Teddy Roosevelt: 90-pound Weakling?

This Presidents Day article is from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.

Legendary for his tremendous energy and physical activity as president, Teddy Roosevelt might have been the original 90-pound weakling who spent his youth merely fighting to breath.

Teddy Roosevelt may have never had sand kicked in his face at the beach, but his weakling status seemed a sure bet during his childhood. Few would have guessed that this future president would be remembered as the solid, robust guy who led the Rough Riders, trekked through the Wild West, and never met a physical challenge he didn’t want to embrace. His reputation for bravery would have been impossible to predict because “Teedie” started out as a small and sickly boy. How small and sickly was he? Well, he was so small and sickly that no one thought he would live past his fourth birthday, much less go on to become president.


As a young child, Teedie struggled with asthma, endless coughs, colds, nausea, fevers, and nervous diarrhea, which he described at the age of three as a “toothache in my stomach.” All these illnesses led to insomnia and malnutrition. He was so weak and ill that for much of his childhood, he couldn’t even attend school. Young Teedie had to learn at home with a steady stream of tutors to satisfy his active and intensely curious mind that was bound by his puny frame.

At times he rarely felt well for more than ten days straight and was forced to spend many subsequent days in bed. On the Roosevelt family’s lengthy trip to Europe in 1869, he was plagued by breathing problems and extended headaches. He wrote in his diary about attacks of gastroenteritis, toothache, and asthma. Yet in between it all, he displayed amazing energy, running from one sightseeing spot to another, hiking, biking, and soaking up the world until his poor health would flare up again.


A doctor who examined him around age twelve recommended fresh air and exercise. He made it clear to the Roosevelts that if Teddy didn’t act on this advice the development of his strained and battered lungs was in serious danger. His influential and constantly busy father also worried that his son was too pale and thin. Coupled with the advice of the doctor, Theodore Senior at that point told Teddy, “You have the mind but you have not the body and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as out should. You must make your body.” And with that, Teddy embarked on a personal training regimen that would forever transform him –both in mind and body.

Taking advantage of the family’s considerable wealth, his father transformed their family home’s second floor into a posh home gym, outfitting it with state-of-the-art exercise equipment of all kinds. It was there that Teddy began to spend his free time to develop the physique and personal discipline that would later make him famous. In that gym Roosevelt bench-pressed and pushed and lifted and stretched and followed routines that would make any current bodybuilder proud. He was dedicated and consistent. And as any good personal trainer would tell us today, he saw results. His muscles grew, his chest expanded, and he got healthier.


But even that wasn’t enough. After two solid years of body building, asthma attacks could still lay him low. So Roosevelt decide to take up boxing. He knew that he wanted to go to Harvard University and needed to be able to compete both academically and physically with America’s finest young men. So he continued working out and boxing regularly with his brothers and others.

Finally, by the age of seventeen, Roosevelt beat the weakling within. In 1875 he competed with his brothers and cousins in fifteen athletic contests, including running, jumping, vaulting, wrestling, and boxing. Teddy won all but one of them! He had completely transformed himself; he went from wimpy to wonderful. His thin frame was no longer weak; it was strong, wiry, and muscular.In the process, he had developed an iron self-discipline for which he was always known as an adult.


TR’s energy and passion for physical activity became legendary. He spent several years in the Wild West, honing his skills as a cowboy. He would ride for hours at a time, sometimes all through the night. He gained celebrity status for physical bravery by charging up Kettle Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War amid gunfire and horrendous heat. As governor of New York he wrestled with a middleweight wrestling champion every week.

As president, Roosevelt was difficult to keep up with as he rode horses through Rock Creek Park while discussing policies with cabinet members, visitors, and advisors. In summers he chopped down trees to relax and rode at top speeds around Long Island on his horses in between conducting official national business.

One of Roosevelt’s most lasting legacies comes directly from his devotion to fitness and all this running around. His programs supporting natural resource conservation stemmed largely from his love of the great outdoors. He loved to ride, hunt, and explore through the national parks, and he established the first national wildlife refuge. Roosevelt spend many weeks recharging his batteries in those wild and wonderful American places– stretching his mind and his muscles, testing his endurance, and simple breathing deeply of the clean fresh air he had so much difficulty inhaling as a child.


“I believe in rough, manly sports. But I do not believe in them if they degenerate into the sole end of one’s existence. I don’t want you to sacrifice standing well in your studies to any over-athleticism; and I need not tell you that character counts for a great deal more than either intellect or body at winning success in life. Athletic proficiency is a mighty good servant, and so like many other good servants, a mighty bad master… A man must develop his physical prowess up to a certain point; but after he has reached that point there are other things to count more.”

—Teddy Roosevelt’s words on athletics to his son, Ted Junior


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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