Sixties Fifties Facts and History          


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

The Kennedy 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

Shortly before he took office, President-elect John F. Kennedy called physical fitness a defining principle of his administration. As the first media-savvy president, the president-elect published "The Soft American," in Sports Illustrated (Dec. 26, 1960) less than a month before his inauguration. In his Sports Illustrated essay, President Kennedy outlined four points as the basis of his physical fitness program:

· A White House Committee on Health and Fitness

· Direct oversight of the initiative by the Department of Health,    Education and Welfare

· An annual Youth Fitness Conference to be attended by state gov­ernors

· An unambiguous assertion that physical fitness was the business of the federal government

He concluded the article by laying the foundation for reorganizing the Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Within a month of his inauguration, President Kennedy spoke at the Conference on Physical Fitness of Youth. Under President Kennedy, the President's Council would not only spread the word to Americans about the importance of physical fitness for youth but would also conduct youth fitness surveys, publish fitness information, and offer technical advice to schools and communities about how to improve physical fitness not only for youth but for Americans of any age.

The Council did not have the authority to impose a national physical fitness program, but state and local leaders indicated to the Council that they would welcome guidance. President Kennedy selected Charles ("Bud") Wilkinson, athletic director and football coach at the University of Oklahoma, as the first Physical Fitness Consultant to the President.

The Council developed a physical fitness curriculum in consultation with major educational and medical organizations, and published and distributed hundreds of thousands of free publications, including "Youth Physical Fitness" (the "Blue Book") in 1961. In 1962, Kennedy published a second article, "The Vigor We Need" in Sports Illustrated. A booklet "Adult Physical Fitness" was published in 1963.

At one point during President Kennedy's Presidency, he unearthed an old executive order dating back to Theodore Roosevelt, which challenged Marine officers to walk 50 miles in 20 hours. He challenged the White House staff to take a 50-mile hike! JFK's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, accepted the challenge and walked the 50 miles wearing leather oxford shoes.
 
Unfortunately, American citizens mistakenly thought the President had challenged the public to undertake 50-mile hikes. The Council office quickly explained that while walking for exercise was strongly encouraged, the Council was not sponsoring the hike. Nor were they rewarding 50-mile hikes.

However, the public response to the perceived challenge from the president signaled that the Council's physical fitness message was being heard, It gave the Council legitimacy among its most important audience: average Americans. The country readily embraced a public awareness campaign promoting physical fitness by the National Advertising Council. Even Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and other cartoonists joined the campaign by promoting exercise in their cartoon strips. Baby boomers today may recall exercising to the song "Chicken Fat," a song performed by Robert Preston and written by "The Music Man" himself, Meredith Willson.

One million schoolchildren took part in Council sponsored pilot projects to test children's fitness levels. Numerous other national projects were developed, including state demonstration centers to serve as a showcase for model elementary and secondary physical education programs. Other projects included clinics and the production of educational films and booklets.

Although both youth and adult fitness had been the focus of the Council's mission throughout the Kennedy administration, during his final year in office, the president officially expanded the Council's mission to include Americans of all ages and renamed the organization the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

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President Kennedy selected Charles ("Bud") Wilkinson, athletic director and football coach at the University of Oklahoma, as the first Physical Fitness Consultant to the President.

Shortly before he took office, President-elect John F. Kennedy called physical fitness a defining principle of his administration.

The President's Council would also conduct youth fitness surveys, publish fitness information, and offer technical advice to schools and communities about how to improve physical fitness not only for youth but for any American.

 

 

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