Congratulations on your historic ascension to the highest office in the land. Like many others, I am heartened by it and the promise of an Obama presidency. I am also quite cognizant of the challenges ahead—for all of us. Your task is daunting. The economy. War. Energy. Health care. Housing. Food prices. Not to mention restoring our image around the globe. And that's just your to-do list for February.
Now add to your agenda this critical need: Getting America Fit.
You're certainly aware of the increasingly alarming (and expanding) state of the American waistline. We can blame a myriad of factors, ranging from poor eating habits to sedentary lifestyles. Childhood obesity has been given much attention (rightly so), but the rest of us could use a few more trips to the gym, as well. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, fewer than one in three Americans between 18 and 64 gets regular exercise. That we stop these trends and change our health and fitness habits is as critical as ending our dependence on foreign oil. It might actually be easier, too, if someone on your team would make shaping up our nation a true priority.
Why do it? Well, you certainly know. We've twice recognized your own passion for fitness by naming you one of the Fittest Men in America (in 2005 and again last year), and now everyone knows of your love for basketball and your regular workouts. Beyond the physical and mental benefits of leading a fitter lifestyle, doing so also impacts the cost of health care. And as you seek to ensure that every American has health coverage, those savings could be monumental.
Where do you start? Here are some ideas:
- Take a defibrillator to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Host a fitness summit on par with the economic summit you held just days after the election (I'd be glad to attend) and discuss ways to resuscitate and elevate that moribund agency. Then infuse it with a real agenda, real resources, real power.
- Encourage all schools to look at what they're feeding our kids. Many already have. The New York Times recently noted a study of more than 500 districts nationwide, which revealed that many have instituted policies limiting the amount of fat, trans fat, sodium, and sugars in food sold or served at schools. Perhaps national standards are in order. Forget No Child Left Behind. We need No Child Gets a Bigger Behind!
- Help schools to reinstate gym classes, many of which were eliminated because of cost cutting.
- Put some juice behind two bills now languishing in Congress. Both provide tax incentives for Americans who make a commitment to getting fit. The Personal Health Investment Today Bill (introduced in January '07 by your fellow Illini, Representative Gerald Weller, R.) allows a deduction of up to $1,000 for exercise equipment and gym membership fees. The Workforce Health Improvement Program Act (March '07) allows employees to exclude up to $900 from their gross income for fees, dues, or membership expenses paid by an employer. Last year, we published our first Fittest Companies in America list. Each company selected showed a significant rise in productivity and employee self-esteem, as well as a decline in health costs.
- Study the actions taken by cities across the nation to make it easier for citizens to get in shape. Some of those cities are on our 11th annual Fittest and Fattest Cities in America list, featured in this issue.
- Appoint a fitness czar. They would be an evangelist for exercise and nutrition who would help share best practices from city to city. They would spur more initiatives, educate Americans about the benefits of fitness, and motivate the stragglers to get off their butts.
Of course, how all of this would be paid for is critical. I encourage you to seek the support of nonprofits and the private sector, which stand much to gain for a fitter nation. Some have already stepped forward. Last year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said it plans to spend $500 million over the next five years to address childhood obesity. This is indeed our time, Mr. President.
Your election will long be remembered as a transformational moment in our nation's history. Our challenge now is to make sure that what we become truly honors this moment. We can do that only if each of us is stronger, fitter, and healthier than ever. That's a journey that starts with one situp, one trip to the gym, one bike ride, one pickup game.
Your ball, Mr. President.
Roy S. Johnson
Editor in Chief, Men's Fitness
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