Better Shape Up

Once a nation of adventure-athletes, America is getting fatter by the day.

Aug 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

SOMETHING AWFUL is happening in this country. Something deeply harmful, and yet so smoothly woven into the sequined fabric of modern American life as to be all but invisible.

"It's the unspoken epidemic," says Rich Killingsworth, a health scientist for the Centers for Disease Control who lectures extensively on building fit communities.

Some 18 to 22 percent of Americans—more than five million children and 53 million adults—are obese (defined as weighing 30 pounds over ideal weight), a figure that has doubled since the 1970s.

"Obesity aside," Killingsworth says, "25 percent of children are overweight, 35 percent of college students are overweight, 61 percent of adults are overweight. Poor diet and inactivity now account for the greatest number of deaths in America besides tobacco—over 300,000 annually. The cost to the U.S. is over $150 billion a year."
The news has only gotten worse in the five years since the Office of the Surgeon General published its first ever Report on Physical Activity and Health. The 1996 document offered sobering and incontrovertible evidence that went to the root of the problem: 25 percent of American youth and adults had no vigorous activity in their lives at all; daily participation in physical education by high school students had dropped from 42 percent to 25 percent in less than five years. The report went on to detail the oft-heralded physiological and psychological benefits of regular exercise, including reduction in overall mortality and lowered risks of Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and depression and anxiety disorders.

What does all this have to do with adventure and an active life in the outdoors?

A few years ago I climbed Aconcagua, the 22,834-foot Andean peak, by the easy route. My partner and I went for the summit on the same day as a professionally guided group of 16 well-acclimatized climbers, most of them Americans, but only half of them made it. Oddly, it was the older climbers who topped out—every one of the climbers in their teens and twenties had failed. When I questioned the guide, he shrugged.

"This is normal," he said.

I asked if the youths had turned back because of altitude.

"Nope," the guide replied. "They're just really out of shape."

I was in the Wind River Range last summer, four miles in, when I came upon a group of teenage backpackers sprawled across the trail. They'd had enough. They told me they'd planned to spend a week, but this was as far as they were going. Drained and irritable, they were camping there and heading back in the morning.

In Utah I helped rescue four mountain bikers who were too out of shape to ride back to their car. On Mount Kenya I helped hump out a tubby American climber who'd had a heart attack.

Like it or not, a modicum of physical fitness is a prerequisite for adventure. Not merely for safety and survival, but simply to experience the animal joy of outdoor sports and self-propelled wilderness travel.

RECENTLY MY daughters brought home a note from their elementary-school gym teacher informing my wife and me that they would be taking a series of physical-fitness tests called the President's Challenge during the next few weeks. I didn't know this program still existed.

The battery of tests was an outgrowth of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, a federal advisory group established by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 to promote the health and fitness of American children, who had scored dramatically lower on physical-fitness tests than European kids. The tests were designed to meet these criteria: They had to involve activities that were reasonably familiar and required little or no equipment; they could be administered to boys and girls, grades five through 12; they measured different components of fitness; and they allowed for easy self-testing. Some of the tests have changed in 45 years—the current five are sit-ups, a shuttle run, a measure of flexibility called a V-reach, a one-mile run, and pull-ups or push-ups—but the combination still provides a good gauge of overall physical fitness.
"The President's Challenge is primarily a motivational program," says Christine Spain, director of research, planning, and special projects for the Council. "The whole purpose of the program is to encourage students to be more physically active, to compete with themselves, and to be rewarded for their efforts."

Spain has overseen the President's Challenge since 1985. In that time it has expanded to include four levels of recognition: the Participant Award, for those who score in or below the 50th percentile; and the National Award, for those who score between the 50th and 85th percentiles; the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, for those who score in the 85th percentile or higher. The Health Award can be given to all fit students should a teacher not wish to use the other distinctions.

"Everybody gets an award," Spain explains. "As long as you've tried your hardest, you should feel good about whatever you scored."

That's not how I remember PE.

MR. D WAS FACING us, arms akimbo, whistle and stopwatch around his bull neck. "President's Physical Fitness test," he barked. "Any you boys ever heard of it?"

We were two dozen stick-legged, winter-pale seventh-graders standing on the half-court line. We murmured.

"Speak up!"

You remember Mr. D, the junior high gym teacher. There was a time when we all had him. He was an American archetype: a red-faced, hoarse-voiced, no excuses, no-pain-no-gain drill sergeant. Teaching PE was just his day job, and he didn't suffer his students gladly. His main gig was being the football and/or basketball and/or baseball coach—and all other sports were for sissies.

We all knew the test. The names and scores of the school record holders in each category were posted on the gymnasium wall. We began shouting out exercises.

Mr. D cocked his shorn-to-the-skin head and cut us off. "Today we're doing sit-ups. Find a partner."

We were regimentally outfitted: school-issue gray gym trunks over jockstraps, reversible maroon/gray T-shirts, white socks, mud-stained canvas Chuck Taylors. We scrambled around one another like ants and paired up.

Rambunctious and eager, we understood the President's Physical Fitness test as a unique opportunity to escape the daily battle of murderball&3151;our name for dodgeball, that most gladiatorial of games, now widely scorned as politically incorrect.

"Spread out!" bellowed Mr. D. "One of you does sit-ups today, the other one does 'em tomorrow. You decide."

I despised football. I had made a fool of myself at baseball. I was a marginal basketball player. But as a wrestler I wasn't half bad, and through the sport I'd discovered a secret talent: I was good at sit-ups. I could do sit-ups all day, and I was bound and determined, as only an unsure, butterflies-in-the-gut 13-year-old boy can be, to prove it.

"I'll go," I said to my partner.

I eyed the record board. Sit-ups: V. Steinman: 1,233. I lay supine on the hardwood floor and my partner pressed down on my knees.

"Holders!" yelled Mr. D. "Only count the sit-ups that come all the way up. Ready!" He blew his whistle and clicked his stopwatch and we all started snapping up and down as fast as we could.

Minutes passed. Our jerky pace slackened to a steady rhythm. After about ten minutes Mr. D started berating the kids who had given up. After 20 minutes I realized there were only two of us still going.

After half an hour, Mr. D roared, "Stop!"

He went through his clipboard calling out names and writing down their numbers. He shouted my name last.



Mr. D glanced up at the record board.

"All right. Hit the showers."

When I got to the locker room I discovered the back of my shirt and shorts were soaked with blood along the ridge of my spine. But it was worth it. When you're young and green, even something as insignificant as sit-ups can instill pride. The next week my name and my record went up on the board. By then the eight-inch scab was already peeling off.

ONE RECENT MORNING I dropped in on my girls' gym classes to see how the tests were going—and was stunned. I wasn't expecting the draconian brutality of my own PE experience, but I wasn't prepared for what I saw: Many kids weren't even coming close to the 50th percentile.

"The fact is, we've seen a dramatic decline in the physical fitness of American youth over the past two decades," says the Council's Christine Spain. "And despite a steep increase in girls' participation in athletics, their decline has been just as precipitous as the boys'."

I was shocked to learn that my own children only get 25 minutes of PE twice a week at their public school—not even close to enough time to prepare them for the rigor of these tests, let alone a physically active life.

"If they still have recess, that's better than many schools across the nation," says Anne Flannery, executive director of P.E.4LIFE, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit founded last year and dedicated to promoting daily physical education for American kids. "Fewer than half of U.S. schools even offer PE anymore. Only one state in the country, Illinois, has a daily PE requirement for grades K-12."

How did PE all but disappear from American schools?

"The two most important factors," says Flannery, "were the increased pressure for better performance on standardized tests, and budget constraints. During periods of fiscal difficulty, academics are given much higher priority, and PE was put on the chopping block. Many schools now have only one PE instructor for 500, 600, or 700 students."

What about all those beautiful fit people throwing mountain bikes into the back of their new four-by-four in TV commercials? What about all those upscale gyms filled with Lycra-clad lovelies? What about the youth-culture rush to become fashionable hunks and babes?

"Media hype," declares Spain. "Our whole society has changed, and the importance of health and physical fitness has been completely derailed. Even the army has had to lower its physical fitness standards to get recruits. The real message hasn't gotten through. Take an honest look at our kids, at ourselves—we're fat."

IT WASN'T JUST ONE thing. Like the genesis of a natural disaster—or a heart attack—our national dilemma is a culmination of multiple, gradual, thoroughly quotidian trends.

* Television.
The average American adult watches four hours of TV each day, or two full months a year. Our children now spend more time watching TV (1,023 hours annually) than in school (900 hours). It comes as no surprise that, as the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently reported, "Boys and girls who watch four hours or more of television each day have greater body fat and a greater body mass index."

* The automobile.
The average American spends 73 minutes a day in traffic. Nearly a fourth of our daily trips are shorter than a mile, and yet more than three-fourths of those short trips are made by automobile. More than 42 million Americans own bicycles, and yet less than 1 percent of all trips are made by bicycle—even though, in many communities, it is now faster to ride than to drive. And guess how far the average American walks every day. Unbelievably, 400 yards—less than a quarter of a mile.

* Food.
In 1999, JAMA reported that over the previous 15 years American men increased their average daily food consumption from 2,239 calories to 2,455. For women, the increase went from 1,534 calories to 1,646. Add it up. For men, 216 extra calories per day for 365 days yields 78,840 extra calories per year, the equivalent of 22.5 pounds of fat. Order the Biggie size, and soon enough you are what you eat.

* The computer.
"Adults and kids today play simulated games," says Flannery of P.E.4LIFE. "Computer poker, solitaire, Game Boy, Nintendo&3151;not real games. Few of them are out there riding bikes, shooting hoops, just recreating in the outdoors. Solitary computer games involve no human contact, no physical interaction, no exercise, and provide no opportunity for developing self-esteem and responsibility." The same goes, by and large, for the Internet.

* The built environment.
From Philadelphia to Phoenix, new suburbs have no sidewalks, no bike lanes, no neighborhood grocery stores, let alone a nearby selection of shops. Sprawl and congestion make walking and biking unpleasant at best, dangerous at worst.
"The best analogy I can think of is veal," says the CDC's Killingsworth. "We're raising our children the same way we raise calves for veal. Keep them in boxes, feed them too much, allow them no exercise. The lifestyle of most American families is so unhealthy, so toxic, that we may be witnessing the first generation of kids ever whose life expectancy is less than that of their parents."

THERE ARE SMALL signs that the nation is waking up from its couch coma.

In January, Congress passed the Physical Education for Progress Act, legislation designed to reinvigorate school-based PE. "This is a tremendous first step in getting our children active again," says Flannery. "Our leaders are finally recognizing that PE is as fundamental as academics." P.E.4LIFE has set a goal of reinstituting daily PE in grades K-8 in three-quarters of the nation's schools by 2005.

In March, Surgeon General David Satcher announced a yearlong effort to develop an action plan for reducing the prevalence of overweight and obese Americans. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education has created a new program called Sport for All that will focus on developing ball skills, fair play, and teamwork. "Many, if not most, of the skills used in adult physical activities are learned during the school years," says NASPE executive director Judy Young.

In April, the American Hiking Society and the TV-Turnoff Network cosponsored their annual National TV-Turnoff Week. On October 2, the Partnership for a Walkable America is sponsoring its second annual International Walk to School Day.

Every step makes a difference. It would behoove the outdoor industry—if only to ensure that there are still people fit enough to be interested in buying boots or bikes or snowboards ten years from now—to find its own way to promote physical education across America.

But in the end, to halt our devolution into an unfit, unhealthy nation, we must fundamentally change the way most of us live our lives. This starts with wholly redefining the quality-of-life equation. It's not about what's on TV—it's about asking why the TV is on and shutting it off. It's not just about driving fuel-efficient cars—it's about bicycling or walking instead of driving. It's not even really about eating right—it's about eating the right amount. It's not about belonging to a gym—it's about exercising often, wherever, however. It's about making sure you're still fit enough to light out for the territory.

Remember the original criteria used to develop the President's Challenge tests—familiarity, no special equipment, self-testing. You can do sit-ups in your pajamas with your ankles hooked under the bed. You can do push-ups in your work clothes; you can run a mile in almost any pair of comfortable shoes in your closet. If most of us are spending four hours a day in front of the idiot box, physical fitness is not about opportunity or time—it's about what our old sadistic gym teacher had right, even if his approach was wrong: self-discipline.

WHICH IS EXACTLY what the President's Challenge is all about. Self-discipline is also at the very heart of adventure—climbing, skiing, kayaking, name your passion—and it's why I couldn't in good conscience write this finger-wagging column without taking the test myself.

To win the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, a 17-year-old male—in the Challenge's oldest age group—must do at least 55 curl-ups (bent-knee sit-ups with arms crossed over the chest) in one minute; finish the shuttle run (sprinting to shuttle an eraser four times back and forth over a ten-yard course) in 8.7 seconds or less; make a V-reach (sitting on the ground with your legs straight out and reaching your fingers as far as possible past your feet) of seven inches; run a mile in 6:06 or less; and do 13 pull-ups or 53 push-ups.

I told perhaps ten men, ages 25 to 50, all outdoor athletes, that I was going to take this battery of tests, and without exception, they all scoffed. "Doesn't sound so tough," one said. "I'm sure I could pass." By God, bravado really is the meat and potatoes of American maleness. In fact, the President's Challenge is more difficult than the physical fitness tests required of recruits in our elite military commandos&3151;the Army Rangers and Navy SEALs.

Go ahead, test yourself. Send me your results. My scores: 65 curl-ups in a minute, 8.6 seconds for the shuttle run, V-reach of 7.5 inches, a 6:03 mile, 35 pull-ups, 65 push-ups. I had my daughter Teal do the counting. She thought it was fun.

A week later, with the kind of insouciant naturalness that only a six-year-old girl can have, she came home from school with her Presidential Physical Fitness Award certificate and the coveted patch, left them on the kitchen table without fanfare, and ran outside to play.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Got Wanderlust?

Escape your daily grind with Outside’s best getaways.

Thank you!