Sixties Fifties Facts          


The Early History of the President's Council on Physical Fitness

The Eisenhower Years



by Felice Prager


The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports is an advisory committee of volunteer citizens (appointed by the President) who advise the President through the Secretary of Health and Human Services about physical activity, fitness, and sports in America. "Through its programs and partnerships with the public, private and non-profit sectors, the Council serves as a catalyst to promote health, physical activity, fitness, and enjoyment for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities through participation in physical activity and sports."
 
http://www.fitness.gov/home_about.htm

In December, 1953, Dr. Hans Kraus, M.D., an avid mountain climber and associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at New York University, and his associate Bonnie Prudden, published "Muscular Fitness and Health" in the Journal of the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. They claimed that the affluent lifestyle of 20th century America was making life so easy and effortless  that American adults and children were rapidly losing muscle tone. They warned Americans that they needed to engage in regular exercise to attain a state of physical fitness comparable to that of earlier times when Americans walked for transportation, worked on farms, and accomplished most activities through manual labor.

This was not a new topic for Kraus and his associates. A decade earlier, he and his associates published other papers emphasizing the state of the nation's physical fitness. Kraus had designed the Kraus-Weber Tests for Muscular Fitness. They administered the Kraus-Weber Tests to 4,400 American public school students between ages 6 and 16 and to about 3,000 European students in the same ­age range in Switzerland, Italy, and Austria.

They claimed that 56 percent of the U.S. students failed at least one of the test components of the test that included activities such as leg lifts, sit-ups, trunk lifts, and toe touches. Only 8 percent of the European children failed even one of the test components. Kraus attributed the test results to lifestyle.
 
Europeans were less reliant on automobiles, school buses, and elevators. They walked miles to school, rode bicycles, hiked, and chopped and hauled wood for home heating. American children were largely driven in cars by their parents and were obligated to perform only simple chores such as making their own beds and setting the
table; their most strenuous activities were walking the dog or mowing the lawn.

This report caught the attention of John Kelly, a successful Philadelphia contractor better known as the father of actress, Grace Kelly than as the national sculling champion and wartime physical fitness officer. Kelly shared the report with Senator James Duff of Pennsylvania. Also shocked by the information, Senator Duff discussed the issue with President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In 1954, Kraus was invited to present his report to the national convention of the American Medical Association in Atlantic City. This
opportunity gave him a forum to sound an alarm through the mainstream media. U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated reported the test findings and provided interview opportunities for Kraus.

Kraus claimed that Americans had to maintain physical fitness through exercise, that it was the key to physical and emotional well-being, that U.S. children coming into the first grade were already muscle deficient, and that the U.S. public schools were not offering enough physical activity to reverse the trend. Many leaders in the physical education community viewed Kraus' work as a welcome opportunity to promote more school physical education programs.

Kraus and Prudden were then invited to a White House luncheon on July 11, 1955. They presented their findings to 30 government leaders, medical researchers, and sports personalities. Following the luncheon, President Eisenhower directed Vice President Richard Nixon to call a meeting to decide what actions the government should take. This meeting took place less than a month later, on August 8, 1955, and included Kraus and Prudden, sports leaders, government workers, and edu­cators. That group, in turn, recommended that the focus of the government response should be youth fitness and called for a conference of leaders and experts to develop specific recommendations.

On June 18-19, 1956, the President's Conference on the Fitness of American Youth was held at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. At the president's direction, Vice President Richard Nixon was conference chairman. There were 140 participants including Kraus and Prudden, national, state, and local government leaders, educators, and people representing the fields of health, medicine, and sport. The media was also present. The outcome of the conference included the following guidelines:

 a.. The public must be made aware of the  problem of establishing and maintaining fitness.

 b.. Fitness must be popularized and promoted among youth.

 c.. Research on fitness is needed to decide what kind and how much.

 d.. Out-of-school programs should include  agencies already working in the field (e.g. Boy and Girl Scouts, YMCA, etc.)

 e.. Funds for any programs and initiatives  should come from private industry, foundations, and the local community.

 f.. Schools should have more time, equipment,  and personnel for physical education and  should focus increased attention on children who are not athletically gifted.

 g.. The standards and prestige of the physical education profession must be raised.

 h.. Community recreational facilities should  be increased and better use made of existing facilities.

 i.. All children must have periodic medical examinations.

 j.. Better leadership is needed for physical  activity at home, in the school, and in the community, and adults should be role models for physical fitness.

 k.. Girls should have equal opportunities for physical fitness.
 
In the same Executive Order that established the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports on July 16, 1956, President Eisenhower called for the creation of a Citizens Advisory Committee on the Fitness of American Youth. Eisenhower envisioned the President's Council on Youth Fitness as an agency that would educate, stimulate, motivate, and encourage local communi­ties and individual Americans to promote and adopt active lifestyles.

President Eisenhower believed that communities and organizations at the grassroots level were the appropriate agents to design programs and implement corrective actions to address the concerns identified at the federal level. The role of the Council would be to sound the alarm and identify concerns. As a former military officer, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, president from 1953 to 1961, was aware that a reported 50 percent of men who showed up at draft boards throughout the nation were considered physically unfit.

President Eisenhower was also concerned about the growing problem of juvenile delinquency and considered physical exercise an  important measure to keep youth on the playgrounds and off the streets.
 
President Eisenhower envisioned parents, schools, and local organizations as the ones to oversee the activities of American children.

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President Eisenhower believed that communities and organizations at the grassroots level were the appropriate agents to design programs and implement corrective actions to address the concerns identified at the federal level.

President Eisenhower directed Vice President Richard Nixon to call a meeting to decide what actions the government should take.

 

 

 

 

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