Bang! — the shutting screen door was once a familiar sound of America’s summers. Children would venture out from under the watchful eye of their parents and spend the day on the streets, playgrounds and parks that surrounded their homes. There was stickball in the vacant corner lot and hopscotch on the blacktop.
As the years passed, however, the streets and open spaces grew quiet, their former visitors few and far between. The harmless age of Nickelodeon had given way to an excessive saturation dominated by SpongeBob and PlayStation and online fantasy worlds. Gym class became a corny relic of the past for teenagers obsessing over Advanced Placement tests and college planning. Adults worked longer hours at jobs further from home and have little time for the outside air.
Yet rediscovering the wonders of physical activity will do more to lower long-term medical costs and improve the lives of millions of Americans than would any health care plan.
Along the way to our epidemic of inactivity, exercise has become an ugly word that everyone avoids. It’s the mysterious vegetable your aunt makes for a holiday dinner. No one wants to touch it. Studies show that approximately 60 percent of American adults don’t get the recommended amount of physical activity. More shocking is that more than 25 percent of adults are not active at all. Our nation’s youngsters are overweight at an earlier age and the risk of diabetes is spreading into their ranks. These troubling patterns will only add to the growing number of visits to the doctor’s office and the emergency room.
Inciting an exercise revolution begins by reminding people of the endless benefits of physical activity. Regular exercise builds healthy bones, muscles and joints. It can prevent or improve common illnesses through a stronger immune system. On a separate level, exercise also has mental rewards, including reducing anxiety and boosting self-esteem.
Many hear of the suggested 30-minutes-per-day exercise guideline and snicker. There’s simply not enough time, they insist. Admittedly, the strains associated with school, work and family no doubt restrict one’s options for exercise. But, then again, 30 minutes is the equivalent of most nightly television shows. It’s shorter than the average dinner time or the time it takes to read the newspaper. Go for a walk on your lunch break. Take the stairs to your office, instead of the elevator. On pleasant days, leave early and bike to school or work. A gym membership is not required to be active and stay fit. For whatever reason, working out is now linked to elaborate exercise machines and expensive running gear. Erasing the perception that physical activity entails a grueling routine suited for a marathon runner is essential. There are plenty of free and fun alternatives that have nothing to do with achieving the body type of models on the latest magazine covers.
No matter its flaws, the health care legislation does succeed in at least one regard: its emphasis on reinvesting in public recreation. Grants for walking paths and jungle gyms can’t be counted among the ridiculous earmarks that ooze from Washington these days. A spokeswoman for the late Senator from Massachusetts Edward Kennedy, the father of the health care bill, wisely asserted that, “...these are not public works grants; they are community transformation grants.” State and local governments across the country must do more to expand access to bike paths, green spaces, playgrounds, after-school programs and youth sports leagues. In an era of commercialization and multitasking lifestyles, I urge people to remember the glorious spirit of childhood in the sun — the scenic jog, the catch with your dad, a walk in the park with the family dog — anything that gets you up, out and on your feet.