As fit as a 5th grader? Adults can take challenge

Physicians expect the President's Challenge fitness test to be a useful instrument in efforts to change Americans' sedentary behavior.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted June 9, 2008

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How many push-ups can you do? Could you handle a jog or a mile-long walk?

The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, which for decades has provided tests of children's fitness and medals for those who pass, launched last month an adult version that asks these very questions. Just like the version for youth, this measure is designed to assess and monitor aerobic abilities, muscular strength, endurance, flexibility and body composition -- only this time, it's geared entirely to grown-ups.

"We had many baby boomers who contacted us and said, 'I want to see how fit I am now,' " said Melissa Johnson, the organization's executive director. "We hope they use that information for their health and slowly improve in areas that they need to."

This online self-test puts participants through a series of challenges such as running a mile-and-a-half or performing as many half sit-ups as possible in a minute. The results are then recorded and compared with those for others of the same age and sex. People can print out a certificate of completion "in recognition of your commitment to a fit and active life."

Participants are then encouraged to take additional action through the President's Challenge. This Web site can be used to track ongoing progress. Points earned can be turned into virtual awards and, for a small fee, real ones. The hope is that people will visit the fitness testing Web site regularly and frequently to see how they are doing.

"We encourage Americans to take the adult fitness test and continue to participate in regular physical activity as part of an overall healthy lifestyle by tracking and monitoring their physical activity," Johnson said.

Helping patients become less sedentary is a concern for many physicians, and this test was widely praised as a useful aid.

"I think it's awesome. ... Physicians should encourage their patients to do this once a year," said Robert Sallis, MD, director of sports medicine at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fontana, Calif. He also is president of the American College of Sports Medicine.

That group, along with the American Medical Association, founded the Exercise Is Medicine program late last year. This initiative encourages physicians to record physical activity as a vital sign and prescribe exercise as appropriate. In April, the AMA also launched Healthier Life Steps, an online tool kit to help initiate discussions between physicians and patients about healthy lifestyle choices, including physical activity.

Like the test we took as kids

Several other resources exist as aids for assessing fitness and logging exercise, but physicians suspect the fact that the adult fitness test is based on the one so many took as children may have special appeal.

"The physical fitness awards, for those of us who are of that age, meant something," said Tim Church, MD, MPH, PhD, director of preventive medicine research at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. "This resonates with adults. For some people it may make a difference, and anything the federal government does to put continued emphasis on physical activity or exercise is a good thing."

In addition, physicians praised the test for including waist circumference as a part of the body composition assessment because this marker is increasingly gaining favor.

"This is one more opportunity to educate the U.S. about waist circumference, which is probably more important than BMI," Dr. Church said.

The President's Council is part of the Dept. of Health and Human Services, which is expected this fall to release physical activity guidelines much like the ones for diet that have been issued since 1980 in conjunction with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

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Can you meet the fitness challenge?

The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports last month launched an adult version of the fitness test that was first used to measure children's levels. An online tool allows people to track their progress and see how they compare with others of the same age. Here is what's measured:

Aerobic fitness. Take a timed 1-mile walk or 1.5-mile run. Take pulse rate after finishing.

Muscular strength and endurance. Do as many half sit-ups as possible in one minute. Do as many push-ups as you can, without a time limit.

Flexibility. Complete the "sit-and-reach" test three times, taking note of the longest stretch.

Body composition. Measure body mass index and waist circumference.

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External links

President's Challenge Adult Fitness Test (link)

President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (link)

Healthier Life Steps Program, American Medical Association (link)

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