Segment from Beach Bodies

Run DNC, Run RNC

Brian talks with historian Rachel Moran about when the federal government began to claim a stake in the public’s physical fitness, and Moran explains the origins of that annual bane of schoolchildren everywhere: the Presidential Physical Fitness Test.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

This transcript comes from an early version of the show. There may be small differences between the audio and transcript.

BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’ve been talking about the history of body image in America. So far, we’ve focused on how people have tried to alter their own bodies. But I want to bring us into the 20th century, because that’s when the federal government got into the game. And that story begins in the years after World War II.

In the war’s first year, 50% of all the men drafted actually were rejected for service. Some, for things like flat feet or bad eyesight. Others, because of illness, both mental and physical. But a few of those men who were rejected got slapped down because of the very shape of their bodies.

RACHEL MORAN: Rejection, specifically for weight, for example, actually made up only 60,000 to 70,000 rejected men, which is very few. It’s about 2% at the time.

BRIAN: This is Rachel Moran, an historian at Penn State and Miller Center National Fellow.

RACHEL MORAN: It’s a small reason for rejection, but it becomes huge in the national imagination.

BRIAN: So right after World War II, this very famous doctor–

RACHEL MORAN: Dr. Hans Kraus–

BRIAN: –puts together a study. He wants to know how fit American kids are compared to kids in other countries. So he takes a few thousand American kids and a few thousand European kids–

RACHEL MORAN: –and asked them all to do toe-touches, and things like that. And in the end, he determines that American children are incredibly unfit, compared to their European competitors. And that this fitness is what he calls a menace to our security.

BRIAN: So Dr. Kraus is a really big deal doctor at the time. People call him the “Father of Sports Medicine,” and word of his study gets back to President Eisenhower, who’s already plugged into the fitness world.

RACHEL MORAN: Eisenhower was actually a bit of a fitness nut. He would evangelize about low carb diets. And at one point, in the White House, he actually held this playful Biggest Loser contest with a couple of his friends, where they owed him money if they didn’t lose weight fast enough.

BRIAN: And after reading Kraus’ study in 1955, Eisenhower tries to hold a conference to figure out just how to get American kids more fit.

RACHEL MORAN: They actually have to put their conference off, because Eisenhower has his heart attack.

BRIAN: Minor setback, there. They reschedule, and hold the conference the next year. And it’s at this conference that they establish the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. It later became the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, and many other names followed. But this is the beginning of the Cold War. And so the idea of the government trying to shape people’s bodies, well, it feels a little problematic, a little like Communism.

RACHEL MORAN: Its images of Russian calisthenics being done by force, that makes it so important that American calisthenics are done by choice.

BRIAN: And, guys, who do you turn to when you want to persuade people to voluntarily choose things, themselves? Of course, you turn to Madison Avenue. The President’s Counsel teams up with the Advertising Council. These are the folks who brought you Smokey the Bear, McGruff the Crime Dog, et cetera, et cetera. And Madison Avenue delivers. They produce thousands of ads, print, TV, radio all to convince kids that physical fitness is cool.

RACHEL MORAN: There are some great ones that really connect American anxiety about the Cold War with, sort of, anxiety about fitness. So there’s a big focus on astronauts. For instance, astronauts being a great Cold War dream job for American boys. So if Captain Jim Lovell, of Apollo 13 fame, is standing in front of a rocket and says, any kid who wants my job will have to be in pretty good shape–

CAPTAIN JIM LOVELL: You know, we’re pretty well motivated to keep in shape. I’ll tell you where it gets tough, though, when you’re on the road. But when you know that staying in shape and keeping healthy can make the big difference to you in the program, you do it.

RACHEL MORAN: If you’re an American boy in Cold War culture, that’s going to be a pretty appealing message.

BRIAN: The Fitness Council also struck gold with a musical hit, the “Chicken Fat” song.

RACHEL MORAN: “Chicken Fat” is a song that was composed by Meredith Wilson, and actually song by Robert Preston, both of whom were Broadway stars at the time. And it’s prepared in 1962, specifically for Kennedy’s President’s Council on Physical Fitness. And the song is about 6 and 1/2 minutes long, and it’s a calisthenics song.

So essentially, it’s the kind of record that your school would put on the PA system, or perhaps your classroom teacher would play, and this song would admonish you to touch your toes, to do sit-ups, in a sort of 6 and 1/2 minute rhythmic style.


RACHEL MORAN: And in fact, this song managed to sell over 100,000 records its first year.

BRIAN: As we were finishing the interview, I had sort of a therapy moment, where I confessed to Rachel, talked to her about the traumatizing experience in elementary school when we were all tested for the number of pull-ups that we could do.


BRIAN: For me, the number was, yes, zero. Rachel, are Eisenhower and Kennedy’s physical fitness programs to blame for that? Or did I just have a sadistic gym teacher?

RACHEL MORAN: Oh, no, you definitely get to put your blame, actually, in this case on Lyndon Johnson–

BRIAN: Ooh, hoo, hoo. One of my favorite presidents, who knew?

RACHEL MORAN: Well, in 1966, very much as part of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, it’s his administration that’s going to issue the President’s Award for Physical Fitness. So, while schools were in no way forced to institute these programs, essentially, programming for the President’s Award is going to spread slowly, nationwide. And that includes running the mile, and the flexibility test, and, yes, the pull-ups.

BRIAN: Oh my god.

RACHEL MORAN: So I tell my students that the reason they have to run the mile in high schools is because we were afraid of communists. I think it’s good. I think it’s good to know.

BRIAN: Right, don’t look back, they might be gaining on you. What do you think the lasting effects of these programs that were started the late ’50s and the early ’60s are today?

RACHEL MORAN: I think that the interesting effects might be the handicap it’s placed on government programs that might actually address fitness issues. Because fitness was set up at this Cold War moment, with this extreme emphasis on limited government and individual freedoms, there’s a real sense that everything has to be done through advertising. Everything has to be done by asking schools to voluntarily take up government ideas.

And in the end, that means that the entire program comes off almost as a joke to some people, when I mentioned it. It doesn’t seem like even a real function of the government. What is this President’s Council?

And I think it’s made it very difficult for the Council to do anything meaningful, in the long run, because it’s already set up as a sort of shell of an agency. And I think that that also has effects for Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move. And that I think the expectations for what government fitness and nutrition programs might do is already set.

1987 FITNESS PSA: (SINGING) When you feel stressed, or feel uptight, that’s the time to exercise. Now you’re looking great.

BRIAN: Rachel Moran is an Historian at Penn State University, and a Miller Center National Fellow.