinely do 100 situps in those days).

But that’s not what my PhysEd teacher did. Instead, several times a week we’d gather and do 10 or 15 minutes of calisthenics, after which we’d do some fake version of some team sport.

We’d play “baseball,” except instead of actually playing baseball, we’d just send half the kids out to stand in the field, with the six or so who were athletic playing the key positions, while the rest of us just stood in the outfield hoping the ball didn’t come our way. Then we’d all get in line to bat, except since there were a whole bunch of us, we’d mostly just stand in line. Maybe we’d get a chance to swing at three pitches, but we never got any batting practice, nor any instruction, so of course we rarely hit the ball. (We also got no instruction on base running strategy, so we didn’t know what to do when we did hit the ball, and no instruction or practice sprinting, so we wouldn’t have had the ability to run the bases well, even if we knew what to do.)

The “basketball” and “football” that we’d sometimes play were similarly crippled versions of the sports, designed not for us to get fit or develop any movement skills, but rather to make it easy for the PhysEd teacher to monitor a whole class full of people.

After a few months of mostly standing around while “playing” some faked-up version of a “sport,” we’d suddenly find out (at some random time) that we were going to be tested for the President’s Physical Fitness Award.

Class would then stop for several days of even more standing around, while the teacher administered the tests. Some could be done in groups (half of us could do situps, with the other half assigned to hold the ankles and count the reps of a person from the other half). Others, such as the pullups, had to be done one person at a time with everyone else watching the one guy trying (and often failing) to reach the designated mark.

Oh, and we weren’t told what the mark was, so we had no idea if we were passing or failing.

Looking back on it, I wouldn’t really have needed the PhysEd teacher’s help. It would have been possible to find out what the standards were that we were being tested against (although without the internet, it might well have required going to the university library and looking through the depository of official government publications). And it would have been possible to put together my own training regimen. For two or three months before the test I could have practiced the specific events, laying out and running on my own shuttle-run course, doing 1-mile runs, working up from my one measly pullup to being able to do the requisite six or seven.

But it sure would have been easier with a teacher who had us actually practice the activities that we were going to be tested on.

It would also have been a lot more useful for the rest of my life. I’d have come out of elementary school with a basic level of strength and flexibility and endurance, and I’d have learned how to design an exercise routine to meet a goal.

That would have been a lot more useful than what I actually learned in PhysEd, which was mainly the best place to stand to reduce the chance that the ball would come my way while playing a fake version of a sport.

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2 thoughts on “The Presidential Fitness Test

  1. My experience in high school was identical to yours. All the PE classes were pseudo team sports where I prayed never to be picked to play and rarely was. In the testing, I failed everything except the 600 yard run/walk. The reason I passed that? I walked the mile-one-way to and from school every day. And ran it when running late in the morning or needing to get home in a hurry in the afternoon. I was in shape for that test because I was conditioned.

  2. The fake sport I remember best was “zone soccer”. Instead of playing soccer, the field was divided up like a checker board with most of the class assigned each to a particular square. A few kids got to try to move the ball down the field. When one came into my square, I stole the ball (as I actually knew something of soccer) but for which I was roundly chastized. It was a total joke.

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