When a citizen of
Greece returned home after a victory in the Olympic Games he was escorted
triumphally into the city through a hole which had been ripped in its wall.
Thus the city-state was symbolically assured that any poll's possessed of such
a hero had no need of a wall to defend it. Although we may be sure that the
wall was repaired when a hostile army threatened, the symbolic act had a
meaning which is as true for the America of today as it was for the ancient
Greeks, a meaning expressed by Disraeli when he said, "The health of the
people is really the foundation upon which all their happiness and all their
powers as a State depend."
Our own history,
perhaps better than the history of any other great country, vividly
demonstrates the truth of the belief that physical vigor and health are
essential accompaniments to the qualities of intellect and spirit on which a
nation is built. It was men who possessed vigor and strength as well as courage
and vision who first settled these shores and, over more than three centuries,
subdued a continent and wrested a civilization from the wilderness. It was
physical hardihood that helped Americans in two great world wars to defeat
strong and tenacious foes and make this country history's mightiest defender of
freedom. And today, in our own time, in the jungles of Asia and on the borders
of Europe, a new group of vigorous young Americans helps maintain the peace of
the world and our security as a nation.
At the same time,
young Americans are attaining new standards of excellence in athletic contests.
Only last month four men ran the mile in less than four minutes in a single
race. Hardly a month passes that some new record for speed or strength, stamina
or competitive skill, is not shattered. Never in history has the United States
been represented by a more gifted group of athletes in national and
international competition. Yet we must not allow our pride in these few men to
obscure the fact that over the past decades the level of physical fitness of
much of our citizenry has been far below any reasonable national standard.
A year and a half
ago in this magazine I reviewed the results of the Kraus-Weber survey, which
showed that American youths lagged far behind young Europeans in basic levels
of physical fitness (SI, Dec. 26, 1960). Almost 58% of Americans were unable to
pass these tests, while only 8.7% of Europeans failed. Since that time the
President's Council on Youth Fitness has conducted a survey which indicates
that more than 10 million of our 40 million schoolchildren are unable to pass a
test which measures only a minimum level of physical fitness, while almost 20
million would be unable to meet the standards set by a more comprehensive test
of physical strength and skills.
indicate the vast dimensions of a national problem which should be of deep
concern to all of us. It is paradoxical that the very economic progress, the
technological advance and scientific breakthroughs which have, in part, been
the result of our national vigor have also contributed to the draining of that
vigor. Technology and automation have eliminated many of those physical
exertions which were once a normal part of the working day. New forms of
transportation have made it unnecessary to walk to school or to the office or
the corner store. New forms of entertainment have consumed much of the time
which was once used for sports and games.
No one can deny
the enormous benefits which these developments have brought—the reduction of
drudgery and tedious tasks, the opportunity for greater leisure, the increased
access to intellectual stimulation and quality entertainment. But at the same
lime we must not allow these advances to become the instruments of the decline
of our national vitality and health. We cannot permit the loss of that physical
vigor which has helped to nourish our growth and which is essential if we are
to carry forward the complex and demanding tasks which are vital to our
strength and progress.
It was in
response to this problem that President Eisenhower urged immediate attention to
our deteriorating level of physical fitness; and that this Administration
established a nationwide program of cooperation with state, city and town
officials to raise our fitness level.
reorganized the President's Council on Youth Fitness and placed that council
under Special Presidential Consultant Charles B. (Bud) Wilkinson, football
coach of the University of Oklahoma. Under Mr. Wilkinson's extraordinarily able
leadership the council developed—in cooperation with 19 leading school and
medical organizations—the basic concepts for a program of physical fitness now
in use by more than half the country's public schools.
In addition, the
council helped to initiate special pilot fitness projects, involving more than
200,000 students in five states. The results were a dramatic proof of the value
of carefully designed school physical fitness programs. After only six weeks
25% of the students who had failed the basic fitness test passed. A similar
gain was measured each succeeding six weeks until, by the end of the school
year, an average of 80% of those who had failed were able to pass. There could
be no more effective proof of the fact that efforts by local school authorities
can vastly improve the physical fitness level of America's youth.
council has designed a nationwide campaign to alert Americans to physical
fitness needs and provide them with the information needed to conduct fitness
programs. More than 340,000 copies of the school physical fitness program have
been distributed; and during the past school year the number of schools
offering such a program rose by 13%. The Advertising Council, private film
makers and professional athletic organizations have joined campaigns to
increase public attention to physical fitness needs, and a conference of
governors' representatives, with 44 states represented, was held last April to
enlist the help of state governments in this nationwide effort.