What Type of Physical Fitness for America?


By ALEXIS CARREL, M.D., Director of the Rockefeller Institute

Delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation, Syracuse, N. Y., December 26, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 287-288

TODAY, as in the time of John Stuart Mill, the worth of the State depends on that of the citizens. And the worth of the citizens consists in their ability to face the realities of existence. Health alone does not fit man for life. Strength and hardness are also needed. "If we are to survive," said President Roosevelt a few months ago, "wecannot be soft in a world where there are dangers." Softness results from living in a mechanized environment. We are rendered incapable of self-help by the machine, as were the Romans by slave labor. From the standpoint of health, today's youth compare favorably with that of the World War. But a vast effort must be made in order to increase its physical fitness. This work can be done only by those who, like yourselves, know the mechanisms of the body.

What is physical fitness? It can be defined as the aptitude at serving in the army, the factory, the farm, everywhere, We generally consider it as equivalent to muscular strength, skill, and speed. And, above all, endurance. Endurance consists in the capacity to undergo long hours of exertion and to recuperate quickly when exhausted. Also, to withstand heat, cold, humidity, lack of food, lack of sleep. Finally, to resist disease. But should we be content with this type of physical fitness? Do not the soldiers of Italy possess such bodily efficiency to a high degree? Yet they have been defeated easily by tiny Greece. Was the lack of productivity of the factory workers in France not due to factors other than lack of health, skill, or strength? To fight and to work in time of stress require more than well trained muscles.

Strange to say, physical fitness is a complex compound of spiritual as well as physiological elements. Man cannot be divided into separate compartments. His muscles, organs, blood, and mind constitute a functional wholeness. Strength depends no less on character than on muscles; and on the quantity and quality of the blood circulating through these muscles. And the quality of the blood depends on that of the organs. Without the help of the heart, the nervous centers, the liver, the thyroid, and all other glands, the muscles of the greatest athlete in the world would remain impotent. No soldier has ever been victorious if not led by faith in himself, his chiefs, and his country. All physiological activities contain mental elements. And all mental activities are bound to organic function. Moreover, we should not forget that there are two kinds of mental activities—intellectual and non-intellectual, reason and sentiment. Man is urged to action by sentiment, not by reason. Sentiment, that is, enthusiasm, hope, dedication, brings strength to the body as well as wings to intelligence. "Character," wrote Emerson, "gives splendor to youth, and awe to wrinkled skin and grey hairs." But the substrate of character is physical and chemical, as well as spiritual. "Man thinks, invents, loves, suffers, admires, and prays with his brain and all hisThe type of physical fitness needed by America cannot be acquired exclusively by gymnasium and athletic-field exercises. It demands also the molding of the individual by the physical factors of the climate, by the chemicals contained in the food, by virile physiological and mental habits. How can such simultaneous formation of the muscles, the organs, and the mind be realized? Is there need of new institutions? This task could probably be accomplished by the many organizations already in existence, especially by those concerned with the prevention of diseases and with physical culture. These organizations could enlarge the scope of their work, and add moral and organic formation to physical training and hygienic habits.

The indispensable knowledge for such an enterprise can be easily acquired. We already possess many data on the influence on human beings of climate, diet, modes of existence and education, methods of physical and mental culture. History also has put at our disposal extensive information about the way of living of our great ancestors. But this information is not available because it is scattered in books and magazines, and in the minds of innumerable specialists. In order to be useful, it has to be synthesized. And a proper synthesis does not consist in a mere mechanical heaping together of facts and doctrines. It must constitute a complete and well-integrated body of knowledge. Yet simple enough to be embraced in its entirety by each one of us. Would it be difficult for a small group of experts to make such a synthesis at once? Certainly not. There has perhaps never been a moment so opportune for human progress. At this dawn of a momentous age, it would be wise to start on a new road and to develop in this country men of greater physical and spiritual value than have lived at any other time in the history of the world. Any enterprise of such character requires the closest cooperation of all those who are concerned with education. The school has become responsible for the development of the physical and the moral, as well as of the intellectual. It faces the duty of fitting children for existence in a most difficult and dangerous time. We should clearly realize that Western civilization is being confronted with the gigantic task of reconstructing itself. It is for such a task that youth must now be prepared.