Are you fit enough to BLEEP?

03 Apr

Andrew Stemler from Crossfit London UK, debates the controversial recommendation by  Sir Liam Donaldson The Chief Medical Officer to bring the “bleep test” into all schools

According to fitness geeks, the bleep test developed by Leger & Lambert is quite fun, and a useful exercise tool in its own right. The test is pretty much established as both reliable and easy to stage, and is used by schools, clubs, some emergency services and armed forces to determine fitness levels. All you need is this: some stolen road traffic cones placed 20m apart, a million-pound sports hall, or park with not too many potholes/muggers/paedophiles – and a sound system loud enough to hear a “bleep” over the wheezing of other children (or adults and motivators).

Victims run between markers while the bleep intervals become shorter and shorter. The longer they continue, the higher the level they reach (like a very interactive computer game) the fitter they are. For comparison, here are some of the standards that some organisations use.

Royal Marines, 11

British army 10.2

English police force 5.4

Fire brigade 9.6

If (like grant-greedy sports scientists) you get swept away by extrapolation, it is possible to conclude that the test is to monitor the development of the athlete’s maximum oxygen uptake – the infamous vO2 max. Back in the real world, the results can be used to predict (sort of) future performance (through correlation rather than causation), indicate weaknesses, measure improvement, assess the effectiveness of training programmes and motivate participants.

However, this shy test, beloved by generations of rugby players, runners, police recruits, (and hated by just about everyone else) has been pushed into the limelight and has now been proposed by the Chief Medical Officer (in the 2009 Annual Report of the Chief  Medical Officer) for mass introduction to schools. It is based, as you might have  guessed, on a Californian experiment which brought an 8.2% improvement in fitness. In spite of the fact that the benefits of improving fitness in children lowers the lifetime risk of various nasty diseases, builds an active habit, leads to better educational standards, helps maintain a healthy weight and improves mental and social well being – some commentators are up in arms.

It is quite true that running and back and forth can be boring – but so is most of life. But isn’t this part of the real lesson – it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun?

However, the more convincing criticism is that the overweight kids get to a few levels, give up, and are, of course, put off exercise for life. The average kids get to do a few more levels, and give up. The super-competitive kids work really hard and collapse:

This negative overview overlooks the benefits of properly constructed sports and team training.

This not a test scored by a teacher. Trying to score 30 kids is a near impossible task. Each child needs their own (child) scorer, and ideally their own (child) motivator. So, for a class of 30 everyone gets to score and motivate and run. Hmm, recording and motivating others, that’s a good lesson. And who gets the prize for being the most enthusiastic motivator? Who gets the prize for stealing the traffic cones?

The future tests – well if the poor, fat kid got to level 2, they get a whopping 100% improvement and a “Good job!” when they get to level 4. Then you can be really crafty – you can match up the super-performer with the “fat kid” as a team, and score improvement. The reality is that it will be the overweight child who will get the points.

All tests can be driven into the ground and turned into abusive and awful experiences. The reality is that the better coach or trainer is quite capable of making even the toughest test  “fun”,  although in honesty, based on my own experience, most PE teachers are genetically incapable of importing fun into the serious business of “fitness”.

4 thoughts on “Are you fit enough to BLEEP?

  1. Interesting thoughts.

    As someone who discovered fitness (and CF) later on on life (long after the embarrassing experiences of being one of the unfit kids at school) I’ve come to see that the way schools ‘teach’ fitness is often counter-intuitive to actually getting kids ‘fitter’.

    Pushing the whole class around the same cross country course and chastising the unfit kids just isn’t the way to motivate the pursuit of fitness. There needs to be a more nuanced, and stratified, approach allowing kids of a similar level to compete against each other and to participate in an intensity suited to their particular level.

    We wouldn’t ask a new CrossFitter to go at a WOD ‘as Rx’d’ and in the same way exercise needs to be scaled for differing fitness level in children. Only then will they discover that sense of achievement which inspires the acquisition of greater fitness.

    I’m just not sure the UK education budget, nor exercise curriculum, can accommodate such an approach….

    Richard (GP, CrossFitter and specialist in Sport’s and Exercise Medicine)

  2. Glassman is on video talking about taking a basic training class, benchmarking their run times, then staggering the next run so that everyone would finish in a dead heat if they match their previous run. I can definitely see that in a class, no budget necessary.

    Split the class into teams, score for cumulative time, and see everyone cheering for slow kid that make a PB.

    Of course, you’d have to shoot all the communist teachers and education lecturers beforehand, or they’d lynch you afterwards.

  3. Richard Collins says “…..I’m not sure the UK education budget…….can accomodate such an approach.” He may well be right. Its a shame the powers that be don’t realise that if money from the education budget isn’t spent on “fitness” in schools then eventually far more money will have to be spent from the healthcare budget.

    Re the fire brigade requireing a score of 9.6 in the bleep test. My brigade used to use that test. Some of us passed it, some did’nt. It was discontinued a long time ago because it was thought that a maximal test could be potentially dangerous if we had to respond to an emergency call immediately afterwards. Many of us, myself included, would struggle to pass that test now. The trouble is there is no compulsory annual fitness test that MUST be passed and no come back if a firefighter doesn’t keep themselves fit. In some brigades, including mine, alot of senior officers see time spent on “p.t.” as a perk rather than a neccessity. Its a sad fact that most of us keep ourselves as fit as we can as a matter of personal pride, inspite of the service rather than because of it.
    Perhaps the chief medical officer could also make a recomendation that all UK fire services introduce a COMPULSORY bleep test (or something equally effective) that MUST be passed for all staff who may find themselves on the incident ground.

    English police 5.4 ????? Shocking!

    O.K, I’ve gone a bit off the subject of the bleep test in schools. Suffice it to say it is a good idea that will work if it is introduced with due consideration to the special circumstances that apply in schools.
    I think the opposition to it is a result of deeper “cultural attitudes” towards fitness. (not sure of the correct phrase to use. Hope you understand what I mean.) Introducing the compulsory bleep test into schools would be a first step towards changing those attitudes for the better.

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