contributor perspectives

The Presidential Fitness Message Can't Seem to Connect

Tolga Ozyurtcu
Board of Contributors
8 MINS READMay 14, 2018 | 08:00 GMT
The President's Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition was created in 1956 in an effort to inspire more citizens to become more fit. Six decades later, the decline in U.S. fitness measures continues.
U.S. President Donald Trump holds a Marucci baseball bat as Vice President Mike Pence, right, looks on during a 'Made in America' product showcase event at the White House on July 17, 2017.

In the previous installment of this column, Thomas Hunt explored some of the debates surrounding current and future fitness standards in the U.S. military. Given the thoughtful feedback that it produced, I thought it might be appropriate to take a closer look at a related topic: the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition. And yes, if the name for the organization looks familiar — but different, somehow — you’ve picked up on a change I’ll address in a moment.

A Long and Winding History

The predecessor to the modern iteration of the advisory group, the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, came into being in 1956 under Dwight Eisenhower supposedly after Jim Duff, a senator from Pennsylvania, shared some alarming fitness data with the president, who already had been concerned about the state of fitness in military recruits. Particularly damning were the results of an international comparison of fitness using the Kraus-Weber test, a rudimentary measure of basic physical and muscular fitness developed by a pair of U.S. physicians, Hans Kraus and Sonja Weber.

In a study of several thousand American youngsters, a little more than 40 percent met or exceeded the standards of Kraus-Weber; in a similar study of Western Europeans, that rate topped 92 percent. These data came in the wake of the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, a coming-out party of sorts for the Soviet sports machine. Less than half a century after Teddy Roosevelt had made robust physicality into an almost patriotic duty, it seemed that the postwar bounty of American life was spoiling folks rotten even as the United States' Cold War rivals were getting stronger. For Ike, the writing was on the wall: Something had to be done.

The initial recommendations of Eisenhower’s council were a mix of reasonable goals, well-intended aims and cheery platitudes: We should conduct research to better understand fitness; schools should spend more time on physical activity, making sure to focus on all students, not just sports stars; more and better community recreation facilities should be developed; and so forth. Perhaps most notable among the recommendations was that no federal funding should be used to further the aims of the council. Its revenue would come from private industry or lower levels of government. In the official documents of the era, the word "catalyst" is consistently used to describe the role of the council in inspiring change from the top down.

Declaring physical fitness a major policy concern, President John F. Kennedy ran with Eisenhower’s idea and greatly expanded the mandate of the council. To emphasize that it wasn’t just U.S. youths who needed more activity, he renamed the council the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. He shrewdly tapped into the perennial PR power of sports, installing Bud Wilkinson, the University of Oklahoma's well-regarded football coach, as the first fitness consultant to the president. And, while the federal government would continue to abstain from paying for or administering fitness programs, the council took on a more active role of facilitation, producing an ample body of fitness literature, conducting national surveys and offering guidance on fitness standards to schools and communities. These efforts have continued in one form or another in the decades since, as has the tradition of naming well-known sports figures to positions of leadership (readers around my age will remember when Arnold Schwarzenegger told us all to do sit-ups on behalf of George H.W. Bush).

A Political Football

While it has evolved over the decades, it’s hardly a surprise that a body with such a positive and politically neutral message has had such staying power. "I want Americans to be healthier, fitter and happier!" is about the least inflammatory thing a president could say. Yet, despite the relatively innocuous history of the council, it has become more politicized under recent administrations. Under Barrack Obama, the council was rebranded as the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. This was the first time that anything related to diet and consumption had been invoked ("sports" had been added by Lyndon B. Johnson). Unlike the politically benign idea of exercise, in the era of soda-tax legislation, the topic of "nutrition" can be quite loaded, and political battles embroiling the council ensued. When the body became actively involved in first lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to set school lunch standards at the federal level, critics blasted its politicization. When President Obama sought an increase in the federal budget for the council, political foes pointed out that the request was to double its funding. The president's supporters, meanwhile, were quick to point out that the doubling in question meant going from $1 million to $2 million — a drop in the budgetary bucket.

From Eisenhower to Trump, the goals have been laudable, but the results have been almost laughable. Simply put, Americans are worse off in just about every measure of physical health and fitness than we were in 1956.

In February, President Donald Trump took his turn to rebrand the council, this time shifting the emphasis to sports while retaining its Obama-era nutrition moniker. We now have the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition. In her role as presidential adviser, Trump's daughter Ivanka has emerged as cheerleader for the renamed council, extolling the virtues of team sports in building fitness and character while making sure to emphasize that the council will be an inspirational leader to drive change at the community level (read: no federal funding or mandates). While this has certainly not been front-page news, some conservative commentators have applauded the contrast from the "activist" council under Obama. More recently, Trump has appointed an eclectic mix of athletes and celebrities to lead the council, including former New York Yankees ace pitcher Mariano Rivera, New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick and Olympic volleyball gold medalist Misty May-Treanor. Trump’s most contentious appointee has been the doctor-turned-talk show host, Mehmet Oz, who has come under fire more than once for endorsing health products of dubious value.
I’m conflicted about the potential efficacy of the "sports first" approach, because I am generally conflicted about the state of youth sports in the United States. I wholeheartedly support leading with "sports" vs. "fitness." Sports are fun; we play sports. Fitness is boring and difficult; we do fitness.  Especially when it comes to young people, "come play ball" remains an easier sell than "run some laps." On top of getting the body moving, team sports also have the potential — when done right — to provide mental, social and developmental benefits. Then again, much depends on the delivery: There are plenty of adults who recoil at the thought of physical activity because of lousy sports experiences in their youth. And it’s not like sports are some big secret: American kids have no shortage of opportunities to play sports, but that hasn’t gotten in the way of childhood obesity and chronically low fitness outcomes. We can expect this to continue.
By throwing his support behind sports and continuing to limit the federal role to that of cheerleader, Trump is endorsing the status quo of the American youth sports landscape, where an obsession with elite performance has driven costs and expectations to unreasonable levels. Some families burn out, while others are priced out. The idea that kids will just go and play on their own at the park seems a pipe dream: Not only are there better diversions, but the public park is often reserved for a private club’s practice. I don’t think this is enough to advocate for direct federal oversight of youth sports, but at this point we have to accept that our massive youth sports complex is not producing meaningful fitness outcomes across society.
From Eisenhower to Trump, the goals have been laudable, but the results have been almost laughable. Simply put, Americans are worse off in just about every measure of physical health and fitness than we were in 1956, left to celebrate the cynical victory that childhood obesity rates at least seem to be levelling off in recent years. Of course, the United States is not alone in these concerns. In many other developed nations — even those with greater federal support for fitness programs — the problem is much the same, which suggests that some human behaviors might be beyond the reach of public policy. Despite this track record, I can’t help but feel that the federal government must continue to seek an appropriate role in driving change in this area, or at least in finding better ways to motivate the population. On the most fundamental level, a nation’s health is a matter of national security, both in terms of the physical fitness of the men and women in the armed forces, but also in terms of the sheer budgetary impact of taking care of an increasingly sick and unfit population.


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