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.

 

  • Maybe we can play Hoover Ball at the Summit?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hooverball

  • Kevin

    If you’re gonna talk fit presidents, you need to put Teddy Roosevelt in the conversation.

  • Thanks Roland!

    I think I’m up for it, although I’ll want to study those strategy tips before we take the field.

  • Kevin, I wrote this:

    “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.”

    Since I wrote this post, Alwyn Cosgrove pointed out that TR was a brown belt in judo:

    http://www.usjudo.org/famousjudoathletes.asp

    So he’s definitely in the conversation, and if this were a full-blown article, rather than a short post on a holiday-weekend afternoon, I’d probably conclude he had the greatest commitment to fitness and adventure. (He lost vision in one eye, possibly from a boxing match in the White House. When’s the last time a sitting president put on the gloves?) Certainly, like I said, no president had a higher energy level, whether we’re talking about physical or intellectual energy.

    But it’s also worth noting that TR was obese by the end of his presidency, may have suffered sleep apnea, and died when he was just 60.

    For all his activity, he still ate more food than he could burn off.

  • Washington was also considered to be extremely handsome and charming with the ladies, although he had a life-long epic love affair with his wife. So that’s something to put in the mix.

  • Interesting point, Ginger. Washington was a beast, and I mean that in a good way. After his first combat experience, he described the sound of bullets whizzing past his head as “sweet.”

    He was acutely conscious of his place in his world as someone people would look up to (literally and figuratively). He studied morals and manners, and took care to leave a record of it.

    Jefferson, who wasn’t quite so concerned with morals, was also an early advocate of daily exercise and ate a mostly vegetarian diet.

  • RobertRainey

    Admittedly, I have no idea how far dueling opponents stood apart from each other before firing. Nor do I have any idea about the accuracy of pistols back in the day. But at 6’1″, 130 pounds, Jackson would be a fairly hard target to hit, assuming he stood sideways and not directly facing his opponent. It would be like trying to hit a six-foot-one exclamation point.

  • Good point, Rob! I never thought of it that way!

  • what about Obama, the president that plays basketball every weekend while our country wastes away…

    but seriously, I knew those pictures of George Washington wasn’t real because he was an army general that specialized in guerrilla warfare, meaning constant running

  • People pointed out all the time that Clinton and Bush spent exercising, too, and wondered if they could better use that time. Why is it that our Presidents should have no downtime or skip their time to blow off steam, but we expect and encourage it in our family, friends, and clients?

  • Rob Schuler

    Teddy Roosevelt suffered from asthma as a child, and that made him even more determined to overcome obstacles through sheer will and determination. He did let himself go towards the end, and I think his Amazon exploration adventure nearly did him in. One of his sons was killed in WWI and that also devastated him…

    Kudos to all our recent presidents for staying fit and making an often public display doing it. That might be the best thing any president can do in terms of both healthcare and the economy.

  • Eisenhower played football at West Point. He belongs in the convo. As long as we’re on the topic of portly presidents, it’s worth noting that Jefferson purposely built some of the stairwells at Monticello so narrow that James Madison couldn’t use them.

  • Jim

    Good Article! Washington was a participant in the French & Indian War, where on the western frontier, was war brutal and most often no second chance. He was a militia officer if memory serves me and learned the tactics necessary to survive on the frontier. I would say ‘to be fit’ was a given in that time. I think he is credited for starting that war in a round about way.