As I sat back in the recliner thinking once more about how to maintain an exercise regimen in the year to come, I was interested in how presidents have kept fit throughout history.  Most of them did nicely, which is not surprising considering they had to stay active to deal with demands of the office.

Early leaders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson developed the skill and coordination of excellent horsemen.   A few years later, John Quincy Adams swam (naked) in the Potomac River every morning, long before it was known that this was the ultimate cardiovascular exercise.

Abraham Lincoln, who grew up guiding a horse plow and splitting wood rails for fences, once used his strong arms to throw a heckler out of a political rally.

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Theodore Roosevelt overcame his childhood frailty in the arid west as a hand on his own ranch.  He was always active in boxing, and led other dignitaries on point-to-point walks in Rock Creek Park.  One time he asked a French ambassador, when they took off their clothes to cross the river, why he did not remove his gloves.  “Why Mr. President,” he exclaimed, “We might meet ladies!”

William Howard Taft may not be remembered as athletic because of his weight and the famous custom bathtub installed in the White House, but he later trimmed 100 pounds off his frame and lived a long life as a Chief Justice.  He liked golf and tennis.  TR had cautioned him not to be photographed playing, however, because it might make him look too upper-class.

Herbert Hoover playing Hoover-ball on the White House lawn, February, 1933. Photo 1033-16A

Probably the most interesting game played by a president was named after him.  Hooverball, invented by doctor, involved two teams tossing an eight-pound medicine ball over a net every morning during the Depression.  It would have much easier for Herbert Hoover than tackling the plight of Americans at the time.

Franklin Roosevelt developed his upper body strength by pulling ropes to hoist the elevator up and down, sitting in a wheelchair, at his home.  He was also a swimmer.  Harry Truman took 120 steps per minute during his mile and a half daily walks.  This was the World War I marching pace, which would make any Fitbit happy.

Dwight Eisenhower played football for the United States Military Academy, once tackling legendary Native American star Jim Thorpe.  John Kennedy played football with his family members until his weak back prevented it.  Concerned about flabby citizens of the 1960s, he initiated a nationwide fitness program and commissioned the recording of “Chicken Fat” still used in schools today.

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At the top of the list of fit presidents is Gerald Ford, despite his reputation for being clumsy.  That was because his knees had been used up as a football player for the champion University of Michigan Wolverines.  He turned down offers from the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, and later settled for playing golf.

Ronald Reagan was a high school lifeguard who saved over 70 people from drowning.  When president he stepped up body building with specially-designed workouts after he was shot, and even wrote a fitness article for Parade Magazine.  “In my view, every exercise program should have an outdoor element to it – whether jogging, bicycling, skiing, hiking, or walking.  I prefer horseback riding and, whenever possible, hard manual labor at the ranch,” he said.

A portrait of an adolescent George H.W. Bush and a teammate in their baseball uniforms. Bush was the captain of the baseball team at Phillips Academy, where he attended from 1937 to 1942.

The George Bushes also head the fit list, with the father a high school baseball captain and a serious runner.  Dubya runs and cycles yet today.  Bill Clinton famously jogged, as Barack Obama loves to play pickup basketball games off backboards on the old Taft tennis court.

Warren G. Harding was probably in the worst shape of all of our presidents: boozing, smoking and sitting still.

Donald Trump?  His idea of burning calories is sweating in a crowded room.  He sleeps four hours a night and skips breakfast.  What will the President’s Council on Physical Fitness do about that?  It may just have to be the Council on Physical Fitness for the next four years.

I will have to slim down to give him an example.


Presidential Arts

John Quincy Adams played the flute; Thomas Jefferson, the violin.  How many other of our country’s commanders-in-chief had more than a passing interest in fine arts?

Ulysses Grant displayed talent as early as age eighteen, when he painted the landscape below.  Other works show Indians and horses in great detail.
Painting by U. S. Grant

The banjo was Chester Arthur’s instrument of choice, while Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan liked to play the harmonica.  Harry Truman was recorded and shown on the new medium of television:

Dwight D. Eisenhower took up landscape painting, but gave a disclaimer as noted under the picture below. “They would have burned this ____ painting if I wasn’t President of the United States.” 

In addition to being an accordion player, Richard Nixon was accomplished in composing for and playing the piano.  These facts, as well as his breakthrough visit to China, have been obliterated by what happened at the end of his presidency.

Bill Clinton gave a popular performance on his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show in 1992.

Former presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush have benefited charities with the sale of their paintings.
Self-portrait painting by President George W. Bush. Photo by Grant Miller.

Our current chief executive doesn’t do a bad job singing about his hometown, either.  And while some have admitted they didn’t themselves possess the ability (Edith Roosevelt said dryly, “We play the Victrola”), she and Theodore, as well as John and Jaqueline Kennedy, invited legends to perform for musical soires at the White House.  Pablo Cassals played the cello for both first families sixty years apart.

Gerald Ford said, “The future of our nation depends on providing our children with a complete education that includes music.”   George Washington was first in noting the importance of the Arts and Sciences to “the prosperity of the State and to the ornament of human life…”

Legislators need to take a hint from our leaders, who know firsthand that art and music have been neither optional nor inconsequential for Americans, young or old.