Scouting magazine

A leader’s guide to the Personal Fitness merit badge

For many Scouts, the Personal Fitness merit badge is one of the last speed bumps — or roadblocks — on the journey to the Eagle Scout Award. In the hands of an effective merit badge counselor, however, it can be more of an on-ramp to a lifetime of better health.

Marianne King is one of those counselors. The owner of Marianne King’s Fitness for Life in Pittsburgh has taught the badge for more than a decade. While many of her Scouts have been athletes, she’s perhaps most proud of the Scout with attention-deficit disorder who discovered he could focus better after completing the badge’s 12-week fitness program. “For me, that was an outstanding change for him,” she says. “It wasn’t just, ‘OK, I got a little muscle.’ It was, ‘I was able to feel better mentally.’ ”

Connecting Mind and Body
The mind-body connection is important, but it’s often overlooked, says Dan Smith, another veteran Personal Fitness counselor. “Oftentimes — and this is true not only with the kids but with some of the leaders — they think that Personal Fitness merit badge is Physical Fitness merit badge,” says Smith, an Eagle Scout and assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri.

“It’s important for me from the get-go to educate them about the fact that this isn’t just about physical fitness. This is about physical health; it’s about spiritual fitness; it’s about social engagement; it’s about the total person.”

One way to emphasize the holistic nature of fitness is to introduce the six dimensions of wellness defined by Dr. Bill Hettler in the 1970s. (They are occupational, spiritual, emotional, physical, social and intellectual.) That’s what Rick Armstrong does. A lecturer in kinesiology at the University of Rhode Island, Armstrong shows how the dimensions of wellness fit together. “One of them is just an individual piece. You really need all of them to come together to be whole and healthy,” he says.

Honesty: The Best Policy
Whether he’s teaching Scouts or college students, Armstrong likes to show two pictures of actor Hugh Jackman. In one, a still from The Wolverine, Jackman looks “ripped beyond belief.” In the other, a shot from US Weekly, Jackman looks far more ordinary — even a little flabby. Armstrong’s point: “These actors and actresses specifically train for the instance when they’re taking the picture or they’re in the movie. They exercise and they maintain their fitness, but they’re not going to look like that throughout an entire year.”

Moreover, the people who show up on the covers of fitness magazines work a lot harder than the average Scout is likely to. “If you want to look like that, it’s probably more work than you’ve ever done in your life,” Armstrong says.

Working out is not a waste of time, however. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to look like these people. But by being physically active and exercising, you’re going to have these health benefits for the long term,” he says.

Your Mileage Might Vary
Smith agrees that major fitness gains might be elusive, but Scouts should see some results if they work hard. He thinks Scouts should register improvements in most, if not all, of the badge’s fitness tests over 12 weeks. “What we’ll typically see the biggest change in is their overall mile time. We see some strength changes, too,” he says.

Since six-pack abs are unlikely, Smith emphasizes to Scouts that the badge is more about future quality of life than current results — which he admits is a challenge with 13-year-olds who can’t always see past their next meal. “They’re not really focused on long-term stuff, but I think the process of the merit badge itself helps many of them to come to the realization that these things make a significant difference,” he says.

Variety Is the Spice of Life
King believes a Scout’s biggest challenge lies in setting up an exercise program and documenting his results. She works with each Scout to develop an appropriate program, helping him select options from various categories, including cardiovascular and strength training. “This is my passion, my business,” she says. “I can bring a little more to the table for them.”

She also emphasizes that Scouts don’t have to stick with the same set of exercises for 12 weeks. (Requirement 8 mandates the same fitness tests throughout the 12-week period — not the same exercises.) “You can’t do the same thing over and over again expecting different results,” she says. “We talk about that; we talk about how the body needs different challenges.”

King also offers her Scouts an Excel spreadsheet they can use for recordkeeping, but they’re welcome to use a notebook or anything else. King’s spreadsheet includes space for weight and reps for strength training and type, time, distance and intensity for cardiovascular activities.

A Scout Is …
Despite her interest in physical fitness, King also spends a good bit of time on requirement 4d, in which the Scout must explain how personal fitness relates to the Scout Law and Scout Oath. Many are surprised by the deep connections. “They’re kind of shocked,” she says. “When they can apply it to what they say every week in Scouts, it hits home a little bit more.”

And when it hits home, perhaps they realize that the Personal Fitness merit badge is less about Eagle and more about life.

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