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Testing Cardiovascular Fitness in Our Youth


Cardiovascular fitness is generally considered to be the most important component of health-related physical fitness. Other commonly used terms for cardiovascular fitness include cardiorespiratory endurance, aerobic fitness, and aerobic capacity. The national youth physical fitness test (FITNESSGRAM), developed at the Cooper Institute in Dallas, is now offered as a cooperative program with the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition (PCFSN) and the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (AAHPERD). The recommended test for youth in the FITNESSGRAM battery is called the Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run (PACER).

The PACER involves running “laps” across a distance of 20 meters. Laps must be completed in a designated time to be counted. The speed of running the laps gradually increases. A “beep” from a recording provides a signal to students as to when a lap must be completed. Two beeps signals that an increase in running speed is necessary for laps that follow. A student’s score is the number of laps completed while still keeping the “pace.”

PACER test scores correlate well to the best test of cardiovascular fitness, maximum oxygen uptake. Maximum oxygen uptake refers to the maximum amount of oxygen that a person can use in vigorous exercise. It is a lab test that requires very expensive equipment. There is a high relationship between cardiovascular fitness as measured by maximum oxygen uptake and incidence of chronic diseases (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, certain forms of cancer, Alzheimer’s) and early death from these chronic diseases. A recent report of the Institute of Medicine indicates that youth with low PACER scores have a higher incidence of health risk markers (e.g., elevated blood pressure, elevated blood sugar levels, elevated blood fat levels) than those with scores in the “healthy fitness zone.”

Students who take the entire FITNESSGRAM test battery typically receive a fitness report card that informs parents whether their child is in the “healthy fitness zone,” or is in need of improvement in cardiovascular fitness. Youth are compared to a health standard rather than percentiles or norms that are common for some types of academic testing. Messages are provided to help parents and students make plans for improving their cardiovascular fitness. Those who are interested can find more information about “healthy fitness zone” standards in the Reference Guide at http://www.cooperinstitute.org/reference-guide.

FITNESSGRAM also reports results for four other components of health related physical fitness: body composition (body mass index), flexibility (sit and reach), strength, and muscular endurance (curl-up, push-up, trunk lift).

Studies show that fitness reports to parents can be an important tool for increasing fitness and physical activity and decreasing overweight and obesity among youth. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends regular tracking of activity patterns of youth (and their parents), and also recommends regular assessment of body composition. Regularly monitoring the fitness and activity patterns of youth as a health prevention measure has growing support from the scientific community.

So if your child is not tested in school using FITNESSGRAM it may be time to ask, “why not?” If your child is tested, and you received a FITNESSGRAM report card for your child, take a closer look. Check the messages on the report and discuss them with your child. If improvement is needed, talk to your child’s physical education teacher or your physician about steps that can be taken. Reaching the “healthy fitness zone” is achievable by virtually all students with adequate exercise, but because of factors such as heredity, maturation rate, age, and health status, achieving the zone will be more difficult for some than others. Parental support and encouragement as well as parental role modeling are important.

The research is clear. Low cardiovascular fitness in youth is associated with various health risk markers in youth and risk of chronic disease among adults. Appropriate assessment of youth can track youth fitness over time and make youth, their parents, and health professionals aware of student fitness and associated health status. The PACER is one “field” test commonly used in schools that can provide fitness and health information for youth and their parents and provide a basis for improvement.

Ahwatukee Foothills resident Dr. Charles “Chuck” Corbin is professor emeritus at Arizona State University. He is the author of more than 90 books on fitness and exercise. He was the first chair of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition Science Board and served on the Institute of Medicine Committee on Fitness Measures and Health Outcomes in Youth. He was a charter member of the advisory board for FITNESSGRAM.  This article appears in the latest daily newsletter of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. The article is reprinted here with permission of the editors.


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