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The Fitness of Young People – Time to Re-examine the Kennedy Spirit?

December 2, 2010

‘A Kennedy march is a long-distance march of 50 miles or 80 kilometers (note that 50 miles is actually approximately 80.45 kilometers), named after former American president John F. Kennedy’s following words uttered in 1963: “I think most American people are so weak, they can’t even walk fifty miles within twenty hours”. Kennedy marches have since been organised to prove John F. Kennedy wrong in this pessimistic view.’ (source: http://www.worldlingo.com/ma/enwiki/en/Kennedy_march)

There has been a recent flurry of media coverage of the failings of physical education in our schools.  It is a good time to look back into earlier times.  In the postwar United States, the health and fitness of young people became a prominent political concern.  Changes in diet, work, and leisure were seen as threats to vigour, strength and fitness. 

The former warrior President Eisenhower knew that there had been concern about the physical condition of conscripts in both World War II and the Korean War.  During his first term, attention to the problem spiked when a report by Kraus and Hirschland demonstrated that US children lagged behing those from other nations in terms of fitness.  Eisenhower inaugurated the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in 1956.  The Council never gained traction during his presidency, its focus remained contested, and fitness itself lacked definition.  Though he established the Council, Eisenhower seldom spoke about fitness.  In contrast, John F. Kennedy’s brought a totally different approach to the problem of fitness and the role of the Council.

Kennedy used the fitness issue to capitalise upon his relative youth, which was in other areas a cause for jibes about inexperience.  It suited his political messages concerning preparedness, which resonated with contemporary anxiety about weakness in the Cold War era.  Apocryphally, it was said that the Soviets did not take coffee breaks, they took exercise breaks instead!  Kennedy made it clear that physical fitness was a concern of government, and he made frequent reference to the subject in his speeches, and he gave the Council new authority.  One of Kennedy’s interventions led to the fifty-mile march gaining national prominence.

In an earlier time, Theodore Roosevelt had challenged U.S. Marine officers to cover a 50 mile mach in twenty hours.  Kennedy brought Roosevelt’s executive order to the attention of General David M. Shoup, then commandant of the Marines.  Shoup was told to present the old order as his own find, and to propose that contemporary Marines should be tasked to complete the challenge.  Shoup agreed, and Kennedy indicated that assuming Marines could match the fitness of their forebears, he would then turn the spotlight towards White House staff.  White House press secretary Pierre Salinger understood well that “look[ing] into the matter personally”, as the President suggested, would mean him walking fifty miles himself.  The portly Salinger never accepted the challenge, humorously pointing to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s own fifty miler as evidence that the administration was fit for office.   President’s Kennedy’s brother had made the distance on impulse in 1963, marching out of his office wearing leather Oxford shoes, striding through Washington slush and snow (and would it not bring joy to our hearts this December to hear of our politicians tramping home to their constituencies, on a whim?)

The fifty mile march rose in public esteem, though the President’s Council issued a guarded press release advocating a gentle program of walking for exercise. Many communities organised their own marches, and thousands took part.  It was made clear that the administration was not sponsoring fifty mile hikes per se.  The freshly-coined ‘Kennedy march’ achieved fad status in the UK, and the extant Keswick to Barrow 40-mile walking challenge dates from that period.  It arose from a friendly discussion between US and British shipyard workers at Barrow. 

So, aside from being an interesting story from the history of 20th century physical culture, what is there in this tale that is relevant today?  It seems likely that the average American would still be seriously challenged by a fifty mile hike.  The history of government involvement in promoting the physical health of young people is an inglorious one.  Here in the UK, despite the recent euphoria of the 2012 Olympics, the situation is not reassuring. 

My verdict: it is a good time to remember the old environmentalists’ credo of ‘think global, act local’.  In this context that means look after your own fitness, do all you can to help others, especially your children.  Make no expectation of what education or government will do.  Kennedy was right – be prepared.

Sources:

http://www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/JFK+in+History/The+Federal+Government+Takes+on+Physical+Fitness+Page+2.htm

http://www.worldlingo.com/ma/enwiki/en/Kennedy_march

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2010 09:27

    Thanks for this Magnus. See you soon

  2. December 26, 2010 06:51

    In http://bakariinstitute.org site, will be informed about some factors that affect one’s physical fitness among other things, age. According to research, children physical Fitness increases until it reaches a maximum at age 25-30 years, then going to a decline in functional capacity of the entire body of approximately of 0.8 – 1% per year, but for children who are diligent in exercising decline This can be reduced to half.

  3. Shena Huffine permalink
    October 4, 2012 08:03

    Physical fitness is of course very necessary because we want to live longer and we want to avoid some lifestyle disease like diabetes. `””:;

    Till next time
    http://www.prettygoddess.com

  4. May 2, 2013 11:57

    Dear all,

    On May 11th I will be joining some colleagues in a team to walk the 40 miles from Keswick to Barrow. This challenge originated as a Kennedy March, as explained above. We are raising money for the charity CRY UK – Cardiac Risk in the Young (http://www.c-r-y.org.uk/). Please consider sponsoring me for a couple of quid using the link below:

    http://www.keswick2barrow.co.uk/sponsor/welcome.asp?ID=7693
    The online system allows you to identify yourself as a tax payer, as a result of which the government adds a bit to what you donate.

    All the best,

    Magnus

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