By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
September 25, 2014

We’re fat and getting fatter.

There’s really not a nicer way to put it. Today, more than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese.

According to the Trust for America’s Health, 20 years ago, no state had an obesity rate above 15 percent. Today there are 41 states with obesity rates over 25 percent.

Obesity is linked to more than 60 chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and cancer. Annual health cost figures related to obesity in the U.S. are at nearly $200 billion, and nearly 21 percent of medical costs in the U.S. can be attributed to obesity. Per capita medical spending is $2,741 higher for people with obesity than for normal-weight individuals.

As such, what we’re facing is more than just a health crisis; it’s also an economic crisis. Researchers estimate that if obesity trends continue, obesity-related medical costs alone could rise by $43 to $66 billion each year in the United States by 2030.

The sobering statistics go on and on, but you get the picture. And it’s certainly a bleak one.

There’s no solution other than to make significant changes in the way we live our lives. Healthier diets are certainly part of the answer, but a big factor — and one too often overlooked — is that we simply have to move our bodies more.

We’re way too sedentary.

Dr. Frank W. Booth, a professor at the University of Missouri, says physical inactivity is a key cause of the nation’s overweight/obesity crisis. Booth contends that of the estimated 750,000 Americans that die each year of heart disease, diabetes and colon cancer, research shows that one-third of those could be prevented by increased physical activity.

Booth calls the increasingly prevalent condition of being fat and out of shape Sedentary Death Syndrome (SeDS).

Our bodies were designed to be physically active. Yet hard physical work — including farming and other jobs and chores requiring a high degree of physical activity — is no longer part of the typical American’s life.

Moreover, most Americans look at traditional exercise options such as jogging on a treadmill, riding a stationary bicycle, or plain old calisthenics as pure drudgery.

What’s the way out? Sports. Not spectator sports but participatory sports. The United States is considered a sports-mad country but what we’re really crazy about is sitting on our couches watching elite athletes play sports on our HDTVs.

It’s time to get out and play the games ourselves. Tennis. Basketball. Volleyball. Soccer. Whatever the sport, it’s time to participate instead of watching from the sidelines. For the fun of it. And the health of it.

To that end, what we need is an integrated social marketing campaign built around a “Sport For All” concept. The objective of a Sport For All initiative would be to involve all demographic sectors of the population in sports activity throughout their life spans. It would promote mass participation in sport as opposed to spectator sport (sport as entertainment) and Olympic-style elite competition sport.

Sport For All would emphasize the recreational model of sport, which is based on the premise that we can all participate in sports to test ourselves, get physical exercise, and have fun. The goal of a Sport For All program is participation for its own sake (personal enjoyment; and physical, mental and emotional benefits, etc.) vs. competitive excellence.

Sport For All could serve as a powerful weapon against Sedentary Death Syndrome and the assorted health problems and costs associated with inactivity. The Sport For All program could also encourage people to engage in their world in general — as active participants, not just sideline observers.

This certainly isn’t a new concept. An international Sport For All movement has been growing over the last couple decades. However, it has had very little impact in the United States.

Sport For All is expanding in Europe, Australia, Latin America and Asia at a much faster pace than it is in North America.

Internationally, there are several Sport for All-type organizations. Latin American countries belong to the Pan American Confederation of Sport for All. Nations of the Pacific share information through the Asian, Pacific, and Oceania Sport for All Association. The Federation International Sport Pour Tous assists Sport for All projects in French, Spanish and Arabic-speaking countries. The IOC has a Sport for All Commission to assist member countries in the development of Sport for All programs. Trim and Fitness International Sport for All (TAFISA) serves as an international clearinghouse and coordinating body for Sport for All. Australia has a successful national Sport for All campaign entitled: “Life. Be In It.”

However, the German Sport for All program is probably the gold standard in the field. The German Sports Federation documented an increase in sports participation of 51% across the German population during a 28-year span.

An integrated social marketing campaign has been credited with the German program’s success. This campaign has had nine key elements of success:

1. Health problems associated with exercise deficit are stressed to government agencies and citizens directly.

2. The economic benefits of sport development are identified and promoted.

3. New sports, and existing sports adapted for various ages and abilities, are promoted.

4. The social elements of participation are stressed. Initiatives are created to socialize new participants.

5. Sports clubs and organizations and volunteers are utilized extensively to recruit new participants.

6. Advertising and PR efforts emphasize play and socialization, rather than competition.

7. A wide-variety of performance/skill levels are created and/or communicated to allow a wide range of skill levels and ages to participate.

8. Inexpensive sports are promoted and efforts to make all sports affordable are undertaken.

9. Communication plans cater to a wide range of motivations for doing sport: exercise, obtaining new experiences, self-development, relaxation, stress management, etc.

Relative to other countries, any efforts that could even remotely be considered Sport for All-type initiatives in the United States are very limited.

Congress passed the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act in 1978 to charter the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), as well as National Governing Bodies (NGBs) for each sport. The mission of the USOC and NGBs is to govern American participation in the Olympic movement and promote amateur sports in the United States. In addition, the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, through the NGBs and its members, is supposed to protect the opportunity of “any amateur athlete” down to the youth level “to participate in amateur athletic competition.” The Stevens Act was also designed to protect American athletes from discrimination in terms of equal opportunity in sports.

According to the USOC’s website, the organization seeks to “assist in finding opportunities for every American to participate in sport, regardless of gender, race, age, geography, or physical ability.”

In reality, however, the USOC and NGBs do very little in this regard. These organizations focus almost exclusively on a small group of elite-level athletes, not the masses, and only pay cursory attention to the participation model of sports.

For Americans, our culture seems to tell us that after high school or college, it’s time to stop playing sports, even at a recreational level, and move on to “adult” endeavors. As the handful of examples above show, that’s not how other countries view sports participation.

Let’s show the world that the United States truly is a sports-mad country. This time from a participation perspective.

Because when it comes to the need to move our bodies, we’re all athletes.

Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans

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