Magazine article The Saturday Evening Post

Flex Time: America's Presidential Libraries Have Always Delivered Painless Lessons in History; but Now They're Offering a Class in Fitness

Magazine article The Saturday Evening Post

Flex Time: America's Presidential Libraries Have Always Delivered Painless Lessons in History; but Now They're Offering a Class in Fitness

Article excerpt

America's presidential libraries have always delivered painless lessons in history; but now they're offering a class in fitness.

Usually, reporters come along looking for news, and most of the time they get it, if their legs hold out," Harry Truman once said, referring to his early-morning fitness walks. His snappy pace--120 steps per minute for two miles--kept his 5'9" frame lean, and left the media panting.

Still, Truman's workouts were mild in comparison with those of Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge. Concerned about the 20 pounds he had gained between his election and inauguration, Hoover appealed to his doctor to design a fitness plan. The result was "Hooverball," a volleyball-style game that involved the president and his cabinet occasionally knocking the wind out of each other by heaving a ten-pound medicine ball up and over a ten-foot-high net on the south lawn of the White House. Coolidge, Hoover's predecessor, preferred wild afternoon rides on a bucking mechanical horse.

Thanks to a joint effort of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and the National Archives and Records Administration, Americans can trace first-family fitness by visiting a traveling exhibit currently making the rounds of the country's presidential libraries. Spin-off programs and events, planned by each host library on the circuit, will underscore the point that all presidents since Teddy Roosevelt have weighed in on the side of fitness, and citizens should do likewise. For example, a commemorative walk in Independence, Missouri, recently re-created Truman's daily constitutional from the family home at 219 North Delaware Street to his presidential library a mile and a half down the road. The pace was the legendary Truman trot, 120 steps per minute, and the walk was led by a Harry look-alike in a double-breasted suit and natty straw hat. The occasion was the opening of the show, aptly called "Flexing the Nation's Muscle: Presidents, Physical Fitness and Sports in the American Century."

"The exhibit also serves as a hook to get people to come here," says Clay Bauske, resident curator at the Truman Library and guest curator of the traveling exhibition. The hope is that visitors may be lured by a crash course in presidential fitness but will stay for a lively lesson in history. (See the related story at right.)

The show tells the "story of the 20th century presidents and their efforts to lead Americans toward a more healthy and fit lifestyle," says Sandra Perlmutter, executive director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. "It has the potential of reaching hundreds of thousands of Americans with lessons about the rich history of the American presidency and the importance of maintaining a healthy and fit citizenry."

It also offers insights into the determination of former presidents to use exercise to overcome debilitating physical conditions. Among the artifacts is a shoe with an attached 12-pound lead weight that Dwight Eisenhower wore as he performed leg lifts at his desk following a heart attack. Ronald Reagan's hand grips and dumbbells recall the president's efforts to regain his strength after an attempt to assassinate him in 1981. Franklin Roosevelt's braces are poignant reminders of the paralysis that motivated him to swim several times a week to strengthen his upper body so he could project a vigorous image to a depressed country.

"My legs work wonderfully in the water and I need nothing artificial to keep myself afloat," he once wrote to a friend during a summer vacation. "I have worn them [the braces] very little; especially as my arms are so strong that I hoist myself about from chair to chair."

Each president's height, weight, and exercise of choice are documented as part of the exhibit. Bill Clinton and George Bush are the tallest chief executives, at 6'2", and several--Jimmy Carter and Jack Kennedy among them--tipped the scales at a lithe 170 pounds. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.