Sunday, April 12, 2015

What is Gym Class For?

Rock Island, Fall 1970

When I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s, I hated gym class.
1. Trying to catch a projectile aimed at your head.
2. Not catching it, and being jeered by your classmates.
3. Or catching it, not knowing what in the world to do with it, and being jeered by your classmates.

Ok, I liked one thing about it (see left).

Why was gym even a class?  What were we expected to learn?

Gym class derives from the 19th century "muscular Christianity," which tried to remedy the increasing "feminization" of Western culture through hard physical labor.

But it got a kick start in 1956, when President Eisenhower decided that American youth were too sedentary, not able to compete with the Russkies, so he established the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

By the 1960s, an hour of "vigorous physical activity" every day was mandated for middle school and high school kids (grade schoolers made do with recess).

There were regular "Fitness Tests" to see if we were adequately muscular. The one I hated the most: push-ups, sit-ups, and chin-ups.  The number you could do at one time was your grade:
Less than 60, F
60 to 69, D
And so on

I have never in my life been able to do 100 push-ups in one set.

The Canadian Council on Physical Fitness says that, for a 20-year old, 36 push-ups is "excellent."

But I liked the public-service announcements that the President's Council broadcast during the 1960s, lots of smiling, muscular, semi-nude all-American boys exercise.

The one I remember most clearly -- is a President's Council on Physical Fitness PSA.

 It depicts a muscular teenager named Eddie Lewis, naked except for skimpy gym shorts, doing push-ups, the camera lingering on the interplay of muscles, while the narrator says that for each push-up, he's "a little bit hotter, a little bit healthier, and a little bit happier" than before.

Just watching made me a little bit hotter.  And a little bit happier.

See also: How to Survive Gym Class.

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