When Teddy Roosevelt was in office, he had the White House basement coated with mats. An avid martial artist, the 26th president wanted to be able to grapple and practice judo throws without leaving his home. Then the youngest man to assume the presidency (he was 42), he injected a certain vigor into the role: He invited accomplished boxers to the White House to spar with him, he led ambassadors on intense hikes, and he once livened up a formal luncheon by tossing a Swiss minister to the floor to demonstrate a judo hold. Thrice.
Roosevelt was the only martial artist to occupy the oval office, but his enthusiasm for exercise fits a pattern that’s become more marked among recent presidents. It’s not hard to see the appeal of an active president to constituents: Being the leader of the free world is a demanding job, and it’s comforting to know the person filling it will make it to the finish line. The same clearly holds for Supreme Court justices, as evidenced by widespread liberal concern about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s bone density and kale intake. (A recent article documenting the octogenarian’s workout regimen—a twice-weekly, hour-long circuit involving push-ups, planks, and weights—seems to have allayed some worries.)
Fear of death or disease aside, the president’s attitude toward his own health is important inasmuch as it can represent his deeper beliefs, which stand in for the values of the country as a whole. A commitment to working out suggests self-control, discipline, and a willingness to exert oneself in pursuit of a goal—ideas that align with the good old-fashioned American belief in meritocracy, however illusory.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, upon taking office, many recent presidents had special fitness-related requests and routines. Courted by two NFL teams while in college, Gerald Ford maintained his fitness in office with daily swims in the pool he had built on the White House grounds. A baseball player in his youth, George H.W. Bush dabbled in all kinds of sports as president, particularly running. Bill Clinton installed a jogging track on the South Lawn but preferred to run outside the White House gates, much to the chagrin of the Secret Service (admittedly, he ended more than one run at McDonald’s). George W. Bush liked mountain biking and was another avid runner, going so far as to put a treadmill on Air Force One so he’d never have to skip a workout.
Then there was Barack Obama, who started most days with a 45-minute weights-and-cardio session. In 2009, the 44th president had hoops and basketball lines added to the tennis court at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and regularly invited friends, and even former NBA players, to informal scrimmages. Exercise was not his only healthy habit. A famously disciplined eater, Obama managed to lose a few pounds while doing perhaps the world’s most demanding job. Whether he completely kicked a decades-long smoking habit has been debated, but he’s said to have transformed the health of others in the White House for the better, stocking the building with healthy food, encouraging staffers to participate in group fitness challenges, and offering the services of his own personal trainer.
Far from being insignificant activities squeezed into the cracks of their political lives, the sporting lives of past presidents have often been taken as symbols of their character and even their political beliefs. Roosevelt clearly practiced the “strenuous life” of “healthy combativeness” he preached in his speeches, and his willingness to enter a boxing ring was of a piece with the military preparedness he sought for America. George W. Bush talked about running in grand terms, encouraging others to sweat “for the good of their own health and for the good of the health of the nation.” Throughout Obama’s campaign, some argued that “the skinny kid with a funny name” used his love of basketball to counter claims that he was un-American. Others have compared Obama-the-basketball-player with Obama-the-politician: competitive, inclusive, pragmatic, likely to go left.
More recently, commentators have gone so far as to offer Obama’s physique as a symbol for the fitness of his administration—and Trump’s as its antithesis. A recent tweet placed pictures of the men side by side: To the left is a trim, shirtless Obama, his pecs glistening with sweat; to the right is a red-faced Trump, his gut testing the waistband of his golf slacks. The caption: “Obamacare vs. Trumpcare.”
Trump’s physical neglect is worlds away from the vigorous life led by Vladimir Putin, whose efforts to reassert Russia’s role as a muscular world power have involved the promotion of a literal strongman image. Widely circulated photos taken over the years show the leader partaking in many “manly" activities: horseback riding shirtless in the wilderness, doing the butterfly in a Siberian river, driving a Formula One race car, arm wrestling youths at a summer camp, and, more recently, pumping iron in a Sochi gym. He’s made no secret of the fact that he holds a black belt in judo, releasing a feature-length instructional DVD entitled Let’s Learn Judo With Vladimir Putin—which is worth a watch just to see an intent Putin warm up with some hip circles.
One might expect Trump’s “America First” approach to be accompanied by a similarly militaristic exercise regimen. Instead, the man who promises to make America great again publicly revels in his sedentariness and poor eating habits. Throughout his campaign, Trump was outspoken about his appreciation for fast food, tweeting pictures of himself downing burgers, a taco bowl, and fried chicken—the latter on his private plane, with a knife and fork, no less. Aside from some strenuous-looking handshakes, the only physical activity Trump appears to regularly engage in is golf. He once described giving speeches on the campaign trail as exercise. And back in 2015 he defended his inertness to the Times, saying “All my friends who work out all the time, they’re going for knee replacements, hip replacements—they’re a disaster” (which might not be far from the truth; now 70, Trump is the oldest person to assume the presidency).
These habits likely aren’t helped by the fact that he ends his evenings with “plenty of television” and very little sleep. All this marks an alarming shift from his active youth; while the baseball captain at New York Military Academy, Trump was reportedly scouted by the Phillies. The septuagenarian deserves some credit, though, for his rejection of alcohol and cigarettes.
Trump appears to assert his presidential fitness less by action than association. Over the years, he’s made his connections to renowned athletes widely known, on TV news and via Twitter. Throughout his campaign, Trump bragged about friendships with, and endorsements from, dominant—and often controversial—sporting stars, like former NBA player Dennis Rodman, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and boxing heavyweight Mike Tyson.
Perhaps Trump’s most influential sporting connection is with World Wrestling Entertainment, the lucrative network on which wrestlers enact fictional storylines in staged fights. His relationship with the brand dates back some 30 years and has involved hosting events at his venues, appearing at promotions, and being inducted into the Hall of Fame. The company even infiltrated his cabinet, with former WWE CEO Linda McMahon now heading the Small Business Administration.
Much like reality TV, in the WWE—where the pins are planned and the pain is feigned—entertainment matters more than actuality. During the presidential campaign, Trump applied this idea outside the ring, diverting attention about his questionable health by belatedly revealing his medical results on an episode of Dr. Oz. Not long after, he released a superlative-ridden letter from his physician claiming his blood pressure and lab results were “astonishingly excellent” and that his medical exam showed “only positive results”—even though his BMI indicated he was clinically overweight. (His physician later admitted to writing the letter in five minutes and suggested that his overwrought language was influenced by Trump’s own rhetoric, which spawned another round of chatter and media coverage).
When it comes to his health, and so much else, Trump seems less interested in the truth than his ability to spread his own narrative. As a Time interviewer aptly summarized during a recent chat with the president: “Whatever the reality of what you are describing, the fact that [the facts] are disputed makes them a more effective message, that you are able to spread the message further, that more people get excited about it, that it gets on TV.” After all, what would be the point of actually working out when he can be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” and capture America’s attention, without ever stepping foot in a gym?