As promised in March’s Fitness Friday post, this month begins my spotlight on pioneering women in the fitness movement. This article is a result of my research and includes excerpts from my draft book No Excuses Fitness.
Why Should We Be Fit?
Until after World War II, most Americans were unconcerned about fitness and exercise. Sure, there were glimpses and hints to sports as interest and media coverage of the Summer and Winter Olympic Games grew in popularity. The 1932 Olympics held in Los Angeles inspired local men to play around with gymnastics on the Santa Monica Pier. Famous fitness star, Jack LaLanne, established a gym in Oakland, California soon after, in 1936.
According to Daniel Kunitz, in his 2016 book, Lift: Fitness Culture, from Naked Greeks and Acrobats to Jazzercise and Ninja Warriors, “bodybuilding gained acceptance in the 1970s, a time of popular celebration of working-class characters and tropes,” thanks to pioneers like Joe Weider, Mr. America, 1948. Weider’s protégé Arnold Schwarzenegger transformed bodybuilding into a global trend.
For most of the 20th century—up until what became known as the fitness boom of the 70s—very few people believed health and wellness could be achieved by exercising one’s body strenuously.
Meet the First Lady of Fitness
It wasn’t until the efforts of one woman recovering from a hip injury sustained from skiing, that her experience led to the realization that working out would be more useful for preventing sickness or injury instead of rehabilitation and therapy.
“Bonnie Prudden was an American physical fitness pioneer, expert rock climber and mountaineer, and author. Her report to President Eisenhower on the unfitness of American children as compared with their European counterparts led to the formation of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness.” Bonnie Prudden
An active dancer and rock climber, Prudden grew up in the affluent New York suburbs. In 1945, she noticed her own young children weren’t as physically active as she had been as a child.
Prudden organized activities for her children and neighborhood children and noticed many of the kids couldn’t run or showed little stamina. She actively began teaching exercise classes to local children. Exploring this further, Prudden, devised a set of six tests of muscular conditioning, toe-touches, and sit-ups which demonstrated that they failed these simple tasks. Prudden consulted with Dr. Hans Kraus, an orthopedic surgeon, and innovator of modern sports medicine.
“In December 1953, the Journal of the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation publishes an article, ‘Muscular Fitness and Health,’ coauthored by Dr. Hans Kraus and Bonnie Prudden that sounded an alarm about the poor state of youth fitness in America.” History of the President’s Council
In 1955, Prudden and Dr. Kraus presented the results of seven years of research to President Eisenhower. According to Kraus-Prudden Report, 57.9% of American children had failed one or more of the six minimal fitness competencies of the Kraus-Weber test, as compared to only 8.7 failure rates among European children.
“This report shocked the president (Eisenhower) enough for him to establish the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, which operated from 1956-1960. Under the Kennedy administration, it became the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. Kennedy was a firm believer in the pursuit of fitness goals for the entire age span and wished to create more emphasis on family activities as well as adult- and elder-oriented fitness programs.”
“You can’t run back the clock,” Ms. Prudden liked to say. “But you can wind it up again.”
- Prudden pioneered exercise fashion (dark translucent tights,) eventually sold through Montgomery Ward.
- “Her dance-based calisthenics classes were done to music, years before the invention of aerobics.” (Kunitz, 2016)
- Opened the Institute for Physical Fitness in White Plains, NY. This was owned and run by a woman when gyms didn’t allow women members.
- Prudden collaborated with YMCAs on family fitness, which eventually became “the primary venue for introducing the wider public to fitness activities.”
- She hosted her own TV show, The Bonnie Prudden Show, in 1963, the first to highlight regular exercise on national television.
- Beginning in 1957, she was featured in a series of columns in Sports Illustrated Magazine on How to Keep Fit.
- She authored several books, including two best-sellers: How to Keep Slender and Fit After Thirty (1961) and Pain Erasure: The Bonnie Prudden Way (1980). (Wikipedia/Bonnie Prudden)
Bonnie Prudden passed away at the age of 97 in 2011. Men, women, and children owe her unending debts of gratitude for her groundbreaking visions of health and fitness in mid-century America which in turn sparked the fitness boom a few years later.
And speaking of fitness…
WALK: My Word of the Year (WOTY) Update
I enjoy the physical part of walking, I usually walk for a minimum of 30 minutes and up to an hour, with the dogs. I recently read that “the simple act of walking for health has countless powerful benefits. In fact walking may be the closest thing we have to a wonder drug,” according to Harvard Health Publishing.
I continue to be very intentional with my daily walks and strive for at least 10,000 steps a day.
I do a lot of thinking while I walk and enjoy the fresh air, and sometimes I simply listen to an audiobook. In fact, inspired by Donna at Retirement Reflections and co-hosts for the monthly feature What’s On Your Bookshelf, I’m listening to her recommended book, A Walk in the Woods. Perfect for my daily walks in my own woods.
In trying to be creative with my WOTY, I created an acrostic as you can see below.
Having recently been encouraged during the Easter season, I wish to continue the spiritual walks, which I find comes more easily and more intentionally.
I hope you enjoyed this interesting perspective on the early history of American fitness, and may this information inspire you to look closely at your own health and fitness choices. Have a wonderful week and hope to see you for Sunday Stills this weekend.
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