Published Online: April 2, 1997


Fitness Council Battles Diminishing Profile

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A sweatsuit-clad gym teacher, clipboard in one hand, stopwatch in another, counts, times, and rates the curl-ups, pull-ups, stretches, and one-mile runs of her charges, more than a few of whom--of that certain adolescent age--are horrified at how their performance compares with their peers'.

The reward for all that sweat and potential humiliation? The President's Physical Fitness Award, an embroidered blue emblem and certificate stamped with the signature of the president, granted exclusively to the fastest, strongest, and most flexible boys and girls who rise to the President's Challenge.

Since 1966, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, one of the smallest federal agencies, has offered the award to students in participating schools across the country.

But with fewer and fewer schools providing physical education, the agency may be less familiar to schoolchildren than ever. (See related story, "Physical Attraction," in This Week's News.)

What's more, the council's dwindling budget and tiny staff have lowered its profile, leading physical fitness experts to wonder how effective the agency is these days.

"Their goals are great, but they haven't been able to translate that support to visibility and activism," said Judith Young, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based National Association for Sport and Physical Education, a professional organization of physical education teachers, coaches, and athletic directors.

The council was founded in 1956 during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower after medical studies showed that American youths were unfit compared with their counterparts in Western Europe. The agency has moved in and out of the nation's spotlight ever since.

During the Kennedy administration, for example, the president was a walking, talking example of the benefits of exercise--despite his chronic back ailments, and the agency became widely known. It remained popular through the late 1960s and 1970s, when schoolchildren coveted the badges and certificates, and schools spent months preparing students for the fitness tests as if they were exams of academic achievement.

The agency was back in the limelight in the late-1980s, when President George Bush chose Republican, muscle-bound movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former Mr. Universe, as its head. Mr. Schwarzenegger, like other council heads, was chosen as much for his political stripes as for his qualifications.

Today's council co-chairs, Olympic sprint champion Florence Griffith-Joyner and former Democratic congressman and professional basketball player Tom McMillen, were handpicked along with the council's executive director, former public relations executive Sandra Perlmutter, by President Clinton in 1993.

Swirling around Washington recently have been rumors that the co-chairs may be replaced. The Washington Post reported last month that Jake Steinfeld--better known as "Body by Jake"--the head of a fitness company who leads exercises on cable television shows, discussed the position with administration officials. News of his likely appointment dropped off , however, when the newspaper disclosed that he gave $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee last year and that the last political contribution he made was the $500 he gave to a House candidate in 1987.

Administration spokesmen remain tight-lipped over whether Mr. Steinfeld--or anyone else--will be named the agency's head anytime soon.

Since their appointment, the current co-chairs have visited schools and preached the importance of fitness. They also can be seen every so often flexing their muscles at the White House or on Capitol Hill. But their visibility, along with the council's, has waned recently.

The agency's budget has shrunk from $1.4 million to the current $1 million, and it has a paid staff of nine. But council officials, who say the latest budget cuts came after last year's government shutdown, can't provide a historical breakdown of the agency's budget. Nor do they know when the President's Challenge--the program for which the council is best known--was at its peak, but estimate that 2 million students participate in the program today.

Shifting Gears

In response to the decline in physical education programs, the council has shifted its efforts away from schools and toward a broader goal of activating the nation's couch potatoes.

A recent campaign called "Get Off It!" targets lethargic teenagers and includes an attention-grabbing 30-second public service announcement starring an assortment of teenagers' fannies.

Although the campaign has brought the council some positive new publicity, Ms. Young doubts that the council's shift away from schools is the best strategy for firming up the younger generation. Moreover, she said, it is unexpected, given Mr. Clinton's focus on education. "When the Clinton administration wants to be an education presidency but doesn't deal with [physical education], it's a problem for us," she said.

Mr. McMillen said that he is exploring the possibility of establishing a private foundation that could supplement the council's shrinking budget.

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