Xiaofen D. Keating, Ph.D.
Institution: Department of Curriculum and Instruction, The University of Texas at Austin, US
Peter Smolianov, Ph.D.
Institution: Department of Sport and Movement Science, Salem State University, US
Xiaolu Liu, M.A.
Institution: Department of Curriculum and Instruction, The University of Texas at Austin, US
Jose Castro-Piñero, Ph.D.
Institution: University of Cádiz, Spain
Jed Smith, M.A.
Institution: Department of Kinesiology, University of Northern Iowa, US
Xiaofen D. Keating, Ph.D.
Department of Curriculum and Instruction, The University of Texas at Austin, US
1912 Speedway Stop D5000, Austin, TX, 78712
Youth Fitness Testing Practices: Global Trends and New Development
The purpose of the study was to compare the most widely implemented youth fitness tests in China, European Union (EU), Russia, and the US to provide guidelines for future youth fitness testing in school settings. Constant content comparison method was used to identify differences. The data from the study indicated that the above four tests undertook a few revisions from their inception, varying among the tests. There were three shared test components (i.e., aerobic fitness, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility). However, only push-ups/modified push-ups and sit-ups/curl ups were the testing items that were used in all tests. The cut-off value for each test also varied for the same gender and age. Fitness knowledge and physical activity assessment were only included in youth fitness test battery in Russia. New technologies emerged in youth fitness test batteries, changing how tests were implemented in schools.
Keywords: youth fitness testing batteries, worldwide comparison, global trends, new development
Among various means for promoting fitness, physical fitness testing programs have been used widely throughout the world and serve many different purposes (27, 33). The use of fitness testing could help governments as well as health and educational organizations track important data on the population for sport programs/athletes and physical education assessment (7, 29, 30). Most importantly, physical fitness is a key indicator of the well-being of children and adolescents and a vital predictor of health later in life (40). Previous research has indicated that it is critical to educate youth to be physically active as early as possible (13, 24, 33). Thus, various types of youth tests have been developed in many countries and revisions have been made periodically (5, 21, 27, 41). However, it is important to point out that the need for fitness testing in schools has been debated for years (17, 33). Although it is obvious that there is strong support of youth fitness testing in schools on a regular basis (8-10), many researchers have questioned the necessity of regular implementation of youth fitness tests (4, 17).
Appropriate fitness testing has great unrealized potentials as a critical component within physical education, fitness, and sport (24, 33). The increase of physical inactivity caused by overeating unhealthy food and video gaming contributes to nearly US $70 billions of global healthcare expenditures (28, 34). More alarmingly, this growing epidemic coincides with a lack of knowledge about fitness testing, particularly in English speaking countries (21, 22).
One of the most comprehensive studies found in English language on youth fitness testing was reported by Castro-Pinero and associates (5) who analyzed 15 physical fitness test batteries currently being used worldwide. Although the authors examined three youth fitness testing batteries used at the time in China (i.e., China’s National Physical Fitness Testing [CNPFT]), the US (i.e., FitnessGram®), and European Union (EU) (i.e., EuroFit), they did not include the Soviet GTO. Specifically, GTO is the fitness testing system updated in the 21-century Russia after it served as the foundation for the former USSR and current Chinese and Russian sporting successes and for monitoring physical fitness at the national level (34). Furthermore, both FitnessGram® (10) and the CNPFT (7, 24) were revised after 2010 when the study of Castro-Pinero and associates (5) was published. EuroFit was also replaced by a different youth fitness test program titled the ALPHA-FIT test battery (i.e., Assessing Levels of Physical Activity and Fitness) for the assessment of health-related physical fitness of children and adolescents in EU in 2009 (2, 32). Such significant changes warrant more research on the topic to keep up with the new development of youth fitness testing practices worldwide in a timely manner.
Given that fitness testing has been driven by various social, cultural, and physiological factors (21), the lack of complete and updated information concerning youth fitness testing batteries used across nations limited our overall understanding about physical fitness testing practices, and it also leads to inconsistent and ineffective use of different fitness tests (6, 10, 34). Thus, there is an urgent need for a more encompassing comparative analysis of current fitness testing batteries servicing global populations so that countries could learn from each other and borrow optimal test components and methods. Therefore, the purpose of this project is to address differences and commonalities among the four most widely implemented youth fitness tests (i.e., CNPFT, FitnessGram®, ALPHA, and GTO) in the world. Because the four fitness test batteries are used by the largest areas/countries in the world, the results of the study could help us better understand the entire picture of youth fitness testing practices worldwide. It is hoped that the identification of possible ways to strengthen these tests could help increase physical activity levels, reduce public health concerns, and improve workplace productivity across countries. It is also anticipated that the results of our study would shed new light on how to develop effective fitness tests to promote fitness. In order to help readers better understand the current project, it is necessary to note that there are physical fitness tests in many countries and only the four widely used youth fitness test programs were selected, even though both GTO and ALPHA are also designed for adults. Fitness test programs designed for adults only were excluded based on the purpose of the project.
Previous reviews of fitness test batteries were examined to provide baseline data for selecting representative youth fitness test programs in major countries worldwide. A thorough examination of previous research on the topic indicated that currently CNPFT, ALPHA, GTO and FitnessGram® systems were the most widely implemented youth fitness tests in school settings in Asia, Europe, and North America, respectively (5, 21, 34, 39). The four tests were analyzed to provide a greater understanding of youth fitness testing characteristics as well as to suggest a broader scope of using these fitness test programs. Governmental documents issued by Russian and Chinese ministries of sport and education regarding the countries’ fitness tests and programs were translated into English by the first and second authors and analyzed together with other sources from Eastern European and Chinese literature. This information has not been previously available in English language. The document analysis method was employed to examine the four tests. Specifically, data related to testing components and items, cut-off values for each gender and age group, and awards were then collected. The co-authors double checked the accuracy of the collected data by independently coding the data and checking the consistency of the coded data among the coders. The discrepancies among coders’ coding were thoroughly discussed among authors to reach an agreement. The data analyses focused on the differences and commonalities among the four fitness programs by comparing fitness testing components, items, test battery costs, website design, and assessing system including cut-off values and awards. Peer debriefing was utilized as a main strategy to ensure the rigor of the analytic process (25).
Body composition, which is a component related to the body fat calculated using individual’s weight and height data, was not included in GTO (see Table 1). Common components included in all test batteries were cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility (see Tables 2, 3, & 4). Importantly, except that for the FitnessGram®, all the other three test batteries consisted of muscular power which was viewed as skill-related fitness before and was recently added to health-related fitness (5, 11, 19). Based on the total number of test items, health-related fitness components dominated all the selected test batteries, despite variations among the four countries. Noticeably, life related skills such as camping, recommended weekly physical activities, and fitness knowledge for each age group were only included in GTO (see Table 5).
The only common testing items were push-ups or modified push-ups and sit-ups or curl-ups, but these were not included in the ALPHA test. Body composition component is included in all but GTO. Except FitnessGram®, standing long jump was used in the other three test batteries. Interestingly, testing items in the same component varied greatly among the four test programs. Only ALPHA offered a shorter version to teachers who have limited class time, suggesting that teachers did not have to implement all the test items. Noticeably, GTO was more individualized being able to choose testing items to be tested on considering only GTO employed swimming and skiing as optional testing items for cardiovascular endurance while other batteries included running related items only, even though the running distance (i.e., 1 mile run vs. 1000/800 meter run vs. 2km run) was different. Shuttle run with different distances (i.e., 20m shuttle run/PACER and 50m shuttle run) were used in all tests but GTO. In addition, only China had different test items for school-aged females while GTO designed unique sex specific tests for elderly adults only, which is beyond the scope of the current study. Although many traditional testing items have still been used, there is a noticeable trend that equipment-based items have been added in CNPFT (7) and ALPHA (2), respectively.
Cost, availability of instructional materials, and test administration
The programs’ costs ranged from relatively expensive to minimal, depending on the prices of testing equipment and budgets for purchasing instructional materials and software for data collection and generating result reports. Interestingly, none of the test batteries included a total price for purchasing the test kits. However, based on the required equipment needed for the test implementation, it seemed that CNPFT could be costly because it required expensive equipment to test Vo2max (i.e., $4,000 per unit). The nationally suggested FitnessGram® in the US required a budget for equipment (i.e., sit-and-reach texting box, curl-up strips, and skin fold flips) and assessment software (i.e., US$599 for the first year and US$149 for renewal) (10). The ALPHA test version developed for schools used a dynamometer that costs around US $350-450, and other ALPHA versions may also require a skinfold caliper that costs about US $250 (2).
GTO could be implemented at no cost for required tests, and optional tests (e.g., hiking and camping, swimming and skiing, pneumatic and electronic weapon shooting) were based on activities which were part of many schools’ curriculum and lifestyles of many Russians. All compared tests required some instructions, ideally from a school teacher or a sport coach, but in case of GTO–a volunteer instructor or any adult could provide the preparation guidance and implement the tests. GTO offered free online fitness testing instruction and did not require expensive measurements, therefore providing everyone with a unique lifelong fitness testing option for free.
Availability of instructional materials
Each fitness test battery had guidelines or handbooks to describe test assessments and results. CNPFT testing materials were distributed as official documents from the government (7). It also had a specific website for the test battery information (8). Students could not submit testing results and school physical education teachers were only granted access for data submission once annually, indicating that all youth fitness testing was done around the same time in schools. Summarized testing results were not available on the website. The CNFPT website described equipment and test methods in text format without photos or videos illustrating how to implement each test.
Handbooks and information about the FitnessGram® test has been readily available since the Presidential Youth Fitness Program (PYFP) has adopted FitnessGram® as their new fitness assessment in 2013 (10). FitnessGram® test along with resource guides for physical educators and parents were accessible on the PYFP (http://pyfp.org/) and CIAR (http://www.cooperinstitute.org/) websites along with other important forms that aided in recording and interpreting results. The PYFP and CIAR websites also provided a wealth of information to the public and had also included free assessment materials and videos made available for anybody to watch via the internet. Test results, without individual identification, were available on its website. However, students could not report their own testing results on these websites.
ALPHA had a website with detailed information regarding its test programs (see https://sites.google.com/site/alphaprojectphysicalactivity/alpha-public-documents/alpha-fit/assessing-fitness-in-children). Both videos and texts were used to illustrate the testing procedures and equipment needed. The test battery was also translated into all languages spoken in Europe. However, testing result reports were not submitted on the website. Test results without personal identification information were also not available.
GTO had a user friendly governmental website that gives a variety of information regarding GTO with detailed but clear succinct participant-oriented program description and guidelines for testing, utilizing the latest technology and multi-media pedagogical and promotional resources. GTO webpage (http://gto.ru/), in contrast with other programs, offered high quality videos with audio and text instructions supported by interactive instant messaging/texting and voice assistance by trained operators making sure that prompt help was always available.
CNPFT was only used in school settings and administered by trained physical education teachers (8, 20, 21). GTO testing stations with trained instructors and community fitness grounds where tests can be administered were available at no cost, while teachers administered the tests as part of physical education which is compulsory at all educational levels (16, 34, 35). From the compared programs, GTO was the only self-administered test supported for individual use by online instructions. FitnessGram® was administered through trained physical education professionals within physical education curriculum or after-school programs such as NFL’s Play 60 program (10). Even though it has not been included in the education curriculum in most of European countries, ALPHA was designed to be administered by physical education teachers either as part or in addition to regular school physical education program, but also by sport club and sports medical centers (2, 15).
Test assessing standards
All four fitness test batteries employed criterion-referenced assessing standards with age and gender specific cut-off values (see Tables 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5). CNPFT included college student tests. GTO consisted of tests for all age groups beginning at the age of six. Both FitnessGram® and ALPHA ended at the age group of “18 or more” while the beginning age was 8 and 6 for FitnessGram® and ALPHA, respectively. There were two different ALPHA batteries: for youth from 6 to 18 and for adults older than 18 years.
None of the tests used the same cut-off values for the same age and gender group. Moreover, FitnessGram® used “the Healthy Fitness Zone” to either pass or fail students, and ALPHA employed a similar binary scale, even though “the Health Fitness Zone” was not used. CNPFT and GTO had cut-off values for three levels of the same age and gender group (i.e., excellent, good, and fail for CNPFT; gold, silver, and bronze for GTO).
Use of test results and award systems
None of the analyzed test batteries specified how test results could be used in terms of teaching in physical education and/or student physical education grades. However, GTO test scores were used as a criterion for high school and college graduation and there were three levels of GTO badges – gold, silver, and bronze, based on the overall testing score. The standards for each badge were pre-set and each test taker knew exactly what was expected to achieve each level of GTO badge. The same was for FitnessGram® standards which allowed each student to understand what they needed to be in the Healthy Fitness Zone. Students were not awarded with any specific badges, but schools may purchase a variety of Presidential Youth Fitness Program awards (30). ALPHA and CNPFT did not offer any awards for students’ excellent performance in fitness testing, eliminating fitness testing competition. However, Chinese student fitness test scores were used as a criterion for high school and college graduation (21).
Integration of fitness testing into sporting programs and physical activity participation
GTO has served as a foundation of mass sport participation. GTO itself was designed as a multi-discipline sport with a system of competitions and national finals. The test aimed to connect sporting programs with fitness testing scores for children and adolescents who were to achieve highest age appropriate GTO results before being eligible for competing in a certain sport. The other three test batteries, however, have not been formally connected with sporting programs. Only GTO contains physical activity recommendations for each age group.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
Fitness levels of children and adolescents have been declining worldwide in recent years due to the dramatic changes in lifestyles (37, 38). New technologies such as TV, internet, computer, and automobiles have facilitated the adoption of sedentary lifestyles especially in children and adolescents. Childhood obesity partially caused by a lack of physical activity has become a public health problem in many countries (3). Therefore, youth fitness testing has been one of the most pressing global challenges in school settings (5, 14, 24).
As a common worldwide practice in schools, youth fitness testing has existed for more than half of a century (5, 24, 33), with revisions to reflect the updated understanding about health-related fitness (12, 27, 34). The declines in pediatric fitness call for a thorough examination of routine fitness testing in schools as it is apparent that the existing practice cannot help children and youth improve or maintain sound health-related fitness. Research on youth fitness testing warrants more attention of professionals in fields of physical education, health, sport management and fitness due to its short- and long-term effects and a wide scope of implementation (5, 24). As the first step of improving fitness testing practice in educational settings, it is critical to understand the pivotal structure and elements of youth fitness testing batteries. Our project adds to the existing knowledge of youth fitness testing by identifying differences and new trends in youth fitness testing across countries. The results of the current project could help increase the awareness of issues related to youth fitness testing practice worldwide and provide baseline data for future youth fitness testing program development.
The components of health-related fitness are related to public health and the mission of physical education (11, 12). It is important to note that youth test components determine what will be tested in schools, which can produce lifelong impact on next generations’ fitness (24, 33). All four youth fitness test batteries place a strong focus on health-related fitness components, which is in line with the findings reported by the most recent studies on the topic (5, 20, 21, 23, 41). As noted by Morrow and colleagues (27), an important landmark in youth fitness testing in recent years is the separation of health-related fitness from skill related fitness as the later one is related to a higher-level performance in sport competitions. The data from our project suggest that youth fitness testing is primarily targeted on health-related fitness worldwide. However, it is deemed critical to note that the recently added new component of muscular power were included in three test batteries except FitnessGram® (5, 11, 19). Furthermore, body composition has become one of the core components of health-related fitness (24, 11). However, this component has been absenting from GTO. ALPHA does not measure muscular endurance, but it is the only battery which tests isometric strength through handgrip. The discrepancy in understanding key components of youth fitness calls for more research on the topic in the future.
Another difference in the selection of test components across the four test programs is the fitness knowledge test as it is only included in GTO. Keating (20) suggests that the improvement of youth’s health-related fitness knowledge is a necessary international endeavor and should be tested on a regular basis to ensure that individuals can make informed decisions concerning their lifestyles. Although research has indicated that knowledge does not always guarantee the occurrence of the corresponding behaviors (26), knowledge is correlated to behaviors. Given that students are expected to acquire knowledge and skills needed to live a healthy life, which is included in the national physical education teaching standards in the US (32), it is puzzling why fitness knowledge has not been widely tested as a youth fitness test component, with an exception in Russia. Future studies should compare fitness levels and behaviors of Chinese, European, US and Russian students to examine if the knowledge testing included in GTO generates any significant differences in fitness and health.
Many testing items are different within the same test component across the four test batteries, which is consistent with what was found by Castro-Pinero and associates (5). While optional items can fit diverse needs of schools, such inconsistency hinders the possible comparisons and improvement of fitness across countries. It is necessary to address cardiorespiratory fitness tests included in all batteries as these items are more complex and need more space and time for testing implementation in comparison with the rest. Because endurance tests must last for a certain period of time, students have to learn how to pace their speed if the testing items are continuous running, and/or swimming, and/or skiing. It is critical to note shuttle runs or FitnessGram’s PACER with various distances (see Table 2) are employed in all tests except for GTO. As widely known, shuttle runs or PACER use smaller space than that for long distance running, or skiing, or swimming and can be easily done inside the gym. More importantly, shuttle runs can guide students to pace their speed so that they do not sprint at the beginning of the test, which is a critical element in long distance running, or swimming, or skiing. With respect to what distance is optimal for a shuttle run test to be valid and practical in school settings, Tomkinson and his colleagues (37) pointed out that 50 countries have used the 20-meter shuttle run or PACER. The same result was reported by Castro-Pinero and colleagues (5) indicating that the 20-meter shuttle run was one of the most valid tests to assess endurance. Future studies are needed to examine if there is an optimal test item that can be used for most countries so that it is possible to conduct worldwide comparisons of student cardiovascular endurance at various educational levels.
As noted by Keating (20) more than a decade ago, many test items are repeatedly tested across all age groups each year (see Tables 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5). As such, teachers usually develop the tendency to use the testing items for practice in teaching physical education (20, 33). Year after year of repeating the same practices, many students perceived fitness testing as boring and have lost their interests in participating in such tests (18, 21). It is unfortunate that the current youth fitness testing practices have not effectively addressed this issue. Although it has been suggested to use different exercises to promote fitness instead of repeatedly using the same testing items for practice (9, 33), no data are available to indicate if the above recommendation has made a difference. As all teachers are likely driven by testing in schools, it is the time to use a variety of test items to make the tests more exciting, especially in regard to endurance trials. For example, cycling, kayaking and many other fun sports could be added to skiing and swimming as optional endurance test items, as well as most common healing movements from yoga and tai chi advancing beyond the FitnessGram®’s shoulder stretch and trunk lift.
Asian traditional exercises such as tai chi, wushu, tsigun, and yoga could lead American and European preventive medicine in developing fitness tests to address the most important health problems such as spinal disorders which have detrimental effect on up to 80% of the general population (36). These movements, including FitnessGram®’s trunk lift, also double as therapy and stretching exercises to be used for back strengthening as well as preventative maintenance for future spine ailments (35). There is an urgent need to examine the possibility of preempting key illnesses through additional healing items and their daily preparation routines as part of youth fitness tests.
Grouping criteria and assessment standards
Because most tests are designed for all children and youth, it is understandable that all testing programs analyzed in this study end at the age of 18, apart from the GTO program which has detailed guidelines for all age groups throughout the lifespan based on continuous scientific evaluations and revisions since its inception in 1931(1, 28). Noticeably, ALPHA also has an additional test program for adults.
Physical activity should be age-specific to optimize its effects on health (31). While GTO exemplifies an integrated fitness and test program for children and adults, GTO’s oldest group was 70 plus and the youngest group was 6-8 years old. As the global population is aging, tests and programs for older age groups could be useful. On the other hand, more research and instructions might be needed for five and younger as physical education is becoming part of daycare at earlier ages. More advanced differentiation and integration of all age-specific tests is also important as this increases participation by bringing different population groups together for testing and preparation: participants, coaches, teachers and administrators at sport clubs, schools and all possible organizations as well as whole families in their communities.
Availability of test materials
It is encouraging that a website is specifically designed to provide information regarding the test battery and to promote the use of the tests. More importantly, GTO provided free online assistance to help users in a timely manner. Since various problems and questions may occur at any time, the use of online instant texting or voice chat certainly has more advantages than emails or snail mails. With respect to test results, which is one of the most important components of youth fitness testing, only FitnessGram® has synthesized data available online. The limited access to fitness testing results may have hindered further research on the topic.
Use of testing results and award system
The use of testing results plays a critical role in the effectiveness of youth fitness testing in schools (23, 33). However, many participants are driven away because of the inappropriate use of testing results (14, 33), even though one of the reasons for regular fitness testing in students is to emphasize the role of schools in encouraging and motivating students to adopt and adhere to physically active lifestyles across the lifespan (23, 33). How fitness test results should be used to motivate individuals to participate in more physical activity remains unclear (23).
As widely known, an award system is always built upon testing results. However, there is an obvious trend to eliminate competitions in youth fitness testing except in Russia (41). ALPHA and FitnessGram® employed a binary scale to assess student fitness test results, suggesting that higher levels of fitness were not strongly encouraged. However, GTO rewards attracted everyone to physical activities by providing incentives supported by national policies which ask and help every organization in Russia to stimulate the achievement of the challenging fitness objectives. This is done in Moscow, Russia, for example, where between 2011 and 2015 over 1.5 million residents attempted to pass GTO requirements, the number of people who regularly exercise increased to over 3 million and a total of 450,000 individuals take part in multi-sport community competitions for all ages and families every year (25). The competitive nature of youth fitness testing warrants more attention in the future.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
Join forces of all countries to develop an internationally available youth fitness test battery
Public and private organizations could come together in the interests of the world’s population to help develop a single fitness test program using the best practices mentioned in this article. However, this may be a challenge to national policies due to the lack of studies comparing the benefits to the required investments. Although this may be a staggering feat, considerate of the hefty startup cost that would have to be endured by a country. To counter the initial costs, an understanding would have to be made that a program of this magnitude could have significant long-term savings. Furthermore, FitnessGram® and ALPHA versus CNPFT and GTO represent two distinct cultural and social systems, resulting in a different level of support from the government and the society at large. GTO in Russia and CNPFT in China are supported by their governments while the others are not. Social and cultural factors must be considered when developing an international youth fitness test. To ensure that best practices of all possible nations are considered, the cooperation among European and American experts should expand further East by involving specialists from at least such major countries as China and Russia. In spite of political differences in countries, student fitness is a global issue and all countries can benefit from implementing the best youth fitness testing practices.
Include more optional testing items
More test items should be included in youth fitness test batteries. This concept is not new, but rather well forgotten old: such ancient sports and fitness systems as judo, karate, taekwondo, yoga, tai chi, and wushu are all based on gradual lifelong progression to the highest desired level of fitness and healthy body and mind. Fitness tests which are part of multi-step belt progression used in Eastern combat sports could be utilized in all youth fitness tests to prevent injuries and illnesses and prolong everyone’s participation.
Promote global lifelong fitness testing
The global inactivity and obesity trends urge us to make fitness a greater priority. Creating a large-scale lifelong fitness testing program throughout the world could provide comparable data to monitor and intervene youth fitness across nations. Such practice would lead to an increase of the physically active adult population, decrease in obesity in both youth and adults, as well as improvement of international sport performance. Therefore, there is a need for international fitness related organizations to join force to develop a global youth fitness testing battery and create fitness data bank to effectively monitor changes in youth fitness. More efforts are needed to make effective youth fitness testing practice as one of the important missions of fitness professionals in the era of educational reform and the alarming decline of youth fitness worldwide.
There is no grant support or any source of funding.
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