AYER -- Youth fitness has been a concern of the executive branch of our government for more than 50 years.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower hosted the President's Conference on the Fitness of American Youth at the United States Naval Academy, and a month later he founded the President's Council on Youth Fitness. The purpose of this council was to encourage local communities and individual Americans to promote and adopt active lifestyles.

Each administration after Eisenhower has carried on his fitness work, and as a result of that, we currently have the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge that schools across the nation engage in each year.

Mary Palmer, the physical education teacher at the Page Hilltop School, takes this challenge very seriously with her students and they work on the challenges throughout the school year.

The five events that students across the nation work on are: curl-ups, a shuttle run, a 1-mile run, flex arm hang, and a sit and reach. There are three levels of participation in this challenge. Students who complete all five events get a participant award, students who complete all five and perform better than 50 percent of children in America get a national award and students who score better than 85 percent of kids who take the challenge receive the Presidential Physical Fitness Award.

During October, each class at Page Hilltop went out to the Ayer Middle High School track and ran the mile. Some walked or jogged, but others sprinted. The fastest runners from those classroom runs qualified to run in the race of the 6, 7, 8, and 9s. Boys qualified for the race if they ran the mile in less than nine minutes and girls qualified if they ran it in less than 10 minutes.

"This race has become a proud tradition at our school," Palmer said. "It is such an honor to just qualify for this race, and I let each runner know they should do their best, but not to worry if they don't finish first because these are the fastest runners in the entire school."

The 106 qualifying student runners from grades 1 through 5 lined up on the track along with Principal Fred Deppe. The rest of the student body sat on the bleachers along with more than 100 parents to cheer on the runners. Palmer announced that when she started this race in the 1990s, less than 30 students qualified and they were all boys. This year's race involves an equal amount of boys and girls running.

Many runners improved on their times. The top boy and girl finishers were both from the fourth grade -- Sam Folger and Alison Houde.

Palmer was very happy with the adults that came out to run with the kids. "I love the support for fitness in this community. Kids just need to see that fitness is a way of life, and if they see the grown-ups around them taking fitness seriously, then they will too," Palmer said.