WHEN a citizen of Greece returned home after a victory in the Olympic Games he was escorted triumphally into the city through a hole which had been ripped in its wall. Thus the city-state was symbolically assured that any polls possessed of such a hero had no need of a wall to defend it. Although we may be sure that the wall was repaired when a hostile army threatened, the symbolic act had a meaning which is as true for the America of today as it was for the ancient Greeks, a meaning expressed by Disraeli when he said, "The health of the people is really the foundation upon which all their happiness and all their powers as a State depend."
Our own history, perhaps better than the history of any other great country, vividly demonstrates the truth of the belief that physical vigor and health are essential accompaniments to the qualities of intellect and spirit on which a nation is built. It was men who possessed vigor and strength as well as courage and vision who first settled these shores and, over more than three centuries, subdued a continent and wrested a civilization from the wilderness. It was physical hardihood that helped Americans in two great world wars to defeat strong and tenacious foes and make this country history's mightiest defender of freedom. And today, in our own time, in the jungles of Asia and on the borders of Europe, a new group of vigorous young Americans helps maintain the peace of the world and our security as a nation.
At the same time, young Americans are attaining new standards of excellence in athletic contests. Only last month four men ran the mile in less than 4 minutes in a single race. Hardly a month passes that some new record for speed or strength, stamina or competitive skill, is not shattered. Never in history has the United States been represented by a more gifted group of athletes in national and international competition. Yet we must not allow our pride in these few men to obscure the fact that over the past decades the level of physical fitness of much of our citizenry has been far below any reasonable national standard.
A year and a half ago in this magazine I reviewed the results of the Kraus-Weber survey, which showed that American youths lagged far behind young Europeans in basic levels of physical fitness (SI, Dec. 26, 1960). Almost 58 percent of Americans were unable to pass these tests, while only 8.7 percent of Europeans failed. Since that time the President's Council on Youth fitness has conducted a survey which indicates that more than 10 million of our 40 million school children are unable to pass a test which measures only a minimum level of physical fitness, while almost 20 million would be unable to meet the standards set by a more comprehensive test of physical strength and skills.
These figures indicate the vast dimensions of a national problem which should be of deep concern to all of us. It is paradoxical that the very economic progress, the technological advance and scientific breakthroughs which have, in part, been the result of our national vigor have also contributed to the draining of that vigor. Technology and automation have eliminated many of those physical exertions which were once a normal part of the working day. New forms of transportation have made it unnecessary to walk to school or to the office or the corner store. New forms of entertainment have consumed much of the time which was once used for sports and games.
No one can deny the enormous benefits which these developments have brought-the reduction of drudgery and tedious tasks, the opportunity for greater leisure, the increased access to intellectual stimulation and quality entertainment. But at the same time we must not allow these advances to become the instruments of the decline of our national vitality and health. We cannot permit the loss of that physical vigor which has helped to nourish our growth and which is essential if we are to carry forward the complex and demanding tasks which are vital to our strength and progress.
It was in response to this problem that President Eisenhower urged immediate attention to our deteriorating level of physical fitness; and that this administration established a nationwide program of cooperation with state, city, and town officials to raise our fitness level.
First, we reorganized the President's Council on Youth fitness and placed that council under Special Presidential Consultant Charles B. (Bud) Wilkinson, football coach of the University of Oklahoma. Under Mr. Wilkinson's extraordinarily able leadership the council developed--in cooperation with 19 leading school and medical organizations-the basic concepts for a program of physical fitness now in use by more than half the country's public schools.
In addition, the council helped to initiate special pilot fitness projects, involving more than 200,000 students in five States. The results were a dramatic proof of the value of carefully designed school physical fitness programs. After only six weeks 25 percent of the students who had failed the basic fitness test passed. A similar gain was measured each succeeding 6 weeks until, by the end of the school year, an average of 80 percent of those who had failed were able to pass. There could be no more effective proof of the fact that efforts by local school authorities can vastly improve the physical fitness level of America's youth.
Secondly, the council has designed a nationwide campaign to alert Americans to physical fitness needs and provide them with the information needed to conduct fitness programs. More than 340,000 copies of the school physical fitness program have been distributed; and during the past school year the number of schools offering such a program rose by 13 percent. The Advertising Council, private film makers and professional athletic organizations have joined campaigns to increase public attention to physical fitness needs, and a conference of governors' representatives, with 44 States represented, was held last April to enlist the help of State Governments in this nationwide effort.
Third, the council is now going forward with a wide range of physical fitness activities in the fields of recreation and health education. Special programs are being developed for college students and for adults. A series of recommendations has been made to leaders of the armed forces, and those recommendations are now being put into effect.
This is heartening progress, and has helped to chart the course for our future activity. But it must be viewed as only a small beginning in a Nation where 60 percent of the school children do not participate in regular physical fitness programs, where millions of adults neglect their needs for regular exercise, where general levels of physical vitality are being surpassed by other developed nations.
Writing on this subject a year and a half ago, I stressed the importance of physical fitness to our national strength, the subtle but undeniable relationship of physical vigor to our capacity to undertake the enormous efforts of mind and courage and will which are the price of maintaining the peace and insuring the continued flourishing of our civilization. And this importance still exists. But fitness is vital for a still more basic reason. It is vital because it is the basis of the health and vitality of the individual citizen. And these are qualities which are essential if each American is to be free to realize fully the potential value of his own capabilities and the pursuit of his individual goals. In the final analysis, it is this liberation of the individual to pursue his own ends, subject only to the loose restraints of a free society, which is the ultimate meaning of our civilization.
The federal Government will continue to focus national attention on this problem. But it is absolutely clear that the ultimate responsibility for the fitness of the American people rests on the cooperation and determination of school boards and town officials, on thousands of community leaders, and on millions of fathers and mothers. Only through your effort can we hope to continue to move steadily toward a stronger and more vigorous America.