When I'm not TOJing, I work at a community health center in the rural resort area of Colorado. Last week a radio reporter called me to talk about childhood obesity. Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the U.S., but in the past few years, state health officials have noted an alarming trend -- the rate of obesity among children is rising fast, especially in poorer Colorado families.
The reporter asked me why this is happening. I offered several reasons: poorer families don't always have the health education to make good food choices; fresh food is less affordable than mass produced food loaded with fat, salt, and fructose corn syrup; less affluent kids don't have as many opportunities or encouragement to exercise because fewer PE courses are offered in schools and there are fewer affordable after-school exercise opportunities (many schools now charge money for varsity sports); and cheap sugar and fat laden fast food is heavily marketed and available everywhere.
The day after the interview, I was dismayed to read that basic training of U.S. Army recruits has been altered to eliminate long runs and sit-ups because too many are so obese and unfit that these basic strength and endurance exercises pose a serious risk of injury. Army officials speculated that the causes of this sorry state of affairs were similar to those I guessed: too much junk food and video games, as well as high schools reducing gym classes.
Last Friday I was in Fort Collins, Colorado, for a meeting. Fort Collins has a well-developed trail system for running, hiking and biking. Early in the morning I went to a trailhead at the foot of the hogback just to the west of the CSU football stadium. The sun had just come up and I figured that early I'd have the trail to myself. But, surprisingly, the parking lot was jammed with cars even though I could see nobody out on the trail.
I took off running on a rolling single track for about a mile, then started a zig-zag climb up the rocky face of the hogback. As I neared the top, I saw one, then two, then a long line of runners making the tight hairpin turns down, headed my way. When the first got close, I stepped off the trail to let them pass. There were about thirty of them, mostly men and a few women. They looked lean and fit. The men all had close cropped hair and were clean shaven. As each of them passed, they said, "Good morning, sir." The way they each said "sir" left me with the distinct impression that they were a university ROTC unit out for a training run. It was good to see such a fit group of twenty-somethings out on the trail.
I thought about the difference between these young men and women and the recruits showing up for basic training, many of whom are less affluent young people without the funds to go to college and hoping to pick up some work and skills in the military. My guess is that the young university students had the advantage of mom and dads with the time, income and values to encourage them to participate in gymnastics, soccer, karate and other sports when they were young. This is not to take anything away from their excellent physical condition and discipline to be out on the trail when most of their college buddies were probably still asleep, but these gave them an advantage when they grew up. Most likely, many of the enlisted recruits did not have similar experiences growing up.
A recent study from the transportation department at Rutgers University discovered that people in countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands and Spain are generally leaner than the average American because they walk and bike more. We need to import more of their lifestyle and city planning to make this possible for Americans, especially children.
We should expand our "inalienable rights" to include life, liberty, justice and fitness for all. And we should walk-the-talk by ensuring, first and foremost, that every child in American has access to a healthy diet and regular exercise. Children who can do sit-ups aren't just stronger, they're smarter. They will develop into adults who can protect our country and compete in the global market. Everybody wins.