THE UNFITNESS BOOM
In 1983, SI published a story calling the Great American Fitness Boom a myth. While it was true that some sectors of society, notably upper-middle-class baby boomers, were pursuing fitness with vigor, many other Americans weren't. Their diets were unbalanced and their lives sedentary. The nation's glitzy new health clubs were beyond the economic reach of many, and even some neighborhood Y's were going upscale.
The article also concluded that American youth was in bad shape. A 1979 study of Michigan high school students had found that 50% of the youngsters had at least one of the common risk factors—high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol, obesity or low cardiovascular fitness—for heart disease. Whenever school systems, particularly those located in inner cities, trimmed their budgets, physical education was almost always among the first programs cut.
More than five years later, the state of youth fitness hasn't improved. Some of the latest bad news:
•A fact sheet from the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports notes that half of U.S. girls aged 6 to 17 and 30% of boys 6 to 12 can't finish a mile in faster than walking speed; 55% of the girls and 25% of the boys can't do a single pull-up. Frighteningly, 40% of young children—aged 5 to 8—now show at least one heart-disease factor.
•A report by the Federal Department of Health and Human Services found that children born in the 1980s are less fit than the children of the '60s were.
•One fourth of the children tested in a University of Michigan program to promote youth fitness had elevated cholesterol levels.
•More and more states have declared phys ed nonmandatory. Today only five states require phys ed in all grades, and only Illinois requires daily phys ed. New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean is leading an effort to make gym optional in his state. "We require as much phys ed as English," says Kean. "Let parents and children choose between dodgeball and Dickens, relay races and relativity."
What can be done about all this? First, it must be recognized that the choice isn't between games and books—it's between fitness and poor health. If anything, phys-ed classes need to be made more frequent and rigorous. In 1987, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for an increase in fitness training, but stressed that it should be of the proper kind. The academy urged schools to concentrate on activities that improve cardio-respiratory endurance, such as swimming and running. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has issued an opinion paper calling for school programs "with the primary goal of encouraging the adoption of appropriate lifelong exercise behavior." The ACSM recommended 20 to 30 minutes of vigorous exercise each day for students in all grades.
The reason for concentrating so much on the young when discussing fitness is obvious. A kid who enjoys an early enthusiasm for Dickens will still value good literature years later. And a child who is taught good health stands a better chance of staying healthy.
There's historical evidence to support this reasoning. More than 30 years ago, a report on the fitness of American youth was delivered to President Eisenhower. It said U.S. kids were in lousy shape. In response to that report, the President's Council was formed, phys-ed programs sprouted throughout the land, and fitness tests became routine in schools. The 1960s are now seen as the high-water mark for youth fitness in the U.S., and many of the baby boomers carried their health habits with them. But even as they were graduating to health clubs—and creating the illusion of the Great American Fitness Boom—the schools they once attended were all but locking the gyms.
"Today's adults had a taste of fitness from their phys-ed classes in school before phys ed was dropped by many schools," George Allen, the former NFL coach who was chairman of the President's Council from 1981 to '87, has said. "But today's kids don't get that taste of fitness now when they're young. My concern is that they might not be inclined to pursue it later on."
The devastating drought that struck parts of the U.S. last summer and continues to threaten water supplies and wildlife (page 48) can't with certainty be linked to human-caused depletion of the earth's protective ozone layer. Still, scientists at a New York conference on global climate change warned last week that unless man stops producing ozone-threatening chlorofluorocarbons—chemicals used in refrigerants, aerosol propellants and other applications—and also cuts down on carbon-dioxide emissions from automobiles, the earth will face a temperature rise in the next several decades "without precedent in human history." This warming, the conference participants said, would bring even worse droughts and raise seas to levels that would threaten coastal areas.
The conference report underscored the urgency of the global-warming threat and proposed eliminating production of chlorofluorocarbons by the year 2000, an idea that received the heartening endorsements last week of both President Bush and the 12 European Community nations. As Thomas Jorling, commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, said at the conference, "The worst scenario is that the human community makes no changes."
KEEP THOSE SHOES COMING
Dan Hamer has struck upon a brilliant idea: He is collecting used athletic shoes and distributing them to homeless agencies in greater Los Angeles. "There's a lot of guilt associated with spending $90 for a new pair of Nikes," says Hamer, a Trabuco Canyon, Calif., CPA and recreational runner. "People feel better knowing their old shoes are being put to good use."
Hamer recently founded a volunteer organization called World Shoe Relief and has set up a post office box to which shoes can be mailed (P.O. Box 423, Trabuco Canyon, Calif. 92678). "We'll put new laces in them, clean them—whatever's needed," he says. The group's first ad—a small classified that came out a week ago in Runner's World magazine—has already brought in 33 pairs from as far away as New York and Virginia, and Hamer expects to be up to his ears in old shoes as word spreads. Eventually he hopes to have collection bins in Southern California sporting-goods stores and the address of World Shoe Relief printed on running-shoe boxes.
On Sunday, Hamer and 10 other volunteers distributed fliers to many of the 18,861 runners in the Los Angeles Marathon. "I'm an accountant, and this is the middle of tax season," he says. "I'm probably spending too much time on this. But I'm enjoying it."
If probation arrangements can be made, the University of Washington will soon offer a football scholarship to running back Marc Jones, who was released from a San Diego-area prison last week after serving 7½ months of a one-year sentence for felony mayhem. Jones, a former Oceanside, Calif., high school star, went to jail in July for striking a boy in the head with a rock and partly blinding him in one eye.
In a telling comment on the current lawlessness in college athletics, Husky coach Don James told The Seattle Times that he had checked out Jones thoroughly and that "his background is probably better than most players we bring in. He made one mistake."
SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP
Frank Barbaro Jr. of Medford, Mass., earns this week's award for unmitigated chutzpah. You may recall Barbaro from your favorite sports highlight show as the Boston Bruin fan who got so upset at referee Bill McCreary's failure to call a high-sticking penalty against Winnipeg Jet left wing Paul Fenton during a Jan. 28 Jets-Bruins game at Boston Garden that he jumped onto the ice to complain to McCreary about it face-to-face. Barbaro, who is 22 and works for a delivery service, had no business being on the ice, and linesman Ron Asselstine checked him powerfully into the boards before he could reach McCreary. Barbaro was then led off the ice and arrested. He'll have to appear in Boston Municipal Court on March 20 to face charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct.
Barbaro announced last week that he plans to sue both the NHL and Asselstine. He claims that Asselstine used unjustified violence against him and caused him to injure his neck. It's a shame that the courts, not to mention NHL officials and Asselstine, will have to waste time and money on this case. Barbaro should have considered the risks before he went onto the ice.
For many U.S. kids, running a mile means going at walking speed.
THEY SAID IT
•Andy Van Slyke, Pittsburgh Pirate outfielder, recalling his early days as a third baseman with the St. Louis Cardinals: "They wanted me to play third base like Brooks, so I did play like Brooks—Mel Brooks."