June 23, 2010 -- Ask anyone under the age of 50 what they remember most about elementary school gym class and the common answers tend to be frantic dodge ball games, waiting awkwardly to get picked for a team and, finally, a push-up ordeal that came with a presidential seal of approval.
Those last tests are part of the president's challenge, a series of exercises laid out by the White House to measure the fitness levels of the nation's youth.
Today, first lady Michelle Obama went back to school, visiting Washington D.C.'s Columbia Heights Educational Campus to announce that New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the most valuable player of this year's Super Bowl, and Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes will co-chair President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (PCPFS).
Other members of the council include NBA all-star Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets, NASCAR driver Carl Edwards, Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, former New England Patriot Tedy Bruschi and track star Allyson Felix.
President Obama was scheduled to attend but, amid the controversy involving Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the White House announced he was unable to make the visit.
The President's Council was established more than 50 years ago as a way to motivate American youth to get off the couch, put on their sneakers and get some exercise. For five decades, the President's Challenge has been the most visible manifestation of the council, administered by schools to measure students' fitness ability and reward high achievers with a commendation from the White House.
Michelle Obama noted today that the original mission of the fitness council was to encourage young people to exercise, but she said nowadays that needs to be combined with healthy eating too.
"It's about learning about all the different ways to eat healthy and to strike those balances and to be active -- whether that means playing a sport, which many kids do," she said. "But not every kid is an athlete and they don't have to be ... because you can get the exercise you need from walking your dog vigorously, running with your dog, doing some push-ups at home or just playing."
The program started as a simple fitness test that was a snapshot of a student's ability to do push-ups and pull-ups and quickly run a set distance. Later, it was transformed into a program that tested overall fitness and tracked body mass index and sustained fitness activity over six weeks.
About 25,000 schools across the nation participate in the council's fitness program and, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control, about a quarter of elementary, middle and high schools nationwide require or recommend the president's challenge fitness test.
The chair and vice chair positions have been vacant for more than a year and a half.
In recent years, the top positions on the president's fitness council were held by notable athletes including track star Florence Griffith Joyner, former Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was a seven-time Mr. Olympia bodybuilding champion.
President's Fitness Council Is Another Weapon Against Childhood Obesity
The White House has made healthy living and eating one of its highest profile youth initiatives. But until now, the PCPFS seems to have taken a back seat to other programs developed and promoted by the first lady.
In February, Michelle Obama launched her own initiative, the "Let's Move!" campaign, aimed at significantly reducing childhood obesity within a generation.
"Instead of just worrying and wringing our hands about it, let's do something about it. Let's act. Let's move. Let's get this done," she said at the time.
According to the White House, over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in the United States have tripled, and today, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese.
The new Obama administration initiative has four key areas of focus: helping parents make healthy eating and lifestyle choices for their families; serving healthier food in schools; increasing access to healthy and affordable food, and increasing physical activity among the nation's youth.
Given that outreach, it seems the "Let's Move!" campaign perfectly compliments the work the fitness council aims to complete. When she announced the new campaign, Michelle Obama said that one goal would be to increase participation in the president's physical fitness challenge.
Yet today, there is no mention of the first lady's "Let's Move!" initiative on the council's website and it is not clear whether the two campaigns have been coordinating.
Obamas Walk the Walk Encouraged by President's Fitness Council
An administration official said the council will be a "visible leader" in the first lady's fight against obesity and will play a key role in implementing the recommendations of the Childhood Obesity Task Force Report, in particular the push for increased opportunities for physical activity for the nation's youth.
"The president's council is charged with stimulating and enhancing coordination of programs within and among the private and public sectors that promote physical activity, fitness, sports participation and good nutrition," this official said.
Michelle Obama repeatedly has stressed that her initiative is not about the government telling people what to do, but rather providing "common sense steps" for families and communities to help kids lead active and healthy lifestyles through better eating habits and physical activity.
The Obamas have tried not just to preach healthy living but to lead by example, as well. Both the president and first lady work out regularly at the White House gym and play tennis together on vacations. Obama also has lengthy weekend golf outings.
Sports are a big part of the Obama family life too, with their tween daughters playing on school soccer and basketball teams.
The council was established by executive order by President Dwight Eisenhower after a 1955 article published in the New York State Journal of Medicine concluded that the nation had gone soft. American students were losing muscle tone and were falling behind their European counterparts on basic elements of physical fitness like leg lifts, sit ups and toe touches, according to a study by Dr. Hans Kraus and his partner Bonnie Prudden.
The report caught the eye of John Kelly, father of actress Grace Kelly and a national rowing champion, who passed it along to the senator from his home state of Pennsylvania. The media pounced on the study and Kraus and Prudden were invited to the White House to report their findings on the fitness of the nation's youth.
One year later, the White House staged a conference, headed by Vice President Richard Nixon, at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis that brought together experts in nutrition, sport and youth engagement to devise recommendations to get American kids moving again and get them focused on health and nutrition.
From Eisenhower to Obama, Americans Encouraged to Resist Becoming a Nation of Softies
Out of that discussion, the President's Council on Youth Fitness was born, created by an executive order on July 16, 1956. Eisenhower, a former military officer, was especially attuned with the need to maintain a good level of fitness among the nation's youth in order to improve the pool of potential service members. The council's name was eventually changed to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
Three decades later, President George H. W. Bush would select Schwarzenegger to be the chairman of his council. Schwarzenegger's career as a bodybuilding champion and Hollywood action movie star brought a bright spotlight to the work of the council and made it seem more relevant than it had in years.
Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush followed that example by naming a host of Olympians and professional athletes to the council in order to raise its profile.
Today, the program consists of five events that aim to measure muscular strength, endurance, speed, agility and flexibility through push-ups, sit-ups, a sprint shuttle run and endurance run-walk. The council recommends testing students twice a year as part of a comprehensive year-round physical education program.
During the 1956 fitness summit at Annapolis, then-Vice President Nixon reportedly told the participants, "We are not a nation of softies, but we could become one if proper attention is not given to the trend of our time, which is toward the invention of all sorts of gadgetry to make life easy."
Wonder what Nixon would say about Nintendo Wii Fit.