Fitness Standards: Then and Now

The year was 1986. When the Oprah Winfrey Show debuted, Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated, and Chernobyl exploded. This was also the year that The Berenstain Bears classic The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Friends was written. 

If you haven’t read the story or have forgotten about it, the gist is this: a new cub moves to Bear Country, and Sister Bear strikes a friendship with the new cub. Things start off pretty well but get heated as some competition and disagreements flare up as Sister Bear and her new friend, Lizzy Bruin, are playing school. But, ultimately, things smooth out. It’s intended as a lesson in emotional control and conflict resolution, but I took away a different lesson. 

There is a friendly rivalry between Lizzie and Sister right off the bat. Immediately after these two six-year-olds are introduced and get down to business: 

  • Sister: “Hi! I’m Sister Bear. I’m six years old and I live down the road.”

  • Lizzy: “Hi. I’m Lizzy Bruin and this is my papa and mama, Mr. and Mrs. Bruin. I’m six years old too. May I try your jump rope? I can do Red Hot Pepper!”

  • Sister: “I can jump to 1000.”

  • Lizzy: “I can do 1001.”

  • Sister: “1002.”

  • Lizzy: “1003.”

For me, this was it, the take-home message. This attempt to overtop each other shows us the gap in physical preparedness from 1986 to 2022. Two average cubs are nonchalantly hitting 1000 single-unders. At 125 rotations a minute (a relaxed pace), they would complete 1000 in eight minutes on the nose. 

If you’ve read any of The Berenstein Bears books, you are familiar with sister’s portrayal: an average 6-year-old girl, not one of exceptional athletic prowess or endurance. It was simply a sign of the times that eight minutes of unbroken single-unders was the norm. 

It’s strange to be shaken awake based on two pages in a children’s book. I started the story feeling content about our current state of fitness, finished page 12, and felt responsible for systematically lowering the expectation for the last 35 years. The experience was disorienting, thinking we are doing pretty well helping our youth become healthier and helping them to move better but then realizing how far we’ve regressed as a society.

How did we get to this point? What changed from 1986 to 2022? Social media? Video games? Youth sports specialization? Helicopter parents? Standardized tests? Self-esteem movement? Removing physical fitness standards? Processed foods? De-prioritizing physical education?

As I read my five-year-old daughter the tale of problem-solving and friendship, these questions swirled in my head like dry grass from a power blower. 

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt says: “A culture that allows the concept of “safety” to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.” 

The truth is I don’t know the root cause, and I’ll leave that to the academics. However, I do know that I want to make it a priority to be a part of the solution and raise the standards of what it looks like to be a fit and healthy kid. And I do know we have work to do.

Jumping rope is an inexpensive way to improve coordination, agility, endurance, and quickness. It does not have to be an expensive speed rope. You can get better for under $5, and it has a significant return on investment. 

Do not fall for the trap of not having success early and giving up. Struggling and missing is part of the process for all ages. 

If you are starting to jump rope, you must develop the skill before using it to improve your conditioning. When developing the skill, I recommend starting with shorter sets and progressively building the capacity to jump without missing. For example, start with ten sets of 30 seconds on/30 seconds off, which equates to 10 minutes. Eventually, this will become easy, and you will move on to longer sets. Here is a sample progression. Use 1-2 minutes rest between sets.

  • 5x 1 minute

  • 4x 2 minutes

  • 3x 3 minutes

  • 2x 4 minutes

Along with the sled, I love the jump rope because it is one of the most inexpensive tools to improve numerous physical qualities. It is a valuable tool that you can add to any training program. If it feels challenging, keep in mind: if Lizzy Bruin and Sister Bear can handle it, so can you.