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."
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
President Eisenhower envisioned
parents, schools, and local organizations as the ones to oversee the
activities of American children.
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