What trainers need to know to accurately assess fitness levels in children.
Over the past 20 years, a great deal has changed regarding the health issues that plague our youth. Two decades ago, health experts were focused on preventing accidental poisonings, teen pregnancy, gang involvement, violence and drug addiction. Nowadays, childhood obesity and the diseases associated with being overweight are the primary health concerns.
There is no denying that kids today are heavier than kids in the past. But how do the overall fitness levels of children today compare with those of past generations? As a greater number of young people (and their parents) seek personalized exercise programming, it is becoming essential that personal fitness trainers have the knowledge and skills to accurately assess fitness levels in children. This article will examine the current state of youth fitness testing and provide concrete testing guidelines for young clients.
Kids’ fitness assessments provide a wealth of information for trainers. With the objective data collected from these assessments, you can identify young clients’ strengths and weaknesses and set realistic, attainable goals. Just as for adults, you can then create appropriate and individualized exercise programs based on actual results. Youth fitness assessments also serve to determine the level of risk prior to exercise participation, while providing baseline and follow-up data to evaluate progress throughout kids’ exercise programs.
That’s not all. You can use the test data to educate youngsters about their present fitness status compared with established “norms” for others of the same age and gender. Physical education (PE) teachers and school personnel can use the data to evaluate and design their own PE programs. Occasionally, test results can even be used to motivate kids to embrace a physically active lifestyle in order to increase their fitness and health as adults.
Unfortunately, there is currently no single established kids’ assessment test that is universally used and embraced by all fitness professionals. But there should be: With a standardized fitness assessment test appropriate for all youngsters, the fitness industry could establish normative data regarding kids’ fitness and performance that any trainer could employ. Universal “norms” would allow fitness professionals to compare the results for different populations within and between countries; these norms would also enable us to accurately evaluate health-related fitness trends so that we could understand more about kids’ growth, maturation and physical activity levels.
The history of youth fitness testing is relatively brief. One of the first tests developed was the Kraus-Weber Minimal Fitness Test. Created in the 1950s, this test, consisting of six simple movements of key muscle groups, was used to compare children in the United States with children in Europe (Docherty 1996). Sadly, 57.9% of U.S. children failed in one or more of the test elements, whereas only 8.7% of the European kids failed in any of them (Neiman 2003).
The other significant events in the development of youth fitness assessments came primarily from two groups: the American Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation (AAHPER) and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (PCPFS) (Docherty 1996). In 1957, AAHPER developed The Youth Fitness Test, designed to motivate boys and girls to maintain a high level of fitness, promote testing programs in schools, stimulate health and PE programs, and provide information on the fitness status of children. Unfortunately, AAHPER and PCPFS did not work together, and each group later developed its own testing standards.
In 1987, the Cooper Institute in Dallas developed FITNESSGRAM®; this computer software assessment tool used a different combination of tests and standards than previous protocols. The very next year, the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (its name since 1975) created a test called the Physical Best program, designed to replace all prior assessments used by the organization. Both the Physical Best program and FITNESSGRAM focused on children becoming regularly involved in some form of exercise and being rewarded for attaining minimum-criterion performance standards. While both organizations now support each other’s protocols, few advances have emerged in youth fitness testing.
The good news for trainers is that you don’t need to purchase a lot of new equipment to do fitness assessments for children. Here is the minimum equipment required to complete all of the tests:
- skinfold caliper or other body composition tool
- spring-loaded Gulick (anthropometric) tape
- stethoscope and blood pressure cuff
- cones or a marked course
- treadmill track
- step or cycle ergometer
- sit-and-reach box or yardstick and roll of tape
- exercise mats
During the actual assessment, it is best to take all measurements standing at the child’s side rather than bending down to the child’s level, since measurement error is more likely to occur when the tester is cramped or crouched. You might ask the child to stand on a stable platform or box so that he or she is at your level. Always have a parent or co-worker present in the room while taking measurements on a child, to avoid any situation that could be considered inappropriate. Having a parent nearby can also reduce the child’s apprehension during testing, which will improve the validity of the test results.
Two of the best and most widely used testing programs for kids are the FITNESSGRAM program and the President’s Challenge program. Most fitness professionals use one or the other, or a combination of the two, as their assessment of choice (ACSM 2000).
While the tests associated with these two programs are similar, the ways in which the results are interpreted are considerably different. The major difference between the two programs is that the President’s Challenge program focuses more on skill-related testing, whereas the FITNESSGRAM assessment is more health-related.
The norms for the President’s Challenge program were developed from the 1985 President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports School Population Survey, which evaluated the physical fitness status of American schoolchildren ages 6–17 (Nieman 2003). This program consists of four awards:
- The Presidential Physical Fitness Award is awarded to youngsters who score at or above the 85th percentile in all five activities tested. These are outlined in “Comparing Fitness Protocols of the FITNESSGRAM and President’s Challenge Programs” on page 36.
- The National Physical Fitness Award is given to children who score at or above the 50th percentile in all five of these activities.
- The Participant Physical Fitness Award is given to students who attempt all five activities, but score below the 50th percentile.
- The Health Fitness Award is given to those who meet or exceed specific health criteria in four of the five activities (shuttle run is not included), as well as in body mass index.
The FITNESSGRAM program focuses on health-related tests and uses criterion- referenced standards for each age group and sex (Nieman 2003). FITNESSGRAM performance standards place children in one of two categories for a series of tests, outlined in “Comparing Assessment Protocols of the FITNESSGRAM and President’s Challenge Programs” on page 36. The children are tested in six out of 12 possible elements and are placed in a category for each element, based on their performance; kids are not rated on their overall testing performance, as happens in the President’s Challenge test.
Children who meet or exceed the performance standard for a test element are said to be in the Healthy Fitness Zone for that element, meaning their performance is at a level of fitness that provides some protection from diseases related to being sedentary. Children who do not achieve this level of performance are described as being in the Needs Improvement category. The FITNESSGRAM program focuses on the improvement of performance between two repeated tests over a period of time, rather than on the level of performance.
When determining which assessment tool to use with your young clients, you first need to consider each client’s goals. If the goal is to improve health and increase the level of physical activity, the FITNESSGRAM test would be the best choice because it allows you to observe and focus on improvements over time.
If, however, your client wants to be compared with others of the same age, the President’s Challenge program will be a better fit.
Other things to consider when choosing between tests are the development, growth and maturation stages of the particular client.
Exercise testing is essential prior to designing a program for a young client. The fitness assessment data can help you identify the child’s strengths and weaknesses; it is also useful later, for evaluating the effectiveness of your program’s design and measuring how much improvement or decline the client has made.
Assessment data can likewise be very helpful when working with parents, because it provides a baseline for comparisons. By identifying a child’s level of fitness, you can show parents how the child compares with other kids of the same age and gender—and you may be able to rule out existing health-related concerns. Parents find it easier to understand their child’s level of fitness if they can compare the assessment data to concrete standards.
More important, you can use the information to educate parents on the necessity of regular physical activity. Parents will always have the greatest impact on their children’s activities, so changing parental attitudes will be just as crucial as focusing your energy on the kids.
Although there are currently several assessment tools for kids, there is no universally recognized protocol embraced by the fitness industry. With more and more kids working with trainers today, there is a greater need than ever for a single youth fitness assessment tool.
We recommend that an effort be made to standardize a testing protocol designed specifically for children, so that large-scale data collection can be done to develop new normative and criterion-referenced standards. Kids’ test results can then be compared to these standards. Researchers in the field of pediatric exercise physiology and testing, along with leading fitness organizations, should take the lead in such an initiative.
It is vital that this kind of information be made available to anyone who works with kids in a fitness setting, from PE teachers to personal trainers, since these are the people in the trenches who will ultimately put the research into practice by making fitness happen for all children.