Physical Fitness

Physical fitness is a popular topic today. and its popularity has been a major factor in motivating college students to pursue careers in physical education, physiology of exercise, health education, nutrition, physical therapy, and medicine. In 1W. the Public Health Service listed “physical fitness and exercise- as one of fifteen areas of concern related to improving the country’s overall health (N).


While this might appear to be an unprecedented event. similar interests and concerns about physical fit-ness existed in this country over one hundred years ago. Between the Civil War and the First World War (WW 1), physical education was primarily concerned with the development and maintenance of fitness, and many of the leaders in physical education were trained in medicine For example, Dr. Dudley Sargent, hired by Harvard University in 1879, set up a physical training program with individual exercise prescriptions to improve a person’s structure and function to achieve “that prime physical condition called fitness—fitness for work, fitness for play, fit-ness for anything a man may be called upon to do.. Sargent was clearly ahead of his time in promot-ing health-related fitness. Later, war became a primary force driving this country’s interest in physical fitness. Concerns about health and fitness were raised during int WW I and WW H when large numbers of draftees failed the induction exams due to mental and physical  defects . These concerns influenced the )gy type of physical education programs in the schools of during these years, making them resemble premilitary training programs . The present interest in physical activity and health ?rn was stimulated in the early 1950s by two major find-, A ings: (1) autopsies of young soldiers killed during the to Korean War showed that significant coronary artery :ed disease had already developed, and (2) Hans Kraus his showed that American children performed poorly on a )ne minimal muscular fitness test compared to European the children . Due to the latter finding, Presi-dent Eisenhower initiated a conference in 1955 that resulted in the formation of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. The American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (AAHPER) sup-ported these activities and in 1957 developed the AAHPER Youth Fitness Test with national norms to be used in physical education programs throughout the country.


Before he was inaugurated, President Kennedy expressed his concerns about the nation’s at fitness in an article published in Sports Illustrated, called “The Soft American” : 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 dwin-dle and grow soft, then we will destroy much of our ability to meet the great and vital challenges its which confront our people. We will be unable to iing realize our full potential as a nation. du-ion, During Kennedy’s term the council’s name was )80, changed to the “President’s Council on Physical and Fitness” to highlight the concern for fitness. The ited name was changed again in the Nixon administra-hile tion to the current “President’s Council on Physical ent, Fitness and Sports,” which supports fitness not only fit- in schools but in business, industry, and for the gen-ears eral public . Items in the War Youth Fitness Test were changed over the years, and ned in 1980 the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (AAHPERD) pub-lished a separate Health-Related Physical Fitness Test Manual (1 ) to distinguish between “performance testing” (e.g., 50-yard dash) and “fitness testing” (e.g., skinfold thickness). This health-related test battery is consistent with the direction of lifetime fitness programs, being concerned with obesity, car-diorespiratory fitness, and low-back function. For those readers interested in the history of fitness testing in schools, we recommend Park’s monograph in the Suggested Readings.  Paralleling this interest in the physical fitness of youth was the rising concern about the death rate from coronary heart disease in the middle-aged American male population. Epidemiological studies of the healty status of the population underscored the fact that degenerative diseases related to poor healty habits (e.g. high-fat diet, smoking, inactivity) were responsibele for more deaths than the classic infectious and contagious diseases. In 1966, a major symposium highlighted the need for more research in the area of physical activity and healty (30). 

In the 1970s, there was an increase in the use of exercise tests to diagnose heart disease and to aid in the prescription of exercise proframs to improve cardiovascular healty. Large corporations develeoped “executive” fitness programs to improve the healty status of that high-risk group. While most Americans are now familiar with such programs, and some students of exercise physiology seek careers in “Corporate Fitness,” such programs are not new.




In Summary

  • Fitness has been an issue in this country from the latter part of the nineteenth century until the present. War or the threat of war exerted a strong influence on fitness programs in the public schools.
  • Recent interest in fitness is related to the growing concern over the high death rates from disease processes that are attributable to preventable factors, such as poor diet, lack of exercise, and smoking. The government and professional organizations have responded to this need by educating the public about these problems.
  • Schools use health-related fitness tests such as the skinfold estimation of body fatness, rather than the more traditional performance tests, to evaluate a child’s physical fitness.

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