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Good Ideas Gone Bad

January 17, 2021

When I was a kid, there wasn’t much emphasis on physical fitness. It was a good thing, too, because my library card was my best friend and I could rip through 10 books per week, stopping only to eat, sleep and go to school.

Back then, people thought that children would exercise themselves sufficiently if given access to the outdoors. Our physical education classes consisted of playing dodge ball and red rover, with the occasional foray into a few jumping jacks and toe-touches.

There wasn’t the sports-industrial complex there is now. There were no expensive lessons or “travel teams,” at least not among people we knew. Rather than team sports, we played games we learned or made up, games where we spent almost as much time negotiating the rules as we did actually competing.

Our favorite made-up game was “Best Fall,” where one person would pretend to be a Wild West gunman and everyone else would run toward them. They would shoot each person with their finger-guns and we competed to see who could do the most dramatic fall to our death, complete with gruesome dying sounds and flopping about. It was good practice for growing up to be drama nerds.

So is it any wonder that the Presidential Physical Fitness Test came as a bit of a shock? Out of nowhere, our teachers would take us out to the play field and do timed exercises for several hours – as many pull-ups as you could do in a minute (zero, as always), as many sit-ups (the old-fashioned kind with someone holding down your feet) as you could do in five minutes, how far you could run in…I dunno, it seemed like forever.

Suddenly my body, well-adapted to reading books, was being forced to do things it did not normally do, and it did not appreciate it. I remember hanging helplessly on the pull-up bar. I remember running until the back of my throat was hot and weirdly minty, my breath sounding like a pack-a-day smoker. And most of all, I remember my shredded stomach muscles being so sore from sit-ups that I could barely stand or move. My mom took pity on me and gave me a hot water bottle to go to sleep with.

If you did well in the tests, you got an award. Billy Matthews always got the award. Some of us never got the award.

I assume the adults who designed this program thought “These kids are going to want to get in shape after this!”

Ha. I got a different message. My take-away was: exercise is torture – avoid it at all costs. That’s what I did for the next few decades. I took the easiest PE classes I could, sat on the sidelines, used my menstrual period excuse as often as I could get away with.

I wonder how different my life would have been if I didn’t believe exercise was torture.

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is. Don’t spring things on children that they aren’t ready for? If you’re going to make children exercise, have a plan instead of just throwing them into torment? Or maybe don’t let your kid read 10 books per week. Make them go ride their bike or something.

UPDATE: I found this great podcast about how pointless this test was. It is a fun listen and chock full of information – like the fact that no one ever collected this data or used it in any meaningful way.

  1. January 18, 2021 05:07

    Maybe the lesson is that exercise (and other things as well) need to be tailored to the individual – not a one size fits all. Thanks for your post, and enjoy your day.

    • January 18, 2021 07:46

      Good idea! I always loved to swim and dance, and later I learned to like weight-lifting. But I will never, ever be a runner.

  2. January 18, 2021 07:25

    I competed in gymnastics when I was little. I didn’t so much think of that as exercise until I had to work on the uneven bars. I excelled at the vault and the balance beam, but the uneven bars were my nemesis. My couch would lift me up, I’d grab onto the top bar and then I would just hang there. I could never pull myself up onto that bar. Never. I was so bad, that when we went to competitions, our couch would just leave me off the bars. I would only compete in vault, beam and floor.

    To do this day, any exercise that involves upper arm strength is an exercise in torture.

    • January 18, 2021 07:47

      Aw. I’m laughing with you, not at you, imagining you hanging there. I know from whence you speak.

      • January 18, 2021 08:11

        Also…apparently I can’t spell coach nor can I proofread.

  3. January 18, 2021 07:53

    I vividly remember the Presidential Physical Fitness Test from the 8th grade because I was paired with Toni, who was a cousin of the person then known as Bruce Jenner who had just won the gold medal in decathlon the previous summer. Athletically speaking, you could tell they were related. We had to do the timed run around the 1/4 mile track and before we started the gym teacher looked at me and said, “don’t try to keep up with her.” Uh, no problem there. Toni was probably in the locker room changing her clothes before I got to the halfway point. She was a really nice girl, though, and never tried to make me feel bad about being a land manatee.

    • January 20, 2021 07:00

      I think manatees are just lovely.

  4. January 18, 2021 08:23

    When I entered my freshman year we moved into a new high school that had a (gasp) gymnasium. We also had a P.E. teacher who was good at the Physical part but dismal at the Education part. She would run us ragged one day and let us loll about for the next two or three. The next year I signed up for Glee Club because it meant I didn’t have to take P.E.
    I’ve never been good at team sports but much to the amazement of my friends, I was a very good archer and a mean fencer. Those I took in college where I had choices about the level of physical involvement but no choice to avoid the required credits.
    Several years later I tried taking tennis lessons and my Filipino instructor said, “Maybe you should be a fashion model. You’ll never be a tennis player.” In other words, I excel at standing still.

    • January 20, 2021 07:01

      I love hearing these stories. They help me feel less alone.

  5. February 8, 2021 18:01

    I’m right there with ya on the “dangling” from the pull up bar! Hahaha! I was a bookwork back them too! I never really got in shape until I did on my own terms in college. Now, I focus on overall wellness and setting a good example for my boys. Life’s a journey, enjoy the ride your way! Thanks for always writing such enjoyable articles 🙂

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