The opening of the '87 Gymnasium marked a new focus on physical education at Rensselaer. The effort to acquire appropriate fitness facilities had been largely student driven up to this point. Students chronically complained about the lack of athletic venues and gym facilities on campus. In 1912, the administration, led by Palmer Ricketts, took up the charge to provide physical education for all students. Many colleges began to incorporate physical education into the curriculum during this time. The first professor of hygiene and physical education at Rensselaer was appointed in 1912. W.C. Batchelor was appointed as physical director in 1915. He supervised the compulsory health and physical education program for freshmen. This program, which included gymnasium classes and a hygiene class, was first instituted in the fall of 1916. "All members of Division D (first year students), who are not excused on account of physical disability, are required to take exercise, either in the Gymnasium or on the Athletic Field, throughout the scholastic year." [1916 Course Catalog] Lockers and towels were provided to each student and the rules governing them were printed in the student handbook.
Don't put a dirty, damp towel in your locker, get a clean one every time you use the showers. The towels don't cost you anything, the Institute takes care of having them laundered. The towel is not allowed to be taken out of the Gym. Don't take advantage of the Institute by trying to collect towels.
Although physical education was required, the administration was quick to point out that it was merely one small part of the student's education.
The Institute is not an 'athletic institution,' and the trustees and faculty do not intend to permit athletics to absorb the time, energy, and interest of its students. [1926 Course Catalog]
Beginning in 1938, physical education was required for both freshmen and sophomores, five times in two weeks. Students who could not pass a swim test had to take swim lessons for one semester. This requirement remained in place for many years, though eventually the requirements could be fulfilled at any point during the four year course. According to the 1971 catalog: "to complete the requirement for physical education, students must demonstrate proficiency through testing in six areas - physical fitness, swimming and four recreational lifetime activities, two indoor and two outdoor." Varsity athletes and sports club members could get PE credit for their participation. Physical education was not required for female students until 1973.
Physical education requirements were eliminated in 1995. From what I've read, students were happy to be relieved of the obligation.