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Created in part to build positive attitudes toward fitness during those formative grade-school years, the Canadian Fitness Awards were ultimately scrapped for achieving the exact opposite.Getty Images/iStockphoto

The term flexed-arm hang is an instant trigger for Canadians of a certain age. A Proustian moment of the most delightful sort, your reaction to those words hints at a few things – when you were born, your childhood social status and, most importantly, how fit our government of the day deemed you to be. It also offers some insight into your current feelings on exercise and physical activity.

The Canadian Fitness Awards (CFA) was a national program imposed upon millions of young students by the federal government from 1970 until 1992. Participants took part in a series of cardiovascular and strength-based exercises, including the shuttle run, the standing long jump and yes, the dreaded flexed-arm hang – essentially the top portion of a chin-up held for as long as possible – while teachers graded their performance (push-ups eventually replaced the flexed-arm hang, evidence that one person's nightmare is another's dream). Colour-coded badges – gold, silver, bronze – were awarded based on how well you did in comparison to a set of national standards. Everyone received a participation badge.

It's said the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So too was the genesis of the CFA. Created in part to build positive attitudes toward fitness during those formative grade-school years, the program was ultimately scrapped for achieving the exact opposite. It was those badges, those status-signalling badges, that lead to the program's downfall. Students who needed the most encouragement – scrawny, bookish weaklings (i.e., me); fat kids – suffered the indignity of being gifted participation badges, meanwhile star athletes collected the golds and reds (for excellence) further cementing their popularity.

I thought about the CFA last week while walking my dog, Jean-Luc, past the elementary school near our home. It was the first day of school; the kids were running around the schoolyard like little demons (the shuttle run), swinging from monkey bars (not quite the flexed-arm hang, but close), jumping off the wooden embankments that line the perimeter of the property (hello standing long jump). It looked, and sounded, like they were having a blast, despite the fact that they were essentially doing everything included in the CFA program.

Whereas my generation reluctantly embraced the gauntlet of exercises forced upon us (I don't recall CFA participation being mandatory, but I also don't recall having much of a choice either), these kids and their tiny faces were alive with the joy of unstructured activity. Their playful enthusiasm presented a stark contrast to the faces I see at the gym on a regular basis, the adults who lived through the CFA and old school phys-ed classes and now pay trainers such as myself to help them "get into shape" because they hate exercising. Or, rather, they'll hate what they've been conditioned to think exercise is.

People often tell me how they hate working out but they love playing sports, as if running and jumping and throwing and kicking isn't working out. For some reason, the older we get the less we allow ourselves the freedom to play. This is the great failure of the fitness industry – we've brainwashed people into believing that unless it takes place inside the walls of a crowded gym and, unless it's written down on a program card and unless the results can be measured and compared, it ain't exercising.

I'm here to say otherwise.

Physical activity, in whatever form you choose, is essential to a happy and productive life. We need to ensure that the kids of today hold on to their love of fun and games into their teens years (where ambivalent attitudes often bloom) and beyond. The best way to do that is to reframe the message we're sending, to let everyone – kids, teens, adults, seniors – know that exercise isn't one thing. Lift weights, walk your dog, tend to your garden, do endless cannonballs off the dock at the cottage – find whatever it is that makes you most happy and do it as often as you can. Me, I'll be at the playground practising my flexed-arm hang, laughing in the faces of the ghosts of CFAs past.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA. You can follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini.

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