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An open letter to Arnold Schwarzenegger

Happy national fitness month. Saw you on TV on the White House lawn last week digging into your new between-movies job as chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Funny stuff. Besides getting the commander in chief (who should have at least taken his jacket off) on an exercise bicycle, you had him hit tennis balls, toss horseshoes, shoot baskets (nice touch, lowering the hoop so he could dunk), play volleyball, pass a football and thwack a couple of lame chip shots. The TV crews adored your lineup of celebrities, especially Saturday Night Live's Schwarzeneggerian parodist Kevin ("Pump you up!") Nealon, his sweatshirt comically overstuffed with fake muscles.

But now it's time to get down to serious business. You're the highest-profile chairman the President's Council has had in a long time, and you have to seize your chance to improve the dismal state of U.S. fitness—especially youth fitness. As you know, 40% of American children between the ages of five and eight now show at least one risk factor for heart disease. Only four states require phys ed for students in all grades through high school, and only Illinois demands daily P.E. for all grades. School districts nationwide have been cutting back on sports programs to save money.

Raise a ruckus about this. During group calisthenics on the White House lawn you needled General Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for not stretching far enough. Why not prod the Department of Health and Human Services to stretch its funding of the President's Council? It receives an annual allocation of only $1.5 million and could be promoting fitness more visibly and aggressively if it got more. Why not lobby Congress and the White House to pressure states to beef up their P.E. requirements? Don't pretend that you lack the political clout. Your wife, Maria Shriver, is a member of the Kennedy clan, and you got the chairmanship of the Council in large part because you worked for Bush during the 1988 campaign. You were so effective that political wags dubbed you Conan the Republican. Go twist a few arms, Conan.

The most important issue you have to confront—and I mean head-on—is the abuse of anabolic steroids. You admit having used modest quantities of steroids for a short time early in your bodybuilding career but say that you came to realize the health risks associated with these drugs (increased likelihood of heart and liver damage, sterility, psychological disorders and so on) and don't take them anymore. A new unauthorized biography, Arnold, by Wendy Leigh, quotes several former training partners of yours as saying that you took huge doses of the drugs for a number of years. I know you deny this. Either way, you carry a stigma: You rose to fame in the most heavily steroid-infested sport—one that emphasizes not health, but musculature. "Arnold's appointment to the chair gives our kids an inappropriate message," says Penn State professor and steroid researcher Charles Yesalis, and he's absolutely right.

Like it or not, you have helped plant dangerous ideas in the minds of many youngsters. They think that fitness means big muscles, and that big muscles will make them popular and successful. These kids know that your magnificent physique won you dozens of bodybuilding titles and helped you launch a successful movie career.

It's up to you to straighten the kids out. A 1988 study found that 6.6% of male high school seniors were using anabolic steroids and that many of them were taking the drugs simply to build a physique like yours. That year Ashtabula (Ohio) High football player Benji Ramirez, who had been taking steroids to help build up his muscles to impress girls, died of cardiac arrhythmia; the coroner linked his death to steroid use (SI, Feb. 20, 1989).

Since your appointment in January, you haven't been speaking out loudly enough against steroid use and the misguided notion that lifting massive weights makes a person fit. You have to come down hard on these issues, over and over, and discuss with full candor your experience with steroids. Last month you told SI's Shelley Smith that since retiring from competitive bodybuilding, you had come to a better understanding of fitness. "The body wasn't meant for 600-pound squats and 500-pound bench presses," you said. "Once I quit doing all that [lifting] and started doing more aerobic work, I became much healthier." Trumpet that across the land, along with your antisteroid message. Tell kids about how you now spend an hour a day building a healthy cardiovascular system through running, tennis or some other aerobic activity.

It's encouraging that you are trying to rekindle youngsters' interest in earning the Presidential Physical Fitness Award and planning to get sports figures and movie stars involved in promoting fitness. But you have to do more. Who knows? If you do your job well, Americans might finally realize that to be healthy they don't have to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.