It'll help your cardiovascular efficiency and all that good stuff.
—MIKE LOVE OF THE BEACH BOYS, asking the audience at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe, Nev. to stand and clap hands during a rendition of Surfin' USA
People are healthier, and it's due to dietary changes and exercise. Of course, this is based more on faith than data.
—ROBERT M. CUNNINGHAM JR., Blue Cross/Blue Shield consultant
Actually, there has been no real revolution in fitness.
—JOHN H. DAVIS, executive director of the National Recreation and Park Association
Considering all the attention it has attracted, it's surprising how little we know about that cultural phenomenon most commonly referred to as the fitness boom. One of the things we don't know is whether it even exists. Madison Avenue copywriters and the authors of magazine cover stories have been breathlessly proclaiming the reality of such a boom for perhaps five years now (which means that it actually would have had to begin some time earlier), but one sometimes suspects that this is merely to see how many variations on the name they can come up with. The results so far include fitness craze, fitness binge, fitness mania, fitness revival, fitness upsurge and, yes, fitness revolution. Other variations include wellness boom and health boom.
February 7, 1983
To say that the U.S. is caught up in a fitness boom, however, is to imply that Americans have become fitter, and while there are plenty of people around who swear that this is the case, the evidence strongly suggests otherwise. There's reason to believe that whatever wonders the fitness boom may have worked for certain individuals, it hasn't made society as a whole fitter at all. This generally overlooked fact is just sitting there, practically begging to be recognized. To uncover the unhappy truth, it's necessary only to ask the right people.
Older folks? Most Americans over 50, says Dr. Ronald B. Mackenzie, medical director of the National Athletic Health Institute in Inglewood, Calif., are in "a dismal state of fitness." Young adults? A substantial number of them, says Assistant Chief Michael J. McNulty, former commander of New York City's Police Academy, "can't run or do sit-ups or push-ups. The current generation is flabby, out of shape." Schoolchildren? Jim Waters, who runs a youth ski and soccer program in Denver called Buffalo Sports, Inc., notes a "trend toward unfitness" among children and says, "My experience is that they're not in shape, no more than adults are. They're stiff, and they don't know that their muscles are tight. They don't know what it feels like for them to be loose."
The situation is pretty much the same throughout the population. In November the Los Angeles Times ran an account of a health facility in San Diego where injured athletes go for training, and where ordinary citizens go to exercise. The Times confidently reported that the establishment, the San Diego Sports Medicine Center, was "an outgrowth of the fitness and wellness boom." But the newspaper also quoted the center's co-director, Dr. E. Lee Rice, as saying, "We live basically in an obese, unfit society. We are as a people unfit." There's the contradiction again: A society supposedly in the midst of a fitness boom is unfit.
As this contradiction indicates, there's another side, a down side, to the fitness story. There's something going on with fitness in the U.S., all right, and whatever it is—O.K., let's call it a boom—it has such staying power that it's already entering its second generation. Having grown accustomed to seeing hordes of citizens running through our parks and streets, we're now rubbing our eyes at the spectacle of people exercising by, for example, hanging upside down in gravity inversion systems intended to improve circulation and ease tension on the spine. As though the proliferation of corporate exercise programs and private health clubs weren't enough, we're assured that an explosion in home gyms is about to begin. Now that enough of us have tried (and frequently abandoned) the Stillman and Scarsdale diets, it's time to shape up in the company of Richard Simmons or Jane Fonda, whose workout regimens have supplanted Stillman and Scarsdale on the bestseller book lists.
But this boom is in large part illusory. To begin with, it's much more of a factor in some social, economic and age groups than others. The much ballyhooed growth in the number of private health clubs and employee fitness programs has been paralleled by a less widely recognized decline in the availability of traditional fitness programs in parks, recreation departments and, above all, schools. This shift in emphasis from the public to the private sector is reflected in the fitness boom demographics: Participants in it are more likely to be rich than poor, executives than blue-collar workers, white than non-white, college graduates than high school graduates, adults than children. The myth that the boom is a democratic phenomenon has been nurtured in part by the gratifying increase in the number of women participating in it. But women have moved into fitness activities largely to the extent that they've advanced into the upper middle class, to which the boom is geared. Poor women, like poor men, aren't exercising; cuts in phys ed programs put schoolgirls on the sidelines just as they do schoolboys. As one close observer of the fitness scene, University of Michigan Physical Education Professor Guy G. Reiff puts it, "They say that everybody's running and working out, and maybe guys with dough are, but I'm not sure much of this is reaching the shoe clerks and the guys carrying lunch buckets."
What these demographic data mean is that the action in fitness has simply gravitated toward where the profits are. In fact, it might be said that we're experiencing not so much a boom in fitness as in the business of fitness. Yet even here, appearances are deceiving. Nobody seems to notice the fitness activities that go into decline. The tennis boom is over, rollerskating is on the skids and bicycle sales in the U.S. plummeted last year to an estimated 6.7 million, down from a peak of 15.2 million in 1973. The fitness boom obviously contains a good deal of bust.
It's also an illusion because of the confusion that exists between the perception of activity and what is actually going on. UCLA Chancellor Charles E Young takes a daily run and is pleased that a lot of students do the same. "There's no question that today on our campus more people are doing something to try to take care of themselves," Young says. But Elvin C. (Ducky) Drake, who has been at the university for 58 years as track coach and trainer, says flatly, "UCLA students aren't in as good physical condition as they used to be." Drake recognizes that for all their visibility and good intentions, Chancellor Young and his fellow runners number no more than several hundred on a campus of more than 40,000 people. Drake also points out that UCLA "used to have a great physical education program, but we don't anymore." UCLA is hardly alone in this regard: Phys ed programs in recent years have been sharply curtailed or eliminated at almost all colleges and universities.
Polls pointing to a dramatic increase in exercise are also misleading. Two of the most prominent are a 1977 Gallup poll in which 47% of the adults responding said they exercised daily, nearly double the 24% figure in a comparable Gallup poll in 1961, and a 1978 Louis Harris survey sponsored by Perrier in which 59% of adults told of exercising regularly. There was also a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken last October in which 53% of the respondents over 17 said they exercised "strongly each day."
But self-reported data are often suspect. The Harris poll found that while 59% claimed to exercise regularly, only 15% were active enough to achieve fitness. Some of the respondents in the Post-ABC survey who said they exercised "strongly each day" felt they got enough exercise through their jobs to satisfy the definition of that phrase; it turned out that many had relatively undemanding jobs. In 1980 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reviewed various poll results as part of a study on health promotion and concluded that by "generous" estimate "something over 35%" of the adult population was engaged in "appropriate physical activity." In other words, nearly two-thirds of adult Americans weren't engaged in such activity. And the figures would have been far higher for the less affluent and for children. If recounted in one of those tabloids peddled in supermarkets, the story would merit a sensational headline: FITNESS BOOM SNUBS THE POOR. Or: SHADES OF JOAN CRAWFORD, FITNESS BOOM MISTREATS ITS KIDS.
Even when people are engaged in worthwhile exercise programs, the benefits tend to be offset by the ever-increasing sedentariness of American life. The treadmills to be found in today's health clubs are perfect symbols for what's happening: People exert themselves, but don't get anywhere. The headline for this one: FITNESS BOOM IN TRYST WITH THE GOOD LIFE. Americans watch more TV than ever and drive more and walk less. Because of the swivel chair, computer terminal and, most recently, industrial robot, they get less exercise on the job. They experience the woods without hiking (snowmobiles), the mountains without climbing (alpine slides and ski lifts) and the water without swimming (surf-making machines), and sedentariness even encroaches on their exercise. Businessmen who work out during the lunch hour at Baltimore's Downtown Athletic Club are chauffeured to the gym in a "fitness van"—because "their time is very limited," explains General Manager Tom Atkins. Inactivity traps people in what Matthew L. Tayback, director of Maryland's Department on Aging, calls "a self-defeating cycle in which we fulfill our notion of old age. The less we do, the less we're capable of doing."
Many of those who do exercise properly are fitter as a result. This has quite possibly contributed to a recent decline in the death rate from strokes and heart attacks, which in turn has contributed to an increase in the average American's life expectancy—from 69.7 years in 1960 to 73.2 in 1977 to a provisional figure of 74.1 in 1981. But in the main the decline in the heart-attack death rate is almost certainly attributable to advances in coronary-bypass surgery and other emergency-care procedures; even at that, the U.S. continues to have one of the world's highest such death rates. Similarly, gains in life expectancy are attributable mainly to the development of vaccines and antibiotics that have virtually eradicated many infectious diseases, such as polio and smallpox, and greatly improved the nation's infant mortality rate.
"We stamped out the communicable diseases of childhood," says Dr. Mark Crooks, a health educator who works as a corporate fitness consultant in Kansas City, Mo. "But we keep people alive so that they can die of cancer, heart disease and strokes, the degenerative diseases caused not by bacterial agents but by faulty life-style."
Because of their inactivity, Americans are unable to work off tension, properly exercise the heart and other muscles and burn off the calories they consume in gargantuan quantities. By all accounts, the typical American adult can't climb a flight of stairs without experiencing shortness of breath. More than 90 million citizens suffer back pains. Alcohol abuse affects one-third of all homes. One-third of the population complains of sleep disorders. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, approximately a fifth of the American public is at least 20% above desirable weight. Hospital stays are getting fewer and shorter, but this may simply reflect rising medical costs. Per capita hospital outpatient visits, on the other hand, have increased by 98% since 1972, and the total cost of health care continues to soar, reaching $286.6 billion in 1981—9.8% of the gross national product.
There have been three federally funded standardized fitness studies of public-school children over the past quarter of a century, and the findings are discouraging. There were significant gains in fitness between the first study in 1957-58 and the second one in 1964-65, but little or no improvement on the final battery of tests in 1974-75. Educators sighed with relief that boys' performances hadn't actually declined, and that girls seemed to be doing somewhat better on some tests, but many also agreed with Michigan's Reiff, who played a key role in administering the last two studies, that the overall results were "abysmal." A test conducted during the 1979-80 school year by the AAU and Nabisco Brands of more than four million children six through 17 suggested that the picture wasn't getting any brighter; 57% of the youngsters failed to achieve standards deemed attainable by the average healthy child. And finally, a test of Michigan schoolchildren administered in 1979 by Thomas B. Gilliam, then of the University of Michigan and now a health-cost consultant in the Cleveland area, found evidence of one or more of the common risk factors for heart disease—high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and low cardiovascular fitness—already extant in 50% of the youngsters.
The link between the nation's life-style and its health problems is clear to most authorities. The problem is not only too little exercise—the culprits in the case of children include TV and, recently, video games—but too many cigarettes, too many calories and a diet far too rich in salt and saturated fats, both of which have been linked to high blood pressure and heart attacks.
"The real American epidemic is that every fifth man has a heart attack by age 60," says Dr. William P. Castelli, a lecturer at Harvard and director of a long-running federally funded study of heart disease in Framingham, Mass. "This is a disease that doesn't exist for three-fourths of the people on earth. But some of these people, like the Japanese, are going to blow it. Twenty-five years ago their fat intake was 25 grams a day; with wealth and Americanization some of them are up to 60 per day now. They're seeing heart attacks where they never saw them." By implication, the U.S. has already blown it: The average daily fat intake in this country is 85 grams. To Castelli, the situation is best typified by a neighbor of his who owns a sit-down lawn mower equipped with a holder for a beer can and an ashtray so that "he not only avoids exercise but takes in calories and carcinogens."
Most experts agree that the one surefire antidote to "life-style" disease is lifestyle change, such as cutting out cigarettes, making fundamental nutritional changes and following a regular and balanced exercise program. Just as important is the need to "engineer" more activity into daily life. Use stairs instead of elevators. Leave your car at the far end of the parking lot. Walk more.
The entrepreneurial spirit that fuels the fitness boom has produced a number of welcome innovations. Today's mirrored and carpeted fitness centers are certainly more inviting places than the dank, sweaty gyms of yesteryear. Classes in aerobic dance and the like have, for many devotees, actually made exercise fun, no small achievement; most authorities say such classes, if properly run, can promote cardiovascular fitness. But many of the trappings of the fitness boom amount to a triumph of style over substance. It isn't just that running shoes are purchased by people who merely want to look like joggers, or that there's a king's ransom in barbells and exercise machines rusting in the nation's attics, it's also that the public is led to believe that one shouldn't do anything without buying the right book, the right costume, the right equipment—computerized with digital readouts, naturally.
The fitness business, much of it anyway, is a hard-sell hustle. "You're getting a lot of charlatans, strong, body-beautiful types—what have you—who don't know what they're talking about," complains Jack E. Razor, executive vice-president of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, an organization for professionals in those fields. One of the most common misrepresentations is that health can be effortless. Hence, all those sauna belts, hot pajamas and vibrating massage pillows that supposedly do the work for you. But some apostles of fitness seem more silly than anything else. An early example is Dr. Abraham I. Friedman, a specialist in treating obesity and author of the 1972 book, How Sex Can Keep You Slim, whose credo was "reach for your mate instead of your plate." His work inspired Mary Ann Crenshaw, author of The Natural Way to Super Beauty, to write, "As Dr. Friedman puts it, 'the best prescription for emotional overeating is sex, taken as directed.' " Gushes Crenshaw: "Okay, doctor, that's one I'll buy."
Many people, having been in sorry shape much of their lives, are susceptible to promises of a quick fix. Fad diets play to this impulse, and even sound nutritional programs don't do much good if erratically followed.
At La Costa, the health retreat near San Diego, the tab is $240 a day for a "spa plan" that includes exercise classes, meals based on "portion control"—less can sometimes cost more—and various massages and facials. The regimen provides some guests the catalyst they need for changing their life-styles. But La Costa also attracts silver-haired gents smoking I-got-it-made cigars who merely want to show off their young third wives. And there's only so much even such a well-appointed place can do. Recently Spa Director Ward Hutton interrupted a rapid-fire spiel about La Costa's attractions to show a visitor before-and-after photos of a frequent patron who had pared his weight from 400 to 190 pounds. The visitor asked if the man had kept the weight off. Hutton, who had already moved on to the next subject, winced. "Oh, he gained it all back, the rascal," he replied. Probable cause of the fellow's downfall: There was nobody to prepare his julienne of rutabaga for him when he was away from La Costa.
The fitness boom also has spawned its share of exercise fanatics; the price these overreachers pay includes broken marriages, wrecked careers and debilitating injuries that put them out of action, mocking the very meaning of the word fitness.
More commonly, fitness regimens don't go far enough. Working out at your friendly neighborhood Nautilus center can improve strength and muscle tone, but most responsible exercise physiologists reject the claim by Nautilus aficionados that it can also foster cardiovascular fitness, a benefit derived, it's generally agreed, from running, cycling, stair climbing, rope jumping and swimming. Conversely, Colonel James L. Anderson, physical education director at West Point, believes that a recent increase in shoulder injuries among cadets is an indication that they've been so involved in aerobic activities that they've neglected their upper-body strength. Sports also provide only a partial answer. One drawback is that they stoke the competitive fires from which properly planned exercise offers much-needed respite. Even those sports with conditioning value—basketball, tennis, etc.—are stop-and-go activities and are thus less helpful than sustained aerobic exercise. And some sports aren't very helpful at all. "There's a terrible misconception about fitness." says Dr. Harold Reitan, a social psychologist who manages the Adolph Coors Company's wellness program in Golden, Colo. "People say, 'I bowl, I play soft ball, I'm fit.' These things are more socialization than exercise."
The medical profession's contributions to promoting sounder diet and exercise habits are distressingly limited. "What does Jane Fonda know?" demands Dr. Joseph Arends, a Troy, Mich. cardiologist. "First she's an expert on Vietnam and then nuclear energy and now health. She's an expert on everything." But Arends is one of the few doctors who specialize in preventive medicine. Most physicians are attuned more to dealing with crises, more to mending hearts than to keeping them healthy.
An editorial in the March 1981 issue of Preventive Medicine magazine criticized the medical profession for a "noteworthy failure to implement health promotion in clinical practice [or] to offer advice concerning exercise, nutrition, substance abuse, stress, and health habits." A major complaint is that many doctors find it easier and more profitable to prescribe Valium than to help patients deal more meaningfully with stress. Castelli of the Framingham Heart Study says, "Physicians aren't into preventive medicine and that's our problem. We teach preventive medicine in all the med schools, but just give it lip service. It all becomes diagnosis treatment."
Refusing to follow the lead of the American Heart Association and other groups that urge restrictions on the intake of cholesterol, the American Medical Association takes the position that patients should rely instead on dietary advice based on specific medical examination. Trouble is, doctors don't routinely provide such advice. If Jane Fonda is front and center when it comes to fitness, says Castelli, it's because "we've abandoned the subject to her."
In this fitness wilderness, it's the less affluent who are most likely to lose their way. The common images of athletically lean ghetto youths and rock-hard factory workers are nothing more than stereotypes. Michigan's Reiff, who has conducted studies of fitness among inner-city children, says that while they may tend to walk more and play more schoolyard basketball, these pluses are offset by inferior school physical education facilities and poor diets. As for factory workers, the exercise they get on the job—if they have jobs—has been eroded by automation. Yet recent studies indicate that because production line workers tend to have less scheduling flexibility, they often suffer more stress than executives in supposedly high-pressure jobs.
In spite of that last fact, the nation's burgeoning corporate fitness movement has been pretty much geared to executives. Although a growing number of firms, believing that fitness programs can reduce both absenteeism and employee health insurance costs, have begun opening them to lower-echelon workers, progress in that direction has been slowed by the recent recession. Dennis Colacino, head of PepsiCo's fitness program and president of the American Association of Fitness Directors in Business and Industry, is bothered by the implications of making fitness contingent on better financial times. "It makes you wonder how committed these companies really are," Colacino says. "A lot of them look upon the company gym as a perk, as if it were some sort of country club." In defense of these corporations, it should be noted that a lot of workers—and their unions—aren't sold on physical fitness, either.
The 104 favored employees who work at the corporate headquarters of The Signal Companies in La Jolla, Calif. have their own swimming pool, two tennis courts and a weight room. By contrast, the 5,000 workers at the economically distressed main assembly plant of Mack Truck, Inc., a Signal subsidiary in Allen-town, Pa., have no fitness program, no exercise facilities. Mack's board chairman, A.W. Pelletier, and Eugene McCafferty, president of UAW Local 677, which represents Mack's workers, offer explanations that sound interchangeable. Pelletier: "We'd like to be able to afford a fitness program, but in these economic times, that's not possible." McCafferty: "A fitness program is a 'no-no.' You can't take blood out of a stone."
But this isn't to ignore the obstacles confronting lower-income people. "To tell the poor that fitness is beyond them is a copout," says Dr. William H.B. Howard, director of Union Memorial Hospital's Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore. "Sneakers are cheap as dirt." But Howard also says that most people get a motivational boost from belonging to a health club. He says, "After you spend your money to join the damn things, you say, 'Hey, I don't want to waste my money. And I might as well go.' " The fact is that health club memberships aren't cheap as dirt. For that matter, neither are sneakers for, say, a fatherless family of six children.
The fitness game is rigged against the less affluent in many ways. Even the Y has gone upscale; it has been opening fitness palaces like the ultramodern two-year-old coed YWCA in downtown Washington, D.C., which caters to a business and government crowd able to pay the $50 or more a month it can cost to work out there regularly. Meanwhile, public parks, playgrounds and school facilities in poorer neighborhoods tend to be scarcer and more antiquated than those elsewhere. Last November the Justice Department filed an unprecedented lawsuit charging the Chicago Park District with non-willful discrimination under the 1974 Housing and Community Development Act on grounds that white neighborhoods had more and better skating rinks, tennis courts and day camps than black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
Reductions in public funding of fitness programs have occurred at every level. The Reagan Administration's budget cutters have made less money available for state and municipal recreation programs. That has exacerbated local budgetary shortfalls that, for example, resulted in Providence's being able to provide recreation personnel last summer at only 24 of its 59 playgrounds and Boston's firing one-third of its recreation staffers. Tightening the belt even slightly can exact a toll on recreation and fitness, a fact underscored when Seattle's financially strapped parks department recently began imposing a $1 per person user fee on participants in city softball and basketball leagues. That's less than the cost of a movie or a few go-rounds at a video arcade, but imposition of the fee was followed by dropoffs in participation of as much as 24% in some softball leagues and more than 50% in basketball.
Austerity measures in public schools are having an even greater, and potentially more lasting, impact. Public education has been severely neglected in recent times, because of the budget crunch and declining enrollments as post-World War II baby-boomers have grown into adulthood. As a consequence there has been a hue and cry about whether the U.S. will have the math, science and computer skills needed for coping with the demands of tomorrow's high-tech economy; President Reagan called in last week's State of the Union speech for an upgrading of math and science education. But few non-educators seem to have noticed—and some in the education field don't appear to care—that physical education, which will also have something to do with that ability to cope, has been even harder hit. One who does care, Ted Grenda, director of general education for the New York State Education Department, calls phys ed "the most important subject in our school system," and warns, "If you don't have a healthy child, you can't instruct a healthy child."
In recent years elementary schools have cut back phys ed instruction—often by turning it over to already beleaguered classroom teachers—while a growing number of high schools have made phys ed optional. One rationale for this last development was that optional P.E. classes would force teachers "to innovate, to try to make it attractive," in the words of Gary A. Norton, principal of Irvine (Calif.) High. Norton goes on to say, however, that California's decision seven years ago to scrap mandatory phys ed for high school juniors and seniors has been a flop. Barely half of Irvine High's upper-classmen bother to enroll in P.E., and fitness and jogging classes have been canceled for lack of interest.
Among those schools still running sound P.E. programs is Lyons Township High in LaGrange, Ill., a middle-class suburb of Chicago. Superintendent John L. Bristol says the objective is to give the school's 3,700 students "the wherewithal to become physically fit." The program develops flexibility, strength and endurance with liberal doses of calisthenics, running, swimming and fun. Students are tested—not against one another but against themselves—to assure that they're making progress. They're taught the basic principles of nutrition and conditioning.
"Fitness is integrated here," says Lyons Township's phys ed and health chairman, Jo Mancuso. "Someone can't just take volleyball—next term it's swimming. They can select, but there's fitness throughout the program. Our nine-week weight-training course combines strength with cardiovascular conditioning. The students learn about heart rate. Each one is required to take swimming twice. It's a broad program."
It's a melancholy fact that the current adult-oriented fitness boom can be said to have its roots in a movement that emphasized the importance of youth fitness. That movement began in 1956 when President Dwight Eisenhower, concerned about results of fitness tests showing American schoolchildren lagging far behind their Austrian. Swiss and Italian counterparts, founded the President's Council on Youth Fitness as part of a national campaign to whip the younger generation into shape. "The test that shocked the President," as it came to be known, was co-administered by Dr. Hans Kraus (SI, Aug. 15, 1955), who continues to espouse a hard line on the subject of physical education. "They say children don't want to exercise," says Kraus. a Manhattan physician who at 77 still goes rock climbing and cross-country skiing. "Fine—make them do it. You can't expect a 5-year-old or 6-year-old to understand."
The youth fitness crusade made headway under both Eisenhower and John F Kennedy, who appointed Oklahoma football Coach Bud Wilkinson to head the council. The economy was robust, and because, of the baby boom the schools were bursting at the seams. There were efforts to give phys ed real meaning: more calisthenics, more running, more strength training, all taught by more P.E. specialists. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson was able to crow about "wholesome and welcome" gains in youth fitness, though he also said that "the job was far from finished." In point of fact, the job was very nearly finished. It was that year, remember, that youth fitness tests showed significant improvement for the last time. Though the fact wasn't recognized then, the youth fitness crusade was already grinding to a halt.
A combination of forces brought about this unhappy result. Some observers suggest that the quick success of the fitness drive bred complacency or that national attention was diverted to other issues, such as Vietnam. Substantial numbers of phys ed teachers, especially older ones, resisted the fitness push because they interpreted it—accurately, in some cases—as implying that they hadn't been doing a good job. Certain liberals who have no problem with compulsory math or English have objected to mandatory P.E. on grounds that it was a veiled form of Hitlerism, and they were joined by conservatives who objected on fiscal grounds. Eventually, the baby boom ended and there were fewer people concerned with schools. Indeed, P.E. is considered a frill even by some teachers and administrators, many of whom wouldn't dream of telling a student, "See me during algebra," but who will say, "See me during gym."
Of course, because of various curriculum changes in P.E., those teachers may be justified in refusing to take gym programs seriously. The changes include such trendy innovations as "movement education," which is designed to promote socializing, longer attention spans and the like more than physical conditioning. In another progressive P.E. activity, students stand in a circle and play catch with Nerf balls.
Similar objections can be raised about team-oriented athletics, which gave some ground to individualized fitness-oriented P.E. activities in the late '50s and early '60s, but soon reasserted their primacy. A strong school athletic program can develop sports skills, showcase excellence and generate student and community spirit, but it also has a way of gobbling up physical education. The problem is that administrators, parents and the local press are often more interested in what happens in the gym on Friday nights than during school hours. As with phys ed, varsity sports have suffered budgetary cutbacks resulting in the widespread hiring of non-faculty coaches, in "pay-for-play" schemes under which athletes are charged fees for participation and in measures to cut travel costs, including, in California, a state law that permits high school athletes to drive themselves to away games. Unlike phys ed, sports programs are often rescued by booster clubs and the sort of Save Our Sports campaign being conducted in Maryland's Prince Georges County, where inter-scholastic athletics have come under the budget knife. While those same budgetary pressures and lower enrollments have resulted in up to 50 phys ed teachers losing their jobs, there has been no Save Our Gym Classes campaign.
When phys ed programs are based too heavily on sports, the teachers often become mere "ball rollers" who don't understand physiology or health. In such programs, the talented few flourish while the many often grow discouraged and get turned off to all physical activity by age 13 or 14. This helps explain why 12-year-olds often perform better on fitness tests than 15-year-olds. "When you adopt sport as the curriculum for physical education, you're adopting things that go with it, such as the will to win," says Jack Berryman, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Washington. "Then the cream rises to the top. But we must deal with all the students. What if we taught our math and English classes this way?"
In a well-intentioned effort to come to grips with the fact that few people play team sports beyond their early teens, many schools have, as an alternative, taken to teaching otherwise worthwhile lifetime activities that, unfortunately, have little to do with physical conditioning. At a lot of schools kids aren't even changing clothes for gym class. Last year, one of the lifetime activities at Proviso East High in Maywood, Ill. caused a stir in state education circles and was finally shelved. The curriculum had allowed some Proviso East students—and this during a fitness boom, remember—to play pinochle in P.E. class.
In some of the larger cities, social and economic problems have all but killed P.E. In Boston there were 199 phys ed teachers in 1978; now there are 126. There are just four P.E. specialists for the city's 97 elementary schools; they move from school to school, doing their best to "educate" 30,000 students. Some high school classes have 70 students per teacher. "In classes that size there's nothing to be done for the student," says Tom E. Moran, the school system's senior P.E. adviser and former director of physical education, health and sports. "Teachers have to deal with attendance." Security problems, Moran adds, result in personnel's being spread even thinner because "we have to have teachers policing the locker rooms."
The agency created by Ike in 1956 has since undergone two name changes. The original title, the President's Council on Youth Fitness, was amended in 1963 to the President's Council on Physical Fitness—the "youth" was dropped—and to its present form, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, in 1968. It's more than a coincidence that it was during the same period in which the name changes were adopted that the national focus of fitness began to shift from youth and to become tied more securely than ever to sports.
The council has certainly taken an expanding view of its mission, with the result that its approach sometimes seems indiscriminate. C. Carson (Casey) Conrad, its chipper, determinedly upbeat executive director for the last 12 years, ceaselessly applauds the fact that there are 30 million participants in organized out-of-school sports programs, never mind that these programs have taken much of the spontaneity out of child's play, that some of them (e.g., Little League baseball) don't have much fitness value, that some of those that do (e.g., youth soccer) aren't lifetime activities, and that most of them are run by parents who often don't know much about conditioning and whose involvement assures that the programs will be confined largely to middle-class youngsters. "Parental involvement?" says Conrad, dismissing any and all such objections. "That's not bad at all."
Instead of complaining about the cuts in fitness-related public funding, Conrad tries to wring money out of industry. It's a sign of the times, though, that corporate sponsors tend to shy away from youth fitness and seek promotional tie-ins with adult activities, like marathons. One exception is General Foods, which promotes its Post cereal line by giving athletic and exercise equipment to schools in exchange for proof-of-purchase coupons and which last summer offered free admission to Los Angeles' public swimming pools to children producing wrappers from Kool-Aid packages. Of course, the appropriateness of such an association with Kool-Aid, a product not ordinarily thought of as promoting fitness, might be questioned. Indeed, commercialization is a tricky business all around. The National Dairy Council, a nominally independent body heavily financed by farm groups and the dairy industry, disseminates educational material on nutrition that pointedly neglects to suggest that readers might want to restrict their intake of eggs, whole milk and butter. On the contrary, a booklet for high school coaches and athletes distributed by state dairy associations makes a point of saying that fat in food carries vitamins, "provides a concentrated form of calories...and makes a meal more satisfying." Because the U.S. consumes more fat per capita than almost any other nation, that pitch hardly seemed appropriate.
By accentuating the positive, Conrad obviously hopes to create a bandwagon effect that will somehow spread the fitness ethic more widely. But he freely admits he could just as easily "scare the hell out of people." In fact, the council hasn't been entirely Pollyannaish. It warned in 1979 that insofar as fitness was concerned, the gap between the affluent and the less well-off was such that the U.S. was in danger of evolving into "two separate and distinct societies." It also talks about the need for "planned" programs, thereby implicitly criticizing both its own piecemeal, almost-anything-goes approach and the prevailing political philosophy that would leave everything, fitness included, to market forces. Recently Conrad himself struck an uncharacteristically negative note when, during an interview in his office, he was asked how today's unfit schoolchildren can possibly be expected to keep the current fitness boom going when they become adults.
After a long pause, Conrad, shaking his head, said, "I've always told school boards that all they're doing is delaying the cost. A lot of people who start running as adults are limited because they haven't had proper fitness programs. Children need exercise. When they don't get it, we take away the natural order."
The real, if fleeting, progress that the schools made toward restoring the natural order in the late '50s and early '60s is still paying dividends. The baby-boom youngsters who were of school age—five to 17—in 1960 are now 28 to 40; that's the age group that's at the cutting edge of the present fitness boom. It's tempting to think that those who had the strongest P.E. programs are the ones who today know what they're doing. Although it can't be proved, the suspicion also exists that those non-white and non-middle-class individuals who are participating in the fitness boom come largely from the same ranks. This much is certain: This generation of Americans is experiencing what amounts to its second fitness boom. There's nothing wrong with that except that the following generations aren't experiencing their first one.
The suggestion is heard that sound health practices will eventually "trickle down" to those socioeconomic groups not yet touched by the fitness boom, but there's little evidence of this happening. It has also been suggested that once today's generation of children begin developing middle-age spread, they'll start running and pumping iron, too. This is by no means certain, either. As even Conrad implied, not having experienced fitness as children or having learned how to achieve it, they could well remain on the sidelines. The fitness boom, none too sturdy an edifice, is built on an even shakier foundation.
Might the time have come to scare the hell out of people? In addition to the report that alarmed Ike, the youth fitness push in the mid-'50s was fueled by Cold War fears that little Johnny might not be able to beat little Ivan in arm wrestling. The outbreak of World Wars I and II inspired earlier youth fitness efforts. One would think that the nation's current heart-attack rate, astronomical medical bill and sagging economic productivity would be sufficient to have a similar effect today. Underscoring the misplaced emphasis of the fitness boom, Berryman says, "If we ran our physical education classes the way they should be run, there wouldn't be a need for many of the private fitness places other than a social one. If people learned about exercise, they could stay fit on their own."
The current situation can be summed up with the very words that were used in a progress report in the May 26, 1958 issue of this magazine on the U.S.'s new youth fitness movement. SI acknowledged that much had been accomplished by schools, communities, the medical profession and the education establishment in the two years since Ike had launched that crusade. But the report also concluded that there was still a fitness problem and that the situation gave cause more for "serious reflection than for congratulation." That was 25 years and a couple of fitness booms ago. Some things, sadly, don't seem to change.