The Fitness Divide

What happened after JFK told America to take a hike


Fifty years ago this month, in the pages of Sports Illustrated, president-elect John F. Kennedy told the country that its "growing softness" and "increasing lack of fitness" were a "menace" to U.S. security. "Our struggles against aggressors throughout our history have been won on the playgrounds and corner lots and fields of America," Kennedy exclaimed. But a 15-year research study showed that Austrian, Swiss, and Italian schoolchildren had outperformed their American counterparts in a series of strength and flexibility tests by a huge margin.

Perhaps envisioning an invasion of wiry Swiss tots against which we would have no defense except a vast stockpile of 20,000 nuclear warheads and 2.5 million tubby soldiers, sailors, and airmen, Kennedy vowed to make push-ups and jumping jacks a federal priority. "This is a national problem, and requires national action," he wrote. "The federal government can make a substantial contribution toward improving the health and vigor of our citizens."

It was the first time the federal government had taken such an avid interest in the abs of the body politic. Under President Kennedy's watch, the Presidential Council on Youth Fitness stepped up its efforts considerably, creating radio, TV, and newspaper ads, even enlisting Superman and Snoopy to help spread its fitness message to America. Half a century later, our gross national flabbiness has only expanded. In August, Lt. General Mark Hertling told The New York Times that "the soldiers we're getting in today's Army are not in as good shape as they used to be.…This is not just an Army issue. This is a national issue."

In the civilian world, on-duty firefighters are more likely to die from heart attacks than fires. The Los Angeles Police Department hired a full-time diet coach in 2008 to arrest the runaway waistlines of its officers. Over the last decade, obesity rates have leveled off compared to the rapid growth they experienced in the 1980s and '90s, but we're still one of the fattest nations on earth. In 2009, more than a third of America's adults qualified as obese according to the most commonly used metric for determining obesity, the Body Mass Index.

Yet at the same time the country displays a national vigor that would have left Kennedy and his cohorts gasping for air. In 2009, a record 467,000 people completed a marathon in the U.S., up 9.9 percent from the previous year. Around the country, 88 marathons reported more than a thousand finishers, also a record. The New York Marathon alone reported 43,660 finishers. That's more than the Boston Marathon attracted cumulatively in the first 82 years of its existence. Completing a 26-mile run has become commonplace, and even longer feats of endurance—a 135-mile race across the Death Valley desert, a quadruple ultra-triathlon, a 1,200-kilometer cycling event—are no longer particularly unusual.

In the days before we all became hopelessly soft couch potatoes, this wasn't the case. A couple years after Kennedy took office, in February 1963, he concocted a stunt to keep his fitness mandate in the public eye. In 1908, Theodore Roosevelt had issued an executive order commanding the U.S. Marines to complete a 50-mile hike over the course of three days. Could the Marines of 1963 duplicate that feat? Working in concert with General David Shoup, Kennedy publicized Roosevelt's old order, with the Marines agreeing to meet the challenge. By the time the story hit newspapers, the time limit had somehow been reduced to 20 hours and many people believed that the president's challenge had been aimed at the American public at large.

"Asking a citizen to walk instead of [drive] in America is like asking a Frenchman to drink milk instead of wine," reacted New York Times columnist James Reston. But the idea of everyday people covering such a distance in a single long day was so outlandish then that it captured the public's imagination. For a few weeks in early 1963, "Kennedy Marches" became a national fad, with Boy Scouts, high school students, and office workers successfully meeting the president's call. Eventually a contingent of Marines did too, with Brigadier General Rathvon McClure Tompkins leading a troop of 34 officers and at least one Life photographer on the hike. Wearing helmets and carrying 25-pound packs, the fastest to finish did so in a total time of 12:47. One smoked a cigar every step of the way.

Then Kennedy was assassinated, the 50-mile hike faded into history, and America's decline into epidemic softness continued apace. Earlier this year, Mission: Readiness, an advocacy organization led by senior retired military personnel, released a report, "Too Fat to Fight," that warns of a gathering storm of tubby teens. "Nine million 17-to-24-year-olds in the United States are too fat to serve in the military," the report reads. "That is 27 percent of all young adults. Obesity rates among children and young adults have increased so dramatically that they threaten not only the overall health of America but also the future strength of the military."

Never mind that an even higher number of draftees—34.3 percent—were rejected for physical reasons during the Korean War. Anticipating impending disaster, the Mission: Readiness generals want to launch a pre-emptive strike on school vending machines and other weapons of ass production. "The group is calling on Congress to take immediate steps to remove junk food and any remaining high-calorie beverages from our schools," their report reads.

The generals have gone a little soft themselves, or at least have abandoned old American ideals about self-reliance, responsibility, and individual liberty. Instead they invoke the common refrain that America's extra pounds are the result of systemic external forces that are all but impossible to escape, forces that can only be checked through government intervention. We're soft because technology, processed food, and our consumerist way of life have made us soft, and only Congress can liberate us from obesity.

Such assessments ignore the other half of what you might call the fitness divide. In the wake of President Kennedy's call for more national vigor, a culture of hardcore fitness began to take root alongside the culture of fatness. And more than any federal calisthenics guides the President's Council on Youth Fitness produced, it was technology, prosperity, and our consumerist way of life that made this new culture possible. If fast food chains gave us 1,000-calorie milkshakes, they also freed up time to go jogging. If VCRs gave us the couch potato, they also gave us aerobics videos. If technology made it less necessary to expend energy in pursuit of daily subsistence, it also gave us Nike air soles, polypropylene running shorts, heart-rate monitors, and organic granola. Most importantly, it gave non-elite athletes an opportunity to run 70 miles a week. Between 1965 and 2003, according to a study in the July 2007 issue of Harvard's Quarterly Journal of Economics, leisure time increased by six to eight hours per week for men and four to eight hours per week for women.

On November 20, the 48th annual JFK 50 Mile Race takes place in Washington County, Maryland. Created in 1963, in the midst of the 50-mile hike fad, it attracted 11 participants that first year. Only four finished, all in a time of 13:10. Over the years, it evolved from a hike into a race, and now it's one of the country's most popular ultra-marathon events. Most years, the winner finishes in under six hours, or less than half the time it took 1963's fastest Marine to cover that distance. When those wiry Swiss tots finally decide to invade, at least a small contingent of Americans, more vigorous than President Kennedy ever imagined, will be ready to give them a run for their money. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.