In Praise of Participation
By Lance Tapley

The Anti-Fan Blogger

Here’s the solution America has been waiting for and that I’ve promised in my previous blog: a solution to one of the most dramatic crises the country has ever suffered, a crisis far more threatening and harmful than, say, terrorism.

Here’s a remedy to a plague that’s slaughtering millions of Americans every year and that will kill multiple millions in the future — not to mention it’s destroying the country financially. Worse, it’s an entirely optional crisis.

I’m writing, of course, about a way out of the nightmare of declining fitness and health, as Americans become increasingly sedentary, overweight, obese, and diabetic to the point that, eventually, everybody in the supermarket will be getting around on a scooter, and we’ll all be both clients and employees of the health-care industry!

As I have previously discussed and as everyone recognizes, this crisis has been caused by our lifestyle of commercially driven materialism and technological obsession — all sold to us by a daily onslaught of massive advertising via manifold media.

Instead of hours walking and playing in the outdoors, as humans evolved to do, we take a car home from the office or school to watch television — often a sports spectacle — or surf the Internet, or play video games, as we stuff ourselves with vast quantities of calories.

Scientific research shows that our excess intake of food may be the biggest contributor to our physical predicament. But as the Anti-Fan Blogger, my spotlight is on the significant factor in the equation contributed by lack of exercise.

Research also shows that exhortation by experts as well as education about fitness and health — even undertaken on a community-wide level — make little headway against the corporate media juggernaut. Nevertheless, as I have argued, the solution must be democratically realized at the community level. It has to be social, not individual.

And the solution must emphasize accessible, inexpensive, and easy-to-take-up sports that can continue throughout life. They should be aerobic sports like brisk walking, running, skating, cross-country skiing, and swimming. Games like soccer and basketball could meet these criteria, as long as everyone is welcomed, no one is excluded, and there’s plenty of play time.

So how do we force millions of people to exercise? Yes, force them — because if exhortation and education don’t work, then, obviously, only forcing people to exercise vigorously for an hour a day for a minimum of five days a week will work to turn them into truly fit, inexpensive-to-maintain human beings.

I know I’m being too precise with that one-hour-five-days-a-week formula, without backing it up with data. I may deal with that question in a later blog. For now, let me just say that plenty of studies show — and every athlete knows — a vigorous hour a day five days a week is a rough approximation of what’s needed to get in good shape.

Got a problem with forcing people to exercise? Well, we already force tens of millions of people in this country to exercise several times a week, at least for a few minutes.

We would run into civil-liberties problems, to say the least, if the government required workers to do calisthenics, as the Chinese Communists once did (and still do, to some extent). But we have no problem with the government — the public, us — forcing our kids to do lots of things beneficial to them, such as studying math, English, science, and history.

The mandatory exercise I’m referring to is, of course, physical education in the schools. Which is highly popular: a Harvard study found that more than 90 percent of parents supported more PE in the schools.

The problem is that PE today is terribly insufficient. So is my solution the encouragement of more physical education? No, encouragement is not enough.

Marginally more PE would be helpful in a weak sort of way. PE4life and similar groups are on the right side. They may even win a few battles. But the war is being lost. Reform will not revolutionize American fitness and health. Only revolution will.

The only thing that will bring about a real revolution is a massive commitment to make physical education a national priority. I’m talking: Manhattan Project, Race to the Moon, War on Terror, or War on Drugs (but far more successful than the latter two).

We need a national program that for 13 years — kindergarten through 12th grade — requires every child to have at least five hours a week of real body-changing and, as increasing evidence shows, mind-improving, aerobic (and muscular) exercise. It needs to be enough to burn off fat; strengthen heart, lungs, muscles, bone, and brain; and increase flexibility, coordination, and balance.

PE currently is pathetic. School physical education has been declining in importance for years. Only two percent of high schools now provide daily phys ed. The great majority of high schools only require PE for one year out of four. And PE classes are accommodating absurdly high numbers of students, decreasing the activity time per student.

And the PE we have is not what it purports to be. A California study found that only eight minutes during a typical PE hour are actually spent in vigorous activity. Revolutionary PE may require one-and-a-half-hour classes a day just to ensure there’s an hour of robust exercise.

To sum up this national disaster: even counting physical education, “less than 20 percent of adolescents participated in physical activity for at least 60 minutes daily,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

Studies also show that kids who experience a lot of physical activity when young tend to continue being active when they’re adults. Logic alone dictates that this will occur, especially, when the youthful sports in which skills and habits are built are the kinds that can be enjoyed for the rest of life — unlike high school’s most popular sport, brain-damaging tackle football.

Here’s another benefit to Revolutionary PE: Fit, active children would be good models for their parents. They could teach them about the need to exercise. They could specifically show them how. The physical education I envision includes a lot of education about the science of fitness.

In this blog, however, I don’t want to examine the nuts-ands-bolts of what a revolutionized PE might look like, important as that question is. I’ll save that, also, for a future blog. Suffice it to say that we will need to conduct a lot of research on this revolution; train and retrain thousands of PE teachers to implement it; and involve parents and communities to support it.

What I want to examine now is the most important question: how we get from point A to point B — from the sorry state we are in to producing generations of healthy young people, many of whom will stay that way for life. I want to look at the politics of bringing about the revolution.

A way to approach the politics is to inspect the roadblocks in the path, the barriers that exist despite PE’s popularity among parents and despite all the reports and books by public-health experts pleading for the country to save itself.

Some problems, I imagine, will be presented by parents. They will worry that their child will not get into the right college if the kid doesn’t spend all his or her time on academic subjects. (And schools are being forced to drill students for tests, to the detriment of everything else.) Other parents will worry that their child will be forced to do something he or she hates.

But phys ed teachers and their students should be able to teach parents and principals that scientific studies show academic performance improves with physical activity.

And — no question — Revolutionary PE should have flexibility. There should be choices. Dance can be just as body-changing as cross-country running, as long as it’s vigorous. And programs should be designed not only for (small) classes, but also for individuals.

More important, politically, is the objection that increased PE hours in the schools will come into conflict with funding for sports teams.

Did I mention that we need to pour a pile of money into the PE revolution? Aye, there’s the real rub: money. It’s the big roadblock, of course, to getting from point A to point B.

How to surmount that political barrier will be the subject of my next blog.

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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