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A Nation of Couch Potatoes
By Walter Mills of Recipe du Jour, printed in their great newsletter

It was the early sixties, the height of the Cold War. John Kennedy was president and encouraging every one in the country to go along with him on fifty-mile hikes.  In elementary school we were timed and tape measured as we ran for distance and practiced our high jumps and broad jumps.  Fitness was a national mania.

A few years before, President Eisenhower had read a report that claimed European youth were in better shape than their U.S. counterparts.  In response, he created a Youth Fitness Council.  When Kennedy came into office he turned it into the President's Council on Physical Fitness and set an example for the country to follow.

Most kids didn't need much encouragement.  We never walked if we could run. All of the boys I knew spent their summers on bikes.  We would leave home early in the morning and return for lunch, then be off again until dinner.  After supper was done, we would play games in the twilight until our mothers called us home.

A new pair of sneakers lasted a couple of months before the soles wore out, while the tops still looked brand new.  We watched the Saturday morning shows on television, but our mothers shooed us out the door after a couple of hours.  We drank colas in eight ounce bottles, but you needed to collect a lot of empties to buy a soda.  And the country store where I grew up was a mile away.  It was hard to get fat, easy to be fit.

But that was forty years ago and things have changed beyond recall.  When former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson said recently that as a nation "we are too darn fat," nobody should have been surprised.  According to the Center for Disease Control, sixty per cent of adults are overweight; twenty per cent are obese.  It's hard to miss.

Without the Cold War as incentive, I don't think we care very much anymore if European youth are in better shape than ours are.  That's apparent, because the rate of childhood obesity has doubled in the past twenty years.  We now have the fattest kids on earth.

It's not surprising.  Not when there are soda and candy machines in the high school lunchrooms, and soda companies buy advertising spots in the school gymnasium.  Not when physical education in grade school is reduced to 30 to 40 minutes once a week, or eliminated entirely in the upper grades.

These are choices we have made more by default than consciously.  They indicate that physical fitness is far down on the list of priorities, cut back like music and art to an afterthought.  As usual, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the sorry shape of many of our children.  We are probably the ones setting them the example.

As parents we've gotten too scared to let our children bike to the woods or play outside in the dark.  We'd rather let them stay safe inside and play computer games and watch television to the point where running and jumping have become like chores to them.  If it weren't for the organized sports such as soccer and softball which are sustained by a small core of volunteers, most of our kids would never get outside on their own.

The response from the federal government, which is to require better product labeling, is laughably inadequate.  It isn't going to inspire anyone in quite the same way that JFK inspired the nation to get fit.  Maybe a few of us will take the time to read through the food labels and make some kind of informed decision.  Kids aren't likely to do that.

The dreary end of winter is a hard time to be reminded that we need to put away the snacks and get off our duffs.  But spring is almost here, and it's time for a new commitment.  Let's get out our bikes and ride like we did when we were kids.  Let's make our children ride with us.

(The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times and is copyright © 2004 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide.  Contact Walt at American Impressionist.

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