President’s Council on Fitness

Originally proposed over 50 years ago, the President’s Council on Physical Fitness was formed after concerns that our nation was going “soft.” President Eisenhower appointed then Vice President Richard Nixon to chair the council and establish physical fitness objectives for the country at large, and youth in particular. Immediate goals for the very first council were to raise the standards for physical fitness professionals, increase funding for classes and equipment at public schools, and to encourage more students, particularly girls, to participate in sports and recreational activities.

President Kennedy took it a step further, writing several articles and appealing to the masses to become a nation of vigor. Photos of the president sailing, at the beach, or playing tennis appeared in major news publications. Looking tan, rested and ready, his youthfulness helped to spur on the Council’s cause. Annual rewards based on elementary school competitions such as the softball throw, the 600 yard run/walk, a 50-yard dash and a standing long jump were ushered in by Lyndon Johnson.

By 1986 the tests had expanded to include sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, the shuttle run (a back and forth sprint), a one mile walk/run, and a v-sit flexibility test. The good news is that the tests were getting more challenging; the bad news is that a smaller percentage of Americans could actually complete the tasks. The only aspect of the original Council’s objectives which seemed to be achievable was the increased participation in athletic events by girls. Women of all ages embraced exercise. They jumped into sports traditionally dominated by men, and turned the fitness profession on its head with the introduction of aerobics and exercise classes for adults.

Where are we today? Our nation is overweight, out of shape and paying for it in healthcare premiums and more sick days missed at work. Back injuries, obesity, and heart disease are synonymous with the American lifestyle. We’ve made the term “living large,” a part of the American Dream, turn into a nightmare.

A recent Time magazine article on our “super-sized kids” pointed out that a sample cafeteria-style meal in the 1950s in our public school system consisted of 936 calories, 1,300 mg. of sodium and 33 grams of fat (about 300 calories). At least we’ve straightened that out today, right? No way. Today, kids will sit down and lunch on 1,173 calories and 2,100 mg. of sodium (100 percent of the RDA in one meal), with about 400 fat calories (45 grams of fat) mixed in. Bigger meals, bigger kids.

It seems we are more well-read about the risks but are in no particular hurry to do anything about them. Leading by example has never been more important or more underestimated. We need to establish a few fitness guidelines as adults and tune-in and turn-on to them without excuse. By breaking down the major components of health into categories, we can tackle them one at a time. I’m not talking about establishing jaw-dropping standards here, but just a base level of fitness to maintain our national energy. By all means, push, pull and drag your kids along for the ride.

Strength, endurance and flexibility are today’s categories on the new hit TV series, “Physical Jeopardy.” We should all be able to do 20 push-ups, 50 sit-ups, and hold a wall-sit for two minutes. Get up right now and give it a shot. Sorry, no senior discounts for these categories, as Jack LaLanne just ripped off 93 push-ups for his 93rd birthday. A wall-sit is exactly that: lean against the wall as if you were sitting in an imaginary chair, your legs holding you up while someone counts off the seconds during a commercial break.

Hit the track and run/walk a mile in under 10 minutes, then dive into the pool to be able to swim 16 consecutive laps (400 yards) without taking a break. How close to touching your toes can you come? Place your feet together, keep the knees straight and slowly lower your hands toward your feet. Mid-shin is OK, top of the ankles means you will encounter very few back problems, and if you can reach all the way to the floor, Cirque de Soleil beckons.

These are just basic levels of physical fitness that correspond to a shot at a happy, healthy life. Proper nutrition to help fuel us is vital, but without any corresponding level of exertion, we’re just setting ourselves (and our kids) up for fat storage. Math 101: if you eat more calories than you burn, you’re going to get bigger. Ease up on the calories, substitute fruits for ice cream, egg beaters for whole eggs, ½ sandwiches for whole, and let your body do what it was designed to do: move.

JFK left us with the following jewel, which seems as appropriate today as it was almost 50 years ago: “We want a nation of participants in the vigorous life. This is not a matter which can be settled, of course, from Washington. It is really a matter which starts with each individual family. It is my hope ... that the communities will be concerned, to make it possible for young boys and girls to participate actively in the physical life; and that men and women who have reached the age of maturity will concern themselves with maintaining their own participation in this phase of national vigor — national life.”

Bryan Welch is the co-owner of Club Emerald on the Island.

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