Remember the President’s Fitness Test?

When I was in elementary school and completing my gym fellowship, after the square dancing seminar but before I had to defend my thesis on crab soccer, we were advised that we would all be participating in something called the President’s Test on Fitness.  The President’s Test, as we called it, was a series of five events by which we’d all be embarrassed in front of our peers: the shuttle run, pull-ups, sit-ups, the sit-and-reach, and the mile.

The shuttle run sounded interesting at first because it contained the word “shuttle.”  This was a more innocent and simpler time in America, and shuttle launches had yet to become boring.  I and my cohorts all had being an astronaut on our “when I grow up lists,” usually just behind baseball player, football player, and He-Man.

The shuttle run, however, was nothing like going into outer space.  A pair of erasers was placed at one end of the gym, and a starting line at the other end.  One by one we would sprint from behind the line, grab one eraser, run back to the starting line, deposit the eraser in hand behind the starting line, sprint back to the other eraser, grab it, and run back to the starting line before you could hear the other students making fun of how slow you ran.

Pull-ups involved taking an overhand grip on a horizontal bar set higher than you, letting your feet dangle for a few moments, and making it look like you were making a diligent effort at doing a pull-up without making so many funny faces that you became known as the kid who makes funny faces when he is trying to do a pull-up.  Today the pull-ups are probably done in a private room so that only the gym teacher gets to laugh at the funny faces.  But in those days public humiliation was one of the five food groups.

Sit-ups were easy.  You just had a partner hold on to your feet while you did as many sit-ups in a minute as possible.  I used to gain a competitive edge by playing with my partners Velcro sneakers, unfastening and re-fastening the noisy fibers over and over to disrupt his rhythm.  Or if he came from that sect who wore KangaROOS, I would search for the little hiding place in the footwear that held the student’s milk or drug money.

The sit-and-reach was something that if on television today would say “Do Not Attempt” at the bottom of the screen.  The subject sat on a mat with legs straight out, and a wooden box with scored measurements was placed at the end of the feet.  The student would then be asked to bend forward and stretch his or her arms as far as possible past the feet.  The performance in this event would be measured by the farthest measurement the student’s fingertips could reach on the wooden box, divided by the number of screams emitted as the gym teacher pushed on the student’s shoulders, shouting “Come now, you can reach farther than that!  Don’t let those European kids beat us!  You owe it to your country!”

Because that was the original purpose behind the President’s Test.  The council that eventually created this wonderful opportunity for American children was established in 1956 by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower after he saw a study that showed European children to be more fit than American children.  I, however, did not know or care about the patriotic origins of the requirement that I trip along a dusty track, heaving and wheezing and flailing my arms like a whirligig, taking enough staggered steps in my Velcro sneakers to hopefully add up to a mile.

The President’s Test has probably been redesigned to include meditation and yoga and an exercise where you try to name as many vegetables as you can in under a minute.  The tests are all done in private rooms, and everyone passes.  And most of all, true to the origins of the test, the mile is only a kilometer.

16 thoughts on “Remember the President’s Fitness Test?

  1. Why yes Mark, I do remember!
    My short term memory is not near as good though, but I think I might have mentioned the test a few posts ago right here.
    It was the early 70’s when I was testing, and I have no recollection of the ‘sit and reach’ test. I believe we had one test that nearly killed quite a few Junior High kids though: the rope climb! I’m not 100% sure the rope climb was part of that test, but we damn sure HAD to attempt this. To get the highest score, we had to climb every bit of 25 feet of rope to the top of the gymnasium. It was really pretty grueling, borderline cruel to some kids.
    Of course this was a much different time than now. There was certainly no notion of an ‘everybody passes’ ANYTHING. I don’t remember anything resembling ‘Helicopter Parents’, and suing a school over a child’s delicate self esteem was absolutely laughable. It was rough and tumble all the time. In fact, if you were caught tussling with another guy, the gym teacher got out the boxing gloves and MADE you fight it out!
    But I wobble around on the topic now, so back on point:
    I always made the “Blue Team”, being mediocre as I am. I could score ‘gold’ in everything but running, so that brought my overall score down.
    I felt really bad for a friend though, he was small but very fit and could run all day long. He scored the gold in every event but one. Being small, he couldn’t throw the softball far enough to even make the “Red Team” so he never made a ‘team’ at all!
    Oh, the good old days.

    1. I’d never heard that term “Helicopter Parents” until your comment. I just looked it up and I love it. What a great image. Parents hovering just above their children, spinning propellers coming out of their backs like those future police in the movie Minority Report. And the children are not always that young. There are accounts of parents who have even sat in on salary negotiations with their grown children. I guess for professional athletes that kind of behavior is normal. But if my parents had sat in when I was negotiating my salary as a cashier at 7-11, it would have been really funny.

  2. I was a gymnast and a real scrapper, so I kicked butt on P. E. tests. It didn’t hurt that I made arrangements with a friend to slightly pad our tesults. You know we added a couple of extra pushups to our count. And a few extra situps. Big whoop. And I loved climbing that rope and ringing that bell at the top. I’m telling you; I was competitive.

    I recently tried to climb a rope. Let’s just say I had to change my underpants. I prefer to remember my glory days. 😉

    1. You padded your pushups on the President’s Test?! I think you can get hauled in front of Congress for that kind of thing. Obstruction of justice.

      So…a gymnast and a flirt. I’m getting a more defined picture of you as a student. I’ll tell you, the rope impresses me. Ringing a bell? All I could ever do was imbed my hands with enough fibers to distract from the pain of failure. I’m surprised you were recently around a rope to climb. Those Wegmans really do have everything.

  3. OMG, this was such a big deal! I remember after a zillion years (maybe 4 or so?) of failing miserably, my friend and I in 6th grade actually went to a real gym (we thought we were REALLY cool) and, after a chocolate chip milkshake (every single time as pre-workout fuel), we worked out. And I could finally do a pull up and I got really cool President award!! Thank you for helping me remember such a meaningful and important time of my life. 🙂

    1. You are so welcome, Wendy. I’m always glad when bringing up a common experience that may be mildly painful to one is a good memory for another. If I’d followed your example I might have had a good pull-up memory, too. Although I’d probably just remember the pre-workout chocolate milkshake. 😉

  4. We had something in Canada called the ‘Canadian Excellence Challenge’. Four different badges were earned. Red for amazing athletic ability; gold, silver and purple for everything below.
    Purple was also the colour of those offensive ‘Participant’ ribbons on Track Day.
    What did purple ever do to deserve being the colour of the unfit?

      1. That makes perfect sense! They still make our lawyers wear silly robes and the judges wear wigs. I think a Canadian court would be so much livelier with purple everywhere!

Leave a Reply