Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 02/21/2011

Who Was America’s Fittest President?

Today, George Washington is a marble bust. Historians typically rank him as our second-greatest president, after Lincoln. But for most Americans Denzel is the first Washington who comes to mind if we’re talking about a person, vs. a city or symbol.

(Fun fact: Washington is the blackest presidential surname, even blacker than Black, which is 68% white. Meanwhile, there’s a 19% chance that a person named White is in fact African-American.)

If we conjure up an image of George Washington as a fully fleshed-out human, it’s probably one of those portraits that shows him with narrow shoulders, a spreading midsection, and womanly hips.

The actual Washington didn’t look anything like that. Here’s how a fellow military officer described the 26-year-old future hero:

“[S]traight as an Indian, measuring six feet two inches in his stockings, and weighing 175 pounds. . . . His frame is padded with well-developed muscles, indicating great strength. His bones and joints are large, as are his hands and feet. He is wide shouldered but has not a deep or round chest; is neat waisted, but is broad across the hips and has rather long legs and arms.”

He sounds more like a linebacker than the old gray mare we see in official portraits.

Here’s the historian David McCullough describing him in the book 1776:

A strapping man of commanding presence, he stood six feet two inches tall and weighed perhaps 190 pounds.You could distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among 10,000 people. There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet … by his side.

 

The more you read about Washington, the more impressive he seems. He was an athlete, a brilliant horseman, and absolutely fearless in battle.

I don’t know if he was “fit” by today’s standards, since nobody in the 18th century pursued exercise the way we think of it today. He may have had high cholesterol.

Meanwhile, our past few presidents have been ostentatiously active. Jimmy Carter embodied his era by jogging and playing tennis (at one point even micromanaging the schedule for the White House tennis courts). Ronald Reagan, our oldest president, worked out for an hour a day, and in 1984 allowed Parade magazine to do a feature about his training routine. Clinton slimmed down dramatically while in office (prompting a memorable headline in Men’s Health: “How Clinton Smoked His Pot”).

And we know all about Obama and the two presidents Bush.

But if we could line them all up in the prime of their lives and pit them against each other in any type of athletic competition, I’d put my money on Washington to emerge as the overall champion.

Ford, Obama, and either Bush would probably be better at sports that didn’t exist in Washington’s time.

For sheer endurance, Theodore Roosevelt would be hard to beat. He drank a gallon of coffee a day, and had an energy level that’s unfathomable to our generation. The man didn’t waste a minute of his life.

And in a fight to the death, you’d probably bet on Andrew Jackson, who may have been our skinniest president (just 130 to 140 pounds at six-foot-one). But he fought 13 duels that we know of (killing one man and getting hit multiple times), on top of a military career that started at age 13, when he volunteered as a courier during the Revolutionary War.

Still, I don’t think any president brought to the office the type of physical presence Washington had in his day. Clone him, and give him access to modern physical training, and I think he could take any of the 43 who followed him.