Physical fitness is in the news today, but it has long been a national concern, going back to the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations
In the years just after World War II, concerns about the fitness of U.S. citizens, especially the young, attracted national attention. Several trends and developments in the country lay at the root of this anxiety. The nation’s economy had changed dramatically since the beginning of the century, and with it changed the nature of work and recreation. Mechanization had taken many farmers out of the fields and allowed the ones who remained to do much of their work with far less effort. The factories, which had long been highly mechanized, were becoming even more so, and fewer and fewer factory jobs required heavy labor. Outside of work, new forms of entertainment emphasized watching rather than doing. But these changes may not have been as important as people’s awareness that they were occurring. People were beginning to have to confront a new image of themselves and their country, and they did not always like what they saw. Worrying about physical fitness channeled and expressed these doubts. . . .
As a military man, President Eisenhower was probably already sensitive to the issue of physical fitness. There had been grumbling by officers of the armed forces about the condition of during both World War II and the Korean War. But concern about the problem peaked in his first administration with publication of the work of Dr. Hans Kraus and Ruth Hirschland (better known professionally as Bonnie Prudden), whose study of American children found them alarmingly deficient in fitness compared to children in other countries. President Eisenhower established the President’s Council on Youth Fitness with Executive Order 10673, issued on July 16, 1956.
The President’s Council on Youth Fitness consisted of cabinet members representing several departments, which were also responsible for contributing to its budget. The first chair of the Council was Vice President Richard Nixon; later the chair of the Council was moved to one of the cabinet-level department representatives. In association with the Council, a Citizens Advisory Committee was also set up. To carry out the work of the Council, a director was appointed, with a small staff to support him. . . .
[T]he Council basically accomplished what it was designed for in these early years: it kept the problem of fitness before the public. And in the end, if there was one thing that prevented the Council from reaching its full potential, it was the subtle but evident inattention of the President. Having established this President’s Council, Eisenhower rarely spoke on the subject of fitness and did not appear at any of the annual conferences of the Council and the Citizens Advisory Committee. John F. Kennedy’s approach to the work of the Council and fitness as a problem would be very different. . . .
Kennedy took up fitness with both hands, after the election publishing an article, “The Soft American,” in Sports Illustrated. The article was an unprecedented announcement by a President-elect of public policy in the mass media. In it, Kennedy established four points as the basis of his program, including a “White House Committee on Health and Fitness”; direct oversight by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; an annual Youth Fitness Congress to be attended by state governors; and the assertion that fitness—physical fitness—was very much the business of the federal government.
Read the rest of this article on “The Federal Government Takes on Physical Fitness” at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum . . .
1956 President’s Council on Physical Fitness