Physical department should reform the culture around fitness tests

This illustration shows a female running.

Fitness tests. We all know what they are from the 6+ years of doing them. For some, it’s a fresh reminder that they need to be more aggressive and involved in their bodies’ health. For others, it provides a very unpleasant experience, consisting of more mental stress than physical replenishment.

Some students will do their best to get the scores they want. Contrastingly, others will go through the motions of the test, ready to get it over with.

Among the diverse experiences of students, however, there’s one thing that’s the same – they’re all taking the same state-mandated test which was put in place to counter the growing culture of junk food and to promote strong wellbeing. 

From what some of the student body had to say, though, the initial goal of fitness testing may not be translating into the results one may expect.  

The expectation is that it’s benefiting students, and as Mike McCaulou, the supervisor of the physical welfare department explains, it’s what the department has prioritized. 

“We want to do what’s best for kids, and we want them to know and understand what it means to be healthy,” he explained. 

The intention and purpose of fitness tests are very clear: to help promote student heath, and give them the resources to understand their health. However, my concern is how the purpose of fitness tests differ from the way student’s view and understand it.  

While it seems fitness tests may have good intentions, it may have to be redesigned to help build a positive student experience, maximize learning opportunity, and account for external sources that could be contributing to negative association with these tests.  

For Sophomore Laurie Hewitt (10), fitness testing has accentuated her struggle with developing a positive body image, and in refining her body to “perfection.” Instead of an enjoyable and fun experience, it’s become rather discouraging. 

“It really makes you question what you look like. I find myself working hard on my appearance and working out physically. It [fitness testing] messed with my mental health. It feels like it’s your whole being that you’re being tested on,” Hewitt said.

McCaulou had expressed his concern for students who were struggling mentally, but also pointed out that students may be overemphasizing the degree to which they are “tested.”

He explained students weren’t all being upheld to the same expectation for success, but on a personalized standard that was based on an individual’s goals.

“You can’t get lower than a C,” McCalou said. “We just push kids to do the best they can [rather than being pressured to reach the same level as their peers] …regardless of the grade.” 

According to a survey of 132 students, 80%  said that they were not encouraged to develop healthier habits from their results of fitness testing. 

But what exactly is the cause of this? 

Out of Jackie Gallegos’s (11) personal experience, she found fitness tests made her doubtful of her own capabilities. 

Gallegos was demotivated to improve because she was intimidated, and overwhelmed by the numbers. It provided her with counterproductive feelings rather than ones that gave her and her peers the inspiration to improve. 

“A lot of people cheat their way through it [the tests] just so that they can show that they improved,” she said.

This of course is counterintuitive, too: it defies the point of accurately measuring student growth because a handful of students may be investing more in securing their grade than in improving. 

According to the same survey, 38% of people were concerned for their fitness testing grade. How might that affect their ability and motive to focus on improving rather than focusing on the grade? 

For senior Brianna Engelkemeir (12, she/her), worries about her grade were at the forefront of her mind. With her lingering physical disabilities and inability to comply with all the requirements for a medical exemption, she was left having to take the state mandated fitness test.  

“There’s a lot of parts of fitness testing that I can’t do. Push-ups are hard for me because the left side of my body is really hard to put equal weight on. I still think I’m healthy, even if I can’t do those tests for reasons that are beyond my control,” Engelkemeir said.  

She felt like the very variable that was supposed to be in her control – effort – was oftentimes not enough. And while she was able to improve, it had made her feel self-doubtful and uncertain about her body.

For Gallegos and Hewitt, fitness testing is not the only cause and contributing factor of these harbored feelings. 

“Social media makes it seem like everything about you — everything that people see of you — is what you look like and not who you actually are,” she explained.  

Does this powerful effect of social media impact how she feels about fitness tests? This suggests that students’ mindsets about fitness tests could be inflamed by an already existing issue: diminishing self-confidence and insecurity.

Maybe we don’t have to fix fitness testing itself or define it as the main cause of student stress. The relationship students are having with fitness tests are sometimes being unhealthily shaped and compromised by external factors — social media, external expectations and body standards.

Reviving students’ mindset to be more positive and open during fitness tests will require the Physical Welfare Department to emphasize the mental and emotional concerns some students have, and empathize with the fact that some need more guidance to develop a healthy relationship with their bodies and confidence during fitness testing.