May’s Historic Connection To America’s Health

When you pulled out your May calendar you may have noticed that May is home to three Health-related awareness campaigns, National Bike month, National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, and National Mental Health Awareness Month.

The simplest logic for May is for most of North America, May is when Spring is sprung. Everything grows in May. Layers of winter clothing come off, revealing a winter of less activity.

In the Spring, we take stock of our lives, clean out garages and basements, consider the year in progress. Many people in the U.S. feel motivated to make good on those New Year’s’ resolutions by May. It’s beach body time.

Although there were whimpers of health awareness beforehand, it was the 1940s, after World War II, when we started to look at our collective health, the physical as well as the mental aspects.

The research of that time opened a Pandora’s box of questions that we answered with answered with awareness programs.

Where did it start?

“Teddy” |

A good guess would be that Teddy Roosevelt was behind all this. His reputation as a fitness enthusiast long preceded modern gym culture. Teddy was a pioneer of fitness, long before fitness flew through our collective radar.

Many historians credit Teddy, but it wasn’t until after World War II that we started to consider the our collective fitness. It wasn’t until the back half of the ’40s when America had the time to assess the overall damage from the war.

World War II had taken out a divot of our population but also had stimulated the baby boom. By the end of the 40s, boomers were getting ready for school. Their older siblings had lived through a war, lost fathers and family.

Perhaps, America’s teenagers were depressed. Perhaps the nation was too. Perhaps our improvements in technology, refrigeration, food processing, were already leading down a path to malnutrition. Perhaps… it was many things.

We’d come home from the war as part of the winning team, but winning comes with its own backlash after the celebrations peter out.

It was in the 40s, that the AMA and the National Committee on Physical Fitness came together, sending messages to Americans encouraging them to engage in fitness. Studies at the time showed that America’s youth were less fit than their European counterparts.

In 1956, in response to a campaign championed by a New York University professor, Dr. Hans Kraus, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness.

Later, President Kennedy dropped the work “youth,” making it the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, and in 1968 we added Sports to the name.

Barack Obama added “and Nutrition,” lobbying that our health connects to what we eat. Prior to that, in 1983, it was the U.S. Congress who designated May as National Physical Fitness and Sports Month.

National Physical Fitness and Sports Month

The infamous sit and reach test |

Every year, America’s schools administer standardized fitness testing, where youth could win awards for their fitness levels.

In recent years, we’ve streamlined the awards, removed the complicated and unreliable system of metrics, and created three awards as part of the President’s Challenge.

Not only youth, but all Americans can participate to earn one of three awards: Presidential Active Lifestyle Award (PALA), Health Fitness Award, and the Presidential Champions Awards in bronze, silver, gold and platinum levels.

The program is all online, from registration to reporting. Participants earn points for activities, which they log themselves. It’s an honor-based system, which grows in participants and winners every year.

This year’s program uses the hashtag #GetActive to signify tweets and events on social media associated with awareness.

Mental Health Awareness Month

What may come as a surprise is that the United States first pinned down mental health as a concern, long before physical fitness took center stage.

It was 1949 when the National Association for Mental Health (now Mental Health America or MHA) identified May as Mental Health Awareness Month.

The goal was to help educate people about mental health, same as it is today, but today the category of mental health is wider in scope.

To structure the conversation better, it recent years, the MHA has designated themes for each year like improving the mental health network in 2008 with the Get Connected campaign.

In 2011, they titled the month “Do More for 1 in 4,” focusing on the statistic the 1 in 4 Americans lives with a diagnosable health condition.

In today’s world, Americans have concerns about the connection between mental health and violence. We want to know what are the risk factors. It comes as no surprise that this year’s theme is “Risky Business.”

The future will unlock our connection to technology; how we integrate tech into our health. We’re seeing this with wearable and biotech like implants.

Perhaps we will add Technology, making it the National Committee on Physical Fitness, Sports, Nutrition, and Cybernetics.

Future cyborgs can thank the 1940s too, but they’ll probably think it was Teddy Roosevelt.

Sources: Mental Health America, JFK Library,