Past and Present: Lack of exercise now as lethal as smoking in the u.s.

By on August 20, 2012

By Lee Cole–

“…We do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong; that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound bodies. In this sense, physical fitness is the basis of all the activities of our society. And if our bodies grow soft and inactive, if we fail to encourage physical development and prowess, we will undermine our capacity for thought, for work and for the use of those skills vital to an expanding and complex America.” – John F. Kennedy, from “The Soft American”


Researchers at Lancet recently released a study indicating that lack of exercise kills as many people a year as smoking. In fact, the figures add up to about 5.3 million deaths every year from lack of exercise and its resultant health complications, including obesity and heart disease. In America, obesity has become a flagrant and troublesome national problem. According to the Center for Disease Control, childhood obesity rates have tripled since 1980 and are now at 17 % of children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 19. More than one third of American adults are currently obese, resulting in 147 billion in medical costs.

Roots of America’s couch potato syndrome go back many years, however. President-elect Kennedy saw the danger in an under-exercised American populace as far back as 1960. While Michelle Obama’s efforts in these areas have been notable, including her “Let’s Move!” program aimed at childhood obesity, a retro approach, like the one proposed in Kennedy’s article for Sports Illustrated entitled “The Soft American” just may be what the doctor ordered.

Kennedy suggests a White House Committee on physical fitness and placing more of a burden on the education system to make physical exercise a key aspect of public education. While some time is allotted for physical exercise today, it’s simply not enough to make up for the lack of exercise and sedentary lifestyles of most kids.

Michelle Obama takes a hands-on approach to encouraging physical fitness for young people in her “Let’s Move” program.

One interesting suggestion made by President-Elect Kennedy is that we should establish a National Youth Fitness Congress which each state governor would attend to relate what his or her state was doing to combat obesity and lack of physical exercise.

We live in a time when government interference in any aspect of lives is especially distasteful. In the age of the Tea Party, using the government to influence change has been next to impossible. Getting far right Senators and Congressmen to agree to a physical fitness overhaul and a renewed government focus on health and exercise seems unlikely when congress is unable to act on even the most trivial and non-partisan issues.

Even if programs were introduced to encourage fitness, there is no guarantee that any one will participate. When kids have the choice of playing Spiderman in a videogame or playing him using their imagination on the playground, they will more than likely choose the videogame. Has technology made the imagination obsolete? Why imagine when you can see it with your own eyes, in vivid detail, right there on your television screen?

There has to be some extra factor, something that instills in children the desire to exercise. Perhaps something between recess and gym class should be offered to children from kindergarten through high school; a time in which students are given a myriad of choices for how to exercise, ranging from sports to Wii Fitness to weight lifting or even yoga. Not only will they feel better, they will think better. For America to be fit intellectually, we must be fit physically.

JFK gave us the prescription, as a nation, in 1960. We’d be wise to hold our noses and take the medicine.

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