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Fitness Exams for Graduation

Updated: Mar 15

The Pull-Up Trainer
The Pull-Up Trainer was invented by Chester Rojeck

By: Dave Rojeck, PhD

Catholic School Leadership/Policy Studies

I do a little part-time work with the Educational Testing Service. I am a speaking rater for the Test of English as a Foreign Language. The overall TOEFL exam includes responding to opinion-related questions to assess test takers' delivery, language use, and topic development. Recently, one of the questions asked examinees if they agree/disagree with schools administering a physical fitness exam to students as part of the overall graduation requirements. Respondents were split in their opinions.

This would be a pertinent question for my father, Chester Rojeck. He was a long-time physical education teacher and I followed in his footsteps as a PE teacher. Throughout his career, he noticed that students' scores on the President's Physical Fitness Exam had declined, particularly on the pull-up test. The ability to perform pull-ups depends on upper body strength and body weight. Students can improve their scores either by gaining upper body strength or by losing weight. Upon his retirement from teaching, he became the inventor of The Pull-Up Trainer. Many schools, colleges, universities, and pro teams used the device with their athletes as did I in my physical education classes to great success. A primary benefit of the Trainer was that even those who couldn't do a normal pull-up could indeed do pull-ups when the machine was placed at lower levels.

Dad stated that his Pull-Up Trainer was his way to combat the epidemic of obesity. Students that can do pull-ups are typically not overweight when they demonstrate the ability to pull their own weight. Thus, he suggested that for students to graduate high school, they should be able to Pull 10 (perform 10 pull-ups) as a physical requirement. Actually, I'd be happy if the vast majority of students today were able to do at least one pull-up. We know it would be unfair for such a requirement to be sprung on students with little time to pass the test. They would need to be made aware of this necessary condition for graduation upon entrance to elementary school. Naturally, allowances would be made for late transfers into the school system.

Youth obesity is an epidemic. The disdain of fat-shaming, while well-intentioned, has had the unintended effect of withdrawing from conversations with youngsters who are overweight. With the plethora of fast-food restaurants along with candy and sweets on every street corner convenience store, malnutrition is almost the norm for American children. We are so used to seeing overweight children that we look incredulously when even quite normal-looking body types are considered overweight in official Body Mass Index calculations.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity is defined as being at the 95th percentile of BMI. Being overweight is when individuals are at the 85th percentile. In a very simple measurement, a comparison is made between the heights and weights of individuals and plotting the numbers on an index. In 2017-18, the prevalence of obesity was 20% or more for children ages 6-19. Forty percent of adults are obese by the same index. Sixteen percent of children are considered overweight in this other study. Thus, we can say that between 3-4 out of every 10 children are either overweight or obese. The percentages have increased each decade since the 1970s.

Multiple Intelligences

The evaluation of students in physical education is different than in academic subjects. In math, science, language arts, etc. students earn their grades based on their demonstration of proficiency in the subject matter. If they want to get an "A" they must do their assignments well and pass their examinations at a high level. This is unlike PE class, whereby in many schools, participation and effort are the standards to achieve an outstanding grade regardless of proficiency in physical skills and fitness levels. Imagine a student in algebra receiving an A because he participated well and gave a strong effort, despite making many mistakes on homework assignments and tests. The teacher would be considered neglectful.

A former foreign school where I worked hosted an annual Visiting Scholar program. One year, that scholar was Dr. Howard Gardner. He became prominent in educational research for his theory of Multiple Intelligences, that students can be smart in various ways. He famously suggested that students suggest to their teachers: "Don't ask me how smart I am; ask me how I am smart." Gardner's theory suggests we all have 8-9 intelligences and not even identical twins have the same mixture. A good definition of these domains of intelligences can be found from the Prague British International School.

  • Logical-Mathematical Intelligence. ...

  • Linguistic Intelligence. ...

  • Interpersonal Intelligence. ...

  • Intrapersonal Intelligence. ...

  • Musical Intelligence. ...

  • Visual-Spatial Intelligence. ...

  • Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence...

  • Naturalist Intelligence.

Students have strengths and challenges. Most students have the capacity to reach a satisfactory level in each intelligence, if meeting realistic criteria established by their schools and given a strong foundation and curricular program. Music and art may be difficult for some students but with a sound education, they can learn to sing and play an instrument or draw and paint pretty pictures over the course of 5-6 years. That said, the supposition is that students can also achieve the ability to perform at least one pull-up with the guidance of a health and physical education program that places emphasis on nutrition and exercise.

  • High Blood Pressure

  • High Cholesterol

  • Type II Diabetes

  • Sleeping Disorders

  • Joint Problems

Left unchecked into adulthood, ongoing obesity leaves persons at risk for heart disease and cancer.


The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has linked obesity to impaired immune function. Obesity increases the risk of severe illness and complications from Covid-19, even for those in the overweight category. Obese people are more likely to be hospitalized as a result of contracting the coronavirus. Obesity is a limiting factor to lung capacity. Since the virus is a respiratory illness, those who are obese may have more difficulty overcoming the illness. One study showed that obese children were over three times more likely to be hospitalized as a result of contracting Covid-19 and almost 1.5 times greater risk of severe illness when being in the hospital.

Pilates and the Spanish Flu of 1918

"When the famous Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 killed thousands, Joseph Pilates noticed that none of the coaches were infected during his physical training.

"I haven't seen anything on TV or in the media today about healthy eating, food and water, lifestyle change, positive thinking, exercise (any physical activity) and a good well-being in general. Gyms are closed, we breathe in masks, we are locked in houses to the media, we talk about sickness and death... exactly the opposite of what a healthy body needs to stay healthy and live in harmony. In an era of hypochondria and absolute panic, self-education of the mind is to prevent illness and psycho-body well-being."

(Anna Devi)

Plea to Physical Educators

Under the circumstances of the prevalence of childhood obesity and being overweight, it would seem the time has come for physical education teachers at large, to reduce the playing of games just for the fun of it. I was a PE teacher for twenty years. I understand. Who doesn't enjoy it when students go bonkers playing a game they so thoroughly enjoy, but one with perhaps only modest gains in physical fitness? We have to re-examine if a games curricula jives with heart-felt cardiovascular fitness and strength training.

There is nothing wrong with teaching about sweat-equity and delayed gratification. There is nothing wrong with fitness boot camp in school, especially for those students who are overweight and obese. Meet with parents of obese students and their health care providers. Get administration approval for a physical education program that looks more like physical education and less like recess. There are two types of physical educators: One who accepts responsibility for their program's physical fitness outcomes and one who does not. We can determine this by asking them one question: If you graduate obese students after having had them in your physical education program for several years, do you bear any responsibility for the lackluster outcomes?

Now is the perfect opportunity to make this adjustment to your program if you have not already. How can school administrators dare to go to such great lengths to protect their students from a pandemic, and yet not support the authentic efforts of the physical education teacher to improve the condition of overweight and obese students. With Covid and its related illnesses seemingly here to stay, it just may be negligence for schools to allow overweight and obese students to pass their school years with little to no change in their physical fitness levels? Rather, if we graduate students who can do at least one pull-up, we will never graduate an obese student ever again.

Note: This is not an advertisement for The Pull-Up Trainer. Its heyday was from 1985-2005. The inventor and sole proprietor passed away in 2007.

Dr. Dave has worked in schools for over 30 years at home and abroad serving urban, suburban, and rural populations with affluent, middle class, and disadvantaged students in public, private, and religious contexts. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on affective outcomes of students. There is way more to Education than academics. Join his Facebook group Fresh Eyes on Physical Education for more insightful and innovative ideas on Physical Education.

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