A column on the health of America's youth (Forum, Sept. 11) inaccurately identified the author of opposing viewpoints as MDs. Steven N. Blair is an epidemiologist with the Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas and holds a doctorate in physical education. Harlen C. Hunter has a doctor of osteopathic medicine degree. (Published 10/9/ 90)

Yes. The "youth fitness crisis" is exaggerated. We have found that children are by far the most active and fit group in the United States.

Our institute has developed the Fitnessgram, the first nationally used test with fitness standards established by an expert consensus. This computer-scored test measures aerobic power, upper-body strength, strength and endurance of the abdominal musculature, lower-back flexibility and skin folds. Among nearly 40,000 schoolchildren, most had acceptable scores. Depending on the age group, 63 percent to 89 percent passed.

There's a false impression going back to the 1950s that America's children aren't fit. Some Columbia University physicians back then compared results of fitness tests given to U.S. and European children. A child failing one item failed the test. American kids had a higher failure rate.

Our children were labeled unfit because many couldn't touch their toes. That's the single item they failed most.

President Eisenhower got the message and created what is now known as the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Since that time, it has been drummed into us how unfit our children are. This was reinforced by tests that in effect measured athletic fitness. They looked at how well children ran the 50-yard dash, did the standing long jump, the shuttle run and so on. But these tests measure speed and leg power -- matters of inheritance, not fitness.

A major problem is a lack of established fitness standards. The President's Council still hasn't established standards. It says "55 percent of all girls tested could not hold their chin over a raised bar for more than 10 seconds." That's absolutely meaningless unless you are willing to say how long a girl should be able to do it. Standards have to be set for fitness, just as they were for cholesterol and hypertension. -- Steven N. Blair, MD Epidemiologist, Institute for Aerobics Research, Dallas

No. In taking care of athletes for 30 high schools in the St. Louis area, it has become obvious to me that our kids are not fit. Our preseason exams of up to 3,000 teenagers a year find that many have unsatisfactory levels of body fat and strength -- major measures of fitness.

By measuring skin folds, we are finding out that boys going out for baseball, football and hockey have body fat between 20 percent and 25 percent; it should be in the low teens. For girls, it should be in the 18-22 percent range, but they are showing up with 26 to 31 percent.

Only boy wrestlers and boys and girls in cross country had scores in the teens. In checking younger kids for Little League, we find that most can't do a good pushup.

Because of potential risks to health, we have to restrict the activities of about 6 percent of children. The No. 1 reason is hypertension. Blood pressures of youngsters under age 17 have ranged as high as 170/110.

I've been conducting preseason physicals since 1972, but I've noticed these elevated blood pressures only in the past five years. I attribute them to poor diet and to lack of exercise. If children who want to participate in sports are in such poor condition, those with no interest must be in even worse condition. The President's Council has reported that half the boys ages 6 to 12 cannot run a mile. Up to 20 percent of children are obese. About 40 percent of those from ages 5 to 8 show at least one heart-disease risk factor.

It is ironic that when a fitness revolution is going on among adults, our children should be going through a fitness crisis.

Daily exercise programs in school could help control weight and improve cardiovascular fitness. If children get a taste of fitness-inducing activities now, they'll be more likely to pursue good health later. -- Harlen C. Hunter, MD President, St. Louis Sports Orthopedic Medicine Clinic; founding member, American Osteopathic College of Sports Medicine

1990, Physician's Weekly, a Whittle Communications Publication; reprinted with permission