Staying Healthy a Challenge for Presidents

President Bush's excellent health contrasts with other U.S. presidents.

5 min read

Americans may argue over his policies and tactics, but one thing about George W. Bush is inarguable: He is among the most fit and healthy presidents in our history.

"The president's level of fitness is unusually high for anyone," says Tavis Piattoly, a sports nutritionist and director of the human performance lab at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans. "Nearly 65% of Americans are overweight or obese, so for the president to have a 14.5% body fat at 57 years old is remarkable."

"To have less than 15% body fat for a man is ideal," said Carol Ewing Garber, PhD, an associate professor of cardiopulmonary and exercise sciences at the Northeastern University Bouve College of Health Science, who agreed with Piattoly's assessment. "His health may not have changed much from his exam two years ago, but the fact that it hasn't changed is exceptional."

At his most recent annual physical exam in August of 2003, completed at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., the president was his usual healthy self.

  • A resting heart rate of 45 beats per minute
  • Blood pressure of 110 over 62
  • Total cholesterol of 167, with optimal levels of HDL and LDL cholesterol
  • No history of hypertension or diabetes
  • Weighs 194 pounds, with 14.5% body fat

"The president remains in excellent health and 'fit for duty,'" the president's doctors wrote after the exam. "All data suggest that he will remain so for the duration of his presidency."

According to information released by the White House, Bush runs 3 miles three times a week, "water jogs" at least once a week, and uses an elliptical trainer for 25 minutes three times a week. He lifts free weights twice a week and follows a stretching program five days a week.

Not all presidents, however, have been able to make the same claim to good health and fitness. In honor of President's Day, WebMD looks at the health of our president and his predecessors.

Whether you are thinking about Lincoln, Kennedy, Reagan, or William Henry Harrison, our presidents have been healthy. Only four have died in office from natural causes.

  • William Henry Harrison, April 4, 1841 (pneumonia)
  • Zachary Taylor, July 9, 1850 (gastrointestinal illness)
  • Warren Harding, Aug. 2, 1923 (heart attack)
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, April 12, 1945 (cerebral hemorrhage)

And none has been forced from office due to ill health. Though maybe some of them should have been.

"In the months prior to his resignation, Nixon was probably the closest we've come to having a president who needed to be removed from power because of ... health issues," says Jerald Podair, PhD, an associate professor of history at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. Also in the running in this category, says Podair, are presidents Wilson, who was incapacitated by a stroke while in office; and Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose health was increasingly affected by the long-term problems of polio during his many years in office.

"Some would say Reagan may have been experiencing early signs of Alzheimer's at the end of his second term, but we'll need much more time to pass before a measured assessment of his mental state can be made," says Podair.

But there are many other notable presidential illnesses and diseases.

  • Grover Cleveland suffered cancer of the mouth, which was successfully treated through surgery in great secrecy.
  • Woodrow Wilson's stroke left him bedridden and incapacitated for months, during which time his wife may have been making presidential decisions.
  • Dwight Eisenhower had a serious heart attack that required a six-week recuperation, but he successfully completed a second term.
  • John F. Kennedy had extreme back pain and Addison's disease, a disease of the adrenal glands that results in the inability of the body to fight stress from illness, injury, surgery, or other reasons. He also had back pain more severe than was ever publicly acknowledged, as well as colitis or possibly Crohn's disease.

When assessing how presidential health issues may have affected history, according to Podair, it is important to consider the political leanings of the person who next took over.

"When the person who succeeds you is very different politically, that is when you see that illness leads to a significant change in history," says Podair. He cites the example of the moderate William Henry Harrison, who was succeeded by the pro-slavery Southerner John Tyler.

"Tyler wanted to annex Texas as a slave state," says Podair. "He pushed many of the issues that became the focal point for the problems that brought about the Civil War and may have indirectly helped bring about the war itself."

This can leads to a great deal of "what-ifs."

"Wilson's stroke came just as he was campaigning on behalf of the Treaty of Versailles, which was later voted down in Congress, and the League of Nations," says Podair. "What would the world be like if he hadn't been ill and had been able to influence the issues that later lead to World War II?"

On the other hand, he added, some say Franklin Roosevelt might never have become the president that he was if he hadn't contracted polio.

"Roosevelt became much more mature as a result of his polio, and it molded him into presidential material," says Podair. "He was more compassionate and more in touch with the masses and people's suffering. His long recuperation from polio may have in it much of the gestation of his later New Deal policies."

Given his current physical condition, it's unlikely that President Bush, while in office, will face the kinds of serious or life-threatening illnesses that other presidents have endured.

Some health and fitness experts say that President Bush's active exercise schedule not only serves as a great example for our flabby nation but may even help him do a better job.

"A lifestyle that includes regular exercise has too many benefits to list," says Forrest Dolgener, PhD, professor of physical education and human performance at the University of Northern Iowa. "In Bush's situation, it probably serves as a stress reducer and allows him to operate at a high level for long hours without suffering as much from fatigue and other potential consequences of high stress on a daily basis."

As a "chronic exerciser" for a considerable period of time, says Dolgener, the president is reaping long-term benefits.

"The benefits are not so much measurable in quantity of life, but more in quality of life and life satisfaction," he says. "Another important message is that one is never too busy to exercise on a regular basis. Who could be busier than the president?"