We May Be Sitting Ourselves to Death

The Human Machine Needs Regular Physical Activity To Function At Its Very Best. (A Public Interest Advertisement Addressed Especially to the Readers of The Atlantic)

By Frank R. Neu

With greater attention on physical fitness these days, many are now asking themselves: what can I do? This spokesman for the American Dairy Association outlines some specifics for you and your family

The subject of physical fitness has received much publicity and a great deal of lip service in recent years. President Kennedy has issued another call to the nation to become alarmed about and to take some action to correct the apparently poor state of physical well-being in this country.

There is a note of urgency behind this latest call for action to build physical fitness. At a time when the nation faces a growing need for strength in its people as well as in its machines, the record for physical fitness is not one to be proud of.

The Selective Service system has been rejecting one out of each two young men called for duty in the Armed Forces because of physical, mental, or moral unfitness. Physical unfitness ranks high, and it is very likely that some of the mental and moral unfitness may be the result of the physical problems.

Studies among American youths, in comparison with European youths, have been conducted by Dr. Hans Kraus and Dr. Sonja Weber in the Posture Clinic of the New York Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. Six tests for muscular strength and flexibility were given to more than 4,000 American children and to almost 3,000 children in Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. The results show that almost 58% of the American youths failed one or more of these, tests while less than 9% of the European children failed one or more.

Yale University also reports a steady decline in the state of physical fitness of freshmen entering each year. While 51% of the class of 1951 passed the fitness tests at Yale, 43% of the class of 1956 passed , and only 38% of the class of 1960 were able to perform satisfactorily.

But physical fitness, or the lack of it, is not a problem confined to youth alone. It is a growing health menace to young adults and middle aged adults, and we might understand why this is true if we take a look into the life of Mr. Joe Citizen, middle class suburban dweller, on an ordinary day.

Joe Moves Few Muscles

Joe drags himself out of bed at 7 a.m., showers, shaves, gulps down a hasty and nutritionally inadequate breakfast. His lovely wife drives him to the railroad station. Even if Joe drove himself, he wouldn't get much exercise because his car has power steering, power brakes, power window lifts, power seat controls. Less vigorously than she might desire, Joe's wife receives a goodbye kiss as Joe slides out of the car, walks a few steps to board the 7:47. Half an hour later he walks almost half a block to catch a bus which deposits him 22 steps from his office building door.

Joe is likely to sit at his desk until noon. If he's having a busy day, he may ask his cute blonde secretary to bring in a sandwich and a cup of coffee for his lunch. On the other hand, Joe may be one of those tycoons who closes big business deals over "martinis-and-rich-food" lunches, following which he returns to the office and sits some more until quitting time. Arriving home, Joe feels the need of a drink or two before dinner to "unwind."

After eating a heavy meal, Joe decides that tonight he needs relaxation because of his rough day at the office. He proceeds to relax by slouching into a chair before the television set. After sitting through the late movie, he crawls into bed, awakens at 7 a.m. the next morning to start all over again.

Along comes Saturday. Joe feels that his tough week of rowing an oar in the stream of commerce and industry has earned him a few hours on the golf course.

He drives to the country club, mounts an electric golf cart, plays 18 holes, joins the boys back in the clubhouse for a few drinks. Feeling good about all the exercise he's had, Joe drives home and eats a big dinner, knowing that he has used extra energy playing golf, of course.

Jill Lives Longer

Let's consider Jill, Joe's wife, for a moment. Chances are, on the basis of current statistics, Jill will outlive Joe by anywhere from five to 25 years. Medical science is not sure yet whether this is because Jill has different hormones from Joe or whether it is a result of the different roles which Joe and Jill fulfill in our society because of these different hormones.

The average suburban Jill is likely to be a homemaker responsible for rearing two or more children. It is safe to assume that any woman with this responsibility is going to get a lot of daily exercise no matter how many gadgets she has to help her do the housework. A homemaker does a lot of walking each day merely to push the buttons and start the machines that wash the clothes, cook the meals, and remove the dust. And she also does a good deal of bending each day to pick up after Joe and the junior members of the family. All in all, Jill is likely to get much more exercise than Joe. This may have a significant relationship to Jill's outliving Joe, who no longer hikes the dusty trail to bring home the buffalo meat and hides to feed and clothe his family.

So much for Joe and Jill. Does all the hue and cry about our low state of physical fitness really have any rational basis, or is this merely an effort to sell more gymnasium equipment that will gather dust after a week of use?

Superior Mental Power Is Not Enough

If one accepts the theory that man rules the Earth because he has, thus far, at least, won the race among the species in the "survival of the fittest," why should we be worried? Is it not mental agility, rather than physical fitness, that should concern us because it is his brain power, not his muscles, which has enabled man to control enough of his environment to master his planet and prepare to explore others?

Obviously, superior mental development is chiefly responsible for making man what he is, but we should not overlook that man's brain is encased within a body that has certain needs that must be met. Medical science has learned to control most of the diseases of childhood and many of the other diseases which formerly cut short many human lives. The major challenges to medicine today are to solve the problems of cancer and various forms of cardiovascular disease, and, perhaps most important of all, to teach human beings that the human body, adaptable as it is to a variety of environmental conditions, does require certain minimum standards of care.

It is perhaps conceivable that through the process of evolution there may eventually develop a human or super-human species that is largely brain, with only enough additional physical development to provide one finger for pushing buttons. If computers are ever able to take over some of the more intricate thought processes of the human brain, we might even reach that stage where the machine can reproduce itself, thus eliminating the need for human beings to push the buttons.

There Are Sound Reasons for Physical Fitness

In the meantime, however, accepting ourselves as the human beings we are, there are certain things which most of us ought to be doing in order to live more comfortably, perhaps more enjoyably, and maybe even a bit longer. There are some very good reasons for us to learn to give ourselves much improved physical care.

There is very legitimate concern about the generally poor state of physical fitness among men of military age. In a world in which men have not yet learned to live together in peace, it is essential, of course, that a nation have the ability to defend itself and to survive under the most adverse conditions. Our position is weakened by the vast loss of effective manpower through poor care of our physical selves, not only because we are weak physically but also because this often leads to mental retardation.

There are sound reasons for believing, too, that many of the common complaints of modern American civilization—obesity which concerns some 30 to 40 million among us, otherwise unexplained "fatigue," and the "let-down feeling" about which so many complain daily—may be traced to neglect of our physical development and maintenance.

Assuming that physical fitness is our goal, what kind of programs must we develop and follow to achieve this? Too many physical fitness campaigns in the past have been geared to the needs of those who already are well along on the road to being physically fit. Or physical fitness has been advocated by those people who seem to think that we all need bulging muscles and taut tummies so that we might stand around on the beach in very brief leopard skins to be admired by one and all.

Physical fitness is not synonymous with calisthenics and weight lifting, although both of these are certainly excellent forms of exercise for those who enjoy them, Fitness is, rather, a matter of achieving an optimum state of well-being that enables us to live and to enjoy living to the maximum extent that our mental development and environment offer us.

Heredity, obviously, plays the fundamental role in determining one's state of physical development. Assuring that a person is born with no major physical handicaps, then maintaining good general health and avoiding illness become part of a lifetime pattern that really is not too difficult to design and follow.

Food consumption becomes a very important part of the lives of people in all types of civilizations. Food is eaten not only for its contribution to the physical needs of the eater but also because of many cultural values associated with the act of eating. In American society food often serves the homemaker as the main source of her gratification, through earning the praise of her family and her guests for what she has placed on the table. Food serves as a reason for people to meet and carry on many social activities, ranging from major business deals to the exchanging of meaningful glances between young lovers.

Eating food certainly should be an enjoyable part of living in a country where we have not only an abundance of very high quality foods but also a tremendous variety of excellent and tasty foods that provide, if eaten in the right proportions, all of the essential nutrients we need to maintain good health and adequate energy sources.

We should all strive to help children learn to eat food basically to provide themselves the essential nutrients they need for good health and adequate supplies of energy to do all those things that children enjoy doing. While such training for our children certainly should be a primary national goal in developing sound physical fitness programs, we should not be at all hesitant about trying to re-educate many of our teenagers and adults to better eating habits. In spite of our plentiful food supply, there are millions of people in this country who are malnourished—not necessarily undernourished—because they have not learned how to select the right foods to provide a healthy nutritional pattern for eating.

Eating for Fitness

Nutrition scientists in this country, trying to develop the best pattern of food consumption in line with the kinds of foods available, have offered a relatively simple Daily Food Guide for us to follow. The Guide suggests selecting foods from four major groups:

The Milk Group (including cheese and ice cream as well as all forms of milk): An adult should consume two or more eight-ounce glasses of milk each day.

The Vegetable-Fruit Group: Select four or more servings each day, including one serving of a good source of Vitamin C, one serving at least every other day of a good source of Vitamin A. The other servings may be any vegetables or fruits.

The Meat Group (including all meats, poultry, fish and eggs): Choose two or more servings each day.

The Bread-Cereals Group: Choose four or more servings daily.

Other Foods: After meeting the suggested servings from these four basic food groups, the Guide recommends selecting from other food sources adequate amounts to provide enough energy to meet daily requirements. The amount of food consumed, in terms of calories, must be balanced with the amount of energy expended. There will be a gain in weight if food intake exceeds energy output.

It is very wise, also, to keep in mind that foods should never be selected merely on the basis of the number of calories in any particular unit of food. For example, we dairy farmers would be especially grateful if more people would remember why milk has been called, "Nature's most nearly perfect food," since the dawn of civilization. The chart shows that milk provides a wide range of essential food nutrients, for people of all ages. Milk can hardly be classified as a "fattening" food on the basis of its nutrient contribution to the total diet. A pint of milk, or two eight-ounce glasses, supplies only 10% to 13% of an adult man's calorie needs, but this amount of milk, as the chart indicates, also provides 25% of the recommended amount of protein—and the highest quality protein available, 71% of the calcium, 15% of the Vitamin A, 46% of the riboflavin and 10% to 12% of the thiamine. There are other essential food nutrients in milk but in less important quantities.

Rest and Exercise Are Necessery

Good general health, prevention of illness and a well balanced diet are all necessary for physical fitness, but they are by no means the total picture. Just as pills are not the answer to all our problems, neither is it possible to "eat your way to good health," as some of the food faddists and quacks proclaim. Adequate amounts of rest are necessary if the body is to recoup itself and to function effectively. The amount of rest any of us needs is something that experience alone teaches, but rest is essential.

Finally, among the physical requirements for physical fitness—and we should not overlook the interrelationship among physical, mental and moral, or spiritual factors in contributing to good health and happiness—we come to the matter of physical activity or exercise.

The required activity need not be violent exercise, but it should, if at all possible, certainly be daily exercise. Walking at least three miles each day, over and above the usual amount of walking on the job, is one of the easiest and best ways to get needed physical activity because walking does use the major body muscles. There certainly are many other forms of exercise that help if they can be done on a fairly regular basis, not merely on weekends—including bicycling, golf, tennis, handball, swimming, bowling, etc. Even a football or basketball game can provide the right kind of exercise, provided the participants walk to the stadium or fieldhouse instead of riding in the car.

All of us, for patriotic, for economic, for purely selfish reasons, would be wise to inventory our own state of physical fitness and to resolve to achieve a high level of well-being if we don't already enjoy it. Beyond this, all of us certainly owe it to our communities and to our nation's future to give much more than lip service to President Kennedy and those he has designated to develop better and sensible physical fitness programs.

Every school child should certainly be getting encouragement and training to develop a personal, lifetime physical fitness plan. This should include knowledge about eating a well balanced diet, the need for adequate rest and encouragement of the kind of physical activity that could easily become a permanent and enjoyable part of the adult living pattern. Gymnasiums and stadiums for spectator sports are hardly enough to fulfill our obligations to our children in this area of physical fitness. In fact, having these facilities may often mislead us badly about how many of our children really are getting adequate physical training in our schools.

Above all else, we should avoid the idea that physical fitness is something of concern only to the young of our species. It is most certainly a cradle-to-grave need for all of us, one that properly planned and developed, can provide some big bonuses in longer life and more years of useful, energetic and enjoyable life.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1961/11/we-may-be-sitting-ourselves-to-death/306504/