John F. Kennedy photo

Progress Report by the President on Physical Fitness.

August 13, 1963

I HAVE recently returned from a trip to Europe, where I saw many of the hundreds of thousands of young Americans who are in the front lines of the defense of freedom. These members of the American forces are trained in skills and weapons of a complexity and power hitherto unknown to fighting men. But despite all the advances of modern science and the sophisticated technology of modern warfare, it was clear to me that the capacity of our Army to withstand aggression will depend in the future, as always, on the hardihood and endurance, the physical fitness, of the American GI.

We have seen in World War II, in Korea and in the jungles of Southeast Asia that any weapon, no matter how brilliantly conceived, must depend for its effectiveness on the fighting trim of the soldier who uses it. And what is true for the weapons of war is also true for the instruments of peace. Whether it is the astronaut exploring the boundaries of space, or the overworked civil servant laboring into the night to keep a Government program going, the effectiveness and creativity of the individual must rest, in large measure, on his physical fitness and vitality.

The realization of this essential truth about human beings was a cornerstone of the first and perhaps the greatest civilization of the Western World--the society of ancient Greece. Happiness, as defined by the Greeks, is "the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope." The Greeks knew it was necessary to have not only a free and inquiring mind, but a strong and active body to develop "glorious-limbed youth," as Pindar, the athlete's poet, wrote. The symbol of their dedication to physical hardihood was the Olympic Games. During these games, a truce of the gods was proclaimed so that all Greece might come to celebrate an event that had an almost mystical significance as a periodic renewal of the vital energies of the state. Kings and philosophers alike regarded triumph in the physical contests of Olympia as deserving the highest honors of the state, and themselves participated in the tests of skill and strength. No astronaut or statesman of today receives a more enthusiastic welcome from his fellow citizens than did the Olympic victors when they returned to their cities.

It was this society, with its almost religious veneration of physical fitness, that produced some of our most towering achievements of art, thought and political organization. Throughout history, we can trace the same theme. Whether it has been the triumphs of the vast empire of Rome, the flourishing of the arts in Renaissance Italy, or the literature of Elizabethan England, those societies that have produced great creative and political achievements have almost always given a high place to the physical vigor of the individual citizen. For it is only upon a foundation of individual hardiness and vitality that we can build an "exercise of vital powers along the lines of excellence."

We have found this true in our own country. Pioneers and patriots from our earliest days applied strength and vigor as well as intellect, courage and vision to the establishment of the nation and the protection of its freedom. President Theodore Roosevelt reminded us that "our country calls not for the life of ease, but for the life of strenuous endeavor." The recognition of this vital link between physical fitness and national greatness has caused great alarm over the declining strength and hardihood of our citizens.

In earlier days, it was much easier for an American to keep fit. Indeed, many of the conditions of daily life required him to do so. Today, much of that has changed. Where Abraham Lincoln had to walk miles to borrow a book, today a bookmobile would bring it to his door. Where a student once thought nothing of walking miles to school, today a school bus picks him up at the door. Instead of chopping firewood, we get regular delivery from the oil truck. Household gadgets of incredible variety have cut down or eliminated daily chores. Television and radio have made it possible to witness the most varied range of entertainment without ever moving from the easy chair.

No one would advocate a return to the drudgery or the limited range of available interests that preceded many of these modern conveniences. We value the increased scope for leisure and imagination that they have opened up. Nor can we hope to turn back the clock and restore the more primitive, although, at times, more satisfying, conditions of life in an earlier America. But we cannot let the very technology that is one of the fruits of our national vitality become an instrument of its decline and, consequently, of our greatness as a nation. For we face challenges in today's world of a difficulty and scope that require the fullest exercise of all our powers. And if we do not guard the precious heritage of our national vigor on which those powers depend, then there are strong and impatient people waiting to pick up the gauntlet that we can no longer bear.

Since we can no longer count upon the routine conditions of daily life to maintain our physical fitness, we have only one alternative to continued decline: that is the establishment of systematic and readily accessible fitness programs in every school and community in the nation. It was for this purpose that, two and a half years ago, I reorganized the President's Council on Youth Fitness under the leadership of one of the country's leading football coaches Charles B. (Bud) Wilkinson of the University of Oklahoma.

This was the first systematic effort to establish programs designed to solve the problem of fitness. It came at a time when new investigations had proved that only 52 percent of Americans could pass the same fitness tests that were mastered by more than 90 percent of young Europeans, that 25 percent of our schoolchildren would fail a test that measured only the barest rudiments of fitness, and that many communities lacked programs adequate to meet the needs of our young people or to increase the physical vigor of our adults.

The first and continuing task of the Council was to focus national attention on physical fitness. Films were produced by private industry and distributed around the nation. The Advertising Council agreed to conduct a public-service campaign comparable to its efforts in behalf of War Bond sales and forest-fire prevention. Special materials were prepared for magazines, radio and television stations, newspapers and billboards. Booklets containing suggested programs for adult and school fitness, and for community recreation leaders were published. There was a nationwide conference, attended by representatives from 44 states, followed by the first of a series of Regional Fitness Clinics, designed to increase awareness of new techniques for physical development, which was conducted last October in California. More than 500 participants from thirty colleges and six states attended.

There were more dramatic, if unplanned events, ranging from a sudden flurry of 50-mile hikes to the scaling of a Japanese mountain by a Cabinet member. All of these have made the subject of American fitness a central topic of debate, discussion and concern throughout the nation. It has even entered into our folk humor. This increased national awareness is reflected in the White House mail, where fitness is one of the main subjects of correspondence by young and old alike.

Among the letters are those that merely describe personal activities, such as one from a Brooklyn schoolgirl, who reports: "I am happy about your Physical Fitness Plan ....

I turn cartwheels every chance I get. My parents are going out of their minds because I am always on my hands instead of my feet." Or the 12-year-old boy from Pennsylvania, who writes: "I have took to mind what you have said about youth physical fitness. I not only take gym in school, but I set aside an hour each day to have my own gym." A young girl from Los Angeles proudly says: "Dear President Kennedy, I have walked 8 miles and I was thirsty."

Some of the letters ask questions or make requests. An Alabama schoolboy asks: "Dear sir, would you please send me a sample of your physical fitness." One lad from Iowa wanted us to write him an excuse from the regular physical-education program so that he can follow his own schedule of preparing for the football season, and added the caution: "Please do not say on TV or radio."

Humorous or serious, these letters and thousands more reflect the immense growth in national concern since the Council started its work.

We have never viewed the Council as a national department of physical education. It is not to become a large department, and its staff has been limited to four full-time employees with limited administrative funds. Rather, it is a catalyst to provide information and stimulus to the wide range of school systems, private groups, local communities and individual households that alone possess the intimacy of contact essential to make physical fitness an accepted goal and part of daily life.

In this effort, there has been much progress. Thirty-two states now have State Fitness Councils, and last year alone, 13 strengthened their physical-education requirements. Twenty-one now offer special summer programs, more than half of which have been started since 1960.

This increased interest by the states has been reflected in school activities. The number of schools conducting fitness programs has increased 20 percent since the 1961-62 school year, and today, in nine states, every elementary schoolchild has a daily physical-education program. In 1960, fewer than half of the nation's secondary schools tested their students for physical fitness. This year, 96 percent conducted such tests.

Not all of the forward strides can be measured by these statistics. Private groups ranging from 4-H Clubs to the YMCA have developed programs in cooperation with the Council, and the American Medical Association has emphasized the urgent need for physical-fitness programs and periodic health checkups in the elementary schools.

Increased emphasis and expanded programs are already being reflected in improved performance. When it began its work, the Council undertook a series of pilot studies in schools in seven states. The first results showed that only 53 percent of the students examined could pass a minimum achievement test; this year, 79 percent passed the same test. The number passing a more comprehensive test in the same period rose from 10 percent to 21 percent. Many universities also report a steady rise in the physical ability of their students. The number passing the Yale Physical Fitness test rose from 34 percent in 1960 to 43 percent in 1961; at Springfield College in the same period, the Physical Fitness Index rose from subnormal to above normal.

These figures can be supplemented with hundreds of stories of individual achievement and progress, such as that of the nine-year-old Missouri schoolboy whose legs were seriously affected by polio at the age of one. To him, regular exercise in a fitness program has meant entering upon a new life. He is now the pull-up champion of his class, bat boy for the local baseball team--and a well above-average student.

The advances are encouraging, but we still have far to go. Twenty percent of all the country's schools have no regular fitness program, and 20 percent of our schoolchildren cannot pass a minimum test. Eighty percent cannot pass all the parts of a more comprehensive examination. We are still far from our goal of a daily, effective program for every schoolchild. And we have barely begun to work on the vast problem of adult fitness.

I recently had a letter from a student in a U.S. Army school in Munich, Germany. He wrote: "The purpose of my writing is to congratulate you on your physical-fitness program. All the students in my class take part in the program with great interest. Through the program, we are developing an interest in fair play with each other. The responsibility through our training gives us great pride and an understanding of our responsibility as Americans."

If our future is eventually to be entrusted to youngsters like this, then we need have little cause for concern about America. The fitness of our people is one of the foundation stones of our national greatness. It will help determine our capacity to respond to the many challenges of this time of change and conflict. But it has an even deeper significance. For fitness is not something that can be imposed by a government or by laws. It will not be produced by coercion or exhortation from above. It depends upon the will and the energy of those thousands of local and private groups that make up the fabric of our society. And it depends, preeminently, on the individual.

I hope that all parents who share my concern will inquire about the physical-fitness programs in their schools. I hope that every active American--particularly if he is a young American--will take part in such a program, for his own good and for his country's good.

Note: The President's report was printed as an article "Physical Fitness--A Report of Progress" in the August 13, 1963, issue of Look magazine. It is reprinted by special permission of Cowles Magazines and Broadcasting, Inc.

John F. Kennedy, Progress Report by the President on Physical Fitness. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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