DVIDS – News – Teddy Roosevelt, Navy Medicine and the Birth of Physical Readiness

Today’s U.S. Navy espouses a “culture of fitness,” and “physical readiness,” but this was not always the case. In the early 1900s, many including the president himself, Theodore Roosevelt, were appalled by the lack of physical conditioning in the Navy.

In his autobiography, Roosevelt recalled, “Many of the older officers were so unfit physically that their condition would have excited laughter, had it not been so serious to think that they belonged to the military arm of the Government.”

Not being one to sit aimlessly aside on any issue of importance, Roosevelt charged forth with an attempt to change the desk-bound culture of the military. As a result he helped establish the forerunner of today’s Physical Readiness Training (PRT) program/Physical Fitness Assessment (PFA) cycle.

Without question, Roosevelt was a fitness fanatic who more than compensated in adulthood for the infirmities that plagued his childhood. He enjoyed boxing, climbing, hiking, horseback riding, polo, rowing, tennis, swimming, weightlifting and even jiu-jitsu. All of which he did to the extreme. He brought exercise equipment to the White House and even had a boxing ring set up where he would spar with professional prizefighters, including the legendary John L. Sullivan. Whether it was rigorous exercise or outdoor life or political reform, Roosevelt seemed to direct the full force of his spirit into living the “strenuous life.” As part of this philosophy he believed nothing was gained without hard work; and maintaining one’s moral and physical character was almost a patriotic duty.

On Nov. 17, 1908, Roosevelt suggested to the Secretary of the Navy Truman Newberry that the Navy needed its own physical fitness test. Under Roosevelt’s omnipresent watch, Secretary Newberry and Rear Adm. Presley Marion Rixey, Navy Surgeon General, developed a new annual endurance test worthy of the president (and arguably molded in his image!)

This new test gave officers the choice of completing one of three options: a fifty mile walk within three consecutive days and in total of twenty hours; a ride on horseback at a distance of ninety miles within three consecutive days; or a ride on a bicycle at a distance of 100 miles within three consecutive days. All personnel taking the test would be examined by a Navy Medical Board to determine whether the test may be taken without risk and report again to the board upon completion. Officers would not be promoted unless they passed the exam and their medical record would now include a fitness report.

The Roosevelt endorsed physical fitness directive was issued as Navy General Order No. 6 on Jan. 4, 1909. As one newspaper put it, “This [order] will give the corpulent sea fighters who have long occupied swivel chairs an opportunity to get into fit condition for the ordeal.”

Almost immediately the directive was subject to criticism. Navy Surgeon James Gatewood complained that the endurance test would leave participants in a “depressed physical state” and therefore have a negative impact on physical readiness. He believed the Navy would benefit more if it maintained golf courses, bowling alleys and tennis courts at its installations. Other Navy medical personnel proposed building gymnasiums where both officers and enlisted would have access to exercise “appliances.”

When Roosevelt left office in March 1909 the authors of Navy General Order No. 6 could do little to ensure its survival. And despite being offered a third term as Surgeon General, Rear Adm. Rixey decided to retire on Feb. 4, 1910. His successor Rear Adm. Charles Stokes reported to the new SECNAV George von Meyer on Aug. 15, 1910 that “After 18 months it has been plainly demonstrated that the objects sought for [with General Order No. 6] have not been attained. On the other hand much harm has been done to the service through the enforcement of this order.” Stokes called for the abolishment of the physical test and proposed shorter walks (25 miles in two days) and an “exercise period for physical betterment” following the tenants outlined in the book Mit System (1904) by Danish gymnastics educator Jørgen Peter Müller.

The Navy published a revised General Order on Dec. 14, 1910 (Navy General Order 94) that now applied to both the Navy and Marine Corps. Every quarter officers would be required to walk twenty-five miles in two consecutive days (five hours allowed for each day). The fitness tests were further modified by General Order No 127 on Oct. 14, 1911, which reduced the distance to ten miles within the time limit of four hours every month. Ultimately, Roosevelt was not pleased with the adulteration of his program. In his autobiography, he insisted that a walk completed in one day was of no value in demonstrating endurance; only an exam that continued on succeeding days would prove an individual’s physical condition.

The physical fitness examination was ultimately suspended on April 6, 1917 on account of World War I by Navy General Order 284. Remarkably, the physical readiness experiment in the Navy would be laid to rest for almost fifty years before being rekindled.

Although today’s fitness modalities are a far cry from the Navy’s inaugural PRT those same health and readiness goals remain as relevant as ever.


Annual Report of the Surgeon-General, U.S. Navy. Washington, DC: GPO. 1910, p36.

“Historical Background on Physical Fitness in the Marine Corps.” USMC Historical Collections—Navy Department Library Reference Collections.

Lansford, Tom. Teddy Roosevelt in Perspective. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2005.

Navy Department General Order No. 6, January 6, 1909.

Navy Department General Order No. 94, 14 December 1910.

Navy Department General Order 127 dated 14 October 1911.

Rixey, Presley. Memorandum for the Secretary of the Navy Regarding the President’s Suggestion as to the advisability of having a physical test for officers of the Navy. 20 November 1908. 116257. BUMED Correspondence Files. RG 52. National Archives.

Roosevelt, Theodore. An Autobiography. New York: Macmillan Company, 1914. p48.

Roosevelt, Theodore to Truman Newberry. 17 November 1908. M & S No. 116257. BUMED Correspondence Files. RG 52. National Archives.

Stokes, Charles to SECNAV Meyer. 15 August 1910. 120900. BUMED Correspondence Files. RG 52. National Archives.

“Test for Naval Officers.” The Daily News. 20 January 1909. Frederick, MD.

Date Taken: 07.18.2022
Date Posted: 07.18.2022 09:21
Story ID: 425188

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