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Presidential fitness: how hale the chief?

The Presidency of the United States may be the most prestigious job in the land, but most consider it far from the healthiest. Considering the pressures, the hectic schedules, the rich foods served up a state dinners, one might not find it surprising that only a handful of Presidents survived to the advanced old age of 80 or beyond. There were six: John Adams, who lived to be nearly 91, Herbert Hoover (90), Harry Truman (88), James Madison (85), Thomas Jefferson (83) and John Quincy Adams (80).

Ronald Reagan may be the next President to make the list. Now 73, he was already at 70 the oldest President to serve in office. If he is re-elected, he will be almost 78 by the end of his second term. What are the odds that he will make it through in reasonably good health? Although much about the duration of life is wrapped in mystery, doctors are convinced that if a person lives right, he will likely live longer. So how does Reagan's health profile measure up to those of his long-lived predecessors? First, let's look at exercise.


For most of his life, John Adams, our second President (1797-1801), awakened at 5:00 a.m. daily to walk three miles. Even at 85, he frequently walked as many as five miles a day up and down the rocky hills around Quincy, Massachusetts, the Adams family's ancestral home. He was an avid horseman, too, and continued to take long rides when in his late 70's. Jefferson (1801-1809) and Madison (1809-1817) were also incessant walkers and horseback riders. Madison, on doctor's orders, walked every day and, while he walked, took the opportunity to bird-watch. Jefferson, for his 1801 inauguration ceremony, walked or rode horseback to the capitol and back to the White House and thus demonstrated his devotion to democracy as well as to fitness.

John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) took two hours of grueling exercise daily as a lifetime practice: First a lively walk of several miles, then a horseback ride at fast pace and finally a vigorous skinny-dip in the Potomac. One day someone stole his pants, and not losing his composure, he patiently swam more until Mrs. Adams, at the White House, sent him some clothes.

Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) arose at daybreak every day while President to throw a medicine ball back and forth with members of his cabinet. Hoover also walked for exercise.

But the most famous Presidential walker of all time was Harry Truman (1945-1953), who daily propelled himself at an accelerated pace. He took VIP visitors for walks on Washington streets and often held press conferences en route that left reporters exhausted.

These six Presidents all walked for exercise. They were probably on the right path. Doctors say that walking briskly may be just as healtful as jogging, especially for older people, and it poses less danger of injury. But let's not run down jogging. Jimmy Carter, our premier Presidential jogger, is reported to be exceptionally fit in retirement. On a recent trip to China, he amazed his hosts with his stamina as he clambered up and down the Great Wall.

Of all the Presidents, Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) took exercise the most seriously. He boxed, lifted weights, fenced, wrestled, performed jujitsu, rode horseback, hunted and played tennis. Nevertheless, he died at 60. One of the least athletic of the Presidents, Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929), also died at 60.

President Reagan played football at Eureka College and still looks as if he were getting ready for the second half. Although he never acted in a critically acclaimed Western, he is to horseback riding what Harry Truman was to walking. At his California ranch and at Camp David, he does all the chores, including chopping wood and clearing brush. Some time ago, he acquired a Universal weight-lifting machine. Now he throws his weight around in the White House almost every day and, naturally, Nancy joins him.


John Adams was painfully corpulent. His son, John Quincy, was also on the chubby side. Jefferson, on the other hand, had a splendid physique--tall, slim, sinewy and straight as a ship's mast. Madison weighed only 100 pounds, the lightest but not the lightweight of all Presidents. He was as tall as Napoleon but didn't have the Napoleonic paunch. Hoover was overweight, but Truman weighed just what the doctors ordered. John Adams was not the heaviest President; that dubious accolade goes to William Howard Taft (1909-1913), who weighed in at 330 pounds. He became struck in the White House bathtub numerous times. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897) was runner-up at 260 pounds. Cleveland tried walking but said it only increased his appetite. Taft died at 72 and Cleveland at 71.

President Reagan enjoys a build more like Jefferson's. His midriff is flat and hard, and at 185 pounds he now weighs about five pounds more than when he played football.


Our earlier Presidents knew less about nutrition than we know today. Often their diets lacked fruit, green and yellow vegetables and vitamins and minerals, and the chief executives ate too much fat, sugar and salt.

The hefty Adamses could have learned something about nutrition from Jefferson, who preached a doctrine of moderation in everything, including food. Even so, he entertained lavishly and employed French chefs in the White House. But Jefferson himself ate few animal foods and proportionately more vegetables, a fact vegetarian will hungrily devour.

Hoover, after a strenous bout with the medicine ball, would invite members of his entourage into the Oval Office for a spare breakfast of fruit juice and coffee. Hoover did have food on his mind, at times, however. His slogan during the 1928 campaign against Al Smith was "A Chicken in Every Pot." Athletic Teddy Roosevelt could devour a whole chicken for lunch. Truman, on the other hand, enjoyed eating but always left the table hungry. He considered a meal of steak and potatoes a real treat.

President Reagan also has fun eating but doesn't overdo it, except on political trips, where he must appear to be enjoying himself while eating from plates full of rubbery chicken. He doesn't have to diet, presumably because of his exercise regimen. He eats a light breakfast of cereal and fruit. Lunch is sandwich or a salad. Dinner can be Chinese, Mexican or Italian.


Thomas Riley Marshall, vice president to Woodrow Wilson, immortalized himself by saying, "What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar." John Adams, we regret to inform the American Cancer and Heart associations, was an extremely heavy smoker who started at the age of eight. However, before you rush out to buy a $1 cigar, check the whole record. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877), who died of cancer of the tongue at 63, smoked and even chewed a great deal--especially in his later years. Grover Cleveland contracted a malignancy of the palate and upper jaw while in the White House. He reputedly puffed on a cigar as he awaited a dramatic operation that saved his life. He was fitted with a prosthetic jaw and looked almost normal afterward.

John Quincy Adams and Truman didn't smoke. If Madison and Jefferson had smoked, the latter would likely have done it moderately. Hoover was a light smoker of cigars.

President Reagan doesn't smoke and never has. A cigarette once had to be painted into his mouth on a picture for an ad.


John Adams used alcohol sparingly, and so too his son. Jefferson and Madison were wine connoisseurs. Jefferson's bill for imported wine was as much as $3,000 a year during his Presidency. No wonder he became one of the most indebted Presidents. But Jefferson and Madison, like true wine lovers, imbibed temperately. If Hoover had drunk, he could have been excused for taking a slug when the stock market crashed in 1929.

Truman was a drinker. He kept a bottle of bourbon in his old Senate office to drink when playing poker with his old cronies. However, no one ever saw him lurch or stumble as he walked.

Many Presidents drank too much. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) died of cirrhosis of the liver at 64. Harding (1921-1923) was an alcoholic and died in office at 57. Grant and Cleveland, the cancer victims, also drank--the former massively and the latter immoderately.

George Washington was also a somewhat heavy drinker, but he didn't smoke. He died at 67.

Here again, President Reagan is more like Jefferson. He has been known to entertain liberally and likes to go to parties, but he himself is a temperate drinker of wine.

Rest and Relaxation

John Adams, Madison and Jefferson were insatiable readers, and their distinguished careers showed it. John Quincy read and played billiards. Hoover loved to fish. He said fishing was good for the soul. Whenever he could, he retreated to Rapidan, his equivalent of Camp David. Truman adored playing the piano and made the "Missouri Waltz" No. 1 on the hit parade. Another famous Presidential musician was Coolidge, who played the harmonica.

John Adams slept little. John Quincy never slept more than seven hours. Jefferson was not regular; sometimes he got five, sometimes seven, depending on how good a book he was reading under candlelight. Truman worked 15 to to 18 hours each day for an extended period and would then knock off totally for a few days' rest and sleep around the clock. Truman slept so well that it took him only a few minutes to doze off. For whatever it's worth, Coolidge habitually got 10 to 12 hours' sleep and took 2- to 4-hours naps in the afternoon.

Very few modern Presidents, occupied as they are by midnight crises and varying schedules, have slept in the same room as their wives. Truman and Gerald Ford were exceptions. Betty Ford objected, "Gerald and I slept in the same bed for 25 years, and I don't see any reason for changing now." And that was that!

The Reagans are very private. What does the President do in the evening in the White House, at Camp David or at the ranch? What does he read? Does he watch movies or television? Does he play bridge or does he play Scrabble with Nancy? No one will deny he always comes back to work unusually refreshed and relaxed. He likes to get eight hours' sleep but doesn't always got it. He has slept like a baby through a major crisis--the shoot-out in 1981 off the coast of Libya. Whether he sleeps in the same room as Mrs. Reagan is top secret.

Emotional Problems

John Adams complained all his life about apparently nonorganic ailments. Not only was he neurotic: He manifested sudden mood swings from being unruffled to explosive; elated to despondent; and cocky to self-deprecatory. He was tremulous, had a bad temper and carried a chip on his shoulder. He was a compulsive worker--15 hours a day for long stretches. Despite all this, he was remarkably healthy even in his later years. One might have inscribed on his Quincy tombstone: "It was all in his dead."

John Quincy Adams was often anxious about his health. His diary is filled with references to colds, sore throats and stomach aches. Jefferson was the exemplification of "a sound mind in a sound body." Nevertheless, he endured migraine headaches, probably attributable to stress, most

of his life. Madison suffered from an inferiority complex, likely due to his small stature. He was nervous. He worried himself sick and continuously thought himself in poor health.

Truman had a salutary attitude about his own importance. After leaving office and upon his arrival back home in Independence, Missouri, he was asked the first thing he was going to do. He replied, "Take the bags up to the attic." Truman sometimes showed a terrific temper, particularly when a music critic gave his singing daughter, Margaret, a bad review.

The most reviled President in U.S. history was Hoover, blamed for the Great Depression. He handled the stress magnificently and went on to live 31 years after leaving office. "Keep Cool with Coolidge" should have read "Keep Cool with Hoover," even though the latter is not so catchy.

President Reagan has proved so far to be the most composed and tranquil of Presidents. He is easygoing and has a sense of humor. He knows how to pace himself, and when he suffers a setback he doesn't agonize but goes on to the next problem. He is said to be the same genial man most of the time to those around him that he appears to be on television. He has never consulted a psychiatrist, nor has he needed Valium. He even seems to maintain his serenity in the face of policy problems and public and media criticisms. President Reagan is indeed a high achiever when it comes to health. He may be the healthiest President in history. His physicians have consistently declared him to be in perfect condition.

Contrary to the popular belief that the Oval Office crucible is "the most killing job in the world," it may be just the opposite. As Thomas A. Bailey, a Standford Presidential authority, wrote in Presidential Greatness: "The daily challenges and high-pressure activities of the Presidency may act as kind of a stimulant. Physicians are constantly urging retired businessmen, among others, to keep active."

It is notable that, other than as a result of assassinations, only four Presidents have died in office. It certainly helps greatly that Presidents in office have the best medical care in the world. So, regardless of what some may feel about Reagan's performance in office, another four-year stint might be for him just what the doctor ordered.
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Author:Reishtein, Maury
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1984
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