Tuesday, June 19, 2007

"Fitnessgrams" for kids

My 11-year-old daughter's report card came in the mail today. Along with the usual list of academic subjects and grades came another piece of paper with a big orange bar at the top. In blue blue letters it read FITNESSGRAM. Below was a graph of how my daughter had performed on a series of fitness tests, including a one-mile run, abdominal curl-ups, trunk lifts, push-ups, and flexibility. Then there was another little box labeled "Body Mass Index," showing her past and current BMIs plotted against a bar graph. Her scores were in the green "healthy fitness zone." To the right was a large red area--danger! fatsos coming!--labeled "Needs improvement." That's where your bar graph ends up if your BMI is "too high." To the left was a tiny red box labeled "very low," which is, I suppose, where your bar graph ends up if you're anorexic.

I guess this is supposed to be a cute, non-threatening way of communicating with parents, a kind of casual, unofficial, "Say, did you know your kid's in great shape?" or "Hey, by the way, your kid's kinda fat!"

This is insulting on any number of levels, of course, but let's just pick one: the suggestion that it's better to be too skinny than too fat, which as we know is not supported by any actual science.** Why isn't the "too skinny" area labeled something like "needs medical attention now!"? Why isn't the "too fat" area labeled "plenty of nutritional reserves!"?

My daughter was more upset about the fake activity pyramid on the back of the fitnessgram, modeled after that most famous of irrelevancies, the USDA food pyramid. At the bottom, the widest section was labeled "lifestyle activity," and it listed walking, biking, skateboarding, housework, yardwork, dancing, and playing active games. The next level held two smaller squares labeled aerobic activity and aerobic sports. One level up, another two squares were labeled muscular activity and flexibility activity. The smallest section, the point of the pyramid, was labeled "rest," and it included schoolwork, homework, reading, computer games, TV, videos, eating, resting, and sleeping.

Clearly these are the things you're supposed to do as little of as possible. My daughter was outraged. "I wonder what the teachers would think about this!" she cried. "You're not supposed to read?"

Imagine boot camp. Then imagine a sergeant from boot camp running the schools. "You there, cadet, stop wasting time with your nose in a book and give me 50 on the floor!" Never mind the fact that kids are supposed to be developing their intellectual capabilities at this (and every) age; in the new Fitness World, only activities that burn calories are sanctioned. Even by schools.

I feel like we're living in a Kurt Vonnegut story. And it's only gonna get worse.

** Calorie reduction (CR) nutcases notwithstanding.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post!!

Oh, good heavens! Your poor daughter and children everywhere. The top of the pyramid actually "allows" them to stop moving? I missed that, as I only had the front of a sample report when I wrote about this on May 21st. I hope parents everywhere are fighting this waste of their school funds which, as you brilliantly illustrated, will only hurt these young people.

Your daughter is very lucky to have a great Mom looking out for her and providing a healthier perspective to all of this. She sounds like she has a great head on her shoulders. I loved her commentary, too.


Harriet said...

Yes, the little children are a heck of a lot smarter on this score than the school districts. They are taken in by all the obesity hype. There's nothing more political than school.

The more I think about this, the more messed up I think it is. Talk about your triggers for anorexia . . . the whole fitness pyramid thing is like an anorexic's way of seeing the world--only in terms of what burns the most calories.

mary said...

According to their charts it seems almost every human alive that sleeps is in deep trouble.This includes the testers, the teachers, the gov't who approved it.
Does it count if we move in our dreams?
I've truly always felt that school expected small children to sit still too much. It seems that by the time my kids reached a certain age in school they were actually LEARNING that they weren't supposed to manage their own free time and it started taking a little longer at the beginning of the summer vacations to realize they were free and they stopped sitting around bored. Mine were all readers too but I wanted them to move around and have some balance. In fact I witnessed TOO MUCH reading and not enough adventures of his own in one of my children.
With that I think that school contributes to the slow down of what was normal movement until they went to school. [not hyper...normal work hard at play movement] I always thought that having a place to run and burn off some energy for hyper kids would be kinder than meds and even watching their diets in case it was sugar or food triggered. After all foods are chemicals.
If they simply gave space for moving around more and skipped the damn reports that are insulting on every level it might actually give kids the idea that humans are not only learners but we have wonderfully designed bodies that can move and we should be free to move! Schools prohibit this as much as possible! Fresh air is limited.(I worked in the schools for a couple years)
My point is that if they are going to degrade people with their report card then we ought to really tell them what's wrong and make them look at just how unhealthy so much of learning has been made and how pressure to compete and test well has become more important than the person they are testing!
Oh and I'd also include a nap! LOL

Ok, I'm done. I'm sorry your daughter had to do this Harriet and I'm sure it gets you thinking.

Anonymous said...

Huh wha?

Wouldn't 8 hours of sleep as the recommended amount for kids automatically make rest one of the more important things on the "activity pyramid?" Then factor in 6 hours of school and an hour of homework, etc there is no way "high movement activity" would end up being the most of a kids a day. Make it plain, simple & easy- exercise 1/2 to one hour each day kids!

There is only a whisper out there in the media about how sleep depreived everyone is-- could the stress of the sleep deprived be contributing more to our alleged "unhealth?" I think this contributes more than we know...

Anonymous said...

I think you & I were writing at the same time Mary!

mary said...

Sometimes I wonder 'who' these so called experts are that dictate all our policies and why we parents are not all in the loop.
I was actually obsessed at one point about different issues in education and found that many parents also felt the same. The ones who didn't have an opinion were the ones who thought of school as a convenient place to get rid of their kids and not a place that has an equal effect on how and what these people who are our future think. Some things are absolutely wonderful and I admire the hard work of many teachers. I know they are working with specific guidelines which seem to be seeking balanced people. In order for changes to be made teachers NEED our involvement and not all of them see us as intrusive if we question policies. In fact they often feel their hands are tied.
I would love to see parent involvement other than fund raising and cheer leading.
Harriet, you are a writer. Use your gift and put your opinions in the local newspapers. You will find that the 'cheerleader' parents get defensive but that there are many more who agree with you.
I am going to try to find out what policies are being used in my neck of the woods and do my part. Little ripples make big waves. Watch out!

Anonymous said...

Wow, that is horrible. Do they have no idea about how vulnerable an 11-year-old girl is?!? I think I would be on the phone right now with my child's school, and there would be no more weighing and measuring. I know that my parents demanded that for me in 4th grade after several years of in-class weighing humiliation. Somebody at that school needs to read some Junkfood Science.

Of course, I don't suppose this district is any different than thousands of others. I expect this to be a raging battle for years. How scared I am for my own 3-year-old son.

Carrie Arnold said...

I'm seething. This whole thing is ridiculous. They're putting limits on reading and sleeping?

My (someday, potential) child's school would hear from me so fast and so loudly, they could hear me with the phone a foot away from their ears.

Do you think moving the phone counts as exercise?

Anonymous said...

I'm glad your daughter has a smart and involved parent. Mine weren't. When I was anoreixic they didn't pay attention, because I was conforming to the script.

A similar experience occured with a young family member of mine: after she failed a test, she was punished by being sent out to run laps. My reaction was, WTF?! No tutor, no study buddy, just running around while the other kids pointed and laughed? And I fail to see the pedagogy behind that decision.

You are right on with the Kurt Vonnegut reference. "Harrison Bergeron"--everyone should read this story and realize Vonnegut was a prophet. Of course, in Fitness Fascism, reading and critical analysis are forbidden.

The future scares me. A generation raised to think appearances are more important than character and skills does not bode well for us.

mary said...

Yes, yes it does Carrie! lol

Katy said...

I just wrote a too-long on the irrationality of this "report card" and lost it. Grr.

The main points were, I think:

1) Why are schools encroaching on doctors' territory? Shouldn't schools educate and doctors manage health?
2) Kids, especially girls, who are hitting puberty absolutely SHOULD NOT be made to feel bad in any way about their weight. They shouldn't be THINKING about their weight. What's going to happen when they start gaining weight--quite a bit, which is a VERY normal and CRUCIAL part of puberty--and realize that the whole world views this as wrong? How many will try to change their body and fall into the horrible, health and LIFE threatening trap of an eating disorder?
3) The health risks of eating disorders (or, as the study on female athletes and bone mass confirmed, sub-clinical undereating and overexercising) FAR outweigh (pun intended!) the dubious risks associated with "obesity," which is arbitrarily defined as the same for everyone AND does not use a weight cutoff that has any relation to any study proving that health risks increase above a particular BMI. (According to the book "The Obesity Myth" those with BMIs in the so-called overweight range live longer than those who are underweight, normal weight or obese. Underweight people die first.)
4) Why not, instead of teaching kids to FEAR their bodies, teach them to love and trust them? Our bodies do not want to be heavier or thinner than they are meant to be. If you listen, your body tells you what it needs. Sometimes that's spinach. Sometimes it's chocolate. Encouraging kids to strive for a weight that is not appropriate for them individually (indeed, the body types portrayed in the media as healthy/ideal are only NATURALLY attainable by something like 1-2% of the population) leads to restrictive eating. Restricted eating can lead to yo-yo dieting. (Worse yet, it leads to eating disorders. Which KILL.) Yo-yo dieting= damaged metabolism. Damaged metabolism+overeating when the body is starved through dieting=weight gain. Ergo, dieting=obesity. But (this is sarcastic!) we should diet more, because we're all too fat and undisciplined and obesity is a horrific problem (despite scientific evidence to the contrary). Plus, if something doesn't work the first (or second, third, twelfth, ninetieth) time, it makes sense to do it again. The same way.

Sorry I keep leaving these long involved ranting comments on your blog, you're just such a voice of sanity in an INSANE world! THANK YOU for this blog. It is a breath of fresh air when I begin to believe the hype. It reminds me that rational voices DO exist, that the scare tactics of the "thindustry" are just that--scare tactics--and that much of the hype about obesity is ACTUALLY about money (I believe I read somewhere that Nabisco owns Jenny Craig. Or some other cookie/cake/chip making company owns some other ridiculous diet company!) and cultural stigma. I wish the whole world listened to you! Reading this gives me hope that we may someday come to our senses.

Harriet said...


Would that everyone thought as you do! ;-) I've always wanted to rule the world.

The biggest reason why schools are going along with this kind of bs: Test scores. Sandy nails it in her blog post of today at junkfoodscience. First it was eating breakfast that would raise test scores a few points, so schools started serving breakfast. I have no problem with that! Now it's "jocks" who do better on tests, so suddenly there's a lot more incentive to push physical activity. Again, I have no problem with physical activity per se--just not at the expense of reading, schoolwork, sleeping (!!) and other crucial but non-calorie-burning activities.

I will be on the phone to school as soon as the office opens again. Alas. I am so popular over there at this point.

Thank you all for your intelligent outrage. We need more!!

Anonymous said...

!@#$% and double !@@$%!. Who designed this pyramid, Ann Coulter? That is absolutely ridiculous. And dangerous. Why don't they just abolish school altogether and have the kids run around and play tag all day? Aerobics Uber Alles!

Anonymous said...

I'm generally in favor of children being active, but not so they can be "fit" or "healthy" or lose weight. They should be active because it's fun to run around and mess around. Anyway, if schools want to encourage physical activity, why do they cut back on recess time and give kids so much homework?

Harriet said...


I love it! Just what I was thinking. Fascism of (almost) the worst kind.

I agree with you, anonymous. Activity is good. Activity in the service of calorie burning/fat phobia/test scores is not good.

Anonymous said...

Harriet, you could move out to the suburbs. So far, in Middleton, report cards show only grades for regular classes.

Harriet said...


Middleton, here we come!

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz said...

Oh. My. Good. God.
Oh my Good God.

I haven't had a chance to read the comments before mine, but I see there are plenty of them - and with good reason. If my daughter ever, EVER has something like this on her report card....well. I fear for Barneveld.

At least your daughter sounds like she "gets it". It's just such a scary, uphill, frustrating battle.

I think I'm in shock.

Anonymous said...

And just think how adults would react if their employers did this to them.

Harriet said...

Oh, but they do. I know of employees at one local company where there are rewards and penalties for health "conditions" as defined by the insurance company--being overweight, smoking, etc. And believe me, folks there do not like it.

Katy said...

On the other hand, even when adults don't like it, they do buy into it. I doubt it occurs to many of them that the reasoning behind the insurance company's health guidelines is dubious at best. More likely they kick themselves for not being able to conform and grumble about how it's not their employer's business. (Which in my opinion, it's not.)


XXLA said...

I am nowhere near having children, while I am straight out of high school and only 18 years old... But when reading this post, I could only fear for what it's going to be like when I have children... I myself am big... I was as a small child and I still am to this day, so assuming he/she inherits my metabolism, I fear I might have to homeschool my children or perhaps even run away to some country that hasn't so much fear. The scary thing is, I'm not joking, and every time I read one more thing that tears down a fat child's sense of worth and the parent's ability to parent, I honestly start thinking to myself, "How can I escape under the radar ten years from now so the government can't find my child and take them away because they are "too fat"

Harriet said...

Well, as you know, the movement to do this is beginning. It's up to us to resist this passionately, and to bring some semblance of intelligence back into the dialogue around weight and body image.

Anonymous said...

I just got a letter announcing that the Texas Educational Agency has MANDATED annual fitness testing for the state of Texas for students in 3rd-12th grades. My daugher, who is graduating this year, has borderline anorexic friends who are already on crash diets to lose more weight. The fact that we as taxpayers are paying for this that has been forced upon us is making me livid! FITNESSGRAM, bah humbug! Guess what, Cooper Institute, I'm encouraging my children and all their friends to purposely do their worst on the physical assessment part of the test, like shuttle run, sit and reach, pull-ups and all the rest, and to lie like crazy on the 'self-reported' activity. Let the state of Texas coorelate THAT! Let them try to find causal relationships that link obesity to poor behavior and grades. Shame on you, Texas, shame!

Harriet said...

I know just how you feel, anon!

Anonymous said...

My daughter is underweight thanks to her medication and metabalism. Her doctor has switched her to whole milk with flavoring added (calories) and wants me to give her a bowl of ice cream or shake every night. I am HIGHLY opposed to the Fitnessgram testing and have contacted my state senators and the Texas Education Agency requesting that parents be allowed to opt their child out of the testing. If you agree I strongly urge you to do the same. The more people who do this the better the chances are that something might be done.

Anonymous said...

I am actually a senior in high school this year, living in Texas, and have had to take this awful test twice already. I find it to be horribly obtrusive, unnecessary, and insulting. I no longer participate at all, I simply write down "0" for all areas and study while the rest of my class does the various physical activity. All of my (sane) teachers hate the thing, and even the (very qualified!) coaches at my school roll their eyes at this pathetic attempt of the state to regulate and improve personal fitness and eating habits. It is a waste of time and much more detrimental to students (at my age, at least) then it ever could be beneficial.

Harriet said...

That's fabulous, Anon. I like your strategy. Passive resistance. Shades of Gandhi. :) Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

I'm a freshman in high school and I've taken it twice.

We only have 14 minutes to run a mile (which is impossible for me) and it took me 18 minutes to run it, so they made me run another mile the next day.

I could barely walk the next day and I have to go up and down the stairs at least five times at school everyday.

I really don't see how this test is necessary.