You don’t get to be a person of Teddy Roosevelt’s stature in history by being lazy. The President who could barely breathe as a youngster never took his body for granted. He was an avid outdoorsman, athlete, and boxer. When he became President in 1901, he was appalled at the lack of fitness among Navy sailors at the time. As Commander-In-Chief, he set out to do something about it.
Roosevelt loved boxing, climbing, hiking, horseback riding, polo, rowing, tennis, swimming, weightlifting, and even jiu-jitsu. The President might have been the first potential MMA fighter in history, if he had so chosen. When he took the White House, he moved in all the equipment necessary to maintain his physical fitness regimen. By 1908, he told Secretary of the Navy Truman Newberry that the Navy should test its sailors to ensure they met the fitness standards of the U.S. military. Newberry and the Navy’s Chief of Medicine and Surgery developed a plan for the new Navy.
After being cleared to take the test by a Navy Medical Board, sailors had three options:
- A fifty-mile walk within three consecutive days and in a total of 20 hours;
- A ride on horseback at a distance of 90 miles within three consecutive days; or
- A ride on a bicycle at a distance of 100 miles within three consecutive days.
For the first time, officer promotions became dependent on passing the PT test.
“This [order] will give the corpulent sea fighters who have long occupied swivel chairs an opportunity to get into fit condition for the ordeal,” one newspaper said. No joke.
He implemented standards for the Army as well and even led the Army General Staff in its first-ever “fun run” of sorts. In November 1908, after an address at the Army War College, the Commander-in-Chief led the Army’s top brass in an expedition through dense forests, deep streams, and even climbing a 200-foot pitch in what Roosevelt called a “bully walk.” The brass said it left officers “nursing their tired muscles…and wondering if they will escape pneumonia.”
At first, ranking members of the Navy pushed back, complaining that the test would cause depression and hurt general readiness. Instead, they thought golf courses, bowling alleys, and tennis courts were a better answer to fitness. Somewhere in the middle, the Navy decided to open gymnasiums for its sailors to exercise. In the end, the order was revised at almost the moment Roosevelt left office. The new orders applied to Marines as well, but only called for a 25-mile walk over two days. Two years later, it was modified to 10 hours a month. By 1917, the order was suspended entirely.