The sad, sad stories of the Presidential Fitness Test

I recently found out that the Presidential Fitness Test was dead. The news was a bit old -- President Obama replaced the program in 2012 -- but seeing as I am not a child in PE class, I was unaware of it until now.

This made me happy. Like every other schoolchild in America, I took the Presidential Fitness Test when I was a kid, and like, oh, 50 percent of those ex-schoolchildren, my memories were traumatizing.

The Presidential Fitness Challenge was first started in 1966 under Lyndon Johnson, with the premise being that American kids weren't in shape. The challenge asked students to undergo a series of tests in various physical activities. If a student placed in the top 15th percentile in every category, they received the Presidential Fitness Award.

The idea was to motivate kids to get in shape to earn the rewards, and perhaps for the 15-20 percent of kids on the verge of receiving that award, it worked.

But for the rest of us, it was dreadful. It forced unathletic kids to try and fail to be athletic in front of their classmates, generally leading to humiliation. It made them associate exercise with failure. Instead of encouraging these kids to reach for attainable goals, it made physical fitness seem like a farway milestone. For the kids the test really needed to reach, it was a failure.

We asked people on Twitter to share their memories of the event. (Feel free to add more in the comments.) It seems the vast majority of Presidential Fitness Test experiences fall into a few important categories.

The humiliation

The worst part of the Fitness Test for an out-of-shape kid wasn't the actual exercise. It was the fact that everybody in your class saw you trying to exercise and saw how bad you were at it and knowing they had the image in their heads of how out-of-shape and bad you were and knowing that this image of your failure would resonate in their heads every time they thought of you. People of the opposite gender would find you gross, the cool kids would know you were uncool.

So many of us were humiliated. This is the most succinct example:

Sit and reach. I sat, I reached, I farted. Ruined 5th grade. -- @cellsworthless

The sit-up portion required monitoring by another classmate. You could be slow on the mile run, but everybody else was running too, so they weren't all watching you. On the sit-up, somebody was closely examining your failure:

So I was partnered with the girl I'd had a crush on for like 2 years for the sit-up portion. She did here first, and did like 75. I went next, and around 20, I was tomato-red in the face, sweating buckets, and panting like a dog in a sauna on the sun. My partner asked me, "Do you have asthma?" to which I managed to stammer out a "no". She then looks me straight in the eyes and tells me, "wow. ummm, might need to lay off the burritos and run some, okay?" with a disgusted look on her face.

Not exactly the outcome I was hoping for. -- @greatbritton87

Some people were so humiliated having to exercise in front of their classmates they actually spent years not exercising because of the bad memories:

I just got flashbacks to the horror. First year we had to do it was fifth grade. I was not fat, nor skinny, but kind of normal. However, that normal was really just being out of shape as fuck. Thus, when it came time to do as many sit ups as possible in a minute, I did 9. NINE. In 60 seconds. It was horrible. For the rest of the year kids would crack jokes like "hey, I didn't see you there, you should really SIT UP" or repeatedly find ways to get the number nine in a conversation. It was hell. In sixth grade I made it to 27 while some poor unfortunate soul (Hi Brooke Daskin) had 23. I still hate doing sit-ups at the gym. -- Rachel
I wasn't the sportiest kid around, but I did the typical soccer, basketball, softball rotation every year. That didn't help me at all in the Presidential Fitness test - I was the slowest person to run a mile, so much so that they sent a kid who had already finished back out to run with me. That was probably 4th or 5th grade - I don't think I've run another mile since. But wait, you might say, what about middle and high school gym? I joined yearbook in middle school and every time mile run day came up I got a note saying I had to work on the yearbook. And in high school I took my PE course online - this is an actual thing they offer, you get a textbook and a heart rate monitor, and if you do well enough you don't have to take the final exam - running a mile. So thanks, Presidential Fitness test, for an experience so demoralizing and embarrassing that 20 years later I still haven't run a mile. -- @flailsquared
I'm 40 years old and I still refuse to do pull-ups outside of the comfort of my own home because of the embarrassment of doing those damn tests every year in front of everyone. -- via @rymb
I have not attempted to do a pull-up in 20 years due to the shame scrawny grade school me felt at being unable to do even one EVERY DAMN YEAR. I also think I somehow got negative numbers on the V-stretch. -- Don Bracken
I couldn't pass it. Not the running, anyway. After everyone else had passed, the PE Teacher would try to "motivate me" by forcing all of them to sit in lines on the ground and watch me struggle for several days. It was pure hell every single semester. All the other kids were pissed because they wanted to run and play games during PE and the teacher wouldn't let them because she wanted them to shame me into trying harder.
I still HATE running to this day. I feel like everyone is looking at me.-- @AggieKate07

I feel all these stories: after my poor experiences running the mile, I began to feel like actually running for a mile was physically impossible for me, and avoiding using a treadmill for a long time. Ellipticals and bikes were fine, but even after I got into reasonably good shape I was worried that attempting to run a mile on a treadmill would turn me into a wheezing, coughing 12-year-old again. I didn't run a mile uninterrupted until the year after I graduated from college.

The jerk gym teacher

I primarily had good interactions with gym teachers, but there is a certain brand of gym teacher that seems to take a sick pride in exacerbating the failings of the children he's supposed to help. These teachers loved nothing more than the Presidential Fitness Test.

While it didn't happen to me, one of my classmates who was overweight missed the day in gym class where you had sixty seconds or whatever to do as many sit ups as possible. So the next day in gym class, they forced him to do sit ups while the entire class watched from the other side of the gym, and of course, he did maybe five? And of course, the gym teacher was a complete jerk about it, embarrassing the poor guy to no end. And that's the moment where you realize what a joke this gym teacher and the Presidential Fitness test is/was. -- @ryinfulleffect
I had a dance competition the weekend before the test and came to school seriously tired on Monday. Surprise! Presidential Fitness Test Day! Halfway through the run, my knees gave out and I crumpled to a sad, blubbering heap on the ground. The gym teacher yelled at me for faking it as I hobbled to the nurse's office and cried. Thanks, Presidential Fitness Test! -- @knottedodyssey
I failed it in third grade, the first time I took it, and when I failed, my P.E. teacher belittled me for it in front of other kids in the class. I don't really remember the specifics, but she basically all but said I was fat (I really wasn't at the time), I had an eating problem, and was a failure as an athlete. I believe I passed it the next year (I sadly even trained for it) and then was sick the week of it my fifth grade year. I probably wasn't faking it. Probably. -- Luke Zimmermann
For our Presidential Fitness test we went out into the field in front of our school and ran a mile, four laps around a rough, semi-grassy terrain. Off the start, I was kicked accidentally by someone behind me and lost my shoe. When I tried to go back to get it, my gym teacher yelled at me to keep running. I had to do the entire lap with only one shoe before I was able to get the other one back and then put it back on while running. Final mile time: 12:48. -- @JustinScaife

The freakin' sit-and-reach

The Presidential Fitness Test wasn't just publicly embarrassing: it was also a bad test.

To achieve the highest award, the Presidential Fitness Award, you had to place in the top 15th percentile in all five categories. Missing just one meant you didn't qualify.

One of these categories was the v-sit, or the sit-and-reach. (You could do either/or.) These tests asked you to sit on the floor and reach as far as you could, hypothetically measuring your flexibility.

Whether or not this actually measure your flexibility is questionable -- some people have long arms, or short legs. Whether or not flexibility is an indicator of one's physical wellness on par with running a mile or lifting weights is very, very questionable.

Most of our responders were unfit kids. Some of them were fit kids. These fit kids didn't deal with the majority of the woes of the fitness test. They just had one major complaint: the freakin' sit-and-reach.

I would be able to easily accomplish everything except the sit and reach. After two years of failing only that exercise, I began to cheat and just tell my gym instructor whatever I needed to get in order to be recognized by the President as being fit. Now I'm a lawyer. -- @mikhailjaroslav
I passed every single test except for the freaking V-sit. This past fall I qualified for the Boston Marathon by 4 minutes. I still cannot do a V-sit. Flexibility is not an indicator of fitness!!! I demand a written apology from Bill Clinton. -- @thestennisway
I couldn't ever do the sit and reach. Even on the years I busted my ass in the shuttle run, I never got past that fucking box. It was like a final boss I couldn't beat but instead of throwing my controller I could only throw a tantrum in my super high Kelly green gym shorts. I was every Smashing Pumpkins song personified.-- FSUAndy
I met all the standards for every event until I got to the sit and reach. Despite being in pretty good shape for a middle school boy, I was and comically inflexible. When I performed my first attempt, I couldn't even touch the box measuring thing to record my score.

My gym teacher was a very kind and elderly old lady that knew I would get rewarded if I was able to finish this last "challenge". To help, she tried pushing my back forward so that I could maybe reach the requisite mark. My hamstrings couldn't take the added strain, and my knees buckled upwards hitting the overhanging part of the sit and reach box. Blood got everywhere and I had to get six stitches in my right knee. Even after being pushed forward and being able to bend my legs I was only able to records a score of 6 centimeters. -- SAMiller
I passed every event on the Presidential Fitness Test in 8th grade, but then it came time for something called the "V sit and reach." I was the least flexible person at school, and received a negative score. I didn't get the award. -- Carter, Simmons Middle School Class of '06
Maybe not one particularly bad experience but rather a series of failures. I was always a tall, lanky kid, and all my height was in my legs. This meant that the sit-and-reach was the bane of my existence. My lack of flexibility resulted in a yearly failure in the exercise, and in some years I couldn't even reach the little marker you would move forward. To this day, I still can't reach down and touch my toes from a standing position. Or sitting for that matter. -- @dylanphotog

One kid could do it!

I felt like I was failing my country because I was bad at pull-ups. But I kicked ass at the sit-n-reach. You could use my sit-n-reach to defeat ISIS. -- @sideoutpar


Kids fail. From time to time, kids failing got so pathetic that the gym teacher in charge just bucked the rules and lied to make the kid feel better about their failure. The kid remembers this fraud more than the initial failure.

I got an award for doing one push up at the end of the year because I didn't do one at the beginning of the year. I'm fairly certain the gym teacher just felt sorry for me so he counted it as a push up even though it wasn't anywhere close. -- @itsprobablyjoe
I far surpassed the requirements for the blue patch (that's the best one right?) every year in every category except the stupid v-sit. I wasn't even close in that. Pretty sure I could reach to .5 inches. I could do 10+ (or whatever the number was) pull-ups, but I couldn't reach past my freaking toes. It got to the point where one year the PE coach fabricated my v-sit reach so I could get one blue patch to go with my sea of red ones. -- lonestarclp

Just straight up making kids feel bad

You guys made my pal Jon feel bad.

I was ten years old, and I hadn't cried in years. I'd gotten scraped up, I'd moved out of state, I'd gotten lost on my way to the bus stop one time. Nothing could make me cry, and I genuinely wondered whether I would ever cry again in my life.

I spent all of my ten years being perfectly happy with my physical self. I was kind of skinny because I ran around the neighborhood with my friends all day. An exercise regimen seemed, and was, meaningless. The Presidential Fitness Test reduced gym class from my favorite hour of the day to a descent into monotony and fear.

Sit-ups destroyed me. I was told I needed to do 40 in a minute, and was threatened with nebulous unspecified consequences if I didn't. I tried for weeks, and couldn't bust 25. The night before the test, I already knew I was going to fail it. For the first time in my life I was being punished by an authority, not for doing something wrong, but for not being good enough.

I was at the edge of my bed in the dark and I wasn't good enough. It was the first cry of my life that didn't come from skinning my knee or throwing some kind of fit, but from the sort of grief that makes adults cry. I buried my face in my hands and I fucking bawled. -- Jon Bois

You guys are friggin' bastards for making my pal Jon feel bad.


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