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When I think about running a timed mile in elementary school gym class, I can still feel the stinging in my lungs and the full-body sensation of strain.

I can also remember the crushing realization that, despite having run a whole mile — the same distance from my childhood home in suburban Atlanta to a Blockbuster, which felt significant even in my mom’s minivan — I’d finished near the back of the pack.

It may not have been a race, but I still felt like I’d lost.

The mile run was part of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, a biannual assessment given to elementary through high school students. An early version of the test was introduced by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. Though the test evolved over the years, for decades it included the mile run, sit-ups, pull-ups (or push-ups), a sit-and-reach and a shuttle run. (In 2012, President Barack Obama replaced it with an assessment called the FitnessGram.)

Twice a year, the top 15 percent of participants nationwide were honored with a Presidential Physical Fitness Award. At my school, the winners’ names were painted on one of the gym’s walls, surrounding a mural of the presidential seal.

For years I stared wistfully at those names, wondering if I would ever make the cut. I was fine at some events, but I struggled with others. (No matter how hard I tried, I could never pull my chin above the bar.) And struggling in front of my classmates wasn’t something I looked forward to. I was a striver, even as a kid. I hated feeling like my best wasn’t good enough.

Memories of the test propelled me to revisit it for an article published recently in the Well section of The New York Times.

Since my elementary school days, movement has become a source of joy in my life. I believe deeply in the value of physical activity for both the mind and body, and I’ve devoted my career to spreading awareness about its benefits: I wrote a book about the history of women’s fitness culture, and I cover fitness for The Times.

My positive relationship with movement developed not because of the test but in spite of it. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s and had run a half-dozen half-marathons, at a comfortable pace, that I even began to believe I was an athlete.

I’ve heard similar stories from recreational exercisers, exercise scientists and fitness professionals.

In her book “The Joy of Movement,” Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University and a group fitness instructor, wrote that for years she saw herself as lacking athleticism thanks to her experience in gym class. It was only when she discovered aerobics VHS tapes that she began to see herself as physically capable. My friend and colleague Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a historian of fitness at the New School in Manhattan, felt so left behind in physical education that she convinced her teachers to let her do an independent study. (She chose to take a step aerobics class at a recreation center, which she was stunned to discover she loved.) Now she teaches fitness at gyms across New York City.

Their experiences, and my own, made me wonder the extent to which the Presidential test turned some Americans off from exercise entirely. Perhaps it even helps explain why about a quarter of adults in the United States are physically inactive, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I wanted to revisit the test to give the adults who are still haunted by it an opportunity to think about fitness in a positive way.

I asked fitness experts what aspects of strength, cardiovascular health or flexibility the test’s components really measured. I also wanted to know: Does the test hold up today? I felt relief as a theme emerged: Of course the test didn’t offer the definitive word on whether I (or anyone) was physically competent. Fitness assessments are not one-size-fits-all, the experts stressed. And with training, you can get better at them.

That said, according to experts, most of the test’s exercises are still worthwhile physical pursuits — especially when modified for individual fitness levels.

While writing, I reflected on my relationship with each exercise. It’s taken years to meet myself where I am, but when I run a mile these days, my goal is to feel so good by the end that I want to run another. I may do push-ups on my knees, but I know the full-body strength they’re building will serve me well as I age. I still can’t do a traditional pull-up, but a trainer at my gym recently introduced me to assisted pull-ups with resistance bands; I revel in finally feeling up to the task.

Fitness shouldn’t be for the few. We all benefit from movement, whether we earn our names on the wall or not. The most meaningful measure of physical activity may simply be continuing to do it as we get older — and if we’re lucky, learning to enjoy it.

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