The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Building a Healthier Generation through Fitness Assessment

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Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Before we get started, allow me to introduce myself. My name is JT Mistr. I am an Army Veteran of 8 years and have been an elementary physical education (PE) teacher for the last 18 years. You could potentially say I traded one battlefield for another, but we won’t get into that. I love what I do. I love being a physical education teacher. I also think my time as an Army Captain prepared me for my greatest mission in life – and that is helping my students build a solid, healthy foundation that will put them on a path to become the strong, healthy leaders that tomorrow deserves. I also know that I could not say this without having a fitness assessment tool that is administered annually to my PE students. You’ll hear me repeat this a few times, but I unequivocally believe this: you can’t manage what you don’t measure!

Let me start with this – teachers cannot be all things to all students. There simply isn’t enough time, more on that in a moment. The old adage “it takes a village to raise a child” is absolutely true and raising a healthy “whole child” quite frankly takes a whole community working in concert together. As teachers, we get our students for less than eight hours a day. As PE teachers, we get our students for a fraction of that, and for many, we’re lucky if we see them a couple of times a week for a few fleeting moments. What can we fit in, what do we focus on, what’s the most important information piece of the puzzle…all questions I’m guessing we all have asked. This very issue speaks to the heart of why I wholeheartedly believe in fitness assessments, and for the purposes of this blog, FitnessGram, for my students. Now let me tell you why.

If you’ve ever used FitnessGram, you’ve probably had that monotonous voice stuck in your head on repeat, “the FitnessGram Pacer test is a multi-stage aerobic capacity test that progressively gets more difficult…” You may even have seen the inventive memes and videos on social media involving Sponge Bob and John Travolta. Never underestimate the power of a creative teenage mind with a computer and a Twitter account. However, I have heard on good authority though, that the music and cadence voice are being updated, and will include, for the first time, multiple options, which I will take complete credit for due to my relentless “suggestion-ing” to The Cooper Institute.

Needless to say, the generation we teach today are facing a serious health crisis. This is about as real as it gets – our youngest students are the first, ever, to be predicted to NOT outlive their parents. I urge you to consider this, if we successfully graduate them into the world, but we send them off with obesity, diabetes or early onset cardiovascular diseases, can we really call that a success? As physical education teachers, what we do today, and more importantly, how we do it, will make all the difference in the lives of countless students who cross our paths. It’s not just about checking the “PE” box, it’s about ensuring our students actually attain the physical literacy they need to be strong adults. As I said earlier, “you can’t manage what you don’t’ measure”, and fitness assessments, like FitnessGram, help my students maximize their physical literacy.

First, FitnessGram was developed by The Cooper Institute (The Institute) over 30 years ago. Side bar, I have had the opportunity to work directly with The Cooper Institute and the “Father of Aerobics” Dr. Kenneth Cooper himself during my tenure. Let me say this – the man is, quite simply, awe inspiring, unassuming, and a true pioneer in the field of exercise and preventive medicine. Dr. Cooper always says,” It’s far easier to raise a healthy child than heal a sick adult.” Hard to argue with that logic.  I’ve also had the opportunity to really understand why and how FitnessGram was developed.

There is a reason that FitnessGram is the “gold standard” in youth health-related fitness assessments. FitnessGram is arguably the foundation for all other youth health-related fitness assessments out there. Why?  It’s backed by years of science and continual scientific evaluation by the FitnessGram Scientific Advisory Board, which includes the best of the best from pediatric physicians, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, academic measurement and evaluation experts, teachers, and more. The test and program is a continually evolving battery of health-related fitness assessments that provide students, and subsequently teachers and parents with some of the most important pieces of information they may ever receive.

I say all this as a preamble to a very important fact: I was not pro-fitness assessment when I began my PE teaching career. In fact, the only reason I administered FitnessGram at first was because it was mandated by the State of Texas in 2007. My first thought was, Really? Mixed reviews, limited resources, lack of motivation and memories of my military days had me questioning whether or not this was a sound route to take. Within a short time of seeing it action, any question of validity was erased.  Why you ask?

Let’s start by getting  back to the basics and apologies for getting that voice stuck in your head, but let’s revisit the aforementioned multi-staged test that gets more difficult...for starters, we test kids in math and reading, so why wouldn’t we test them in PE? What’s the overall goal of PE? It’s not difficult for students to learn how to do a push up or to run a lap, You could, arguably plug in any number of YouTube links to show kids how to run, but do they actually know why aerobic activity is important and more importantly, do they know whether or not they can do it? So no, it’s not difficult to educate students on PE concepts, what’s difficult is whether or not they actually can do them and if they’re doing them with a proficiency that a) improves health outcomes and b) builds healthy habits that student can carry with them into adulthood.

Before we get down to business, I would like to get one thing out of the way – and that’s time. There’s simply never enough time to do everything we want. Period. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, we could always use more time. I urge you to not let “time” be an excuse for not doing something that is fundamentally important for your students. Keep in mind; many students don’t have the luxury of having an annual physical or seeing a family pediatrician. Their primary health touchpoint very well may come from school, so don’t we owe it to all students to provide them with a basic health-related fitness assessment if we have the means to do so?

Here’s how FitnessGram (and fitness assessment in general) works for me and my students in both a tangible and intangible way.

Functionally, here’s how the components of FitnessGram make an impact on my students:

  • PACER test: Hands down one of the absolute best tools to explain aerobic capacity to elementary students.  Ready Set Go - they race off...4 laps in...they stop...bent over out of breath.  Some teaching, some demonstrations...some 5th Grade my students truly do know what it means to go out slow and pace themselves.  They understand that out of breath is oxygen debt - not hydration doesn’t get them to stop asking for a drink after a 5 minute Pacer test though… I feel like if the Pacer Test is used by college coaches (the Beep Test) - as a measure of who is in shape or not, being able to build that knowledge very safely and effectively at my level is truly a gift.
  • Push-ups.  The best bodyweight, upper body strength exercise and the standard for its assessment.  Certainly worth teaching to students.  Are they good at them in 3rd Grade?  Certainly not (most).  Are they better by 5th Grade?  Absolutely.  Is it worth it?  No debate in my mind.  Of course it is, and it’s a lifetime exercise too.
  • Curl-ups.  I hate sit-ups.  Not because they have been “labeled” as unsafe on the lower back - because I have always struggled with them.  The curl-up, however, is a good test of core strength.  They are not easy but they are safe and they are accurate if monitored and taught properly.  They still aren’t fun for me - but I feel they do show core strength and growth.
  • Trunk Lift and Shoulder Stretch.  Flexibility and trunk extensor strength has long been the neglected area in the fitness many personal training programs and it’s what most of us “skip” after a workout.  I feel like taking the time to explain and then test these areas show their importance and reinforce that we should work in this area as well.  I always challenge my kiddos to go home and do a family shoulder stretch test at dinner (before the meal) and see who can do it!  We all have our weak side!

The Intangibles of FitnessGram:

  • Time Management
    •  If it takes me a day f instruction to assess my student’s aerobic capacity instead of us doing a cardio workout or activity focused on cardio, I find that to be a valid piece of health data for both them and me.  It spurs cnversations about improvement, about sports that lend themselves to aerobic strength and much more.
  • Goal Setting
    • We use FitnessGram as a way t set fitness goals.  Much like gals set in other academic areas, we do a familiarization test.   The students cmplete a goal setting document that breaks down the different areas of focus - upper body strength and endurance, abdominal strength and endurance, flexibility, and aerobic capacity.  They explre different ways they can improve, or maybe even simply maintain their level in each area.  They utline different activities they may feel could help them.  This dcument is their own reflection (and education - gasp!) upon what and how these systems work.  Helping the students see the cnnections between all our activities and fitness areas and how they impact overall body makeup is simply as rewarding as anything we can do.  A 3rd grader being able t explain that by working on plank strength improves their core strength and also upper body strength overall is a lifelong lesson - not a testing item.  Is a push-up a valid test f upper body strength and endurance?  Yu bet it is.  Is it risky fr students to do?  N it isn’t - and if taught proper form and methods to improve upon it, it is extremely rewarding.
  • Goal Attainment
    • When a yung boy age nine gets down to take a pushup test and does 3 - perhaps not even really 3 but more like 2.5 - and then returns in 6 months to crank out 23 legit real push-ups there is most definitely a sense of Goal Attainment.  Did I spend six mnths doing push-ups with this child?  N way.   He has PE 3 times per week and ur student self-warmup (they come in and do it on their own as they enter the gym) always involves upper body exercises - but rarely pure normal pushups.  He set a gal, he was determined, he far surpassed his goal.  I gt teary-eyed (side effect of loving your job) and then he had a connection that perhaps will help him as he continues on in his life.  I genuinely believe that.  Why else wuld I do what I do in PE?  It is, after all, the mst important 45 minutes for a student during their day. Is it safe to say that their body growth from fall to spring impacts their improvements?  Certainly and that’s great inf to be armed with.  But what if they d nothing from fall to spring - will they increase aerobic capacity?  Maybe...will it be meaningful and will they have learned abut aerobic capacity in a setting that isolates it and shows the growth in real numbers?  I am nt naive about student growth through simply maturity - in fact I am very aware of it and feel that it is another part of the equation as it should be.  Des that negate the need to look at the data and assess?  Of curse not.  D we stop assessing reading as students progress during elementary school?  Or curse not...will they just “get it” by getting older? Now that would most like get a classroom teacher in hot water wouldn’t it?  What abut us?  Dn’t we have an even more important mission at hand? Awareness of their own health and fitness levels?
  • Enjoyment of Fitness
    • Testing des not have to be miserable - and I find that 95% or more of my students truly do look forward to taking this assessment.  First ff we set the stage as it should be - we do not emphasize the numbers, we emphasize form and improvement and that it’s personal.  We supprt each other, encourage during testing, and look for ways to really make it just another PE Activity.  I dn’t believe that an upper elementary school student needs to feel the pressure of success or failure on a fitness test, but rather should be taught the value of proper form, whole body systems, and ways to improve areas you want to personally.  Even ging as far as explaining that we are built how we are built and some may be more capable in certain areas based upon body size and shape and activities they are involved in outside of school.  Why d my swimmers and soccer players do better statistically on the Pacer?  Because they push themselves aerbically 3 or more times a week.  Why d my gymnastics girls destroy the push-up test?  Because they d loads of upper body work at their skill sessions outside of school.  And that’s k - and students that watched one of their 3rd Grade peers (girl) do 67 pushups like a robot all stopped what they were doing and gave her a standing ovation.  And many f them then asked how did you get that strong?  Lts of effort.  And that girl didn’t shw a large percentage change from fall to spring...and that’s ok too.  But my students that went frm 2 to 12 and showed a 500% increase is significant even though the end numbers are quite different. Personal choices, personal goal setting, and then normal growth through age and ability
  • Data
    • Data drives decisins! In Texas we are evaluated in a very deliberate way.  Sme of these changes have come on quickly; some were in place depending upon where you teach or your campus directives.  Regardless, it is a psitive to be able to show some assessment data on your students that is based upon research like The Cooper Institute's, which has true connection to fitness levels and what it realistic.  While the intent f the FitnessGram is to NOT have the assessment used to evaluate PE Teacher effectiveness, it certainly can serve as a method by which we can show a specific area of growth among our students.  Yes we assess skill develpment.  Yes we assess ur target areas based upon our Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.  And the FitnessGram testing areas als tie into many of those skills in our TEKS.  Cnnections are broad in some areas, more specific in others. Also, our students receive their FitnessGram report cards and share those with their parents (at least they’re supposed to). It’s so important for our students to have an actual report that shows them where they are so we can discuss where they can improve if needs be. This is also a way to engage in family discussions about overall health and wellness. I go back to testing in math and reading – we give students an academic report card. Why should PE be any different?

Bottom line:

Do fitness assessments administered at the elementary school level make an impact? No question, yes. What evidence do I have to back that up? Eleven years of experience administering FitnessGram to over 2,000 students.

You may read the above and feel like I’m sold on FitnessGram, and you would be correct. While I could entertain the potential downsides to testing my students, I would ardently argue that the benefits of helping my both my students and myself, far outweigh any negatives. If I do not take the time to see where my students are and what health-related benchmarks they’ve achieved, then how do I know where we both need to improve? How do I improve my curriculum in an effort to help my students improve their overall physical heath? I have to take the time to consider what I’m teaching in my classroom.  As detailed as my instruction is in teaching my students how to skip or jump rope, what type of teacher am I if I do not create my workouts and exercises based upon the trends and needs that I have on my campus? Do the upper body exercises that my students do during their warmups, circuit stations, or any number of skill-related activities actually help them improve the musculoskeletal components they will be assessed on during FitnessGram?

You bet it does - as it should - otherwise what in the world am I doing all day with these amazing students?

What I am doing is building lifelong lessons that I believe will serve them as they continue to grow into adults with methods to improve their own overall fitness, because they know and understand how to set goals, how to work towards them and most importantly, how to achieve them.  What we don’t test we accept.  What we accept, we allow to become the new standard.  I do not wish to accept the current trend of increasing obesity, which is linked to lack of movement and exercise along with dietary trends.  As a PE Teacher I am committed to do everything I can to help my students become aware of areas they can impact and testing them via the FitnessGram Test is an important part of that process.

Our students deserve the best, and as PE teachers, we owe them our best and that includes showing them where they are, and helping them to do better. Once again, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

JT Mistr
Pink Elementary PE Coach
Frisco ISD PE Coordinator

The article above is my personal opinion and my opinion alone - I do not work for The Cooper Institute nor did I seek any outside information other than my own personal research and experiences while both administering the test and teaching Elementary PE since 2000.