“A Cold War Panic”


It seems that periodically the United States gets in a panic about the weight or fitness of its children. Towards the end of the 1950’s, such a concern surfaced about the physical condition of American kids. Bonnie Prudden, then a dancer and exercise advocate had designed a set of exercises that she tried on European and American children. She determined that American children were trailing far behind their European peers. By extension, then, they must be falling behind Soviet children. In the Cold War era, there was a constant emphasis on keeping up with Soviet children, whether in science knowledge or in fitness..

Commissioned by President Eisenhower, a set of exercises were devised to get kids fit. Sadly, once other government agencies became involved, the exercises took on a military character. These new goals, such as climbing up ropes and doing multiple chin-ups were borrowed from skills needed by combatants, but not necessarily needed by children. So suddenly I, who was very fit in the usual sense of the word,  found myself deficient when tested by these measures.

And tested I was, once our high school physical education class undertook to evaluate us all, boys and girls, tall and short, against the same standard of “fitness.” Sadly these tests, at which I was a poor performer, somehow changed my idea of my own strength and ability. From thinking I was a fit, agile and strong girl, I came to see myself as weak when measured by these standards. I climbed numerous stairs both at home and at school, walked a couple of miles a day, did household chores and carried my siblings around, proving I had appropriate strength. But since I couldn’t shinny up a hanging rope, I felt like a failure. I have never put much faith in the government’s exercise programs since.

19 thoughts on ““A Cold War Panic”

  1. That brought back memories. I also failed to climb a rope, or run fast enough around a measured distance. My parents were advised to take me out more! 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.


  2. I never measured up in school PE either, Elizabeth. Eventually, it put me off sport entirely. After school, I started cycling and ended up doing a number of races of 100 km or more. I wasn’t so bad after all.


  3. Goodness, we didn’t have that here in Australia when I was in school. No military type PE.
    We had PE with mainstream gymnastics, sports & swimming, even dancing in primary school. We were competitive amongst ourselves but not with other nations standards.


  4. I remember there being about 10 of these “tests” and I was only able to pass a couple. P.E. was never my favorite class anyway, though I had no problems with riding my bike all over the countryside after school, and this made it worse.


  5. Oh man – I remember this test. I always failed *miserably* at it. But I was used to it. Without proper depth perception my entire phys-ed experience was one of daily failure. It wasn’t until I was in my late 30’s that I learned I could like being fit – I just needed to do things I enjoyed. And not one of those things were calisthenics or ball sports!


    1. My dad only had vision in one eye after a childhood accident which gave him terrible depth perception. What caused yours. Can you believe that daily failure was supposed to PROMOTE health.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know, right? My problem is a similar situation. I have a lazy eye so vision in my right eye is very poor. Even with glasses I can only see the big “E” on the eye chart with it. I do OK with things like driving – I estimate distance just fine in that situation. But if you toss something to me expecting me to catch it – it’s a crapshoot. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.


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