JFK’s Soft America
For physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.
President John F. Kennedy
In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.
President-Elect John F. Kennedy, in December 1960, just prior to his inauguration, penned and published an article in Sports Illustrated touting the importance of “physical soundness” for Americans. The title of the article was The Soft American. (You can see the original article in the JFK presidential archives here.)
It is now January 2017 and 57 years since President Kennedy expressed his worry. As he wrote in The Soft American, he became concerned when “figures were released showing that almost one out of every two young Americans was being rejected by Selective Service as mentally, morally or physically unfit” for service. Startling statistics showed that when given six tests of “muscular strength and flexibility, 57.9% of the American children failed one or more of these tests, while only 8.7% of the European youngsters failed.”
President Kennedy continues, pointedly stating,
“…an increasingly large number of young Americans are neglecting their bodies—whose physical fitness is not what it should be—who are getting soft. And such softness on the part of individual citizens can help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation. For the physical vigor of our citizens is one of America’s most precious resources. If we waste and neglect this resource, if we allow it to dwindle and grow soft then we will destroy much of our ability to meet the great and vital challenges which confront our people. We will be unable to realize our full potential as a nation.”
Seven years ago, two Cornell researchers issued a report to The National Bureau of Economic Research. The report showed that from 1962 through 2008 the age-adjusted prevalence of obesity (defined as a BMI of 30 or greater) in adult males in the U.S. tripled from 10.7% to 32.2%. The percentage of civilian military-age men and women who exceed the Army’s enlistment standards for weight and body fat has risen by 110.91% for men and 202.21% for women. By 2008, 21.2 million young Americans were unfit for military service due to obesity which has now become the #1 cause for disqualification.
What did President Kennedy do in the 1961? Most notably, he established the President’s Council on Youth Fitness developing standards and programs for physical fitness in America’s schools. He also resurrected challenges such as President Teddy Roosevelt’s Executive Order for US Marine officers to finish fifty miles in twenty hours. This of course became the JFK 50-mile ultramarathon which begins in Hagerstown, MD, which I ran back in 2012.
Of all President Kennedy’s initiatives, it was one school in Carmichael, CA that would become the “Navy Blue” standard of all PE programs in America. At La Sierra, “Gold” was good but “Navy Blue” was beastly, cyborg-level performance. Stan LeProtti, physical education director and football coach at La Sierra High School developed and led the program. The program was simple, mostly body weight, “on ground” exercises with “off ground” progression (such as peg boards). And the progressions offered a level for everyone, from “White” through “Navy Blue.”
Coach LeProtti wrote a paper called The Motivation Factor that discussed the physiological but also the psychological and developmental benefits of the program. He discusses his evidence that physical education programs help develop individual leadership, patters of conduct which are socially acceptable, and skills that are necessary for group action. The PE program stressed motivation, team dynamics, time efficiency, and self-expression within ability levels. The program was organized but not militant. It emphasized military style cadence for keeping tempo and building lung capacity but also had unstructured play. I was psyched to see one of my all-time favorites, a slip-and-slide…
You can read through the levels of achievement in The Motivation Factor but there were three, The White Team (Beginner), The Red Team (Intermediate), and The Blue Team (Advanced). To progress from level to level you must complete the “ceiling performance” in all fitness tests of a given battery. As an example, the standards for The White Team is pasted here. You can see that even White had some demanding events such as a rope climb of 18′ using ONLY your hands/arms (no feet) and a Man Lift and Carry for 880 yards (two laps of a track).
In 1958, La Sierra added a Navy Blue level of achievement which at Coach LeProtti’s writing of The Motivation Factor only three (3) students had ever achieved. There are some absolute monster requirements in this test. Take note of tests #9, #12, and #13.
When reviewing the La Sierra program for the first time one year ago, of course I wondered where I fit within the levels of achievement. I have a guess of where I’d be but don’t really know. However, I do want to find out. One of my favorite fitness coaches and athletes is Dan John, and All-American discuss thrower and olympic lifting coach. He’s used and describes his 40 Day Workout Strength Challenge where he made incredible fitness gains with very low weight and a massively low time commitment.
For those looking for something different and basic, using the same methodology, I’m recommending a 40 day La Sierra Strength-Endurance Exercise Routine (SER) and Agility Drill (AD) program. If you’re interested, use the video below to guide your routine (less than :15 minutes for the full routine). Do this routine for 40 straight days. No days off. Have fun, write me directly, and let me know how it goes!
The password is in your Team Room email.
For the research and history geeks. Please find more detail here:
- Los Angeles Chapter, President Kennedy’s Fitness Council. In this original report (scanned in) you can see who was invited for interviews during JFK’s review. In this report, you’ll see interviews with folks such as Jerry West who’s listed as “Co-Captain, 1960 Olympic Basketball” and Louis Zamperini (of the book, Unbroken). Mr. Zamperini’s qualification is listed as “Intercollegiate Mile Champion, Youth Expert.” Given that Mr. Zamperini had been home from WWII for about 16 years by the time of this report so I fear the editor under-represented his background and qualifications!
- The First Special Service Force (the SuperCommandos)
- The Last Fighting General and the Devil’s Brigade
- Dr. Phillips of Harvard Medical School discussing the program’s benefits. He happens to mention Dr. Ratey and Spark, one of my all-time favorite books.