Updated: Feb 14
By Dr Zali Yager
The Beep test. Or the Bleep Test. That tortuous activity that you did in PE each year to ‘test your fitness’ is the one thing that so many people remember about physical education (and that so many would rather forget!).
Fitness testing is one of those things that became popular in physical education [PE] as it evolved from its military roots, and has stuck. Most Australian secondary schools still do fitness testing at least once or twice in their program, despite the fact that it is not actually a requirement in the Australian Curriculum: Health and PE. There are many PE practices that are outdated and (hopefully) no longer a part of school practice- like weighing students, and taking skinfold measurements to determine body fat... should fitness tests be removed from PE too?
Many researchers and academics in the Physical Education Space have questioned the pedagogical relevance of fitness testing. Some have argued that fitness testing is often not conducted in ways that teach, motivate, and promote healthy lifestyles . Others maintain that fitness testing should motivate students to try to improve their own fitness, and insist that the experiential learning from that process is valuable.
While there has been a lot of debate and research into the contributions that fitness testing makes for learning, there hasn’t been a lot about the psychological impact. In studies where they have asked adults about the most traumatic experiences of PE, fitness testing, and the Beep test in particular is often the first thing they mention. Attitudes towards fitness testing tend to decrease as kids get older- they are ok with is when they are younger, but from grade 9-12, they gradually report the they don’t like, enjoy, or feel motivated by these classes. A statewide survey of teachers in Texas found that 38.8% of teachers reported negative experiences or outcomes in their fitness testing classes - like kids crying, getting upset, and feeling anxiety and embarrassment as well as refusing to participate. Another interview study with adolescents also reported that students saw fitness testing as a punishment, and tried to avoid it by hiding in the bathroom and/or crying during testing.
Surely crying is not a great outcome in PE class- for learning, or for mental health. This research, coupled with our our own lived experiences, and anecdotal reports from parents that fitness testing has triggered eating disorders that has led us to work in this space. For some time we have advised schools to be careful and considerate in the way they teach fitness testing- or not do it at all. But we haven’t really had conclusive evidence that this practice does harm.
Our research group set out to do a small pilot study. We collected data from 51 students in grade 7-10 in Australian secondary schools, a week before, and a week after they completed their usual fitness testing lessons. If you can imagine back to your own high school days, these fitness testing lessons in 2021 were very similar. Most involved doing the beep test as a whole class group, and then doing a range of other fitness tests, like the sit-and-reach test of flexibility, standing vertical jump to measure power, push up and sit up tests, etc in a circuit.
What we found was that completing these classes did not lead to a significant change in body image, self esteem, or mood in general. However when we split the sample, the grade 9 and 10 students seemed to have worse outcomes than those in grade 7 and 8. After completing the fitness testing, their self esteem was significantly lower than it had been before.
This was a small study. Of course we need more research with much bigger numbers of participants to confirm these findings. However, conducting research in schools over the past 2 years has been challenging (#thankscovid), and there is so little funding for this work. While we wait for these large studies to be done, we can start to look at how the evidence is building, and starting to tell a pretty consistent story- that in grade 9 and 10, students don’t enjoy fitness testing as much, and they may experience higher anxiety and lower self esteem after fitness testing classes.
The different responses by age groups was unexpected. I thought that the younger kids would be more vulnerable, but that the grade 9-10 students would be more resilient to the impact of fitness testing. It turns out that there are several developmental factors that might make the fitness testing experience worse for adolescents in the 14-16 year age range. Mid-adolescents are much more concerned about what their peers think of them, and therefore they may not want to perform publicly in front of their peers. Egocentrism (Enright et al., 1980), the perspective of adolescents that makes them feel like they are ‘on display’ and feel open to judgement, leaving them extremely self-conscious also peaks during this time. Finally, given that bodies are more mature in grade 9 and 10, and that girls’ body weight and body fat stores increase significantly throughout this period, girls in particular may be more dissatisfied with, and self conscious of their bodies, particularly when they are moving.
Our findings have several real-life implications for teachers and schools. First in developing the PE program, schools should consider positioning fitness testing in year 7 or early in year 8, and avoid it in year 9 and10. There are a number of other ways to teach about fitness that can be done in small groups, and focus on optimising fitness rather than measuring it. If schools and teachers insist on doing fitness testing throughout grades 9&10, and into grade 11 & 12, there are a number of adjustments that can make this a more comfortable experience.
Pedagogical Purpose: There needs to be a reason for the testing- Many schools do this as a one off which has very little benefit, or use fitness testing results to inform assessment and grades- this is not recommended. Try doing pre and post-testing with some self-determined activity that might shift scores in between - and actually looking at their own individual data, means that there is a pedagogical purpose.
Choose your tests: You don’t. Need to do them all. Within the context of learning about what each test ‘measures’, students can determine which tests they would like to complete, and choose one that they want to make improvements on, assessment can be based on their rationale, not their scores or the improvements made.
Smaller Groups: Having students choose their own friend groups- with people they feel comfortable and safe completing activities in front of, is likely to reduce anxiety, so let them choose. The beep test doesn’t have to be done as a group. Students could do this in small friend groups using their mobile device on the measured and marked-out track.
Avoid Comparison: Do what you can to avoid students making comparisons to each other during the tests, and don’t make them use norm-references tables to compare their scores. Knowing that you are ‘below average’ or ‘in the bottom 20%’ or ‘the worst in the class’ for the number of sit-ups that can be done in a minute is not motivating. Shaming people doesn’t change their health behaviour. Have students reflect on how they feel about their result, make a plan to enhance aspects of their fitness that are relevant to their sport or occupational pursuits, and compare their scores to their now scores - not any one else’s.
The mental health of young people has become a huge priority - particularly during the covid pandemic. If we want young people to engage in PE, and physical activity, we need to make sure that it doesn’t make them feel bad about themselves. We know that there are some things that we can change in our schools and communities to listen to our young people, and change the systems and structures that are a problematic.
Some things in PE are outdated. Now that we know better, we can do better.
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For more information about fitness testing in schools, and to connect with Dr Laura Alfrey about research on this topic, see the Fitness Testing in Schools Website.
About the Author
Dr Zali Yager is the Executive Director at the Body Confident Collective and an Honorary Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University.
Zali has a Health and PE background, 15 years' experience in body image research, and is an internationally recognised expert on this topic. Zali is passionate about creating more positive and inclusive environments that help kids to learn and thrive without developing body image concerns.
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