Opinion: Fitness Standards: Accurate or Sexist?


Male and female students alike often grumble when they hear the word “pacer.” Each trimester of gym class, students are required to complete fitness testing which includes the notoriously exhausting pacer, arm-numbing push-ups, equally painful curl-ups, and the agonizing sit and reach.

Students are now assessed by a set of standards created by Fitness Gram TM to see if they fall into the target “Healthy Fit Zone” or HFZ, where earlier a letter grade scale was used. These standards were created from recently collected data from all across the country and from a variety of demographics. BHS PE teacher Ms. Lachinski commented that the standards have declined over the years. “Youth today aren’t as active as my generation was. Now we see them sitting inside, with their eyes glued to a screen.”

The standards don’t just show a decline in exercise. They also expose an enormous gap between male and female performance. Take a look at what standards a 17-year-old boy and girl must meet in order to be “healthy” below.

On tests like the push-ups and the pacer, the difference in the standards sticks out like the gap between two front teeth. For the push-up test, girls must perform only 7 reps, whereas boys must perform 18. That’s a whopping 11-point difference. The pacer ranges for boys and girls overlap only by one point.

At first glance, the standards appear to be incredibly sexist.

One of the reasons for such a big gap relates to biology. “The standards reflect the natural hormonal changes of testosterone for males and estrogen for females,” says Lachinski. The chemical structures of the hormones are strikingly similar, yet they create distinct physical changes in the body. For example, this can explain why girls perform better on the sit and reach because the group of muscles and joints tested need to be flexible for childbirth.

BHS Biology teacher Ms. Gaffaney described how the differences in anatomy give the sexes different advantages. “Males and females have different angles in their bone structure which affects their muscles. In general, males have stronger shoulders and arms, and females have stronger hips and legs. That’s why boys are able to perform so well on the push-up test.”

The standards accurately present a natural biological difference, but they still make girls look weak. Why isn’t there a test that showcases female leg strength like a lunge or squat test, like the push-up test that highlights male upper body strength? 

Biology, however, is not the only reason behind the gap. Society’s stereotypes have caused women to be less active.

This is evident when taking a look at the curl-up test, where there is a gap. But with the US Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test, there is no difference between the requirements for male and female abdominal muscle strength: both must complete 50 crunches in 2 minutes. Granted, they are at an elite level of training, but this still shows that women are perfectly capable of reaching intense levels of strength. Lachinski says, “By no means, a girl can’t work to meet the boys’ standards.”

Why are girls not reaching their full potential? The extremes of stereotypes dictate that from a young age, girls ought to play with dolls, and boys are expected to be athletic and play sports like football. Society has progressed as there are many more opportunities for women to be active, but the fitness standards still reflect the pervasive effects of these stereotypes.

This may contribute to what Lachinski calls a “defeatist attitude” that many girls have. She describes how some girls may feel intimidated by the boys’ competitive nature or are just apathetic. Some girls, however, are motivated. They see the boys’ standards and aim to be just as strong as their male peers. All girls should strive to cultivate this determination. Let’s close this gap.

One possible solution is to avoid posting the standards before testing. Students could then focus solely on pushing themselves to their own physical limits, the ultimate point of these tests. Boys and girls alike could benefit from this. Boys wouldn’t feel the pressure to achieve the higher male standard. Girls wouldn’t stop when they’ve reached the female standard and would push themselves to go further. They have the potential to be much stronger than what society makes them appear be.