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.