Wednesday, May 16, 2012

America’s Fitness Dichotomy

Cody's Anne Brinegar by mdt1960
Cody's Anne Brinegar, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Not long ago the local McDonald’s PlayPlace, with its familiar crawl-tube design, ball pits, and slides, was replaced by an electronic video “arcade.” The cavanerous space that housed the PlayPlace is now bleak, and dwarfs the smattering of installed game stations. I’m told through some reliable sources that this happened as a result of insurance premiums and cleanliness issues (which are likely related).

I don’t doubt that the insurance industry or health inspectors were behind the PlayPlace’s demise, but I have to wonder if this transformation is symbolic of what is truly happening in our country—we are becoming a shiftless, myopic, push-button society. Might as well bring out the Soma while we’re at it.

NPR ran a story the other day reporting that one third of our country is obese while another third is overweight. Looking around my quaint, little town of 5,000-plus, I don’t doubt these figures. Yet, our country did not reach greatness on the backs of an unfit population.

I was reminded again of our country’s decline in fitness when a friend of mine in Akron, Ohio sent a text while he was announcing the City Track Meet (representing approximately 23,000 students K-12) that read, “Currently announcing City Meet. My 5th place mile time in 1977 of 4:35, would have won it tonight.” His innocent observation was probably more poignant than he had intended.

A couple of years ago, another friend, upon moving to Powell from New York City, noted how many obese and overweight people there were in this state of “the great outdoors” compared to those in The Big Apple. He attributed it simply to the fact that almost everyone walks in New York as part of their everyday transportation.

Finally, the other day I found myself on a 32-mile bike ride which included 20 miles of dirt road and trails over the course of three hours. Hardly impressive when it comes to any kind of athletic standards, but looking around my little community, I have to wonder if even 10% could have kept up with me.

Is the bell curve stretching out? I’m no diet and health expert, but if we took today’s population and compared its fitness level to America’s fitness level of 1950, I suspect the info-graphics would look something like the chart below.

Despite our decline to greater self-indulgence and a sedentary life revolving around the artificial adventures provided by the television, internet and movies/videos (while eating high-fat foods), there is another, even if very small, population representing the opposite end of this spectrum. They are the record-breakers, the Usain Bolts, the Serena Williams or Haloti Ngatas—athletes with more dedication than ever, fueled by diets, regiments and technology that take their performance far beyond their colleagues of 30 or 50 years ago. They are as freakish as the 400-pounder who rarely leaves her house because she can barely move.

My suspicion is that the variation between what the worst of us and the best of us can do over the course of, say two miles, is becoming more expansive, more extreme—just like our politics.

I have often wondered if we are setting the stage for a split in human evolution—resulting in a race of athletic and health-minded humans and those akin to Jabba the Hut.

Lastly, in contemplating just how bad things are when it comes to our health, First Lady Michelle Obama has resorted to a physical fitness campaign that pathetically only says, “Let’s Move.” Sadly, this may save some of the youth, but in an age where instant gratification has become the norm, we don’t have a chance.