The Unique Health And Hygiene Habits Of U.S. Presidents

Being the president of the United States is one of the world’s most challenging jobs. Since it’s so demanding, many presidents over the years have overlooked their health and hygiene. Some have adopted some strange self-care habits, even for the time period that they lived in.

Some presidents took foot baths in cold water, while others swam in a river every morning. Others had less healthy habits, drinking around ten gallons of whiskey every week. Here are the unique diet, exercise, and hygiene habits of the American presidents.

George Washington Did Not Have Wooden Teeth

A painting of George Washington  portrays him with a closed mouth.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

An often-repeated history myth says that George Washington had wooden teeth, so he never smiled in paintings. But he had all of his teeth, and he worked at keeping them healthy. Although dental care was lacking in the 18th century, Washington paid for all of the oral hygiene items available. Teeth scrapers, toothbrushes, and cleaning solutions appeared in his receipts.

Many of Washington’s relatives died young, so he took great care of his body to live longer. Even as a military general, he frequently changed his clothes (uncommon during that time) and bathed. He lived until age 67.

Grover Cleveland Detested Exercise

President Grover Cleveland fishes in a boat.
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Getty Images

Grover Cleveland was one of the least healthy presidents in history. He detested exercise, categorizing it as “among the dreary and unsatisfying things of life.” He also drank heavily, downing around four bottles of beer per day. At 250 pounds, he was the second-heaviest U.S. president after Taft.

Cleveland also had to receive a secret surgery. In 1893, he spotted a bump on the roof of his mouth. The White House assumed that it was a tumor and pushed him to get surgery. The operation was especially dangerous at the time, but Cleveland survived it.

John F. Kennedy Stuck To A Strict Health Routine

John Kennedy plays tennis with Jacqueline Bouvier.
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Getty Images

Like many presidents, John F. Kennedy hid a litany of health problems from the public. He had Addison’s disease and took several medications for his condition. To cope with the stress, he took a one- to two-hour nap around the same time every day.

Kennedy also stuck with a strict fitness routine, for both his physical health and stress. He swam laps twice a day. Later, he worked with orthopedic surgeon Hans Kraus on a specialized exercise routine for his disease. Although his health suffered, he had some of the healthiest habits of any president.

John Quincy Adams Skinny Dipped Every Morning

John Quincy Adams lounges in a chair.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nowadays, news that a president skinny dipped in a public river would make headlines. But during his presidency in the 1820s, John Quincy Adams swam every morning in the Potomac River. Usually, he’d jump in fully-clothed, but the tide swept away his clothes on more than one occasion.

Adams swam “for exercise, for health, for cleanliness and for pleasure.” Over time, his bathing sessions lengthened from 20 minutes to 80 minutes. First Lady Louisa Adams became concerned with his long swims, and she and a physician convinced Adams to stop over-exerting himself.

Herbert Hoover Invented His Own Sport To Lose Weight

A group of men play Hoover ball.

In 1928, Herbert Hoover kickstarted his presidency with a tour of South America. There, he played “Bull-In-The-Ring” with Navy sailors. It was the only method of exercise that Hoover enjoyed. White House physician Joel T. Boone decided to create a version of Bull-In-The-Ring for Hoover to lose weight.

The result was “Hoover Ball,” a sport that looked like volleyball with a six-pound medicine ball. It was promoted as one of the most strenuous sports of the decade. CrossFit gyms across America adopted Hoover Ball as a signature workout.

Thomas Jefferson Had Cold Foot Baths Every Morning

A painting shows President Thomas Jefferson in 1800.
Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images
Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images

Thomas Jefferson allegedly soaked his feet in cold water every morning. According to two of his letters, he asserted that these foot baths prevented him from catching a cold. Jefferson also disliked warm water baths in general, as he believed that hot water caused him to become sick.

Jefferson’s hygiene habits were similar to today’s standards. However, fellow Virginians thought that his consistent bathing habits were strange. He refused to use tobacco and ate a wide variety of vegetables–both uncommon during that era. It’s no wonder that he lived until age 83.

Barack Obama Was One Of The Healthiest Presidents

President Barak Obama holds up a basketball.
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Barack Obama is perhaps one of the most physically fit presidents in U.S. history. Six days a week, Obama exercised before his morning meetings. He loved to play basketball, practice cardio, and lift weights. Both he and First Lady Michelle Obama favored a healthy diet.

The Obamas had specific eating habits. They chose lean meats, vegetables, and whole grains for meals. Obama ate a nighttime snack of exactly seven almonds and paired spinach with almost everything. It may seem extra specific, but it was very healthy.

Andrew Jackson Often Took Hygienic Vacations

A painting shows Andrew Jackson riding a horse.
Stock Montage/Getty Images
Stock Montage/Getty Images

Andrew Jackson struggled with his health throughout his presidency, contracting diseases such as malaria, dysentery, and typhoid. He often took vacations to stabilize his health. At the beginning of his term, he stayed on a secluded island for “fine air and [a] pleasant bath.”

Jackson believed that nature’s air and water improved his health. Although he took care of his hygiene, his health continued to suffer. Eventually, he took medications that contained mercury and lead for his ailments. Mercury poisoning may have contributed to his death in 1845.

Ronald Reagan’s Diet Accidentally Promoted Jelly Belly

Ronald Reagan holds up a glass container of jelly beans.
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PAUL RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images

Ronald Reagan was an avid smoker. In the 1940s and ’50s, he even appeared on tobacco advertisements. But during his presidency in the 1980s, Reagan tried to stop the habit. He took to eating jelly beans to curb his cravings.

Contrary to popular belief, Reagan did not like jelly beans. He preferred licorice–that is, until he discovered a new jelly bean brand. He earnestly enjoyed Jelly Bellies, so the company sent him jars of the candy throughout his presidency. The news spread and many Americans began buying the brand.

James Buchanan Drank 860 Shots Per Week

President James Buchanan is pictured in an engraving.
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Getty Images

Not much is known about James Buchanan’s health habits. But the 19th-century president was notorious for his heavy drinking. Every week, he would go through ten gallons of whiskey. That’s equal to 860 shots, on top of his signature drink, Madeira wine.

Buchanan asserted that his drinking did not affect his health. But historical records prove otherwise. Throughout his presidency, he experienced several bouts of dysentery and gout. He also claimed that drinking helped him to sleep better, but scientists now claim the opposite. He died during his retirement at age 77.

The “Heaviest President Of All Time” Dropped Weight

William Howard Taft speaks during a presidential campaign.
Louis Van Oeyen/Western Reserve Historical Society/Getty Images
Louis Van Oeyen/Western Reserve Historical Society/Getty Images

William Howard Taft is known as the “heaviest president of all time,” weighing 340 pounds at his biggest. But he also worked toward losing weight. Concerned for his health, Taft contacted diet expert Nathaniel Yorke-Davies. Together, they developed a relatively modern diet and exercise routine.

Taft drank a tumbler of warm lemon water every morning, which Davies believed would kickstart his digestion. He would then make meals of lean meats, vegetables, and “sugarless” wine. After sticking to this diet, Taft dropped 60 pounds. “I never felt any younger in all my life,” he said after losing the weight.

Abraham Lincoln Had Excellent Dental Hygiene

A photo portrays Abraham Lincoln standing.
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Getty Images

In every known photo of Abraham Lincoln, he has his mouth closed. Based on this, some may believe that Lincoln had terrible teeth, but that was not true. Because the water in Kentucky contained natural fluoride, Lincoln had better teeth than most people. He also took great care of them; he only visited the dentist four times throughout his life.

Despite his excellent dental health, Lincoln’s diet suffered. He often forgot to eat meals. If he remembered to eat, his meals would be small–sometimes only a glass of milk and a few fruit pieces.

The White House Gave Franklin Roosevelt Terrible Food

Franklin Roosevelt cuts a Thanksgiving turkey.
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Getty Images

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who spent his presidency in a wheelchair, struggled with polio, high blood pressure, and heart failure throughout his term. Despite his health, the White House served him notoriously lousy food. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt tried to redesign the kitchen in the middle of the Great Depression, hiring the chef Henrietta Nesbitt.

Roosevelt’s first meal as president consisted of deviled eggs with marinara, prune pudding, and mashed potatoes. It all tasted terrible, and the kitchen was not sanitary. Although he ate poorly, Roosevelt still swam three times a week despite his polio.

Calvin Coolidge Had Some Strange Habits

President Calvin Coolidge writes in the Library of Congress.
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

During his presidency in the 1920s, Calvin Coolidge developed some odd health habits. He was picky about food, mostly eating roast beef, corn muffins, and pickles. Although he was allergic to horses, he wanted to exercise by riding them. He bought an electric mount in 1925 that mimicked horse riding.

Some suspect that these habits spawned from depression. In 1924, Coolidge’s 16-year-old son passed away from a bacterial infection. Coworkers claimed that Coolidge’s presidency changed after that. He would often sleep for 11 hours a day, which can be a symptom of depression.

Richard Nixon Ate Strange (But Healthy) Food Combinations

Chinese Prime Minister Zho Enlai, with US President Nixon at a dinner reception in Beijing, China
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Richard Nixon did not want fancy dishes in the White House. Instead, he stuck with more “homey” food–although some of it seems strange by today’s standards. For instance, his breakfast often included cottage cheese with ketchup. Cottage cheese was a household staple in the ’70s.

Despite his strange food combinations, he ate healthily. He often ate fresh fruits and vegetables, yogurt, and wheat germ. Although wheat germ is not widespread today, it has a similar fiber and nutrient content to whole grain bread. It’s far better than what many other presidents ate.

John Adams Had A Peculiar Breakfast Drink

President John Adams sits at a desk.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Adams did not have a specific breakfast food; he had a special drink. Every morning, he drank one gill (four ounces) of hard cider. In the late 18th century, people believed that the nutrients in cider could save people from scurvy. He treated it like orange juice.

After breakfast, Adams would walk for five or six miles. He often took his son, John Quincy Adams. He asserted that the combination of long walks and cider kept him healthy throughout life. He was right about one of those habits.

Martin Van Buren Took Sanitation Very Seriously

A portrait shows President Martin Van Buren.
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Martin Van Buren planned extensively for proper hygiene, especially bathing. He adopted the best plumbing technology of the 1830s. He owned a large stationary bathtub and a porcelain toilet bowl in Lindenwald.

Although Van Buren bathed frequently, he did not care as much about his diet. He drank heavily, earning him the nickname “Blue Whiskey Van.” During his presidency, his diet contributed to gout, a complex form of arthritis. In 1840, he vacationed at a spa in New York State to help the condition, returning to his impressive hygiene.

The Hidden Illness Of Chester Alan Arthur

President Chester A. Arthur stands next to a podium.
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Chester A. Arthur entered the White House in 1881. Less than a year into his presidency, he was diagnosed with a fatal kidney disease. The illness caused extreme fatigue, leading to both his health and habits suffering. Arthur continued to eat fatty foods and liqueur, and his weight rose to 220 pounds.

The president tried to keep his condition a secret from the public. In 1883, he tried to improve his health with a vacation to Florida, but it had the opposite effect. Rumors eventually spread to the public, and Arthur never ran for another term.

Theodore Roosevelt Cared About Food Sanitation

Theodore Roosevelt waves his hat at the crowd.
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In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle exposed the poor sanitary conditions of the meat production industry. President Theodore Roosevelt took this seriously. He formed the American School Hygiene Association and passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.

In his private life, Roosevelt placed great emphasis on a proper diet and exercise. He often switched up his physical activity from tennis to judo, boxing to rowing. According to his autobiography, Roosevelt didn’t just exercise because it was healthy; he did it because he enjoyed it.

Ulysses S. Grant Charred All Of His Meat

Ulysses S. Grant leans against a pole around a U.S. Army camp.
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Although Ulysses S. Grant led some of the most vicious battles of the Civil War, he hated the sight of blood. After becoming president, he demanded to see no blood on any of his meat. He ordered his steaks burned to the point where they looked like charcoal.

This diet decision was unhealthy, but Grant was not a healthy person. He often chewed on unlit cigars and drank heavily. Back then, nobody understood that drinking, smoking, and eating charred meats was unhealthy. His habits seemed familiar at the time.