Almost 30 years ago a report was published that shocked the President of the United States. It wasn't a report on defense or poverty or hunger. It was a statement about the physical fitness of America's young people. It said, quite simply, that they were sadly out of shape.
Today, when jogging shoes are an apt symbol of a more fitness-conscious era, one would expect dramatic improvement. Yet the record of the last 15 years indicates the majority of students in the 1970s and '80s didn't score much better than the youth of the '50s.
The report that prompted President Eisenhower to create the President's Council on Youth Fitness stated:
* Nearly 58 percent of the US youngsters tested failed one or more of six tests for muscular strength and flexibility, while only 8.7 percent of European youngsters failed.
* Slightly more than 44 percent of US youngsters failed the flexibility test, while only 7.8 percent of the European youngsters failed.
Much has happened since Eisenhower initiated the council. Professional and college athletics have become big business operations. Sports and their stars have taken on a new glamour. Strenuous pastimes like jogging, weightlifting, and aerobic dance have eclipsed the tamer pleasures of golf and bowling. Yet all this seems to have done little to promote athletics and fitness among America's youth.
In Houston, according to Roland Brown of the Houston public school system, nearly one-third of the students failed their fitness tests. Dr. Wynn F. Updyke of Indiana University cites results of a recent test administered by the Amateur Athletic Union in which only 43 percent of the youngsters tested achieved standards that had been established as reasonable for the average youngster at a given age. The American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation youth fitness test, administered in 1958, 1965, and 1975, shows an increase in fitness from '58 to '65, but no improvement in the '75 test.
This topic was in the spotlight here in Washington at the recent National Conference on Youth Fitness sponsored by the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. The viewpoints expressed show both a decline in the US schools' commitment to physical education and a lobbying effort on the part of many to reverse that decline.
George Allen, chairman of the President's council and a coach in the United States Football League, asserted that adults are ''in better shape than the youth. The fitness movement has taken hold mostly with adults.'' Mr. Allen cited the lack of mandatory physical education classes in school as the primary reason. He added that in most schools physical education isn't mandatory even when a student is not involved in a sport.
Participation in varsity sports has also dropped from a 1977-78 peak (see chart).
The 50 hours a week Americans spend, on average, in front of television sets, together with the time spent with video games and home computers, has helped ''fatten'' US youngsters, noted Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana.
The concerns of Adm. James D. Watkins of the Joint Chiefs of Staff parallel those of the Indiana senator. ''By the beginning of this decade,'' recalled Admiral Watkins, ''we . . . had the symptoms of physical unreadiness: We were smoking, overeating, seldom exercising.''
Admiral Watkins revealed that 37 percent of Navy officer candidate arrivals fail their initial fitness test.
One reason these poor performances concern experts is that many feel there may be a correlation between physical fitness and academic performance. There are also strong advocates of the idea that fitness can enhance a youngster's feeling of self-worth.
According to many advocates of fitness, American youth won't shape up until physical education becomes a valued part of the nation's school curriculum again.
Some school officials, however, say there are educators who believe physical education, or PE, to be a distraction rather than a necessity in the school curriculum. Jolly Ann Davidson, president of the National Association of State Boards of Education, said, ''Most educational reports ignore PE. They don't consider it serious education.'' Mrs. Davidson explained that communities may need to help push school systems toward required PE programs.
Joseph Robinson of the Boston public schools agreed, saying that physical fitness has ''been assigned diminished priority in a tightly constrained fiscal environment, which has been hindered by fierce, competing educational claims.''
Among the solutions discussed:
* In Indiana, Senator Lugar has organized a series of fitness festivals to provide the public information on the subject.
* Cincinnati boasts a high school that combines stringent academic standards with an in-depth fitness program, the Cincinnati Academy of Physical Fitness.
* In Carmichael, Calif., PE instructor Russell DeBondt has helped institute what is termed the ''La Sierra concept,'' in which motivation is the key to getting students involved in fitness programs. ''Kids get turned off (from PE) for several reasons,'' he said. ''There is the lack of success factor, and sometimes a lack of encouragement on the part of teachers and students.''
At La Sierra High School, where PE classes are structured by ability, not age , teachers have found that students do respond to the program, that their motivation increases. ''It reaches previously bored kids,'' said Mr. DeBondt. ''The kids no longer face the ridicule that some encountered when they could not perform up to par with some person who happened to develop earlier in life.''