“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.

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