The Cooper Institute

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


International Youth Fitness Assessment: The Cooper Institute Leading the Way

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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018

May is National Physical Fitness and Sports Month. Thus, it is appropriate to focus attention on assessment of physical fitness, not only in the USA but across the globe. The 13th Measurement & Evaluation Symposium was conducted at the 2018 SHAPE America Annual meeting in Nashville TN. The Symposium, sponsored by The Cooper Institute, focused on “Youth Fitness Assessment in the 21st Century: Issues, Challenges, & Future Directions.” The Measurement & Evaluation symposia began in 1975 and have continued about every 3 years since. While the topics vary over the 40-year span, oftentimes the focus is on physical fitness assessment in children and youth. Youth physical fitness and physical activity assessment are the focuses of FitnessGram®. Developed at The Cooper Institute® over the past 30+ years, FitnessGram has become the leading assessment tool around the world.

This was evident in the presentations at the symposium. In addition to the USA, speakers from Chile, China, Hungary, Iran, Japan, and South Korea provided updates on fitness testing and physical activity levels in their countries. Central to all of the presentations were concepts directly related to FitnessGram, The Cooper Institute’s internationally recognized assessment strategy. Additional presentations were made regarding youth physical fitness assessment for those with various disabilities, pedagogical considerations when conducting fitness assessments, and future considerations for large-dataset analyses because of the universality of youth fitness and physical activity assessment and the extremely large datasets that can be created and combined when making comparisons and drawing conclusions for global recommendations. The Cooper Institute is the worldwide leader in development of these forward looking strategies.

Increased interest in youth fitness assessment can be tracked to 1956 with President Eisenhower’s creation of the President's Council on Youth Fitness (now The President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, & Nutrition). Since that time various national and state youth fitness assessments have been created. In the 1970s and 1980s, controversy arose regarding the nature of the evaluation system to be used. Early tests used “norm-referenced” evaluations where an individual student’s achievement was compared to their peers of the same sex and age. In the 1980s The Cooper Institute led the movement toward “criterion-referenced” evaluations where an individual student’s achievement is compared to a sex and age appropriate health standard that is related to positive health outcomes and reduction in risk for disease. The “health-related, criterion-referenced” standards have become universally accepted as the preferable way to interpret youth fitness test scores. Criterion-referenced standards have been developed for cardiorespiratory fitness, body composition, and musculoskeletal fitness items, the key components of health-related physical fitness.


Interest in youth fitness and physical activity results from the relation between physical activity levels and health outcomes in children and youth. Further interest is generated because of the perceived influence that youth physical fitness and physical activity levels have on adult physical activity behaviors and health outcomes.

Fitness testing items are included in the FitnessGram battery so that children and youth can conduct self-testing to monitor their personal physical fitness levels and modify their behaviors in attempts to reduce their risk for disease. Teachers and parents can use FitnessGram results to help children and youth identify if they are in one of three health zones:
  1. Healthy Fitness Zone
  2. Needs Improvement Zone
  3. Needs Improvement-Health Risk Zone.

These zones have been validated by research helping to set the standards for each of the FitnessGram test items. An individualized FitnessGram student report is generated for each student based on their placement within various health zones. The student report provides encouragement and suggestions for maintaining a physically active lifestyle. Cardiorespiratory items include the PACER, 1-mile run, and walk test; Body Composition items include Body Mass Index (BMI) and percent body fat; and Muscular Strength, Endurance, and Flexibility items include the curl-up, trunk lift, 90-degree push-up, modified pull-up, flexed arm hang, back-saver sit and reach, and shoulder stretch.

A FitnessGram Administrative Manual (Cooper Institute, 2017) is available to help teachers and test administrators prepare for testing. The Administrative Manual provides users with 1) mission, goals, and philosophy of the FitnessGram program, 2) fitness education and assessment guidelines, 3) suggestions for promoting physical activity, 4) hints for test item data collection, and 5) guidelines for interpreting and understanding FitnessGram data.

The Administrative Manual is the “go to” source for those using the FitnessGram in schools or other educational settings. A companion online resource is the FitnessGram / ActivityGram® Reference Guide (Plowman & Meredith, 2013). The Reference Guide provides the scientific evidence behind the FitnessGram assessments. Scientists and teachers who are collecting youth physical fitness data for research studies will find the Reference Guide a valuable resource.

FitnessGram test items and procedures are continually being reviewed, revised as necessary, and developed to keep youth fitness testing procedures up to date based on the most recent scientific evidence related youth fitness assessment. Sharing such information with scientists around the globe, as was conducted at the Nashville meeting, helps The Cooper Institute maintain its role as the international leader in youth fitness assessment. With meetings like the 13th Measurement & Evaluation Symposium, The Cooper Institute is addressing the issues, challenges, and future directions of youth fitness assessment around the globe in the 21st century.

James R. Morrow, Jr.
Regents Professor Emeritus
University of North Texas

FitnessGram® Scientific Advisory Board Member

Cooper Institute. FitnessGram administrative manual. The journey to MyHealthyZone (5th ed.). (2017). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Plowman, S.A., & Meredith, M.D. (Eds.). (2013). FitnessGram / ActivityGram reference guide (4th ed.). Dallas: The Cooper Institute.