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Could You Pass the Presidential Fitness Test Today?

The physical challenge that tormented a generation just might be worth revisiting as middle-aged adults

Teenage boys performing fitness test in gym class

Most people have unpleasant recollections of the Presidential Fitness Test, the infamous (and some claim sadistic) evaluation of physical fitness that most of us endured during our middle and high school years. 

“Ugh, the rope test,” my wife said, refusing to believe me when I gently informed her that the official test did not include any rope climbing. 

My memories are less haunted. As a 10-year-old, I won the Presidential Physical Fitness Award — meaning, I hit the 85th percentile of performance across its half-dozen exercises. I remember receiving the certificate — thick, creamy paper stock with a sort of odd, Lord of the Rings typeface — and an embroidered patch featuring a fearsome gold eagle. Both went on a shelf, displayed proudly next to a beer can collection.

Thinking back on my youthful achievement, I wondered how I might stack up at age 55. 

It’s a tough comparison to make, largely because it’s hard to find reliable data on, say, sit-up performance among the middle-aged; rather, you often start getting lumped into the early cohort on senior-oriented fitness batteries like the “chair stand test” (i.e., how often can you rise out of a chair in 30 seconds). 

I am a fairly fit person. I ride a bike three or four times a week and play a weekly “old man” soccer game. But I do these things for fun, not as part of any training regimen. Push-ups and pull-ups do not strike me as fun, hence I do not do them. 

I have also been recovering from a torn hamstring, picked up by unwisely trying to add a second soccer game to my weekly schedule. My general philosophy is “Play hard, eat often.”

So I headed to the local high school track, accompanied by my 14-year-old daughter (who served as test proctor). To at least place on par, I’d have to hit these marks:

1. ONE-MILE RUN. Complete a full mile in (or under) 7 minutes, 57 seconds.

How I Did: I lined up in the inside lane, my daughter hit “start” on my iPhone stopwatch, and I was off. Seven minutes and 41 seconds later, I huffed across the finish, 16 seconds ahead of qualifying time for the Presidential Physical Fitness Award. 

2. THE SHUTTLE RUN. A 10-meter run, back and forth, four times in 10.3 seconds.

How I Did: This was something I probably hadn’t done since the original test. I measured out 30 feet (roughly 10 meters) and placed two water bottles at one end. It took me 11.9 seconds to complete.

3. SIT AND REACH. How far can you stretch your arms past your feet while seated with your legs out in front of you, spread a foot apart and flat against the ground? The goal: 30 centimeters.

How I Did: As I craned my torso forward, various ligaments straining like the riggings of an old wooden ship, I managed to extend my finger some 10 centimeters past my toes. I needed some 20 more. This time I’d failed to even make the award benchmark.

4. CURL-UPS. Or what you might call a sit-up. At least 45 in (or under) a minute, without resting.

How I Did: I did 34.

5. PULL-UPS. Six reps in a minute, without resting.

How I Did: My four pull-ups were two short. I ask you: Where in your life do you ever need to do anything resembling a pull-up?

6. PUSH-UPS. No less than 14 in a minute, without resting.

How I Did: I rallied. I did 23 consecutive push-ups before my form, as judged by my daughter, deteriorated.

I walked away sore and with a small sense of wonder, as if in repeating these very same actions I’d unlocked a time capsule to my young self.

It’s easy now, as it was then, to mock the Presidential Fitness Test for its limited view of a fit self, even its authoritarian undertones. But we’re at an age where much of the feedback we get on our health comes via the doctor’s office (where I get my annual borderline-high cholesterol results). 

I wanted to try the test for the same reason I always take the stairs or do my own yard work or learn a new skill — because at this stage of life, every time you choose not to do these things, you move closer to not being able to do them. 

My advice? Take the test. You might crush it, you might hate it. But you might find, as I did, that even with a mixed bag of results, competing against your grade school self makes you feel younger.

Follow Article Topics: Health-&-Fitness