The Unequal Distribution of Physical Fitness

Time magazine has a cover story this week, called “Why We Take Risks,” that bears some superficial resemblance to recent Chatterbox columns on vacations that kill. (See “Do Vacations Kill?” and “Idiots and Their Boats.”) Essentially it’s a story about “extreme sports,” whose rise in popularity Time links, somewhat unconvincingly, to day trading and “unprotected sex” and heroin use. Time reports that while baseball, touch football, and aerobics are declining in popularity, riskier sports like snowboarding and scuba diving are becoming more popular. “By every statistical measure available,” the article says, “Americans are participating in and injuring themselves through adventure sports at an unprecedented rate.”

The Time piece isn’t nearly as good as Brendan Koerner’s U.S. News cover story on the same subject a couple of years back. (Chatterbox should probably disclose here that he was a U.S. News editor at the time, though he had nothing to do with Koerner’s story.) A more serious problem, though, is that Time’s story is apt to leave readers with the impression that Americans are engaging in more physical activity than they used to. In fact, overall, they may be engaging in less. A 1996 report on “Physical Activity and Health” by the U.S. Surgeon General complains that “despite common knowledge that exercise is healthful, more than 60 percent of American adults are not regularly active, and 25 percent of the adult population are not active at all.” Kids are particularly sedentary: “Nearly half of young people 12-21 years of age are not vigorously active; moreover, physical activity sharply declines during adolescence.” This is typically characterized as a national decline in physical fitness, attributable to excessive TV-watching. That may be an exaggeration; experts have been complaining about Americans’ sedentary habits for some time. (According to another section of the Surgeon General’s report, President Eisenhower made a fuss back in 1953 over a study called “Muscular Fitness and Health” by two New York University scholars that stated that 56.6 percent of American schoolchildren “failed to meet even a minimum standard required for health.”)

But even if Americans are no lazier in the aggregate than they were 40 years ago, the rise of “extreme sports” underscores a trend that’s a bit different and more interesting than the one Time is promoting: Namely, that a small elite is engaging in pathologically daring leisure activities requiring unprecedented physical fitness, while the rest of us are getting fat on chips and beer while we watch these gladiators on ESPN. From a social-justice perspective, the danger of extreme sports is an inadvertent equalizer. These unbelievably fit people may be as likely to die young as the physically unfit masses are, if not more so (though not, of course, of the same cardiovascular causes). A better way to achieve equality would be a redistribution of physical fitness in which everybody engages in sensible, moderate exercise, and nobody engages in BASE (an acronym for “building, antenna, span, earth”), which, according to Time, involves hurtling off a cliff or a bridge on a bicycle with a parachute on your back.