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JFK Fitness Program

President JFK's Physical Fitness Challenge

"For physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity. The relationship between the soundness of the body and the activities of the mind is subtle and complex. Much is not yet understood. But we do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong. that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound bodies."  President John F. Kennedy, Sports Illustrated, December 26, 1960

Physcial Fitness Testing in US Schools - The Beginning

The roots of testing the physical fitness levels of school-age youth in the US can be traced back to the Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. In 1953, researchers Dr. Hans Kraus and Bonnie Prudden conducted a significant study evaluating the fitness level of U.S. students.

Their research involved administering the "Kraus-Weber Test", a pass-fail fitness assessment comprising six basic exercises such as sit-ups and leg lifts, to students in the U.S., Switzerland, Italy, and Austria.

Eisenhower's President's Executive Order 10673, issued on July 16, 1956, officially launched the Council on Youth Fitness.

Surprisingly, nearly 60 percent of U.S. students failed at least one of the test exercises. This discovery troubled Eisenhower, as it suggested that American youth might be unfit for military service, adding a hint of patriotic concern to the entire initiative.

In response to these findings, President Eisenhower took action and established the President's Council on Youth Fitness in 1956. It was a hard go for most students initially however, with around two-thirds of them failing.

It was J.F.K's election marked a turning point as the President prioritized addressing the nation's health challenges.

Following his victory in 1961, President Kennedy established the President's Council on Youth Fitness, and chose a new director, Charles "Bud" Wilkinson, a highly successful University of Oklahoma football coach. True to Kennedy's style, the new executive for the council was named a special consultant to the president. 

The President's Council unquestionably became President Kennedy's council. Bud Wilkinson also authored the book, which saw distribution of nearly a quarter of a million copies to American schools.

Named the 'US Physical Fitness Program,' its primary objective was to bolster the strength and well-being of the nation.

Presidential Fitness Program Manual image credit: Google

Alongside the dissemination of this program, nearly a quarter of a million schoolchildren engaged in pilot projects across six states to assess the effectiveness of Kennedy's endorsed training regimen, forming a core group dedicated to the program's success.

The outcome was remarkable, with a notable increase in the number of children successfully passing the President's fitness test compared to previous attempts.

Evidently, the program had a positive impact on improving the nation's physical fitness. Over 4000 schools immediately signed on board - the most notable of which being La Sierra in Carmichael, California. 

Achieving a score above the 85th percentile would make you eligible for the prestigious Presidential Physical Fitness Award.

"I hope that we will not find a day in the United States when all of us are spectators except for a few who are out on the field, I hope all Americans will be on the field."  President John F. Kennedy

The La Sierra High School Fitness Program

By 1960 few Physical Education (PE) programs could rival the impressive success of the one at La Sierra High School. Its remarkable achievements caught the attention of none other than President John F. Kennedy, who was so inspired by their results that he issued his renowned call for a "Great National Effort" to improve the physical fitness of Americans. 

The enthusiasm surrounding La Sierra's PE curriculum was infectious, leading to its widespread adoption. Several years ago, filmmaker Doug Orchard set out to make the following film about it all.

What Did The Test Consist Of?

Designed by Coach Stan LeProtti in 1957, the test involved the whole gambit of calisthenics: timed Sit-ups, Push-ups, Pull-ups, Prone Back Bends, finger extension Push-ups, grip swings, bar hangs, peg board climbing, suspended Sit-ups. The sessions were daily and fairly brief however.

If you scored above the 85th percentile, compared to the performance of other students, you were eligible for the Presidential Physical Fitness Award.

This article (pdf link) goes into detail on the various exercises, and this one details the program used in depth at La Sierra High School