There is aproblem in the United States today, one which goes far deeper and has moreserious implications for the future of the nation than many of those whichhaunt the headlines daily. It is the problem of the physical fitness of U.S.youngsters, and it was highlighted recently in its most dramatic form at aWhite House luncheon. The luncheon was the idea of John B. Kelly Sr., a wealthyPhiladelphia contractor and onetime national sculling champion. A few monthsback, Kelly had been shown a report which originally appeared in The New YorkState Journal of Medicine on the physical fitness of youngsters, and thefindings looked so horrifying that he passed them on to Senator James Duff ofPennsylvania who, in turn, took the matter up with Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Present at theluncheon were Kelly, Duff and 30 sports celebrities, numbering among them suchstars as Tony Trabert, Jack Fleck and Willie Mays. But this was one day thestars sat back. Along with the President, they listened in silence to a reportby the two researchers whose findings had prompted the luncheon. The tworesearchers were Hans Kraus, M.D., Associate Professor of Physical Medicine andRehabilitation at New York University, and Miss Ruth (Bonnie) Prudden, Directorof the Institute for Physical Fitness at White Plains, N.Y. When they finishedtheir report, the President called the problem a serious one. It was, he said,even more alarming than he had imagined. The President's guests could not helpbut agree.
In essence, whatDr. Kraus and Miss Prudden had told the gathering was this:
•that 57.9 % ofU.S. youngsters tested for physical fitness failed one or more of six tests formuscular strength and flexibility while only 8.7 % of European youngstersfailed.
August 14, 1955
•that 44.3 % ofthe U.S. youngsters failed the one flexibility test included in the above sixtests while only 7.8% of the European youngsters failed.
•that 35.7% ofthe U.S. youngsters failed one or more of the five strength tests included inthe above six tests while only 1.1% of the European youngsters failed. InAustria and Switzerland, the rate of failure was only 0.5%.
In this articleSI presents the problem of the physical fitness, or rather unfitness, of U.S.youngsters in its full scope as the result of exhaustive interviews with theKraus-Prudden research team and other authorities on the subject throughout thecountry.
The six tests onwhich the above figures are based are known collectively as the Kraus-WeberTests for Muscular Fitness (see drawings below). They are the product of 15years of research by Dr. Kraus and Dr. Sonja Weber in the Posture Clinic ofManhattan's Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. Since their development, theKraus-Weber Tests have been administered to 4,264 youngsters in the U.S. and2,870 children in Austria, Italy and Switzerland. (More than 40,000 U.S.youngsters have actually taken the tests, and while the results have not beenpublished the rate of failure remains substantially the same.)
The U.S. andEuropean youngsters tested were all between the ages of 6 and 16 and lived incomparable urban and suburban communities. "The Kraus-Weber Tests," Dr.Kraus explains, "are designed to determine only the minimum levels ofmuscular fitness, not the optimum levels. The tests determine whether or notthe individual has sufficient strength and flexibility in the parts of his bodyupon which demands are made in normal daily living." For example, thesit-up test in which the knees are bent (see below) tests abdominal muscles. Ifa person fails, it means that his abdominal muscles cannot lift the weight ofhis upper body, and such a condition indicates a lack of sufficientexercise.
Surprisinglyenough, the Kraus-Weber Test results show no great difference betweenurban-suburban and rural rates of failure in the U.S. And the same is true ofchildren from different economic backgrounds; rich and poor fail at the samerate.
The cause: Anumber of factors ranging from the playpen to the school bus to television—inshort, America's plush standard of living.
Miss Prudden,who as the former Mrs. Richard Hirsch-land herself mothered two children, putit this way: "Many youngsters today have no bodies. To get a body, you'vegot to start way back when the child is still a baby. Keep the babies out ofplaypens and carriages. Let them go out and move about. Let youngsters climbtrees and fences to develop their muscles." Miss Prudden reflected,'American mothers are afraid of their children hurting themselves. This is aBand-aid society. If a child breaks an arm, the arm may be in a plaster castsix weeks. That is not a catastrophe. The catastrophe is that so fewopportunities for adventure remain to children—and the few that do remain areoften curtailed by overanxious parents."
"We'repaying the price of progress," says Dr. Kraus, who states the case insomewhat different terms. "The older generation was tougher because it hadto undergo adequate physical activity in the normal routine of living. We haveno wish to change the standard of living by trying to do away with theautomobile and television. But we must make sure that we make up for this lossof physical activity. In other words, let's take the sting out of thebenefits."
Otherresearchers have pointed out that lack of adequate physical activity can bedetrimental. Britain's J. A. Heady and J. N. Morris found that death fromcoronary heart disease occurs with more than twice the incidence among thephysically less active than it does among the active. Moreover, once coronaryheart disease does strike, mortality is much higher among the less active. Astriking example was the comparison between British bus drivers and conductors.The drivers, sitting all day behind the wheel, were far more susceptible tocoronary heart disease than were their more active colleagues, the conductors,who spent the working day climbing up and down the stairs of the double-deckerbuses.
Otherresearchers, both here and abroad, also have found that the physically inactiveperson has high neuromuscular tension, high absolute and relative weight, highblood pressure, high pulse rate, lower adrenocortical reserve and less vitalbreathing capacity. Diabetes and duodenal ulcers are said to be two ailmentswhich also have a high incidence among the physically inactive.
However, thereis also the problem of emotional instability. It may be that the physicallyinactive person is the one most likely to be plagued by emotional instability.Miss Prudden found that principals, teachers and school psychologists wouldalmost always agree that the children who failed more than one test—includingthe flexibility test—were usually those living under stress and exhibitingemotional difficulties in their classes.
Private andpublic institutions are particularly interested in this point. Physicaleducation authorities at West Point have found in a recent study that 12.9% ofthe cadets who finished in the lowest category on the Academy's physicalaptitude test needed either psychiatric help or received psychiatricdischarges. But no psychiatric difficulties were encountered in the mostphysically fit cadets.
The city of NewOrleans has come up with some interesting figures pertaining to its juveniledelinquency rate. For a waterfront city imbued with a tradition of Gallic joiede vivre, New Orleans has had little trouble with juvenile delinquency, atleast not since the New Orleans Recreation Department came into existence in1947. Mayor Delesseps S. Morrison reports: "Before we inaugurated NORD, ourcity had only 30 playgrounds, in many cases totally inadequate. Today we have131 playgrounds located in every neighborhood in New Orleans. Most of them arefloodlighted. All of them are adequately supervised. Before 1947 our municipalconfinement home showed a daily average population of 300 boys. Today thatfigure has been cut to 100, or one-third of the previous number."
If any blame isto be handed out, the parents should be the first in line. Children show up forschool physically unprepared—54% of the 6-year-olds fail to pass theKraus-Weber Tests. After the parents, the schools must be blamed. That theschools have fallen down on the job is evident when one notes that 52 % of thehigh school graduates tested failed the Kraus-Weber Tests. Private schools,which devote much more time to physical education, have only a 14% failure rateupon graduation.
This doesn'tmean that something can't be done now. It can, and regardless of the facilitiesa given school may lack. For example, in the winter of 1954, the Institute forPhysical Fitness set up its first pilot study plant at the Whitcomb High andJunior High School in Bethel, Vt. The children came from a rural area, but forthe most part they enjoyed many of the modern gadgets and conveniences found incity life. The rate of failure on the Kraus-Weber Tests was 46% for thosestudents in the pilot group. The school had no gym, but Principal Robert Nobleasked what could be done. The answer: exercises once a day for 20 minutes. Sixweeks later the rate of failure at Bethel was only 6%.
The mere mentionof formal exercise is enough to bring a shudder to the average American spine,weak as it is alleged to be at present, but formal exercise must be resorted towhere there is no room or time for freer play. Exercise may not be popular, butit certainly can be made more palatable by teaching it with imagination andbelief.
There are moreexamples. Eleven months ago, the Greenacres School in Scarsdale, a suburb ofNew York City, had a 32% rate of failure among its students (it was,incidentally, the lowest rate of failure found in any public school in thenortheastern U.S.). As part of the pilot study, the physical education teachersat the school added specific exercises to the existing program of tumbling andgymnastics. Within five months the rate of failure had fallen to 24%. In aretest last June 23, it had plunged to only 13%.
Last April, P.S.28 in the city of Yonkers, N.Y. was tested, and the rate of failure was 47%. Inthis pilot study, the homeroom teachers had been instructed in giving exercisesto their classes. A retest was made on June 28, and the rate of failure haddropped by almost half to 28%.
Despite allthis, Dr. Kraus and Miss Prudden have met with opposition. They once askedpermission to test in New York City but were dismissed with a curt "Whatcan we do about it if it is bad?" One high school official in New YorkState was even more explicit in his refusal to allow the Kraus-Weber Tests tobe given. "Do you know," he was asked, "that roughly 25% of theyoungsters in this country can't do one sit-up with the knees bent because theylack sufficient abdominal muscles, the muscles used in childbirth?" Theofficial snorted, "All I can say is that it's a good thing our boys don'thave babies."
Overseas, thereaction has been far different. The ordinarily wary Swiss offered noobjections. "By all means test us," said a Zurich health officer."The problem America has today because of its standard of livingSwitzerland will have 10 or 15 years from now."
But much more isneeded than isolated cases of cooperation. The problem of physical fitnessamong youngsters is a national one, and it deserves a national program. Firstof all the public must realize the seriousness and scope of the problemitself.
Americans mustbe told that 1) a minimum of physical fitness is necessary for a healthy life;2) at present 57.9% of U.S. children do not have that minimum; and 3) somethingmust be done about the situation, which is getting worse yearly.
As for specificpoints in a national program, the following could be accomplished:
Enactment offederal or state laws to make physical education compulsory. New York requiresstate-wide examinations in academic subjects in high schools. There is noreason why physical fitness tests could not be required by law. This may provedifficult inasmuch as it would mean reversing a trend—Oregon, for example, hasjust repealed its physical education laws entirely.
The armed forcestoo can help. In Switzerland each boy is given a physical fitness card uponentering school. When he is called for military service he must present thiscard. If he has not passed certain tests, he is not eligible for certainprivileges, e.g., he is not allowed to select his branch of service.
Youngstersshould devote one school hour each day to "calorie-burning" sports,such as running, jumping, swimming, tumbling and wrestling. Sports which stressskills rather than body building per se, such as baseball, should only bepermitted after the child's body has started to develop. Intramural programsshould be gone over closely, no matter how proud the physical educationdepartment or the PTA. These programs are often not as effective as they seem.Studies by Dr. Josephine L. Rathbone of Columbia University indicate that only20 minutes of each hour assigned to physical education actually areutilized.
But perhaps mostimportant of all, attendance should be made obligatory for every youngster.Athletically the U.S. rates as one of the most undemocratic countries in theworld—a high school can have as many as 1,000 students, but the only ones whoreceive systematic muscular training are those who have the good fortune to wina place on one of the school's athletic squads. It's a matter of common sensethat the children who get the least exercise are the ones who need it most.
The AmateurAthletic Union and similar organizations can supplement sports programs in theschools. The AAU is doing such a job at present with its Junior OlympicProgram, which has attracted more than 500,000 youngsters. But in the long runthe AAU program can't go it alone—it's up to the schools to send forthyoungsters physically prepared to take part.
TheKraus-Prudden team and the Kraus-Weber Tests do have their critics.
One such isRepresentative Frank M. Karsten, Democrat of Missouri. He fired off a letter tothe President immediately after the White House sports luncheon. Wrote Mr.Karsten to Mr. Eisenhower: "According to Dr. Kraus' statement, the physicalfitness of American children is eight times lower than the physical fitness ofEuropean children. Simply on the mathematical surface, this is a ridiculousstatement, and I am very much surprised that you would dignify it. . . ."The congressman then asked the President to explore the matter through "theproper Governmental Agencies" rather than take stock in Dr. Kraus'sfigures.
Perhaps the moststudied criticism of the Kraus-Weber Tests has come from two researchers at theState University of Iowa. Graduate Student Janet At-wood and AssociateProfessor Margaret Fox of the Physical Education Department for Women firsttook a course of instruction for administering the tests at one of theKraus-Prudden test certification clinics. Thus armed, they then gave theKraus-Weber Tests to 575 normal, healthy children in grades one through six.Their findings: the tests "far underestimate" the muscular strength andflexibility of children tested inasmuch as the children must pass all six testswith no credit given for partial success in any of the tests.
Miss Atwood andDr. Fox point out, so says the release from Iowa, "that to say that a childhas failed these tests of muscular fitness as a whole because he cannot passone of them with a score of 100% is as unrealistic as calling a childfeeble-minded because he can't pass a quiz on mathematical skill or vocabularymastery in a series testing his intellectual capacity."
Dr. Kraus andMiss Prudden reply: "A correct comparison would be as follows: a patientsubjected to a medical checkup fails to be healthy in one of the tests, such ashigh blood pressure, albumin in the urine or a low blood count. This patientwould still be considered sick in spite of, for example, having perfect hearingand eyesight."
The Iowaresearchers find particular fault with the flexibility test. Southern Europeanchildren and adults are shorter than Americans; this means that they aresubject to "less intensive spurts of growth and so should be expected toretain more flexibility during the growing period." They say that to expect"maximum flexibility in the child's muscles while his bones are growingrapidly is like trying to stretch the same rubber band with an increasinglylonger stick.... If you make the stick enough longer, the band just won't'give' much."
To this Dr.Kraus and Miss Prudden also have a reply. They say: "To start with, we didnot test southern European children. The children tested were from northernItaly, Austria and Switzerland. Their sizes were completely comparable with ourown. Furthermore, the floor-touch test is not related to size, but rather tostress and emotional tension. When the original measurements were established,Dr. Sonja Weber computed leg length and floor-touch results and found abilityto touch the floor was completely unrelated to size."
Criticsnotwithstanding, an impressive number of physical education authorities backthe Kraus-Weber Tests. Dr. Peter Karpovich, Research Professor of Physiology atSpringfield College, one of the nation's leading physical education schools,says that the Kraus-Weber Tests have fulfilled "a very important functionby calling attention to the fact that our children do not get sufficientexercise." Last year Dr. Donald K. Mathews and two other members ofSpringfield's Tests and Measurements Division gave the Rogers Physical FitnessIndex test to more than 4,000 boys in junior and senior high schools. Theirreport: "At no time was a school found to be average or above [compared toprevious] national norms." The Rogers test, which involves the use ofexpensive equipment not within the reach of most schools, is particularlyvaluable in that it has been in use since the '20s and thus allows examiners tocompare results with standardized norms set then. Physical educationauthorities are generally in agreement that the Kraus-Weber Tests and theRogers test complement each other. No one is more in agreement with this thanthe man who devised the Physical Fitness Index, Dr. Frederick Rand Rogers. SaysDr. Rogers: "Doctors Kraus and Weber have provided in their battery of sixtests far and away the most valid and generally useful measure of physicalfitness for children of elementary school age."
These then werethe facts presented to Dwight D. Eisenhower. After hearing the report on thenation's youngsters at the White House luncheon, President Eisenhower was movedto recall some thoughts of his own. During World War II, when he was afive-star general, the nation was facing the greatest crisis in its history.Men were never more needed to serve America's cause but, the Presidentrecalled, more than 50% of them were unable to serve because they werephysically unfit. Dwight D. Eisenhower did not need to be reminded that aproblem does exist.
PSYCHIATRIC TROUBLES among West Pointers were foundin group with lowest physical aptitude (left) rather than group with highestaptitude (right), 1945-46.
Group with lower physical aptitude(70 CADETS)
Psychiatric Troubles 12.9%
Group with higher physical aptitude(66 CADETS)
Psychiatric Troubles 0%
OTHER TROUBLES, or discharges for all reasons, atWest Point were higher in group with lowest physical aptitude (left) than inhighest aptitude group (right), 1951-55.
Group with lower physical aptitude(256 CADETS)
Other Troubles 29.8%
Group with higher physical aptitude(267 CADETS)
Other Troubles 13.7%
FAILURE TO GRADUATE for any reason from West Pointincluded half in group with lowest physical aptitude (left). Highest group(right) had far less, 1951-55.
Group with lower physical aptitude(256 CADETS)
Failure to Graduate 50.8%
Group with higher physical aptitude(267 CADETS)
Failure to Graduate 23.7%
ABDOMINAL & LOIN MUSCLES: HANDS BEHIND THE NECK. ROLL UP INTO SITTING POSITION
ABDOMINAL MUSCLES: KEEP HANDS BEHIND THE NECK, ROLL UP INTO SITTING POSITION
LOWER BACK: KEEP KNEES STRAIGHT, LIFT FEET 10 INCHES FOR 10 SECONDS
FLEXIBILITY: SEE HOW CLOSE YOU COME TO FLOOR WITH FINGER TIPS
UPPER BACK: RAISE TRUNK AND HOLD STEADY FOR 10 SECONDS
LOIN MUSCLES AND LOWER ABDOMEN: LIFT LEGS UP, HOLD FOR 10 SECONDS