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A brief history of the bizarre and sadistic Presidential Fitness Test

A gymnasium: the scene of the crime.
A gymnasium: the scene of the crime.
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

If you're of a certain age, a few phrases might give you nightmarish flashbacks: flexed-arm hang. Shuttle run. Sit and reach.

Those are just a few of the torturous exercises from the Presidential Fitness Test, the physical-fitness gantlet for middle- and high-school kids in the United States. It was finally retired after the 2012–'13 school year. But even though the Presidential Fitness Test is now a historical relic, questions linger about why we were ever forced to do it in the first place.

It all began when two rock-climbing pioneers scared Dwight D. Eisenhower into creating a new fitness regimen.

In the 1950s, Eisenhower panicked because of fit Swiss kids

Dr. Hans Kraus and Bonnie Prudden were two fitness activists who met while climbing New York's Gunks in the 1930s. They later became two of the top climbers in the world.

The two also shared a passion for fitness, and Kraus, an orthopedic surgeon, helped develop the Kraus-Weber test (along with Sonja Weber). This test helped gauge fitness through a series of exercises that focused on core strength and flexibility, like leg raises and modified situps. Prudden began giving the test to American schoolchildren and became disturbed by the poor results.

Bonnie Prudden testing kids in 1955. (Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images)

Bonnie Prudden testing kids in 1955. (Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images)

In the early 1950s, Kraus and Prudden administered the Kraus-Weber tests to 4,000 United States kids and 3,000 kids in Switzerland, Italy, and Austria. Their results were horrifying for America: 58 percent of US kids failed, compared with just 8 percent of the Europeans. Swiss kids were frighteningly fit.

The report was widely circulated, and a panicked President Eisenhower summoned them to a sit-down. At the event, which was covered by Sports Illustrated, Kraus and Prudden presented their findings. "Many youngsters today have no bodies," Prudden warned the audience, which included Willie Mays. "Let youngsters climb trees and fences to develop their muscles."

Eisenhower in 1956. (Bert Hardy/Getty Images)

Eisenhower in 1956. (Bert Hardy/Getty Images)

So Eisenhower acted. In 1956, he created the President's Council on Youth Fitness, in the hopes of making American kids fit enough to compete with the Swiss. The next year, the group initiated a pilot study of a national fitness test — the Presidential Fitness Challenge.

The only problem? The test was nothing like the Kraus-Weber tests that started the fitness scare in the first place.

How the Presidential Fitness Test became like a military training exercise

The original Kraus-Weber tests focused on strengthening the core, developing arm strength, and improving flexibility. When the test became official, everything changed.

Greg Critser provides a history of the test's evolution in Fatland, and he shows how it went from Kraus-Weber fitness to military training exercise. As the test was designed by committee, it reflected the goals of the country and the priorities of people who'd formed their fitness philosophy during training in World War II. In the version developed in 1957, fitness professionals ended up with pullups, situps, the standing broad jump, the shuttle run, the 50-yard dash, the softball throw, and the 600-yard run. There were tweaks to the test, but the foundation stayed for decades.

It was completely different from the test that inspired Eisenhower to act in the first place. Even members of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, the organization that designed the test, argued that it was closer to a military training exercise than a fitness regimen. Pullups were great for soldiers to get themselves out of foxholes, but not for kids staying fit. Softball throws were good practice for throwing grenades — but what did that have to do with overall fitness?

But by that point, momentum was too strong to go back and revise it completely. And further presidents decided to build on the program rather than start over. John F. Kennedy, for instance, had long advocated for a similar regimen for kids. He even penned an essay called "The Soft American" for Sports Illustrated shortly after the election. Though he cited the Kraus-Weber test failures, his presidential fitness tests were basically the training exercises instituted under Eisenhower.

Kennedy couldn't force local schools to administer the test, so instead he initiated a massive PR campaign and offered carrots to students who passed. He changed the name of the department to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and displayed his own fitness through long walks. Schools got on board.

One of Kennedy's fitness test booklets. (JFK Library)

One of Kennedy's fitness test books. (JFK Library)

Under President Lyndon Johnson, the name changed yet again — to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports — but the test remained as grueling. Johnson also added the Physical Fitness Award for the fittest kids, reserving it for the top 15 percent of achievers. Subsequent presidents made only modest tweaks to the acronyms and methodology. Later, celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger ensured the test continued to help students experience crippling shame in front of their peers.

George H.W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger at a campaign event in 1992. (David Ake/Getty Images)

George H. W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger at a campaign event in 1992. (David Ake/Getty Images)

The campaign succeeded. Kids across the country were forced to take the test in the name of personal fitness, even though it was less likely to inspire a love of exercise and more likely to inspire a sense of dread.

Eventually the test was abolished — because it was sadistic

Even physical education teachers conceded that the Presidential Fitness Test was scarring kids who were certain to fail. NPR quoted one teacher as saying, "We knew who was going to be last, and we were embarrassing them."

So finally it got changed. Since 2013, the test has been replaced with a more comprehensive program that's supposed to emphasize overall fitness goals instead of a rigorous one-standard-fits-all regimen. It's designed to be slightly less humiliating, too.

Maybe the new test will lead to actual interest in lifelong fitness instead of night terrors and a visceral fear of situps. That, after all, is probably more in line with the vision of the two rock climbers who proposed it in the first place.