Physical fitness is often in the news today, but it has long been a national concern. New programs to help keep Americans fit were a hallmark of John F. Kennedy's administration.
After World War II, many Americans worried that US citizens, especially the young, were growing overweight and out of shape. The nation's economy had changed dramatically, and with it the nature of work and recreation changed. Mechanization had taken many farmers out of the fields and much of the physical labor out of farm work. Fewer factory jobs demanded heavy labor. Television required watching rather than doing. Americans were beginning to confront a new image of themselves and their country, and they did not always like what they saw.
A New Federal Agency Shapes Up
As a military man, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was probably already sensitive to the issue of physical fitness. Military officers grumbled about the condition of draftees during World War II and the Korean War. But concern about fitness peaked in the mid-1950s with publication of an international study that found American children far less fit than children in other countries. In response, President Eisenhower established the President's Council on Youth Fitness with Executive Order 10673, issued on July 16, 1956.
Despite widespread support inside and outside the government, the council never quite found its way during the Eisenhower years. Personality conflicts and organizational difficulties often bogged down the council, but the real problem was that no one was clear about its purpose. Did fitness include intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and social fitness as well as physical fitness? Uncertainty about the meaning of fitness went hand in hand with uncertainty about actions to be taken. And for many connected with the council's work, the idea of the nation's youth constrained by a state-ordered fitness program seemed a little "red," even fascist. The goal and ideal of the council during this Republican administration was to make fitness a nationally recognized local problem.
In the end, another crucial factor that prevented the council from reaching its full potential was the inattention of the president. Having established this council, Eisenhower rarely spoke on the subject of fitness and did not appear at any of its annual conferences. John F. Kennedy's approach to the problem of fitness would be very different.