Fitness Norms and Fitness Standards are Apples and Oranges

Blog Post

Stephen W. Farrell, PhD, FACSM
The Cooper Team
December 17, 2017

As you may know, The Cooper Institute has taught hundreds of law enforcement workshops across the country over the past four decades. My colleagues and I find that many of our law enforcement friends use the terms ‘fitness norms’ and ‘fitness standards’ interchangeably. These terms are actually very different from one another! Let’s discuss fitness norms first. Norms simply show where an individual ranks in comparison to others of their same gender and age group.  For example, the one minute push-up test measures dynamic strength of the upper body. Let’s say that a 30-39 year-old male performs 34 push-ups in one minute. If we looked at the normative data in the Fitness Assessments and Norms for Adults and Law Enforcement booklet, we would see that a score of 34 push-ups places the individual at the 70th percentile. This means that they scored better on their push-up test than 70% of the other 30-39 year-old males who were tested. Using Cooper data, the 70th percentile is equivalent to the middle of the ‘Good’ fitness category.  We would conclude that this male has a level of upper body dynamic strength that is higher than 70% of their 30-39 year-old peers.

Fitness standards are very different from fitness norms.  A fitness standard identifies a minimal level of fitness that is necessary to perform critical and essential physical job tasks. For law enforcement professionals these tasks would include walking, running short distances, pulling, pushing, lifting, carrying, dragging, climbing stairs, use of force, etc. In the past, it was not uncommon for a chief to arbitrarily select what the fitness standards would be for their department. Typically, the chief would select a different fitness standard for men and women within various age groups. If they were using Cooper normative data, they would have likely selected a certain percentile ranking within each age-gender group as the fitness standard for their department. To say that times have changed would be a colossal understatement!  First, men and women in law enforcement have the same job and are required to perform the same critical and essential job tasks. Therefore, common sense should tell us that men and women should be held to the same fitness standard. Secondly, fitness standards cannot be arbitrary. Remember that a fitness standard represents the minimal level of fitness that is required to perform critical and essential physical job tasks. Except under limited circumstances, employers legally cannot use different cutoff scores on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age or national origin via section 106 of The Civil Rights Act of 1991. However, some agencies may in fact still use different standards for men and women of different ages for a variety of reasons, but if your agency has a voluntary fitness program where there is no mandatory standard, then these issues become moot.  The risk of litigation with voluntary fitness programs is minimal because individuals are tested only if they wish to be tested, and there is no standard that must be met. The problem with voluntary programs is that typically only physically fit individuals show up for testing!

So to summarize, fitness norms show us how we rank in comparison to others within the same age-group and gender. They tell us our percentile ranking and fitness category.  There is nothing wrong with using normative data to show people where they rank as compared to their peers; this is very informative.  However, normative data and percentile rankings do not tell us anything about what minimal level of fitness is required to do the job.

Fitness standards should identify a minimal level of fitness that is required to successfully perform all critical and essential physical job tasks. Hundreds of validation studies have been performed on federal, municipal, and state agencies over the years.  These studies identify how often and how critical each specific job task is, what tests can be used to measure the ability to perform these tasks, and what the minimal level of fitness is to perform these tasks successfully.

The Cooper Institute is not a policy-making organization, therefore we cannot tell you exactly what your agency’s fitness standard should be. However, we do have a resource that should prove very helpful. The Physical Fitness Assessments and Norms for Adults and Law Enforcement book contains a wealth of valuable information regarding the issues that we have discussed. The purpose and protocols for a variety of fitness assessments are included, along with normative data for men and women of various age groups. The Cooper Institute recommended fitness testing battery for law enforcement, as well as common questions and answers regarding fitness testing and standards in law enforcement is also included.

Note: If you attended our Law Enforcement Fitness Specialist (LEFS) course, this information is already in your course manual.


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