Take the President's Fitness Challenge

The exercise program you remember from gym class is growing up and reaching out.

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When I was in junior high, the annual Presidential Physical Fitness Award test chilled my little adolescent heart. The thought of struggling to perform even a single pull-up in front of that week's crush was enough to make me develop my own case of the blue (gym shorts) flu. So hearing that the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports is about to offer to all Americans the National President's Challenge—the very same program that spawned the awful test—didn't exactly thrill me.

Luckily, the expanded program, which will begin enrolling participants March 1 (though I was able to sign up today) and starts March 20, involves no actual test. Its goal is to promote general physical wellness by encouraging all Americans to be active for 30 minutes a day, five days a week (the generally accepted activity level for good cardiac health; weight loss will probably take more exercise). All you've got to do is go to PresidentsChallenge.org and sign up.

Here's how it works: If you, like most people, find yourself well short of that minimum activity level, you can choose to enter what they call the "active lifestyle" program. Track your progress using the Challenge's online personal activity log, and if you hit that goal for six of the eight weeks that the program lasts, you'll get a Presidential Active Lifestyle Award. Don't think you're going to be limited to running or biking, either; there's a list of almost 100 activities, including dancing, jai alai, unicycling, and wallyball (no, I didn't know what that is either—check out Wallyball.com, though).

Those who are already meeting the minimum can sign up for the Presidential Champions program, which lets you accumulate points depending on the intensity of your exercise. (Running gets more points than fishing or golfing, for example.) The points you accumulate determine the award—bronze, silver, or gold—that you get (i.e., the $7 medal or $3.50 lapel pin you are eligible to buy if you want to shell out for it). Finally, there's an advanced program for people who are already working out so much—more than an hour a day, five days a week—that they are required to rack up twice as many points to get the same awards. There are programs for teens and kids, too.

Whatever level you pick, you can sign up as part of a group—friends, family, coworkers, whatever—to encourage one another. And you can compare your progress online with your group or people who are like you. It all looks cool enough that I'm willing to put aside my teenage trauma and give it a go. My goals? To get back into my old exercise habits after an extended layoff. And, in the six weeks of the program, to finally get strong enough to do that pull-up.