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Are You Fitter Than a Fifth Grader?

The Fitness Gram currently used for physical fitness testing in schools proves to be very difficult.

This is the final part of a three-part series.

So I’m definitely fitter than a fifth grader, but here’s the tougher question: am I fitter than myself?

The Fitness Gram test, administered throughout the South Orange and Maplewood school district for the last three years, and a growing national trend, answers just that question.

For generations, the Presidential Physical Fitness test compared children against a national average. The problem is that children come in all different shapes and sizes, and national averages don’t take that into account.

Every person, based on height, weight, age and gender has a fitness zone, in the Fitness Gram. So a 10-year-old boy who is 4 feet 2 inches and 89 pounds doesn’t have to do the same things as a 10-year-old boy who's a different height and weight in order to be considered fit. It’s based on yourself.

I have to admit, when I first heard about this test, I shook my head at the idea. I guess I thought I was some sort of purist, if you can even be a purist in your late 20s. I thought this was just another self-esteem coddling mission that could go right next to the rise of participation awards. Comparing yourself against yourself? What does that even mean?

How wrong I was.

There is no question in my mind that the Fitness Gram is far more challenging than the Presidential test. It’s really not even close.

I learned this first-hand on Thursday, when second-year Clinton School physical education teacher Jordyn Freede was kind enough to administer the test for me. After doing so well on the Presidential test, I have to say that I went in extremely confident, maybe even a bit cocky. Hopefully no one noticed.

I waited in the hallway outside the front office and listened to the youngsters debate about which video games they were going to ask their parents for.

Then, at 2:45 on the dot, Freede rounded the corner and took me into the nurse’s office to be weighed and have my height and birth date taken.

Off to the gym we went. When we arrived, I saw that there were some interested spectators and helpers for Freede to administer the test. Judy LoBianco, Physical Education Supervisor for the South Orange and Maplewood School District, the one who pulled the strings to make this all happen, was there. Physical Education teacher Jeff Lehman was in the gym and was kind enough to sub as a photographer for me. Last, but maybe most importantly, was the PEP Grant Coordinator, Marv Alexander, who provided moral support.

The pressure was on.

First up was the pacer run. This combines the mile run and the shuttle run into one event. Two lines 15 meters apart (pretty much baseline to baseline in the gym), were marked with yellow tape. At the sound of the beep, with my foot behind one of the tapes, I ran to the other tape and then stopped to wait for the next beep. At the next beep, which began at nine-second intervals, but got incrementally faster, I ran to the other baseline, and so on.

I was most disappointed in myself in this event. I stopped at 15, trying to save energy for the next events. In retrospect, I know that I could have pushed it to 20, maybe even 25. I think it was the stopping and starting that got to me. In the one-mile run, I could just keep going and my legs felt fine until I stopped. Nonetheless, I was not in my fitness zone in this test. Just for the record, I was supposed to do anywhere from 72 to 106 laps to be in my fitness zone. That wasn’t going to happen.

Next were the curl-ups, and, again, I was very disappointed in myself. In the Presidential test, I did 51 curl-ups in one minute. In this one, I couldn’t even get to 20, with no time limit. In the Presidential test, someone holds your feet down, and it allows you to really propel yourself for quick sit-ups. In the Fitness Gram test, no one holds your feet, they lay flat on the ground, and your hands must pass a tape on the mat you are lying on. It’s more of a lower abdominal exercise and not easy at all. What made it most difficult was that it was at a cadence count. Meaning that when the tape player said up, you had to come up and hold the curl-up until it said down, instead of just firing them out as quickly as you can.

Once again, not in the fitness zone. I needed 24. That’s 0-for-2.

We came to the pushups and then I began to excel. Again at the cadence count, I pumped out 35 pushups before collapsing. Freede and LoBianco said that they will be getting pushup counters for the kids this year, so there is no cheating—not that anyone at Clinton School would do such a thing anyway. It’s fair to note that even though I passed this test, in the Presidential test, I did 41 pushups in 38 seconds, without a cadence count. The cadence makes it much more difficult.

The dreaded sit and reach was the final test. I stared at the machine in fear as Freede described the test to me, with my foot pressed against the measuring box. After being taught the proper way by Freede, I managed to push the lever 11 inches on the right and 12 inches on the left. Hurray for me! I was in the fitness zone in flexibility! It’s also fair to note that I failed this event in the Presidential test.

So overall, that’s 2-for-4. I can’t say that I’m happy about it, but I’ve got no one to blame but myself. Which is exactly the point of the Fitness Gram. It’s not supposed to make you feel sad for finishing last in the class; it’s supposed to motivate you to want to get in your fitness zone.

For the physical education teachers in the district, the Fitness Gram is as big of a test to them as all of the standardized academic tests that children will take in the coming months. The physical health and fitness of their students is extremely important to them.

“I remembered how awful it was when I was compared to a percentage across the nation,” said LoBianco, who has been supervisor since 2006. “It allows kids to not worry about how others are doing.”

After all of my tests were done, Freede inputted my scores into a computer, and it turns out that my 23.40 body mass index is in my healthy fitness zone. The print-out she gave me (I don’t remember any print-outs when I was growing up) said that I needed to do 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic activity a day and do some crunch work. Maybe that will help with the beer belly.

If I were a student taking this test, I wouldn’t have done it all within a half hour, which all of the teachers said could have factored in. Also, especially in the pacer test, doing it alongside your peers is more motivating. But as far as motivation, nothing could have been more motivating than Freede, LoBianco, Alexander and Lehman cheering me on as I ground through the tests. I felt like I was Rocky. Even when I didn’t do so well, they kept encouraging me and I was very appreciative.

A parent report is sent home afterwards, explaining everything about the test and the results found.

Over the last two weeks I’ve learned a few things. The first is that cigarettes and fitness mix about as well as oil and water or gasoline and fire. Secondly, I’m far too inactive. My arms are still hurting from the pushups as I’m typing this very column. Lastly, and most importantly, I am fitter than a fifth grader, but not as fit as I should be. How about you?

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