Physical fitness-is it a national security issue?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Bill Lyons
  • 419th Fighter Wing Operations Group commander
We're all aware of the changes coming on line for the Air Force fitness program. Some of those changes are important and required. I've always agreed with the development of the fitness program as a way to entice (or coerce) Air Force personnel to live healthier lifestyles, acknowledging the benefits of fitness -- longevity, reduced health care costs, a sharper image. Many specialties within the Air Force, such as security forces, have necessarily carried an increased fitness requirement. And now, with ever-increasing joint expeditionary taskings, the imperative for higher fitness standards reaches many more within the Air Force.

But what about those who spend their entire career "behind the fence?" Why are they required to meet the same standards as the Airmen who are out on patrol or convoy with the grunts?

I was recently introduced to an article that clearly answers this question. It's dated Dec. 26, 1960, written by then-President-elect John F. Kennedy entitled "The Soft American."

Many people of "my generation" are familiar with President Kennedy's commitment to physical fitness for all Americans. His policies were instrumental to the establishment of the Presidential Physical Fitness Award in 1966, the annual evaluation we completed in grade school that tested our overall fitness and provided awards to students who had a comparatively high level of fitness. President-elect Kennedy's article gives clear insight into why he was so interested in fitness. It had nothing to do with image; it had everything to do with national survival.

When compared to the state of fitness in America today, the post-Korean War era doesn't immediately stand out as a time of "slothful ease" (in the words of President Theodore Roosevelt). And yet President-elect Kennedy already saw where we were heading. He laments the impact of "the television set, the movies and the myriad conveniences and distractions of modern life" on the overall fitness of Americans. What would he think today, when you don't even have to get off the couch to change the channel or leave your house to see a movie -- not to mention the video games and computers that have us riveted to our chairs -- conveniences that were barely conceivable in 1960? If he saw a problem then, I imagine he's been doing barrel rolls in his grave over the past five decades.

After reading the article in its entirety, what struck me most was the depth of his concern. We hear and read stories in the media about the obesity epidemic the U.S. faces today. The cynic in me says stories like these make the headlines mainly because of the image they present in a world that's driven by imagery. Isn't every story accompanied by clips of significantly overweight people waddling down the sidewalk barely contained by their garments? To President Kennedy, though, the issue was much more pressing.

He clearly connects the physical fitness of a nation's people to their ability and desire to stand up and defend the country when necessary. And he champions our nation's record in this regard, writing, "Throughout history we have been challenged to armed conflicts by nations which have sought to destroy our independence or threatened our freedom. The young men of America have risen to those occasions, giving themselves freely to the rigors and hardships of warfare."

He states that "the physical well-being of the citizen is an important foundation for the vigor and vitality of all the activities of the nation.... For the physical vigor of our citizens is one of America's most precious resources." However, at a time when the U.S. had emerged as one of two superpowers that would drive the present and future world order, he feared that we were becoming a nation that was not up to the task.

"The harsh fact of the matter is that there is ... an increasingly large number of young Americans who are neglecting their bodies ... who are getting soft. And such softness on the part of individual citizens can help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation ... Our growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness, is a menace to our security." Again, if he saw this in 1960, what would he think today?

His concerns were not limited to war fighting: "Physical fitness is as vital to the activities of peace as to those of war ... (it) is the basis of all activities of our society." Beyond the imperative of physical fitness of our national defense forces, he was equally concerned with the average Joe, whose growing lethargy stood to sap the real power of the nation -- the "can do" attitude that America could survive anything because it's America.

So, in a very real sense, physical fitness is indeed a matter of national security, both within the military and in the nation as a whole. What can you do about it? We should all be encouraging each other -- family, friends, neighbors -- to get off the couch. The effects of a healthy lifestyle on one's personal life are well documented. Physical fitness has the added benefit of reinforcing the vitality of the nation that President Kennedy saw as so crucial to our survival as a nation.

If we view fitness as President Kennedy did, it may make each push-up you push, each crunch you crunch, and each mile you log more gratifying. Make it your way of committing yourself to the security of the nation you've sworn to defend.