Historical essay
Change We Need? Why the Name of the President’s Fitness Council Matters

Change We Need? Why the Name of the President’s Fitness Council Matters

At the end of February, President Trump renamed the council that supports American physical fitness as the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition (PCSFN). This is not in and of itself a big deal. It is the fifth time the Council has changed names since its 1956 creation, and seemingly one of the least important changes. The new name literally only switches the order of words around, so that sports is now before fitness, rather than after it. Trump’s executive order on the PCSPFN has been all but ignored, in today’s mile-a-minute media environment.

In fact, the main outlets to take note of the change have been right-leaning publications, including the Washington Times and Breitbart. These primarily frame the name change as a way of getting back at Barack Obama for changing the name –- and some of the aims -– of the President’s Council back in 2010. It is worth digging a bit into the history of the council to make more sense of these name changes.

The President’s Council on Youth Fitness, on Physical Fitness, and on Sports

The President’s Council on Sports, Physical Fitness, and Nutrition was originally called the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. President Dwight Eisenhower created the President’s Council in 1956, following a much-publicized fitness test that suggested American children were severely lagging behind their European counterparts. That was unacceptable, given both the high military rejection rates during World War II and the anxieties of the Cold War. Eisenhower’s Council was meant to “coordinate, stimulate, and improve” federal fitness programming.

Soldiers exercising at a hospital in Cannes. (Bain News Service/Library of Congress

When John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency in 1960, he was even more adamant than Eisenhower that American physical fitness must be improved. Perhaps owing to his own physical challenges, he understood a performance of masculine vigor as essential to his Cold Warrior image. As president-elect, he published “The Soft American” in Sports Illustrated, decrying unfitness. He explained that “in a very real and immediate sense, our growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness, is a menace to our security.” Kennedy greatly expanded the visibility of the President’s Council, primarily through advertising campaigns, television programming, and publications. Near the end of his time in office, Kennedy issued an executive order to change the council’s name. Now calling it the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Kennedy hoped to find ways to partner with employers and otherwise encourage adult fitness alongside youth programming, broadening the council’s appeal.

When Lyndon Johnson inherited the President’s Council, along with so much else of Kennedy’s agenda, he sought to continue its initiatives. The Kennedy-Era President’s Council had de-emphasized sports, which too often privileged a few “stars” while discouraging others. Instead, they focused on calisthenics and other sorts of individualized fitness programming. By the mid-1960s, though, the Soviet Union was looking particularly strong as the 1964 Olympics approached. Another proxy war of the period, the Olympic rivalry seemed evidence that Americans needed to take team sports seriously. The Johnson-Era President’s Council would change course, imagining the inclusion of sports as a Cold War necessity. In 1968, Johnson renamed it the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Obama’s President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition

That last name, the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, lasted an impressive 42 years (compared with the 7 years for Eisenhower’s name, and 5 years for Kennedy’s). The Council grew in visibility in these years, as the Presidential Fitness Challenge (introduced in 1966) tested school children across the nation, allowing the top performers to win the blue patch of the Presidential Physical Fitness Award. Increasingly high-profile celebrities led the charge, including Arnold Schwarzenegger. A year into Barack Obama’s presidency, the Council was once again renamed. Like the Johnson administration had done, the Obama administration simply added a word: nutrition.

The President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition continued much of what the organization has always done, with new celebrities (Drew Brees and Dominique Dawes) and a modified physical fitness test. But the word nutrition signaled a deeper commitment to issues of obesity, school lunches, and food deserts alongside the encouragement of physical activity. Michelle Obama’s push for improved nutrition irked conservatives who criticized her proposals as “nanny state” politics. Although the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and portions of the Affordable Care Act were the actual legislative force behind nutrition policy changes, the re-named President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition was lumped in (and demonized) with these more substantive changes.

Trump and The President’s Council on Sports, Physical Fitness, and Nutrition

In late February, timed to coincide with the Olympics, Trump rolled out the executive order that renamed the President’s Council by flipping the words “Physical Fitness” and “Sports.” Accompanying this change was an opinion piece by Ivanka Trump for NBC News, which focused on the importance of every American child having the opportunity to pursue their athletic dreams. She pointed out that team sports are too expensive for many children, and said the Trump Department of Health and Human Services was looking into ways of fixing this. It is unclear what solutions she or the president imagine, or what all the implications will be.

Ivanka Trump poses with members of Team USA on Feb. 25, 2018. (Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters)

At present, they have only recently staffed the council, and there is no one listed on the Advisory Council for Trump’s President’s Council of Sports, Physical Fitness, and Nutrition. Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a former member of the Advisory Council, tweeted as much in response to Ivanka Trump’s purported concern about American physical fitness. While Trump’s executive order formally ended the (already defunct) Let’s Move initiative, the nutrition policy from the Obama era was not housed in the Council. Those battles are being fought separately, and this executive order does not change nutrition labeling or calorie counts.

Most of the conservative commentary has implied the point of the move was just to illustrate the Trump Administration’s different plans for fitness — namely, less interventionist government. While the reality is school lunch changes and nutrition guidelines were not actually coming out of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition, the desire to pick a different organizational name than the one Obama chose is pointed. Even if this is the main goal, there is something notably different about emphasizing sports over emphasizing fitness.

In a 2010 interview about the council, Michelle Obama said that “not every kid is an athlete and they don’t have to be…because you can get the exercise you need from walking your dog vigorously, running with your dog, doing some push-ups at home or just playing.” The emphasis on youth sports comes from a different place. It draws on conservative anxieties about “participation trophies,” and the importance of learning how to compete and win in a capitalist society. The specific shape this campaign will take – assuming the President’s Council on Sports, Physical Fitness, and Nutrition ever hires anyone — is unclear at this point, but two things are clear from its new name: it wants you to know it is not Michelle Obama’s council, and it imagines fitness is a competitive endeavor.

Rachel Louise Moran is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Texas. She is the author of Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique (Penn 2018). She works on politics, gender, and health in 20th century America.