Remarks on the Youth Fitness Program

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Remarks on the Youth Fitness Program


By: John F. Kennedy

Date: July 19, 1961

Source: JFK link. "Remarks on the Youth Fitness Program, July 19, 1961." 〈〉 (accessed November 29, 2005).

About the Author: John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917–1963), also known as JFK, was the thirty-fifth President of the United States. Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, and lived there for several years before moving with his family to the New York City suburbs. He attended private, non-parochial elementary schools, and then spent four years at Choate in New Milford, Connecticut. After his high school graduation (from Choate) in 1935, JFK spent the summer studying at the London School of Economics before entering Princeton University. He suffered an attack of jaundice over Christmas break, and withdrew from classes. He transferred to Harvard University in the fall of 1936, and graduated cum laude in 1940. In 1939, he spent some time in the United Kingdom, where his father was serving as U.S. Ambassador to Britain. He stayed in American embassies, and spent much of his time talking with diplomats, political leaders, and members of the press. He used his experience as the basis of his senior thesis, later published under the title of "Why England Slept," concerning the Munich Pact of 1936. During World War II, Kennedy served as a lieutenant (junior grade), and was in command of a torpedo (PT) boat in the Solomon Islands. His boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, and sunk. He was able to gather the survivors of the crash and get them safely to a nearby island. He personally towed a wounded comrade for three miles through dangerous waters. He received the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his bravery, and because his back was badly injured (the site of an old injury). After his discharge from the Navy in 1945, he spent several months as a reporter for the Hearst newspapers; he covered the conference in San Francisco that was to establish the United Nations. After a short time, he decided to devote his career to politics, and he returned to Boston. In January of 1960, he announced his candidacy for president; he won the Democratic nomination. His campaign was noteworthy for a series of televised debates against his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard M. Nixon. He won the election by a rather narrow margin, and became the youngest elected president at age forty-three.


President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the President's Council on Youth Fitness on July 16, 1956, after being presented with the results of a study in which American children obtained significantly lower scores on a battery of physical fitness tests than did European children. His goal was to encourage the children of America to lead physically fit, healthy, and active lives. The title was changed to The President's Council on Physical Fitness in 1960, by President John F. Kennedy, who sought the name to be emblematic of a commitment to enhance the health and fitness of all Americans, no matter what their ages. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson created the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, which was later renamed the President's Challenge Youth Fitness Awards Program. The Presidential Sports Award program began in 1972. In 1968, President Lyndon Baines Johnson appended the and Sports to the title in recognition of the great importance of sports throughout the human lifespan. May was declared National Physical Fitness and Sports Month by Congress in 1983. The Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health was published in 1996, and the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports' report on Physical Activity and Sport in the Lives of Girls was made public in 1997.

Kennedy considered that physical fitness would greatly enhance the health and well being of the American people. In addition to changing the organization's name, he appointed Bud Wilkinson as head of the council. It was JFK's contention that, "we do not want in the United States a nation of spectators. We want a nation of participants in the vigorous life." Kennedy was candid in his expressions that Americans were less fit than their European neighbors, and needed to make some significant changes. Publishing an article in Sports Illustrated about his concerns, entitled "The Soft American," it was his contention that, "We are under-exercised as a nation; we look instead of play; we ride instead of walk." JFK prodded the federal government to increase its level of involvement in national fitness promotion, and encouraged it to pilot youth fitness programs.


Remarks on the Youth Fitness Program, July 19, 1961

The strength of our democracy and our country is really no greater in the final analysis than the well-being of our citizens. The vigor of our country, its physical vigor and energy, is going to be no more advanced, no more substantial, than the vitality and will of our countrymen.

I think in recent years we have seen many evidences in the most advanced tests, comparative tests, that have been made that many of the boys and girls who live in other countries have moved ahead of younger people in this country in their ability to endure long physical hardship, in their physical fitness and in their strength.

This country is going to move through difficult days, difficult years. The responsibilities upon us are heavy, as the leader of the free world. We carry worldwide commitments. People look to us with hope, and if we fail they look to those who are our adversaries.

I think during this period we should make every effort to see that the intellectual talents of every boy and girl are developed to the maximum. And that also their physical fitness, their willingness to participate in physical exercise, their willingness to participate in physical contests, in athletic contests—all these, I think, will do a good deal to strengthen this country, and also to contribute to a greater enjoyment of life in the years to come.

This is a responsibility which is upon all of us—all of us who are parents—to make sure that we stress this phase of human life and human existence. It is also the responsibility of our schools—and our schools have been doing a great deal to meet this responsibility—of our school administrators and school committees, and communities, and states. And also, of course, it is a matter of vital interest to our national Government.

To members of school boards, school administrators, teachers, the pupils themselves, and their parents, I am directing this urgent call to strengthen all programs which contribute to the physical fitness of our youth.

I strongly urge each school in the United States to adopt the three specific recommendations of our National Council on Youth Fitness.

First, to identify the physically underdeveloped pupil and work with him to improve his physical capacity. And if he will work and the school will work together, a great deal can be done.

Two: Provide a minimum of fifteen minutes of vigorous activity every day for all of our school students, boys and girls alike.

Three: Use valid fitness tests to determine pupil physical abilities and to evaluate their progress.

The adoption of these recommendations by our schools will insure the beginning of a sound basic program of physical development, exercise, and achievement.

I want to urge that this be a matter of great priority. "A sound mind and a sound body" is one of the oldest slogans of the Western World. I am hopeful that we will place a proper weight on intellectual achievement, but in my judgment, for the long-range happiness and well-being of all of you, for the strengthening of our country, for a more active and vigorous life, all of you as individuals and as groups will participate in strengthening the physical well-being of young American boys and girls.

This is a matter of importance, and I am hopeful that we can move ahead in the coming months.

Thank you very much.


The President's Council on Physical Fitness was created with the singular goal of promoting physical activity, sports, and fitness as means of strongly encouraging Americans to adopt and lead fit, active, healthy lifestyles. The council has always focused much of its attention on the youth of America, as healthy lifestyles choices that become habitual in childhood tend to persist throughout the lifespan.

Kenneth H. Cooper, a preventive medicine physician who is credited with being the father of aerobics, was a prominent figure in the public efforts to encourage all people to become fit and healthy through regular exercise in the 1960s. While in the military, Cooper was director of the Aerospace Medical Laboratory in San Antonio, Texas, where he worked with NASA (National Aeronautics Space Administration) to create fitness and conditioning programs for United States astronauts. He was the developer of the twelve minute fitness test and the Aerobics Point System, still in use by the Navy, the Army, the Secret Service, many public and private organizations, and more than 2,500 public schools and universities across America.

Kenneth Cooper was among the first American public figures to advocate wellness and disease prevention, rather than to simply focus on treatment of existing diseases. It was his contention that "It is easier to maintain good health through proper exercise, diet, and emotional balance than it is to regain it once it is lost." He was a strong proponent of gathering and utilizing sound epidemiological data as a means of illustrating the benefits of maintaining a regular exercise program and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. He gathered data from several thousand individuals to use as the basis for his widely popular 1968 book, Aerobics. The message inherent in the book is that the way to live a long and healthy life, and to prevent the development of chronic and degenerative diseases, is to participate in an ongoing program of aerobic and cardiovascular exercise, and to maintain a high level of fitness across the entire lifespan. His work continues to be influential in the field of preventive medicine and fitness.

The four-plus decades since President Kennedy made his speech have seen enormous changes in the American way of life. Technological advances have been exponential, but they have been accompanied by a decline in fitness levels and a striking increase in obesity statistics as a nation. The statistics on childhood obesity are particularly alarming: the results from the 1999–2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES IV) estimate that 16 percent of American children between the ages of six and nineteen are overweight. This represents a 45 percent increase from the overweight estimates when the survey was done between 1988–1994, when overweight was estimated at 11 percent. Far more striking, however, is the difference between the 1963–1970 and 1999–2002 data: roughly 4.5 percent (4 percent for ages six to eleven and 5 percent for ages twelve to nineteen) of children between ages six and nineteen were considered overweight in the 1960s, and 16 percent (percentage is identical for both age groups) were overweight in 1999–2002. That represents an increase in prevalence of obesity of 355 percent over a span of forty years. When the statistics were closely examined by year, it was determined that the degree of overweight remained comparatively stable from the early 1960s through 1980. However, between 1986 and 1994, the prevalence of overweight children nearly doubled, and then increased by 45 percent between studies in 1988–1994 and 1999–2002.

As children become progressively more overweight, their risk factors for heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol increase. Type II diabetes, once considered an adult disease, has sharply increased among children and adolescents, and is often associated with obesity. Overweight adolescents have a significantly increased risk of becoming overweight or obese adults, increasing their lifelong risk for all of the previously mentioned diseases as well as some forms of cancer.

Many schools have made budget cuts in physical fitness programs since the 1960s, so many children are less active at school than they were in the past. Many schools have also eliminated daily recess periods in favor of increasing instructional time, in an effort to accommodate curriculum demands. Children (and adults) have become more sedentary as the technology for self-entertainment has advanced: they spend progressively more time indoors watching television, playing electronic video games, and using computers (statistical estimates of at least two hours per day spent engaged by some form of electronic activity), and equivalently less time out of doors or being engaged in active or imaginative play.

In order to begin to reverse the current overweight and obesity trends, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that Americans opt for healthy, freshly prepared foods rather than highly processed or fast foods, reduce the amount of time spent in sedentary activities, and use more of their leisure time for active sports and fitness-related activities.



Kennedy, John F. "The Soft American." Sports Illustrated 13, no. 26 (December 26, 1960): 15-17.

Web sites

National Center for Health Statistics. "Prevalence of Overweight Among Childen and Adolescents: United States, 1999–2002." 〈〉 (accessed November 29, 2005).

The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. "About PCPFS." 〈〉 (accessed November 29, 2005).

The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. "Getting America Moving." 〈〉 (accessed November 29, 2005).