Ditch those sit-ups: Here's how to tell if kids are fit

Sep. 27, 2012 at 10:01 AM ET

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You want me to climb what? A new report suggests better, common-sense ways for testing whether children are physically fit.

Forget sit-ups and push-ups. The best way to tell whether schoolchildren are physically fit is a common-sense test of body mass index, whether they can run without getting out of breath, and grip strength, a committee of experts said on Thursday.

As America’s children become fatter and more unfit, schools and the government need to keep tabs on just how fit – or unfit – they are, the Institute of Medicine panel said. Ironically, agencies have stopped doing this over the past 30 years. A report issued by the panel is intended to kick-start the process.

“We are very concerned that not a lot of kids meet physical activity guidelines, and that’s why we need to be monitoring their fitness,” says exercise expert Russell Pate of the University of South Carolina, who chaired the panel.  “The big message here is that between the 1950s and 1980s we were monitoring fitness in American kids…and then they stopped doing it. It has literally been since the mid-1980s that this has been done in a nationally representative sample of American kids."

At the same time, schools crushed by budget cuts and the pressure to bring up test scores in reading and math have shortened recess and physical education or even cut them out completely.

Right now, says Pate, there’s not a systematic way to prove that kids are less fit than they were in the 1980s, although common sense and obesity statistics would suggest this is the case. The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition says fewer than one in five kids get the exercise they need. The report suggests ways to test this.

The good news: The much-hated baseball throw and sit-ups are out, Pate told NBC News. “Some of the approaches that were common are really no longer seen as state of the art,” Pate says.

So what do they recommend? First off, the body mass index or BMI measurement. This comparison of height to weight really does do a good job of singling out who is overweight, the panel says.

For health experts doing national surveys, it’s important to measure not only BMI but waist circumference – which shows how much unhealthy abdominal fat someone is carrying, as well as skinfold thickness, another measure of fat versus muscle. But schools can simply use BMI, which is very accurate for most of the population, the report says.

Shuttle runs and treadmill tests are very good ways to test cardiorespiratory fitness, they said. The shuttle run does require some equipment and training. “Kids run back and forth from lines that are 20 meters apart,” Pate said. “There is a device that beeps periodically. The kids run back and forth between the lines, keeping up with the pace of the beeper.” The beeper ups the pace, and the children run until they can no longer keep up.

Musculoskeletal fitness is a bit trickier to measure because it combines strength, endurance and power. “Growing evidence supports use of the handgrip strength test and the standing long jump as health-related musculoskeletal fitness test items in youth,”  the report reads. While neither is a complete measure of all three factors, they’re both pretty good indicators, the committee concluded. Modified pull-ups and push-ups are also alternatives, they said.

Pate notes that many adults and kids cannot do even one traditional pull-up. “The problem with a traditional pull-up is you get a lot of zero scores -- you get a lot of kids that can’t do any,” he said. The modified version has the bar just 3-4 feet off the ground, and the child can hang on at an angle with his or her feet on the ground and pull up that way. “They are partially supported,” Pate said.

Just last month, the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition said it was phasing out the Youth Fitness Test, which dated back to 1966. The new Presidential Youth Fitness Program prescribes a complex set of standards, not all of which jibe with the Institute of Medicine recommendations.

Pate said it's all a work in progress, with national health leaders setting up a nationally representative survey of fitness in youth.

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