May is Fitness Month in Government Documents

As a general during World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower devoted himself to keeping the United States safe from its many overseas enemies, but as President, he focused on keeping the country one step ahead of just one: the Communists. His years in office were so marked by the Cold War that many forget it was he who ordered Federal troops into Little Rock in 1957 to enforce desegregation, opens a new window of schools. Eisenhower could sometimes be a reluctant politician and was famously uneasy with what he called the "military-industrial complex"., opens a new window Though he was firm in his commitment to civil rights for African-Americans, opens a new window, he also viewed political issues such as segregation as weaknesses - chinks in the armor of American democracy that could be exploited by the Communists.

youth-freedom-l, opens a new window / Public Domain
A poster for the 1960 White House Conference on Children and Youth.

So when Eisenhower learned of studies showing the poor physical fitness of American youth, he saw this issue as one that impacted Cold War readiness, requiring national policy leadership. He created the President's Council on Youth Fitness in 1956 with cabinet-level status. This entity promoted "total fitness" that included both boys and girls. Eisenhower was a passionate golfer who saw golf as an equalizer for men, women and children to stay fit, as well as a means to international cooperation. But politically he kept the President's Council pretty low-key to avoid the appearance of government overreach, or even a whiff of communist slavery or Nazi-like compulsory physical training.

Poster from the President's Council on Physical Fitness, opens a new window
Poster from the Kennedy-era President's Council on Physical Fitness

Eisenhower convened the President's Conference on Fitness of American Youth on June 18 and 19, 1956, with an emphasis on play-oriented, sports-based programs. The President's Council declared the week of May 3, 1959, National Youth Fitness Week, opens a new window. Subsequent administrations, opens a new window kept and expanded the President's Council to include other age groups, sometimes changing the name or the focus of the program. By 1983, when the President's Council under Reagan established May as National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, opens a new window, there was no hint of its purpose being national war readiness, but only advocated fitness as being "essential to good health and effective performance of our daily responsibilities". The current Council under the Biden Administration, opens a new window reaches out to all Americans, regardless of background or ability, and also incorporates mental health as it pertains to physical fitness and nutrition.

Today there is a great deal of government-sponsored research and general information on fitness sponsored by several different agencies especially the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), both part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). 

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