Happy physical education teacher talking to her students during a class at elementary school gym.

Bring Back the National School Population Fitness Survey

By Jack Becker

It’s 1955, the Cold War is heating up, and a popular magazine publishes an article titled “The Report that Shocked the President.” What could shock a seasoned leader like Dwight Eisenhower? A report about a potential missile gap? An early report on the gap between the Soviet and American space programs? Surprisingly (or, unsurprisingly, because the title of this post is a spoiler), it was the muscle gap.

In 1954, Hans Kraus and Bonnie Prudden published a study finding that 57.9% of American schoolchildren failed a minimum muscular fitness test, while only 8.7% of European schoolchildren failed the same test. The theory behind these results? Television, overprotective parents, inadequate school physical education, and an overall “plush” lifestyle in the United States.

Sound familiar? When you add in heightened concerns about screen time, it feels like nothing has changed. While modern metrics concentrate on physical activity instead of physical fitness, it’s clear that American children are still struggling. But history might offer potential solutions to this age-old problem.

An Un-strenuous Life

In 1899, Theodore Roosevelt gave his “Strenuous Life” speech. Like others at the time, he was worried that societal advances had made Americans lackadaisical. And he insisted that this was a problem for the entire nation. While the speech was not specifically about fitness or exercise, Roosevelt’s roots in Muscular Christianity were certainly showing. Idleness, whether mental or physical, was an enemy of the United States.

At that time, and in the following years, exercising for physical fitness was isolated in niche communities. The YMCA, an offshoot of the Muscular Christianity movement, had 500,000 members by 1912. This community was committed to religion and healthy living, but, consistent with its name (the Young Men’s Christian Association), its reach was limited to a certain population. Other communities, like Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach in the 1930s, hosted fitness trailblazers like Pudgy Stockton, Steve Reeves, and Jack LaLanne. While spectators would watch their workouts in awe, it was treated largely as a spectacle featuring “exhibitionists,” not a model for fitness.

It didn’t help that until the mid-1950s, exercise was a contentious topic. Up to that point, many doctors had warned their patients that exercise could give them heart attacks or make them lose their sex drive. Weights in particular were considered so dangerous, that some fitness facilities locked them in special rooms to keep them away from the general population. Fitness promoters like Prudden and LaLanne faced an uphill battle in getting America to boost their physical fitness.

But things began to change in the Cold War era, amid a growing emphasis on quantification in policymaking. If there was one thing government officials would listen to, it was numbers. And Kraus and Prudden’s 1954 report had numbers. Shocking numbers.

The Vigor We Need and Lost

Kraus and Prudden’s report was not the only sign of trouble. Half of the men medically examined for draft registration during the Korean War were deemed unfit to fight, either physically or mentally. And while not necessarily indicative of general American fitness, Soviet domination at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics did not help morale. Many blamed American culture for the troubles. In the words of Shane MacCarthy, “Keeping up with the Jones family is evaluated by the size of the television screen for sitting and watching and the horse-power of the family vehicle, while paying little concern to the human octane rating.”

Following a 1955 luncheon on the topic of Kraus and Prudden’s report, Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10673 to create the Presidential Council on Youth Fitness, the precursor to the modern President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition. While it was a great first step, it was really only a baby step. To start, the Council was primarily focused on publicizing information about physical fitness and supporting private organizations, instead of putting tangible programs in place. The Council also took a holistic view on “fitness” that drew their focus away from physical fitness, as they speculated about other problems plaguing America’s youth. Finally, the Council had an aversion to quantified metrics in fitness (which is ironic, given the quantitative inspiration for the program). While part of this was likely an effort to distance the Council from the statewide fitness programs of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, it served as a roadblock for setting goals and assessing progress.

While the Council under Eisenhower largely strayed away from quantification, there was a glowing exception—the 1958 National School Population Fitness Survey. Results from this survey set the stage for John F. Kennedy, who embraced a quantified approach.

In 1960, before he even stepped into office, Kennedy wrote an article for Sports Illustrated titled “The Soft American” with an ambitious plan of attack. He recognized the lack of progress made by Eisenhower’s Council (in the way that any proud Harvard graduate would–by citing Yale students’ inability to pass their freshman physical fitness test). Kennedy followed up “The Soft American” in 1962 with “The Vigor We Need.” In this article, he gave the American people an update on the Council’s efforts and what still needed to be accomplished, citing results from a nationwide minimum fitness test and the success of new pilot programs in schools. While publicity was still a priority, it was not the only focus of the Council. Unlike Eisenhower’s Council, Kennedy and his Council embraced quantified metrics, set measurable goals, and put programs in place to achieve those goals. After Kennedy’s death, Lyndon Johnson continued his legacy, culminating in dramatically improved physical fitness test scores in 1964–1965.

However, starting with the end of Johnson’s term and continuing to the present day, the Council has largely reverted back to the Eisenhower era. The Council’s focus broadened to include other aspects of general health, sports, and recreation. It moved away from Council-run programs and moved towards assisting other organizations. And the Cabinet structure of the Council was replaced with a group of popular fitness and sports figures, suggesting a return to a primary focus on publicity. The 1975 and 1985 national surveys showed no progress in the physical fitness of America’s youth, and unfortunately the Council discontinued national surveys after 1985. The 1980s brought a “downward spiral” in “the health and physical fitness of Americans,” and the shift from physical fitness to physical activity came in the 1990s. These activities eventually came to include everyday household activities, which Kennedy’s Council had largely rejected as sufficient for achieving physical fitness.

Moving Forward

In the current cultural and political climate, there’d have to be a big move to revive Kennedy’s vigor for America’s physical fitness. Physical fitness is largely seen as an individual self-improvement activity, not a civic duty, and modern presidential statements on the topic reinforce this. But bringing fitness back to the civic sphere could be the best way to address a national problem. And the first step is bringing back the Council’s National School Population Fitness Survey.

This would be helpful for two reasons. First, as Kraus and Prudden showed, sometimes the best way to reach people is through shocking data. As the authors of the 1985 National School Population Fitness Survey reflected on the 1958 Survey, they explained, “The results of this series of simple tests shocked the nation. What everyone had always assumed that a normal American youth could do physically turned out to be a woeful overestimation of his actual abilities.” Second, if the Council wants to set effective goals, there needs to be a precise and data-driven way to assess progress and make adjustments.

Modern measures of physical activity and BMI can be misleading and say very little about America’s physical fitness. And while the current Presidential Youth Fitness Program encourages intra-school assessment, it’s purely a voluntary program for educators. It also still uses data from the 1985 National School Population Fitness Survey, despite changing the fitness test. The 2012 NHANES National Youth Fitness Survey might be the closest thing to the Council’s National School Population Fitness Survey since 1985. However, it seems designed for academic research, rather than for use as a public benchmark for American fitness.

If we want to tackle America’s physical fitness woes as a nation, conducting National School Population Fitness Surveys is a great first step. And who knows, maybe the best way to unify the country is by encouraging kids to do more push-ups.

Jack Becker

Jack is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former student fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center. He thanks you for reading this and hopes you have a great day!

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