“A Strenuous Life” Inspiration to Exercise from Navy History

by LT E.J.A. Prevoznak, National Museum of the American Sailor Volunteer

New year, new you, as they say, and one of the most popular ways to find a “new you” is by resolving to get into better physical shape. The ushering in of the new year has many hoping they can lose weight, gain muscle, and perhaps even participate in a physical fitness or sporting competition. However, numerous studies show most people who make health and fitness-oriented resolutions quit before February 1. Fitness app Strava has dubbed January 17 “Quitter’s Day.”1 Other reports state the best time to buy fitness equipment is in February because most fitness resolutions have failed, and remaining equipment is put on steep discount.2 Many people fail because they do not strive to live a “strenuous life” as Theodore Roosevelt famously declared.3 Teddy’s quote underscores an important element that many fitness resolutions lack – consistency to inspire them throughout the year. For sailors, failing to maintain their fitness resolutions can come with a steep price, which is why sailors make great inspiration for those seeking to turn around their physical fitness.

The Navy has not always been on the cutting edge of health and wellbeing, but over the centuries, it has earned its reputation as a committed stalwart for physical fitness. Navy life is hard, and it mandates physical fitness be an essential component of each sailor’s life. From the Age of Sail when sailors were climbing the masts and pulling ropes on a small ship in the middle of a wavy ocean, to the Age of Steam when sailors continuously shoveled pounds of coal into a hot fire, to Popeye the Sailor Man eating spinach and quashing bad guys, to the arduous Navy SEAL training; sailors have lived out the benefits of physical fitness as a shining example of a healthy way of life. 

During the Age of Sail, the crew would have been in outstanding physical shape. Though the day-to-day routine did not mandate specific physical exercise, the daily work in and of itself would have been enough. There was no shortage of fitness opportunities with the constant heavy labor, battle drills and exercises. USS Constitution historian Matthew Brenckle describes crews during the nineteenth century who would have drilled nearly every day at sea. He writes, “When drilling, the men might be made to run in the gun, load, prime, point and fire it with great rapidity.”4 This “functional” type of physical fitness was essential in the function of the ship and to the physical health of the crew. However, as ships developed into more automated and modern machines, the automation diminished the number of opportunities for physical activity, putting sailors at risk. And just like the best of us, the Navy stopped exercising and fell out of shape at the turn of the twentieth century, but that was about to change when the most energetic president ever elected came into the White House.

This modern imagining of the War of 1812 depicts the Black gun crew onboard USS Scourge. Sailors during this era stayed in excellent physical shape simply by doing their daily work. Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

When Theodore Roosevelt, a longtime advocate of the Navy, came into office, he observed a severe lack of physical fitness throughout the entire military. This didn’t sit well with Roosevelt, who was well known for his physical fitness routines. As a child, Roosevelt was sickly and weak but the intrepid sportsman worked hard to improve his energy and strength by boxing, riding horses, and other physical activities. By the time he was President, Roosevelt’s sickly days were well in the past and he had no patience for out of shape sailors and soldiers. Roosevelt’s solution was a novel physical fitness test. Passing this test would be required for officer promotions, thus giving birth to the modern-day physical fitness test.5 However, everything Roosevelt did was big, and his proposed fitness test would challenge even the best modern day endurance athletes with an Ironman-like competition. Roosevelt’s proposed test included a 50-mile walk, a 90-mile horseback ride, and a 100-mile bike ride.6 Not surprisingly, naval leaders pushed back against Roosevelt’s proposal. Roosevelt’s intense endurance test lasted only briefly, with the Navy revising it almost immediately after Roosevelt left office. The test was modified to a more manageable 10-mile walk in four hours in 1911. The modified physical test was in practice until World War I, when it was suspended for almost fifty years.7 Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s influence was felt and the Navy continued to highlight the importance of fitness throughout the twentieth century, even without the test. Images from this era show new sailors performing physical fitness exercises and competing on Navy sports teams.

At President Roosevelt’s urging, sports became a common pasttime for officers and enlisted men alike. This group of athletes is the U.S. Naval Academy’s officers baseball team in 1895-1896. Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Thanks to Roosevelt’s insistence upon improved fitness in the twentieth century, strength once again became synonymous with the old, seasoned sailor. Popeye the Sailor Man splashed into newspapers in 1929 and later made his television debut in the 1930s. Soon, Popeye was an iconic symbol of the strong American sailor. Of course, eating a can of spinach does not give one instant muscle and almost superhuman strength, but the image of a strong sailor eating the ubiquitous vegetable inspired an untold number of youths to be healthy in food and exercise. Meanwhile, real sailors were mirroring the cartoon, with improved, healthier rations and the new emphasis on physical training.   

Nowhere are the standards of health and fitness more prevalent in the Navy than amongst the Navy SEALs. As a unit, the SEALs represent some of the most elite warriors on the planet. And their fitness regimes are made to match. When the SEALs were established in the 1960s, endurance was immediately an essential part of their training. SEALs past and present push their bodies, minds, and souls to the limits. Retired Navy SEAL David Goggins discusses these challenges in his book, Can’t Hurt Me. Googins recalls how goals that once seemed unimaginable to him were achieved by persevering through the physical, mental, and emotional challenges the SEALs threw at him.8 He stands on the shoulders of sailors past and shines as an example for present and future sailors who need inspiration to achieve their physical fitness goals. Today’s would-be SEALs are encouraged to begin their physical training before going through the famous BUD/S curriculum. Think you have what it takes? You too can train like a SEAL, with the SEAL SWCC Physical Training Guide. The twenty-six week plan offers workouts for running, swimming, calisthenics, strength training, core exercise, and much more. And that’s just the pre-training!9 SEALs like David Goggins must pass a PST (physical standard test) of a 500-yard swim in 12:30 minutes, 50 push-ups, 50 sit-ups, 10 pull-ups, and 1.5 mile run in 10:30 minutes, but to be competitive, they’re expected to do even more.10 This may be outside the reach of your average American, but SEALs are the outstanding example of what a person can do if they put in the work and have the drive to do it.

BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training pushes sailors to the limits of their physical abilities. These sailors are working as a team to complete exercises with a 600-lb log in the first phase of BUD/S training. Courtesy of U.S. Navy.

For sailors, physical fitness is more than just a New Year’s resolution, it can be the difference between life and death, accomplishing the mission or failing; therefore, the Navy rightly understands physical fitness is essential to the life of the sailor. Today, sailors have more physical fitness opportunities than ever before. From Navy MWR gyms filled with top of the line equipment to Command-hosted 5Ks and competitions, sailors have ample opportunity to invest in their health. Civilians facing a New Year’s resolution of improved physical fitness can look to sailors as examples for not only how to get in shape, but how to stay in shape. Real life heroes, like David Goggins, embody healthy living and dedication to fitness. So the next time you’re pushing through another mile on the treadmill, remember these examples of sailors and resolve to follow their lead.

Standing Watch in Santa Hats: Holidays at Sea

by Tricia Menke, NMAS Curator of Education

The twinkling of bells and Burl Ives fill the air with holiday cheer, with a nip of snow in the wind and arms laden with bright shopping bags filled with toys. The magic of the holiday season is upon Americans from coast to coast. Meanwhile, sailors are standing watch in the cold and in the heat, always vigilant, no matter the date on the calendar. The Navy’s mission never stops, but that doesn’t mean sailors don’t find ways to celebrate December’s major holidays.

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Gratitude During the Storm: Thankfulness in a Sailor’s Life

By LT Jamieson Prevoznak, Museum Volunteer

The Grateful Dead song, “Lost Sailor” sings the tale of a lonely seafarer who has “been way too long at sea.” On the ship, the compass is spinning uncontrollably and there is no one at the helm. The “ghost wind” is blowing, calling to the sailor, saying there is “no place in this world you can be.”1 Many sailors know this feeling, but the winds of gratitude and thankfulness is what propels them back to safe harbors.

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We Were Into This Very Much Before It Was Cool: Sea Shanties and the United States Navy Sailor

by Dr. Jennifer Searcy, Museum Director and Tricia Menke, Curator of Education

In 2021, the United States Navy Band released a sea shanty-styled cover of popular music singer and songwriter Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together.” The cover became a viral hit with hundreds of thousands of views and introduced the United States Navy Band to new audiences. When promoting a video of the cover, the Navy’s Chief of Information and Office of Information (CHINFO) highlighted the United States Navy sailor’s long relationship with the sea shanty genre, tweeting “We were into this very much before it was cool.”

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Hitler, Reporting for Duty

by Tricia Menke, NMAS Curator of Education

It’s 1944 and a dark-haired young man enters a New York City U.S. Navy recruiting office. The officer on duty asks the same question he’s asked hundreds of young men, but the officer is about to get an unexpected answer. “What’s your name, son?” “Hitler.” The recruiting officer laughs at the ‘joke’ and replies, “Glad to meet you Hitler. I’m Hess.”[i]

Except it was no joke. The dark-haired young man really is named Hitler and he shares more than just a last name with the Nazi leader. He’s William Patrick Hitler, Adolf Hitler’s nephew, and he’s joining the United States Navy. It may come as a surprise that Hitler’s blood relative was joining the Allies, but William’s relationship with his uncle was already famously tumultuous.

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Training is Only Bootcamp, Right? Wrong.

by Tricia Menke, Curator of Education at the National Museum of the American Sailor

Here are the National Museum of the American Sailor, our staff has the unique opportunity to work directly with the Navy’s enlisted sailors, stationed at Naval Station Great Lakes. At any given time, the museum has one to three working party sailors who help out at the museum. They do odd jobs, including cleaning, assisting with exhibit builds, and greeting the public. These sailors are on hold, usually waiting for orders between the completion of A School at Great Lakes and moving on to C School or out to the fleet.

Before he left for C School in Dahlgren, Virginia, I sat down with one of our working party sailors, Fire Controlman Third Class Andrew Wallace.

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USS Sanctuary: An Experiment in Integration

by Tricia Menke, Curator of Education at the National Museum of the American Sailor

When President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into effect on June 12, 1948, it did not automatically translate into ‘smooth sailing’ for women in the United States Navy. Despite the act’s signing, the Navy continued to segregate men and women, both during training and while in service. For many female sailors in the post-World War II era, the fight for equal opportunity remained. In perhaps the most obvious instance of inequality, it would be an additional two decades before women were allowed to serve at sea, side-by-side with their male shipmates.

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Living Flags: The Navy and the First Viral Photo Trend

by E.J.A. Prevoznak, LT, CHC, USN NMAS Volunteer

Everyone covets the perfect picture. However, even with the ubiquity and high-tech quality of cameras today, the perfect picture remains difficult to capture; because it is not just about the color and the lighting, but about the way the picture makes us feel. We snap picture after picture attempting to grasp onto a feeling that is on the edge of our emotion but remains distant. When we finally grasp onto that perfect picture, the meaning is self-evident. We share it with friends and family or even complete strangers when we post it online. Picture reach the coveted status of viral when others not only see and share it, but also copy it. This is exactly what happened at the turn of the 20th century with the viral trend of “living flags”.

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Midway: The Beginning of the Modern American Sailor

By E.J.A. Prevoznak LT, CHC, USN, NMAS Volunteer

The Pacific theatre of World War II was the first large scale naval war of consequence for the American sailor since the Spanish-American War in 1898. Ships were mainly crewed by enlistees and draftees who had never been to sea, let alone in major naval combat. Journalist Malcom Gladwell in his book Bomber Mafia writes that the U.S. and Japan knew less of each other than any other combatants in history.1  He further argues that as the sea war evolved into an air war the vastness of the Pacific “made it the kind of air war that no one had fought before.”2 The Battle of Midway was the first step for the U.S. Navy becoming the dominant world sea power, and doing so forever changed the American sailor from the 19th century seafarer trimming sails into a modern naval warrior forged by the fires of aerial combat. 

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A Helping Hand

By Tricia Menke, NMAS Curator of Education

The United States Navy may be best known as the premier naval fighting force on the planet, but there is more to the Navy than war prowess and high tech ships. Since the early 20th century, naval ships have deployed for humanitarian reasons around the world, supporting Americans and foreign nationals alike in times of crisis. Oftentimes, these humanitarian missions require partnerships with other branches of the U.S. military, with civilian organizations, and with foreign governments to successfully complete these aid-based missions.

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