Illinois Innovators: Thomas Cureton Jr., the Father of Physical Fitness

Illinois Innovators: Thomas Cureton Jr., the Father of Physical Fitness


ONE,TWO,UP, DOWN, YOU CAN DO IT. MOST PEOPLE HAVE HEARD OF CHARLES ATLAS AND
JACK LALANNE, BUT THERE IS ANOTHER FATHER OF PHYSICAL FITNESS, AND HIS NAME IS TK CURETON.
HE HAD SOME JACK LALANNE IN HIM. I THINK THE UNIQUE THING ABOUT HIM WAS THAT HE WAS A SCIENTIST.
HE BOUGHT THE NOTION THAT PHYSICAL ACTIVITY IS A PREVENTATIVE FORM OF MEDICINE FOR ALL
PEOPLE OF ALL AGES TO THE PUBLIC FOR THE FIRST TIME. IN THE 1950’S AND 60’S,TK CURETON WAS KNOWN
AROUND THE WORLD FOR HIS RESEARCH IN EXERCISE PHYSIOLOGY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS. IF YOU WERE INTERESTED IN PHYSICAL FITNESS,
YOU CAME TO UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS. THE NATIONAL MEDIA TOLD AMERICA ABOUT HIS
REVOLUTIONARY WORK. WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THIS ROOM COULD ADD YEARS
TO YOUR LIFE. IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THAT TK CURETON
WAS A PIONEER, AND HE WAS ABLE TO ESTABLISH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS A RESEARCH LAB
AND A CREDIBILITY FOR HIS RESEARCH MISSION THAT WAS AHEAD OF HIS TIMES. CURETON WAS SOUGHT OUT BY ELITE ATHLETES FOR
ADVICE HOW TO IMPROVE PERFORMANCE.
HE WAS GIVEN SPECIAL PERMISSION TO TEST ATHLETES AT THE OLYMPIC GAMES.
NOT MUCH PHASED HIM.HE WOULD TRAVEL TO EUROPE WITH HIS LABORATORY.
IF YOU WERE TRYING TO FIND OUT WHAT IS HAPPENING WHEN PEOPLE EXERCISE, YOU LOOK AT THE PEOPLE
WHO EXERCISE A LOT, AND YOU LOOK AT PEOPLE WHO EXERCISE A CERTAIN WAY, AND YOU START
SEEING WHAT YOU NEED TO BE A MARATHON RUNNER IS QUITE DIFFERENT THAN WHAT YOU NEED TO BE
A SPRINTER, THAN WHAT YOU NEED TO BE A POLE VAULTER OR SOMETHING ELSE. ONE OF THE MANY OLYMPIANS THAT CURETON RESEARCHED
WAS JESSE OWENS. CURETON WITNESSED OWENS’ HISTORIC VICTORY
AT THE BERLIN GAMES IN THE 1936. IN THE EARLY 1960’S, OWENS CAME TO THE UNIVERSITY
OF ILLINOIS FOR MORE TESTING. CURETON ASKED OWENS TO RUN ON A TREADMILL
WHILE HE HOOKED UP A DEVICE TO COLLECT THE AIR HE BREATHED.
THERE WAS A VALVE YOU PUT IN THE MOUTH, THE AIR WOULD COME IN HERE, GO IF THERE AND COME
BACK OUT THE OTHER SIDE WE WOULD COLLECT THAT. CURETON WAS PUTTING IT TOGETHER AND TALKING
TO JESSE OWENS ALL THE TIME, AND HAD BOTH VALVES GOING SO YOU COULD ONLY BREATHE IN,
BUT COULDN’T BREATHE OUT. JESSE STARTS RUNNING AND TEN SECONDS LATER, AND HE WAS (SPITTING
OUT). CURETON GRABBED IT AND STUCK IT BACK IN, AND
“KEEP RUNNING.” (SPITTING OUT)
PUT IT BACK IN, AND JESSE OWENS JUMPED OFF THE TREADMILL AND SAID “I CAN’T BREATHE.” CURETON’S RESEARCH DID MORE THAN HELP ELITE
ATHLETES. HE WANTED TO IMPROVE THE HEALTH OF THE COMMON
PERSON, AND AMERICA BADLY NEEDED IT. ARE YOU READY PHYSICALLY FOR THIS TRAINING? ALMOST HALF OF THE MEN DRAFTED FOR WORLD WAR
II WERE REJECTED OR GIVEN NON COMBAT POSITIONS BECAUSE OF THEIR POOR PHYSICAL CONDITION. CURETON BLAMED OUR NEW WORLD OF CONVENIENCE. LOOK AT THAT, ISN’T IT BEAUTIFUL!
THE BEAUTIFUL 1961 CHEVROLET. PUSH BUTTON.
PICK UP THE PLATES, BUTTON IS PRESSED, AND THE DISHWASHING UNIT DOES ALL THE REST.
IMAGINE HAVING TO DO THAT THE HARD WAY, BY HAND! AT A TIME WHEN TECHNOLOGY WAS SUPPOSED TO
BE IMPROVING PEOPLE’S LIVES, CURETON WARNED THAT IT MAY ACTUALLY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR
HEALTH. MOST AMERICANS WHO LIVE IN CITIES LIVED VERY
CONFINED EXISTENCES. THE LACK OF EXERCISE AND POOR LIVING HABITS
IN GENERAL CAUSED THE DETERIORATION THAT WE SEE IN THEM.
CURETON MADE IT HIS MISSION TO EDUCATE AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE AND HOW TO LEAD A
HEALTHIER LIFE. EVERY WEEKEND, WE WOULD TRAVEL SOMEWHERE TO
DO A CLINIC FOR A GROUP OF DOCTORS OR DENTISTS OR SOME PROFESSIONAL GROUP.
HE WOULD GO IF ON A FRIDAY, GIVE LECTURES ON FRIDAY NIGHT, TEST PEOPLE ON SATURDAY MORNING,
TRAIN THEM IN THE AFTERNOON, AND THEN SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING, HE WOULD SIT DOWN
WITH THE RESULTS AND DISCUSS ONE ON ONE WITH THEM WHAT THEY SHOULD DO AND WHAT THEY SHOULDN’T
DO. HE REALLY INITIATED THE FOCUS ON EVERYDAY
PEOPLE, INDIVIDUALS WHO DIDN’T VIEW THEMSELVES AS ATHLETES OR JOCKS, BUT ACCOUNTANTS AND
PROFESSORS AND SECRETARIAL STAFF. HE BELIEVES THAT EXERCISE WOULD HAVE AS MUCH
BENEFIT FOR THE MAN IN THE STREET AS IT WOULD FOR THE ELITE ATHLETE. WHEN HE EXERCISED, HE WOULD TALK THE WHOLE
TIME. I REMEMBER THAT HE WAS ABOUT 60 AT THAT TIME, AND THERE WAS A MAN IN THE GROUP ABOUT
30, AND HE WAS WINDED, AND HE STOPPED AND SAID “THAT’S NO FAIR.
HE HAS BEEN DOING THAT ALL HIS LIFE.” I SAID “THAT’S WHAT EXACTLY WHAT HE IS TRYING
TO TELL YOU.” CURETON ALSO WANTED TO HELP CHILDREN.
AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS, HE STARTED SUMMER SPORTS FITNESS CAMPS WHICH IMPROVED
THE PHYSICAL CAPABILITIES OF HUNDREDS OF CHILDREN, INCLUDING HIS OWN SONS.
NO MATTER WHERE HE WENT, CURETON REPEATED THE SAME MESSAGE.
HE ENCOURAGED PEOPLE TO EAT LESS FATTY FOODS AND TO EXERCISE SIX TIMES A WEEK.
TODAY, THIS SEEMS LIKE COMMON SENSE, BUT IN CURETON’S DAY, PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS CRAZY.
ONE PROBLEM THAT CURETON HAD WAS THAT HE WOULD TELL PEOPLE YOU HAVE GOT TO DO THIS SIX TIMES
A WEEK, AND HE TURNED SOME PEOPLE OFF. THERE WERE A LOT OF PEOPLE WHO DON’T ENJOY
EXERCISING, AND I THINK THERE WERE NEGATIVE ATTITUDES TOWARDS EXERCISE, THAT IT EITHER
WASN’T NECESSARY OR IT USED UP YOUR ENERGY. THERE WERE MANY PEOPLE WHO THOUGHT IT WAS
ACTUALLY HARMFUL FOR YOUR HEALTH IF YOU EXERCISED TOO MUCH, YOU USE UP TOO MANY HEARTBEATS.
BACK IN THE 50’S, PEOPLE USED TO SAY, WELL, YOU HAD A HEART ATTACK, WHAT YOU NEED TO DO
IS REST. IT TURNED OUT IF YOU RESTED, THAT WAS THE
WORST THING YOU COULD DO BECAUSE YOU WERE SITTING, YOU BECAME DECONDITIONED AND MORE
CHANCE OF BLOOD CLOTS. IT IS POSSIBLE TO POSTPONE THE DISTANCE FROM
DEATH BY STEADY APPLICATION OF THIS PROGRAM, TO TURN THE CLOCK BACK ON OLD AGE.
HE BELIEVED IN HIS OWN OPINIONS AND STATED THEM FORCEFULLY, AND AS FAR AS I KNOW, REALLY
NEVER BACKED DOWN. HE NEVER LOST AN ARGUMENT.
AND I LEARNED AFTER AWHILE THE MAIN REASON WAS THAT HE WOULD ARGUE AND ARGUE AND ARGUE
UNTIL YOU LEFT BECAUSE YOU RAN OUT OF TIME. CURETON’S INTEREST IN FITNESS STARTED IN HIS
CHILDHOOD. WHEN HE WAS A BOY, HE SUFFERED FROM ASTHMA
AND WAS UNDER DEVELOPED. HIS FATHER ENROLLED HIM IN THE YMCA AND BOY
SCOUTS TO HELP IMPROVE HIS HEALTH. GROWING UP IN FLORIDA, HE ALSO SWAM IN THE
OCEAN AND BECAME AN EXPERT SWIMMER. HIS LOVE OF FITNESS CONTINUED AT YALE WHERE HE RAN
CROSS COUNTRY AND SWAM ON THE SWIM TEAM WHILE EARNING A DEGREE IN ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING.
DURING HIS SPARE TIME, HE COACHED BASKETBALL AND TRACK AND TAUGHT SWIMMING AT THE YMCA.
DECIDE TO PURSUE ADVANCED DEGREE IN PHYSICAL EDUCATION AT COLUMBIA.
IN 1941, CURETON MOVED WITH HIS YOUNG FAMILY TO THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS. WE WERE AN ACTIVE FAMILY. MY MOM TAUGHT AT
THE YMCA. SHE TAUGHT SWIMMING AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
CLASSES FOR WOMEN. MY BROTHER AND I WERE INVOLVED IN SPORTS AND
I LOOK BACK, YOU KNOW, WE HAD SORT OF A “LEAVE IT TO BEAVER” FAMILY.
KIRK CURETON REMEMBERS HIS FATHER’S DEVOTION TO EXERCISE NEVER WAVERED, EVEN ON LONG FAMILY
VACATIONS. WE WERE DRIVING THROUGH WISCONSIN, AND WE
WERE PRETTY MUCH IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CITY, AND HE DECIDED HE NEEDED TO DO SOME EXERCISE.
SO HE GOT OUT OF THE CAR, AND SAID “PORTIA, YOU DRIVE THE CAR, AND I WILL RUN BEHIND THE
CAR.” OF COURSE, TO ME, I DON’T KNOW, I WAS PROBABLY
TEN YEARS OLD, AND IT WAS EMBARRASSING TO HAVE HIM OUT THERE RUNNING BEHIND THE CAR. CURETON RETIRED FROM ILLINOIS IN 1969, BUT
HE NEVER RETIRED FROM PHYSICAL FITNESS. HIS DAILY RUNS TOOK HIM THROUGH A CEMETERY
WHERE HE QUIPPED THAT HE RAN PAST ALL HIS COLLEAGUES THAT DIDN’T EXERCISE. WHEN HE RETIRED, HE STARTED SWIMMING AN HOUR,
HALF HOUR A DAY, CYCLING AN HOUR, HOUR AND A HALF A DAY, AND RUNNING AN HOUR A DAY.
HE DID THAT, AND WHEN HE WAS 79, HE HAD MANY OF THE MASTER’S RECORDS, AND HE SAYS “I AM
REALLY TRAINING HARD THIS YEAR.” I SAID “WHY?”
“MY LAST CHANCE TO BREAK A RECORD FOR 70 YEAR OLDS.
AND NEXT YEAR I WILL BE 80, AND I WANT TO BE SURE I AM IN GOOD SHAPE AND START BREAKING
RECORDS IN THE 80’S. HE WAS TREMENDOUSLY PROUD OF HIS STUDENTS, PROUD OF HIS LABORATORY.
SO I THINK HE CERTAINLY RELISHED IN THE WORK HE WAS ABLE TO DO.
TK CURETON PASSED AWAY IN 1992 AT THE AGE OF 91. TK CURETON’S LEGACY IS A COMMITMENT TO ONGOING
RESEARCH IN THE AREA OF PHYSICAL ACTIVITY AND HEALTH AND WELLNESS, NOT ONLY AT ILLINOIS,
BUT ALL OVER THE COUNTRY AND ACTUALLY ALL OVER THE WORLD. THE PRECEDING PROGRAM WAS PRODUCED BY THE
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS IN ASSOCIATION WITH THE BIG TEN NETWORK.

2 comments on “Illinois Innovators: Thomas Cureton Jr., the Father of Physical Fitness

  1. mcadamboys Post author

    What a great production piece !!  Lots of effort to document a worthy visionary.  TK's legacy lives on via many tributaries.  That's my Dad, Robert McAdam, at the 2:46 mark as the test subject.  Bob went on to do a lot of good work in the PE area himself.   Now 95, he was just observing me yesterday being tested by a UNC doctorial student, and adding input.  Funny how TK's swimming came full circle.  Thanks TK, I should have referenced him in this recent article :   http://www.nsga.com/media/documents/personal-best-tour/tom-mcadam-2016pb.pdf

    Reply

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