Despite Fitness Boom, the Young Remain Unfit, New Studies Agree

By Pamela Winston — October 31, 1984 4 min read

The physical-fitness boom apparently has had little impact on the young: They are significantly less fit than they ought to be, two national studies indicate.

According to a new federal study:

Only about half the nation’s students are getting the minimum level of “appropriate physical activity” to maintain effectively functioning cardio-respiratory systems, defined as exercising large muscle groups for periods of 20 minutes or longer, three times a week, at a level that requires 60 percent of an individual’s cardio-respiratory capacity.

Students have gotten fatter since the 1960’s. (The study notes, however, that the degree to which higher average body fat is a health problem is not clear.)

Only 20 percent of the time the typical student spends exercising occurs in physical-education classes.

The government’s survey, the “National Children and Youth Fitness Study” was conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It involved 8,800 students in grades 5 through 12 across the country, according to J. Henry Montes, program management officer for the Public Health Service’s office of disease prevention and health promotion.

The two-year, $450,000 study was conducted under contract by Macro System Inc., a private consulting firm. It marked the first evaluation of the fitness of young Americans nationwide conducted since 1974-75, Mr. Montes said, and the largest assessment ever conducted.

It examined fitness and exercise habits as well as the results of physical tests that measured overall fitness and health rather than agility or athletic ability.

Objectives for 1990

The survey was undertaken in response to concerns that the federal agency did not have information relating to the health objectives it hopes young people will attain by the year 1990, the official explained. The department outlined those goals in a 1980 report, “Promoting Health/Preventing Disease: Objectives for the Nation.”

“We’re really hoping that our national objectives will be seen as meaningful and useful to school districts in planning physical-education courses and looking at what they can offer in physical-education facilities and out-of-school programs,” Mr. Montes said.

Fitness Competition’s Results

The other new findings on youth fitness come from the annual Nabisco/aau Physical Fitness Program, jointly sponsored by Nabisco Brands Inc. and the American Athletic Union.

Although some 4 million students are exposed to the program, the test results of only a half-million students from about 2,800 public and private schools across the country were received by the sponsors. Out of the results received, the aau randomly selected those of 9,000 boys and 9,000 girls for the report.

Students were tested on eight different events measuring fitness, endurance, muscular strength, and cardio-vascular conditioning, said Christopher Sodoma, program manager for the project.

Only 36 percent of the children tested successfully reached standards set for average, healthy children. In 1982-83, 43 percent of students tested met the same standards, Mr. Sodoma said.

Two Components Important

The findings suggest, the aau official said, that schools should try to increase both fitness components of physical-education curricula and the number of periods devoted to physical fitness. “One of the basic problems is that schools are interested in developing team athletes6instead of general fitness,” he said.

In related health studies:

A researcher who conducted a three-year, $481,000 study of physical-education programs in Jackson County, Mich., has concluded that schools would do better to develop “heart-health techniques” than “volleyball techniques.”

Of the 24,000 2nd, 5th, and 7th graders in the county’s public and parochial schools, 98 percent showed at least one of the significant factors that contribute to heart disease, such as excess body fat and ele-vated cholesterol and blood pressure levels, the researcher found.

Thirteen percent had five or more of the factors, according to the study conducted by Charles T. Kuntzleman, an independent fitness consultant and adjunct professor at Spring Arbor (Mich.) College, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Two researchers from Texas A&M University who have developed one of the first tests designed to measure stress in adolescents say that increased pressure to go to college, to grow up more quickly, and to succeed have placed more pressure on adolescents than ever before.

Sue Beall and Gayle Schmidt, associate professors of health and physical education, developed a “Youth Adaptation Rating Scale” that identifies and categorizes 59 stressful events in teen-agers’ lives, such as the death of a parent, loss of a close friend, and fear of pregnancy. The researchers reached their conclusions about stress after administering the test to more than 400 students of varying ethnic backgrounds from Hawaii, Missouri, and Texas.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 1984 edition of Education Week as Despite Fitness Boom, the Young Remain Unfit, New Studies Agree