Fitness Throughout History: The 1950’s, Diet Fads, Weird Diet Pills, and PE Programs.

The 1950’s were an important time in the history of fitness, especially within the United States. As we talked about last week, World War II’s record breaking draft brought attention to the plummeting levels of fitness that plagued the US. And this time, the government decided to do something about it.  

The Cold War era was marked by the development of the fitness test known as the “Minimal Muscular Fitness Tests in Children”. Also known as the Kraus-Weber test, it measured the overall fitness levels of school-aged children. Some of the earliest tests were performed by Bonnie Prudden, who found that 58% of US children failed the Kraus-Weber test, compared to 8% of European children. This drew attention from the United State government. So, in 1955 Prudden presented her findings to Dwight Eisenhower, which shocked the White House and got the media’s attention. The media labeled Prudden’s report as “The Report that Shocked the President” as well as “The Shape of the Nation”. 

Eisenhower decided to take action. In 1956 he held a White House Conference, and two very important things happened- the formation of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness and the appointment of the President’s Citizens Advisory Committee on the Fitness of American Youth. This aimed to gain the nation’s attention to the declining state of the nation’s fitness levels, and it worked. The American Medical Association and the American Association for Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance all took initiative to educate the general public on the importance of high fitness levels, starting at a young age. 

All of that didn’t mean that the American public didn’t have some very weird ideas about diet, however. In the 50’s we started to see “fad diets” of different varieties gain national popularity, as they were touted by celebrities as a good way to get slim quickly. I’m sure a lot of us remember MANY fad diets in the course of our lifetimes, none of which provide the nutrients we need or support healthy eating habits. Although these only rose in popularity as time went on, we get a few good examples from the 1950’s. One standout diet was the “cabbage diet” which involved consuming nothing but soup for seven days. The original recipe called for cabbage, vegetables, water and dry onion soup mix. And that’s all you ate. For seven days. 

Another example of poor diet advice was the AYDS “candy”, meant to “lose up to 10 pounds in 5 days, without dieting or exercising” (which yes, sounds very familiar to us  to this day). Ann Sheridan, who was very popular at the time (and starred next to future President Ronald Regan in Kings Row in 1942), appeared in an ad campaign . AYDS also scored Hollywood celebs like Bob Hope, Tyrone Power, and others to promote the Ayds Reducing Plan Candy.The active ingredient in this “candy” at the time was benzocaine (a numbing agent), presumably to reduce the sense of taste to reduce eating. This was later changed to the appetite suppressant phenylpropanolamine (which is still used today). This “diet candy” remained popular until the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s, and only fell in popularity because the two were pronounced the same way. 

So as always, at FIT we recommend a balanced varied diet consisting of healthy foods, not just cabbage soup (because just… no), and not reliant on stimulants or the inability to taste your food, in conjunction with exercise. There is no substitute for a healthy, balanced lifestyle, especially not fad diets or “get slim quick” pills!