Just in time for Thanksgiving, here’s some evidence that suggests little Johnny shouldn’t have a second helping of potatoes.
According to recent work by Australian researchers, today’s kids are, on average, 15 percent less physically fit than their parents were when they were the same age. This translates to a mile being run 90 seconds slower by a child now compared to a child in the 1960s. Chalk one up for the oldsters!
So what’s slowing down our youth? The authors speculate that the culprit is the sedentary lifestyle—that comfy world of fine TV, most excellent video games, and McDonald’s delivered to the front door. There are social and financial issues to consider, too: fewer phys ed programs in schools because of shrinking municipal tax bases; parents’ hesitancy in the name of safety to drop their kids off at a park somewhere and come back four hours later; no bicycling (also a safety issue); and on and on.
Of course, plenty of other studies in recent years have described this childhood obesity epidemic, not just in the U.S. but worldwide, probably related to the same theme—too much modern life is conducted indoors. Plus, heap ever more reports of falling math and verbal test scores, the epidemic of boomeranging kids moving back home after college, and it seems we are hovering at the edge of yet another cliff—needing only a sneeze or two to knock us an entire generation into the abyss.
All of this is truly disturbing. But it’s not really news. The haunting anniversary of President Kennedy's death is a good moment to recall one of his emblematic programs, the President's Council on Fitness. I remember the program well: coaches galore walking around counting and filling out little books. (I failed miserably at chin-ups, sit-ups, and push-ups, but performed really, really well, thank you, in jumping jacks.)
To be historically accurate, I should note that actually it was not JFK but rather twinkling avuncular Ike, he of the golf course, who started the program. It all began in the mid-1950s with a report in a medical journal from two researchers at New York University. [pdf: ]In it, the authors compared the fitness of 4,458 American youth, aged 6 to 13 years old, to that of 1,987 same-age kids living in Italy or Austria. The U.S. got slaughtered: 57 percent of our kids were “totally deficient” compared to just 8.3 percent of the Europeans. Specifically our kids born in the 1940s were less flexible, weaker, and had less stamina.
The authors, Hans Kraus and Ruth Hirschland, concluded that the problem was that “European children do not have the benefit of a highly mechanized society; they do not use cars, school buses, elevators, or other labor-saving devices. They must walk everywhere.” Their remedy was that all schools should introduce fitness programs under the aegis of PE, also known as Phys Ed, that dreaded hour every day so ripe with humiliation. In addition to the sweat and toil, PE had an important life lesson. It represented an inversion of the school’s intended pecking order. Here, the brainiacs were ridiculed and the hairy nimble beasts ruled the day. In fact, the entire day, every day.
And so it began—deliberate exercise for its own sake—not to get from here to there or to earn a living, but recreational exercise, a luxury unimaginable to those children who had grown up a century before, laboring in Dickensian work-houses.
The President’s Council on Fitness solved a problem, briefly, and kids perked up a little. The same generation then became joggers and weekend warriors as they aged.
It is likely that for many, fitness or the urge to be fit will happen later, after childhood has been spent with Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty.
The odd part of the fitness program—both that of the 1950s and the latest alarm sounded by this week’s Australian researchers—is that the remedy is purely retro: turn back the clock and get kids back on bikes, back to walking to school, back to playing in the front yard or on the pavement. Once again it appears that we have sampled modernity and discovered that it is not what it’s cracked up to be. In other words, it may be that the only thing more seductive than the lure of the comfy life is the gauzy embrace of nostalgia.
But before going back there, we should recall what JFK was really about—not the mythologized president, but the audacious man of unimaginable ambition and voracity for the future, moon included. After so many centuries of dull black-and-white, he led us bareheaded into an outdoor, Technicolor future. For him, I suspect that the solution for the scores of schlubby kids in no hurry at all would not be to count sit-ups or rent a bike, but rather to stare bravely and selfishly frontward, into tomorrow.