Exercise: testing your level of fitness

Posted: Monday, September 13, 2010

Editor's note: "Focus on Fitness" is a Clarion feature with healthy lifestyle advice from local and national health and fitness experts. Check here weekly great information and tips on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Always consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.

From "Kid Fitness" by Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., used with permission

Fitness testing happens every year in most physical education classes around the country. Many students and parents do not understand the usefulness of these tests. The Presidential Physical Fitness Testing (P.P.F.T.) program is the battery of tests most often used. The core of these tests has changed over the years but has remained the same for over two decades.

While participation in these tests can be a stressful time for students they yield important information for the students, teachers and parents. Grades and awards are often handed out based on the performance on some or all of the tests. While this is accepted practice it is certainly not the most important reason for participation.

I believe the most important reasons to participate in a fitness testing program are:

1. Determine if a student is below the recommended health/wellness level of fitness and is therefore at risk for certain health problems now or in the future. (See charts from "Kid Fitness" by Dr. Kenneth Cooper)

2. Bring to light physical gifts (athleticism). Students and parents may not be aware of physical gifts a child possesses.

3. Provide a baseline performance that can be used to set goals for fitness improvement.

Let's look at each of the Presidential Tests and how they relate to each of the above reasons to test.

For all tests a proper warm-up is recommended including jogging or another exercise to raise core temperature, and a variety of flexibility exercises. Likewise, for all areas tested, goal setting is an important tool for improving performance. An exercise plan must be a part of the goal setting process. Significant gains in fitness are not made without regular participation in an exercise program.

Mile Run: Learning to pace your self is important for success in the mile run.

This may be the most important test because it measures aerobic fitness, which is a direct indicator of cardio-vascular health. A student who performs below the health wellness minimum is at risk for developing cardio-vascular disease (CVD) in the future. CVD starts laying the groundwork as early as 5 years of age. Maintaining a minimum level of aerobic fitness helps prevent cholesterol from building on artery walls and slows the hardening of arteries.

An athletic score in the mile run is an indicator of possible success in a variety of sports. Endurance sports such as cross-country running and skiing are the obvious but virtually all team and individual sports require aerobic fitness for success as well. Even a sprinter or football player utilizes the aerobic energy system to recover between bouts of explosive exercise.

It should be noted that some schools utilize Cooper's Run (12-minute run) to test aerobic fitness. The participant sees how far they can run in 12 minutes. This test was developed by Dr. Kenneth Cooper who is known as the "father of aerobics" and runs the Aerobic Institute in Dallas, Texas. It is a far more accurate test of the aerobic energy system, which is fully engaged at between 3 and 5 minutes. While this is not one of the P.P.F. tests it is a standardized test so scores can be compared with others in the same age group to determine health/wellness minimums and athleticism. For a chart comparing performance on this test among age groups and fitness levels go to: http://www.bijlmakers.com/cooper/cooper.htm.

Sit-ups in a minute: Sit-ups are a safe exercise provided they are done on a soft surface and with proper form. Arms should be crossed on chest. Do not whip arms or rock hips. Touch elbows just below the knees. The upper back should return to the floor before doing the next sit-up.

The stomach muscles hold in the visceral contents of the body, which in turn provides support for the lower back. Some doctors believe most lower back problems could be avoided by maintaining a minimum level of abdominal fitness. Students who perform below the health-wellness minimum are at risk for lower back problems.

An athletic score on this test indicates a reduced risk for injury to the back during competition. A number of movements in a variety of sports depend on the mid-section. Strength and endurance in the core muscles is an asset to any athlete.

Sit-Reach: Start in seated position with knees straight and feet (big toes) 12 inches apart. Reach forward slowly toward your toes, do not bounce. Reach as close as you can to your toes or as far past them as you can. Hold position for at least 3 seconds. It should be noted that your body type may affect your performance on this test. A person who is "all legs" will have a more difficult time with this test when compared to a person who has a longer upper body in comparison to their legs.

Use of a box, bench or step can help in doing this test. In some cases an apparatus (box) is used that has a ruler attached to measure distance reached. Reaching 1 inch beyond the edge of the box is considered a standard for minimum health/wellness fitness. Please note that a different testing apparatus was used when developing the charts from "Kid Fitness." A score of 10 inches on their box is equal to 1 inch on the box used for the P.P.F.T.'s.

The hamstring muscles attach at the lower back and if they are too tight they can cause lower back pain. Students who do not perform at the minimum health/wellness level are at a greater risk for lower back problems.

An athletic score on this test may be an indicator of possible success in gymnastics or wrestling. Superior flexibility may provide an advantage in other sports as well. Muscle fibers are striated, or intra-connected, as they contract they shorten in length. If you increase the beginning length through stretching you increase the overall length of the contraction and therefore provide more power.

Shuttle Run: This is a test of quickness and agility. In this test two blocks are place 30 feet from a starting line. The student runs, picks up one block, runs back and drops it behind the starting line. Then runs, picks up the second block and runs across the starting line to complete the run.

This is primarily a test of athleticism. Quickness and agility are very important for success in a wide variety of sports. If a student scores well on the shuttle run and mile run they possess a very unique gift. This will enable them to utilize their quickness over the course of a game or match. Without a good aerobic system quickness fades early on in a contest.

Pull Ups: A test of upper body strength in comparison to overall body weight. An overhand or underhand grip may be used. The chin must be above the bar in up position, and elbows must be nearly locked in down position. You may not kick your legs.

This is primarily a test of athleticism. Good upper body strength can enable a student to be successful in a variety of sports. This is especially true for sports such as wrestling or gymnastics, but can be an advantage in almost any sport. It should be noted that a larger person who does not make an athletic score on this test may actually possess superior athleticism. Size is not taken into consideration when evaluating performance.

This school year as you look over you child's fitness test scores keep in mind the health wellness implications and take note of sports and other activities they may show a propensity for success in. If a child scores in the 85th percentile (Presidential Award), it is considered an athletic score. If they score at the 50th percentile (National Award), they are most likely at or above the health/wellness minimums. Visit presidentschallenge.org to see charts for the 50th and 85th percentile. Refer to the charts from Dr. Cooper's book "Kid Fitness" for a more accurate determination of health/wellness minimums.

Finally, keep in mind that an active lifestyle and diet rich in unprocessed foods are more important health indicators than fitness test scores. In fact if children are active and eat a healthy balanced diet the fitness scores will take care of themselves. Still, fitness test scores provide a base from which to set goals for fitness and act as validation to hard work when goals are met.

Charlie Stephens is a retired P.E. teacher and owner/operator of Kenai Sport & Train, Inc. He can be reached at ccstephens@gci.net.



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