By Lance Tapley
The Anti-Fan Blogger

The solution is social, not individual

In this blog I want to head toward a highly specific, practical suggestion to revolutionize fitness, sports, and health in America. It is both an old and very new suggestion. But first I need to set the philosophic stage.

In 1994 the historian and social critic Ivan Illich went beyond his famous and controversial 1976 book Medical Nemesis and published a very radical critique of the individual pursuit of health that I think can be applied to the subset known as fitness. In the essay “Brave New Biocracy” he challenges much that has been written on health and health promotion.

For one thing, Illich believed that health had been redefined to mean personal adaptation to the pollution, stress, and other negatives of a world devoted to mad economic growth.

“To demand that our children feel well in the world which we leave them is an insult to their dignity,” he writes. “Then to impose on them responsibility for their own health is to add baseness to the insult.” In this context, the individual pursuit of health may be “a sickening disorder.”

Pretty radical indeed. But isn’t there an obvious contradiction in an individual fighting to get or keep healthy — let’s change that to get or keep fit — in a polluted, harried, atomized, consumer-advertising-saturated, automobile- and TV-dominated world?

The results firmly demonstrate that, for most individuals, it’s a loser’s battle. Overwhelmingly, intentions to reduce weight and get fit remain unfulfilled. Americans and many other people in the world are getting fatter and less fit by the day.

In a consumer society, is this surprising? Ironically, an entire industry constantly stimulates the frustrated intentions to get fit in order to increase the consumption of goods and services associated with health and fitness. Often, the goods and services are deceptive, such as expensive, low-fat foods loaded with calories, diets based on flimsy science or none at all, and 10-minute-a-day video workout programs to give you six-pack abs!

That irony is a subset of the fundamental irony of advertising, which has been well understood for a hundred years by the trade’s professionals: The rapidly moving ad treadmill on which the consumer runs is powered by frustration, not satisfaction — especially, sexual frustration, as advertising’s content so lubriciously exposes.

Universal unhappiness is the economic ideal. A practical vision of the ideal would be to have everybody be unfit, fat, alone (so we don’t engage in uneconomic sharing), and indoors (the better to receive the ad messages) — and taunt them about it. We’re getting there.

As I touched upon in Blog No. 2, against the odds some people succeed in a personal project of becoming fit — mostly, some of the well-off. Befitting the American theology, which worships the elect, the elite, the rich, their success is held up socially as an individual triumph of merit. Many of these folks see themselves that way, too.

Of course, it is meritorious to be fit. An individual should feel good and live a healthier and longer life. Efforts to do so not only benefit the individual, they may benefit others. For example, you obviously can benefit your mate and children directly and indirectly serve as a model for them and others. These are good things.

Still, that calculation of benefits is an example of the trickle-down philosophy. Like economic trickle-down, it has limited social meaning. For example, there’s a paradox in the trim corporate executive who works out (perhaps with a personal trainer) after spending the day designing advertising campaigns for some food or gadget that helps people become unhealthy or unfit.

A much more effective philosophy and practice is a social, democratic pursuit of health and fitness. Basically, I’m talking about sharing. If one worked to help others — and with others — to become fit and healthy as he or she pursued fitness, this activism would extend the benefits of fitness to vastly larger numbers of people than solipsistic exertion.

And sharing is far more satisfying to the individual than a completely personal project.  How can fit people fully enjoy their vigor, for example, when others are literally killing themselves with their unhealthy life? And when they’re pleading for help. All runners have experienced jeers from young people passing in their cars, jeers that I interpret as, often, jealous. At heart, they’re cries for help.

Physically active people can be socially active. They can become coaches — but not of the traditional kind. There are many choices for activism in fitness and sports, but the creation of participants and long-lasting athletes instead of additional passive fans is the basic choice.

Sports or activities that lead quickest to fitness and keep one there are those that can be enjoyed with competition only as an option. These include running, bicycling, cross-country skiing, ice-skating, rowing, swimming, hiking, walking, mountain climbing, and strength training. These are the activities that should be the most socially promoted.

They’re called individual sports because they can be practiced, when necessary or desired, alone. They are relatively free of rules, making them easy to take up. Most are endurance sports that primarily condition the most-important-for-fitness cardiovascular system.

Skating, swimming, running, hiking, and walking subvert the commercial system because they need little equipment. Walking and running are the most subversive sportif activities because they are almost universally available. Surprisingly, individual sports provide the best results socially.

Of course, many competitive group sports can make one very fit, such as basketball and soccer, and they provide the social and mental satisfactions of teams and games. But in these sports the social activists whom we know as traditional coaches, succumbing to the economic system’s demands or ideology, promote the competitive element and thus the elites. Increasingly, they promote elites even among young children. And commercial interests thrive on the fan-elite division. I discussed these points in Blog No. 1.

The emphasis on competition, too, tends to shove aside less able and older people. Some sports are simply hard for less proficient and older people to participate in. Team coaches are strongly complicit in the creation of an unfit society.

What is activism on behalf of the alternative of participatory sports? To make a few general suggestions: Through community organizing, one might help create opportunities, in both time and place, for people to walk, run, bike, and cross-country ski as part of their daily routine. Or create community groups or classes for these activities. Some sports or fitness warriors are already fighting this battle, but they are relatively few.

One might work for a less-polluted environment in which to exercise. One might work politically for a society that provides more leisure than our produce-and-consume-from-cradle-to-grave culture. I make these suggestions for action with the assumption that organized groups would undertake them. Merely working in a group undermines commercial interests.

But wait! How idealistic — hopelessly romantic, some readers might say — to write an essay against sitting. Can anyone seriously believe Americans will use cars less in the future? Or watch television less? In American history, movements to restraint consumption have failed pathetically. Exhortations to exercise usually have failed, too, as I noted in Blog No. 2.

Obesity seems inevitable, doesn’t it?  It seems one of the insoluble problems of Americanized global life — like global warming and shattered families — because it is a profound, complex consequence of a largely unchallenged economic and psychological system that is becoming more comprehensive every day.

Yet, strengthening every other powerful motive for exercise and underlying every option for activism in sports is the elemental, free, social, and universal spirit of play. The beckoning of nature in the woods, fields, and parks around us — and the nature within us — summons this spirit.

The everything-is-economics crowd (I think of the zany Chicago School economists) see greed as human nature. But free, childlike play is also our nature — adult nature, too. Only suppression by economic forces of our playful self has allowed another part of our self, our greed, our materialism, our perverted hunger, to conquer it — to the unparalleled, tragic extent, as the studies show, that kids in the United States now play little with other kids outdoors.

But cultures can change, and play is still alive. Play can even be put back into competition. Sports competition has a sound base. The word competition at the root means to strive together. On teams, competition involves much cooperation. The shared effort — and suffering — of team sports provide inoculations of loyalty, endurance, and courage against the serious traumas of life. Using a thousand clichés, school coaches try to convince their charges of this value.

But school coaches should recognize that the gods did not command gladiatorial and commercialized sports competition. A re-emphasis on intramural sports and physical education in schools and colleges is not a wild — though it is a radical — suggestion. It would be going back to basics, to the past.

Humans are not just stimulus-response mice in a frantic marketing maze. We can choose, as many runners and hikers and walkers already have chosen, to go down a different path. We can choose to run out and play.

But enough of philosophy and generalities. What about my specific, practical, old-and-new suggestion? I’ve hinted where I’m going, but it’ll have to wait until my next blog. It’ll be a relatively inexpensive but massively effective sports-fitness-recreational reform that would be hard for the forces of commerce to fight, politically or otherwise. In some ways it would be easy to bring about. In a short time it would revolutionize the physical condition of millions of Americans. It would save the country hundreds of billions of dollars a year in health-care costs. And do lots of other good things!

Email me at [email protected]

Lance Tapley is a guest blogger for League of Fans and a freelance writer based in Maine.


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