Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Workout (1984)
Source: Ronald Reagan, ‘How to Stay Fit’, Parade Magazine, December 4 (1983), 4-6.
Not long ago, the editors of Parade asked whether I would write an article on how I try to keep in shape. I said I would be delighted because I am a great believer in exercise, not only for reasons of fitness but also for sheer pleasure. So, move over, Jane Fonda; here comes the Ronald Reagan workout plan.
Exercise comes pretty naturally to me, since I’ve done it my entire life. When I was younger, I was a lifeguard during the summers, and I played football in high school and college. And for all of my adult life, I have enjoyed horseback riding and working outdoors.
Over the years, I have learned that one key to exercise is to find something you enjoy. The other key is to keep the exercise varied. Using those two principles, let me explain my fitness plan, and perhaps you can see ways in which this could help you in your own exercising.
In my view, every exercise program should have an outdoor element to it, whether jogging, bicycling, skiing, hiking, or walking. I prefer horseback riding and, whenever possible, hard manual labor at the ranch that Nancy and I have up in the Santa Ynez Mountains of California. There’s something that clears your senses in the out-of-doors.
I genuinely enjoy outdoor work at the ranch, and there are always chores to be done. The only heat we have is from the wood we chop, and up in those mountains overlooking the ocean, you need a fire at night, even in summertime. But the cutting, hauling, and stacking of the wood is good, solid, productive work, which gives you a very satisfying sense of accomplishment.
A friend who knows how much exercise I get from this says I ought to write a fitness book about the benefits of chopping and stacking called Pumping Firewood.
On the ranch, there were also 12 miles of trails to prune and keep passable from rocks and overgrowth. Fences always need mending. On the trip out in August, we built 400 feet of fence out of telephone poles, which was a matter of digging holes, cutting the poles, and notching the ends. It was tiring, heavy work, but the exertion felt good, and we ended up with a handsome fence to boot.
It would do a world of good for more people in Washington to do that sort of manual labor now and then. It gives you the right attitude.
A lot of people also don’t realize what good exercise horseback riding is. You don’t just get on the horse and sit there as if you were in a deck chair. When that horse takes its first step, every muscle in your body reacts and moves with it.
And the faster the horse moves, the more your muscles react. It is great for flexibility, and anyone who has cantered even around a small ring knows that cardiovascular work is involved as well.
The other advantage of riding is that, once you are up on that horse, you get a different perspective on life itself. It is a tonic, really, refreshing both the body and the mind. I have often quoted the old cavalry saying, “There’s nothing as good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse.” I believe that wholeheartedly, and I ride as much as I can, although my time now is limited, as you might imagine.
In the days before I entered politics, I used to ride several times a week. And I told someone recently that I think I stored up a lot of good health from those days in the saddle. On weekends, I still get a couple of hours riding on the trails at Camp David. Once in a while, I use the trails at Quantico Marine Base over the river in Virginia. And, of course, when we get out to the ranch, Nancy and I ride about an hour and a quarter every morning.
The trouble with riding now is that with all the agents and communications people that have to follow me, a romantic ride with Nancy turns into a big stampede.
We love to get away on weekends at Camp David. There, we stay in a normal house with a yard. We can take walks. At Camp David, I also get outdoor exercise from swimming. The White House has a pool as well, but there is more privacy and more personal time at Camp David.
Swimming in a pool really can’t match swimming in the ocean. I used to love to body surf, which is quite invigorating; there’s not much chance to do that anymore. But what I like about swimming in the ocean is that you get cardiovascular exercise without the monotony of swimming laps.
I guess it is the old lifeguard in me, or maybe I still like to show off for Nancy, but I still enjoy doing a swan dive and a jackknife now and then. My old specialty, the back jack, is still in decent enough shape to teach kids how to do it.
You stand with your back to the water, toes on the end of the board, push off backwards, then touch your toes and straighten out before you enter the water. It makes Nancy nervous and gives hives to my agents, but kids love it.
The other component of my exercise program is geared toward the indoors. There is not a lot of wood to chop or trails to clear on the White House lawn, so I have built a gym on the second floor. My calisthenic and gym routine actually started as therapy after the shooting, but the doctors say I am now in better shape than when I came to the White House.
Our little gym is equipped with a weight scale, exercise bike, treadmill, a leg-lift contraption, and a machine with pulleys and weights that enables me to do a variety of exercises for my arms, stomach, shoulders, and legs.
There is also a rack of hand weights, which sort of looks like a xylophone, with weights of up to 15 pounds apiece. Someone recently recommended I get a punching bag so that when I have had a rough day, I could just paste up the picture of whomever has been giving me trouble and give it to them.
I’m also thinking about a trampoline. So if you go by the White House and see someone going up and down in the second-floor window, that’s me.
But after a long day, I greatly look forward to working out. My program, which was designed by a professional, consists of 10 minutes of warm-up calisthenics, followed by about 15 minutes of workouts on the machines.
I have two different sets of exercises I do on alternate days. Each exercise is for specific muscles. I started off with relatively light weights and have since increased the weights over the last couple of years.
The specific exercises are not any different than you could find in many of the fitness centers that have opened up all over the country—bench presses, leg lifts, and the like.
The trick to keeping the exercises brief but effective is to increase the weights rather than the repetitions. And most people don’t realize it, but you can overdevelop a set of muscles at the expense of other muscles and thus reduce flexibility, so it’s important that the routine you develop be well-rounded.
All your muscles, not just a few, need exercise. Many people have a problem sticking to their exercise routine because they get bored. The beauty of the routine I follow is (1) the alternate sets of exercises, which give some variety, and (2) the brevity of the routines, which gets me out of there in half an hour.
And I have come up with a few tricks of my own. I have a TV in front of the treadmill so that when I’m walking, I can also watch the news. Of course, because of the responsibility of this job, work and travel break up the routine enough that I can exercise regularly without it becoming monotonous.
Nancy also uses the gym, and she, too, has two sets of exercises. She does hers in the morning. So when I finish mine in the evening, I always set the weights back for her.
I jokingly tell her to build up faster so that I don’t have to keep changing the weights. But as disciplined as she is, I have this feeling that one of these days she’s going to be setting the weights back for me.
After my workout, I hit the shower and then have dinner, which brings me to the third element of a good physical fitness plan: diet. The key here is moderation.
At 6 feet 1, I weigh in at 190 pounds, five pounds more than when I came into office. I am quick to point out, however, that muscle is heavier than fat and most accounts for most of the increase. Still, I do watch what I eat.
For example, I pass up the pancakes and sausage in favor of cereal and fruit, skim milk, and decaffeinated coffee. For lunch, I usually have soup and a salad. But on Thursday here at the White House, they have a Mexican plate: tacos, enchiladas, beans, rice, etc.
Once in a while, I go for that; I tell myself I’ve earned it. But when I do have the big lunch, I cut down in the evening. Our evening meal usually consists of fish, chicken, or meat with fresh vegetables and a salad of some kind.
And once in a while, we will have my favorites, like macaroni and cheese or lasagna. I eat moderately at the evening meal because I always hold a few calories back. I must confess that I do like my desserts.
One night, Nancy and I were having dinner alone, and I was absolutely flying through the meal. Finally, she asked me why I was eating so fast. I hadn’t noticed I was, but then I realized I had recently been out speaking on the mashed potato circuit quite a bit, where you have to eat fast or you don’t make it to your dessert.
I have, however, broken the salt habit. Of course, some items require salt. I mean, you’d have to be a raccoon or something to eat a hard-boiled egg without salt, but I use very little.
I used to put it on my food without even tasting it first. When I was governor, a doctor who happened to be in my cabinet noticed me salting everything in sight and asked why I did it.
I said I thought maybe I had some sort of salt deficiency or something. Then he asked me one question: “Do you want to live 15 years longer?” Well, that was enough for me, and, in less than a week, I cured myself of the salt habit.
So, that’s the Reagan plan for physical fitness: a moderate diet plus a varied combination of indoor and outdoor exercise. I don’t want to be overbearing about the need for exercise, but I would urge each of you reading this article to think about how you could get a little more physical activity in your life.
I guarantee that you will feel better both physically and mentally (1, 2). If you need any information on exercising, including exercise programs, drop a note to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Dept. P, 450 Fifth St., NW, Suite 7103, Washington, D.C. 20001.
The next time they report I’m out riding, chopping, or otherwise getting the old circulation going, why don’t you get out there and enjoy some exercise yourself? If all of us do, Americans will be in better shape, too (3). I’ll be thinking of you. Good health to you all.
Dr. Conor Heffernan was an assistant professor of sport studies and physical culture at the University of Texas, Austin. Dr. Heffernan now resides in Belfast, providing sociology of sport lectures at Ulster University, which specializes in European and American health. Dr. Heffernan’s work examines the transitioning nature of diets in the twentieth century.