Today, President Trump will get his annual physical at Walter Reed military hospital. A year ago, when got his first, his physician Admiral Ronny Jackson recommended he eat less red meat and fewer fried foods, start exercising, and lose about 12 pounds. We might find out today if he’s actually done that, but it seems unlikely. Losing weight is hard. Getting in shape is hard. Losing weight and getting back in shape can feel impossible. We all know this.
The annual physical is noteworthy not only because it provides a snapshot of the President’s health but because it constitutes basically the entirety of the Trump administration’s engagement with physical fitness as an issue. Unlike his predecessors, who emphasized health and working out — often with help from their wives and with a focus on children — Trump eats fast food and reportedly drinks a dozen Diet Cokes a day. He recently served Wendy’s to the Clemson Tigers in the wake of their National Championship win. In country where only 16 percent of states require recess daily, the president doesn’t really have a stance on wellness. The president sits.
Past presidents and first ladies built policy platforms to support the health of American kids, near-20 percent of whom are currently obese (up six percentage points from 1999). Former first lady Michelle Obama founded a program, “Let’s Move!” based on getting kids active and pushed a new school lunch legislation package that lowered levels of sodium and increased fruits and veggies in hot meals served at schools. President Obama was well-known for being a workout fiend, regularly using the White House gym and often playing basketball with friends. President Bush was the same — he specifically requested a treadmill on Airforce One, an elliptical and dumbbells installed just steps from the Oval. Former president Bill Clinton ran about three times a week. And the White House workout tradition goes back and back (with the plausible exception of Nixon) to President Eisenhower, who introduced the Presidential Fitness Test in 1956.
That test was eventually phased out in 2012, replaced by a program that is likely more effective and humane. The Presidential Youth Fitness Program, consists of an eight-week program called the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award (PALA+) that focuses on healthy eating goals (replacing sugary drinks with water, eating more whole fruits, trying different proteins) and the goal of trying to hit 300 minutes of physical activity in any form a week. Students who participate log their progress in a tracker. They compete, in essence, against themselves. It’s great.
The problem is that this program is voluntary. The last numbers on it showed that just under 900 schools participated in the three years from 2013 to 2016, and there have been no reports on the program since. The program, if it were required, would teach a generation of American kids about healthy eating and play. Should this be a priority for the president or the first lady, who has been more focused on her “Be Best” anti-bullying initiative? That’s up to them and their political advisers, but if they step away from advocating for kids to be active, they will leave a historically unusual vacuum.
Besides, Trump doesn’t personally seem to care about fitness. He refers to walking from office to office as ‘exercise’ and once famously and inaccurately stated that bodies are like batteries, and that they only have a finite amount of energy. That was his explanation as to why he refuses to engage with meaningful fitness programs. He is still indulging in his regular orders of McDonalds and overdone steaks. It’s hard to see what material changes he’s made over the past year for the benefit of his health.
It’s not as though Trump lacks the time to focus on fitness (his own and the nation’s). “Executive Time,” roughly sixty percent of his day according to a recent report, remains free. Could he hop on a treadmill in front of a camera? Sure, and he’d be shining a spotlight on an important issue. But that’s unlikely. Famously insecure about his own body — his former mistress Marla Maples famously claimed to have never seen him naked — it’s unlikely Trump will put himself out there. That’s understandable but also a pity because kids really do need a leader on this issue.
Should kid’s care about the president’s physical? Of course not. Few will be aware of it. But given that it’s now the only time the White House summons up the energy to talk about fitness, it’s worth parents noting that they are going to need to step up to get their kids fit. Our leaders aren’t going to help.