Saturday, November 6, 2010

Ultramarathons and public policy

Today I was reading Reason, my favorite magazine, and ran across a column referencing JFK's 50 mile hikes.  Several months ago, I wrote about the historical origins of the modern 50 mile race (here).  In short, JFK wanted to promote fitness, so he adopted the military 50 mile hike concept for civilians.  All over the country, people were going on 50 mile hikes.  Ultimately, the movement died when he did, but the race that bears his name, the JFK 50 Mile Race, lives on; the 48th annual race will be run on November 20th.

Back to Reason.  Greg Beato's column, "The Fitness Divide," discussed JFK's emphasis on fitness.  He didn't want the U.S. to be less fit than any enemy who might invade us.  He wanted the government to "make a substantial contribution toward improving the health and vigor of our citizens."  His efforts, unfortunately, have lost out to the growing "national flabbiness."  The military and fire and police departments complain that their recruits are out of shape.  In 2009, "more than a third of America's adults qualified as obese."

Ironically, during this same time period, exercise in America has taken off.  "In 2009, a record 467,000 people completed a marathon in the U.S." and even in the mainstream media, reports of ultramarathons and other endurance events are commonplace.  How is this "fitness divide" possible?  Beato writes that, yes, conveniences like fast food and technological advances contribute to poor diets and sedentary lifestyles, but they also have given us record amounts of free time.  Who had time to train for a marathon if one was plowing the fields, washing clothes in a washtub, or taking hours to prepare every meal?
If fast food chains gave us 1,000-calorie milkshakes, they also freed up time to go jogging.  If VCRs gave us the couch potato, they also gave us aerobics videos.  If technology made it less necessary to expend energy in pursuit of daily subsistence, it also gave us Nike air soles, polypropylene running shorts, heart-rate monitors, and organic granola.
The policy question in all of this lies in the level of government intrusion in our personal lives.  I'm hearing more and more about taxes on sugar and other "unhealthy" foods, restrictions on advertising and marketing food to children, and other supposed anti-obesity measures.  The attitude seems to be, "We're soft because technology, processed food, and our consumerist way of life have made us soft, and only Congress can liberate us from obesity."  Of course I want people to be healthier and more active, but let's draw the line when it comes to legislating personal behavior.

Here's an ad from the President's Council on Physical Fitness:

Beato's column is in the December 2010 issue of Reason.  It's not posted online yet, but in a few weeks you should be able to read it at

1 comment:

  1. Fire and police recruits? What about the current officers and firefighters? Stuart represented a close-by city that was being sued by the police union. They complained when the city started requiring fitness standards that were too strict. I don't remember for sure, but I think they had to run 1.5 miles in 18 minutes or something like that. Crazy.