Lifestyle Lessons from Masters Athletes

Sprinting Towards Obesity Crisis

By Hal Habib
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2004

WEST PALM BEACH - At 6 a.m. Sunday, thousands of runners will begin hoofing it up and down our streets in celebration of the inaugural Marathon of the Palm Beaches. And whether they've signed up to run the half-marathon, a leg on a relay or the full 26.2 miles, they know their morning definitely will not be no sweat.

As dedicated as they are to what they're doing, just a few steps away will be those equally devoted to an entirely different activity. Inactivity. No sweat.

"Do you believe those runners out there?" says Miami's Lisa Dorfman, a marathoner and registered dietitian, predicting the reaction that will sweep residents along Flagler Drive as the parade rushes past.

It's not a secret anymore that as a whole, we're taking in too much food, too much television and too little fresh air. Hardly a week goes by without a governmental organization warning us or scolding us for how we fill our time and our bellies. Sunday, however, the contrasts come off the pages of news releases and into our front yards.

It's as if we'll be forced to roll out of bed and stare straight into the mirror.

"Clearly there's a strong segment of fanatical fitness people," says Craig Masback, CEO of USA Track & Field. "We've had 10 million people run 100 times or more a year in the United States alone, so those people are fit. But you've got this growing number of people eating wrong and not exercising at all and that's a crisis for America."

You can't have a crisis without two strongly opposed sides. We know we're supposed to eat right and exercise, but we also know that after a long workday, it's nice to kick back and enjoy the fruits (or worse) of our labor. Asked where we stand in this tug of war, Peter P. Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, cracks: "We don't stand very well. As a matter of fact, we're sitting, so that's part of the problem."

Super size me

Just last week, a study revealed that airlines are plunking down $275 million annually to burn additional fuel necessary to lift plump passengers off the ground. While the American public chewed on that, Coke announced it was backing research designed to show sugar isn't so bad for us after all.

Even Sunday's marathon comes with a twist. One of the sponsors: McDonald's. The company will have Ronald McDonald front and center at one of the marathon's supporting events, Saturday's race for kids and sports clinics at CityPlace.

"We want moms and parents to know we have extremely healthy foods for kids," says Ricky Wade, a McDonald's franchisee in Palm Beach County. Post-race refreshments will include fresh apples, Wade added.

Not everyone can stomach that.

"McDonald's just makes me laugh," says Morgan Spurlock, who chronicled the ill effects of a McDonald's diet in his documentary, Super Size Me.

"They attach their name, their brand, to these really healthy events to put out this image that they're a healthy place, that they care, that they're serving food that is good for you," Spurlock says. "Now here they are sponsoring this marathon, which, the same thing, is health by association: 'Look at all these people running! Wow! We must be good!' What they should be doing is requiring everybody who comes out of the restaurant to go for a run."

There is no debate that we're super-sizing ourselves. Since the early '60s, the average American has gone from 166.3 pounds to 191 (men), 140.2 to 164.3 (women), 74.2 to 85 (boys) and 77.4 to 88 (girls), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

No one is saying everyone needs to run 26.2 miles Sunday, or run at all. Proponents sound more and more desperate in their calls for Americans to do something.

"Sometimes a mile is harder than 26 miles," says Dorfman, author of The Tropical Diet. "My motto is, anything that makes you sweat is a step in the right direction. If you come outside and you watch the marathon for two to three hours and you're standing up — so you're doing weight-bearing exercise — and you're passing out water or you're clapping your hands, that would be a great way to start your activity rather than lying in bed that morning."

The TV is Satan

It's a delicate problem requiring a delicate solution, says Bill Rodgers, the four-time Boston Marathon champion who will do the half-marathon.

"You can't just yell at people and say, 'Hey, you're lazy, blah, blah, blah.' That doesn't work,'' says Rodgers, who long ago smoked a pack of Camels per day. "One of the tricky things is people are working so hard today and when they're tired, they think if they work out they'll only get more tired. The truth is, you get more energy from working out because you're fitter and you have a stronger heart."

Dawn Riley is a rare elite athlete who has experienced life on both sides. She's an America's Cup sailor and president of the Women's Sports Foundation who six months ago was in a serious car accident.

"I had done nothing because I was in a wheelchair and a walker," Riley says. "And then I was over in France and in Spain racing America's Cup boats and got into shape. It was amazing to see the difference between doing nothing and how much better I felt when I was able to get into shape. I lost almost 20 pounds."

Riley couldn't help but notice cultural differences in Europe.

"It's not unusual at all not to have an elevator to get up to your hotel room," she says. "There's no concept of, 'I need an elevator to get up there.' Little things can make a huge difference."

Especially if that little object is a television. The average child spends 38 percent more time in front of a TV than in school by age 17, according to Time.

"The TV is Satan," says West Palm Beach's Sonja Friend-Uhl, a favorite in Sunday's half-marathon. She's not alone in throwing darts at a culture that includes hundreds of channels on satellite, video games, DVDs and the Internet.

"When I was a kid and got punished, I had to stay in my room," says Orlando's Derek Parra, a gold-medal winning speed skater at the Salt Lake City Olympics. "Nowadays kids get punished and stay in their room all day with PlayStation."

There are positive signs, but many are tempered. Running is enjoying another boom. Participation in road races has doubled since 1987 to 7.69 million. But, the average marathoner's time has ballooned by about 45 minutes since 1980, to about 4:19 for men and 4:52 for women.

Mom, I'm a big kid now!

The biggest concern today — other than our waistlines — is what happens tomorrow, because another generation is growing up with little exposure to physical education in school.

"That's where we have one of our biggest flaws in the educational system and it's terrible," Spurlock says. "We keep hearing about, 'Kids, they're the future of our country.' Well, you know what? We're doing a really lousy job of preparing for the future."

Illinois is the only state with stringent physical education requirements. In Palm Beach County, there are no basic requirements for elementary and middle-school children, most of whom get just 30 minutes of physical education per week. High school students are required to have just one credit of PE for graduation, one-half of which is a state-mandated class in personal fitness (which includes weight training, nutrition and education about alcohol and tobacco) and the other half an elective in various sports including tennis, softball and basketball.

Kevin Sterling, program planner for physical education in Palm Beach County schools, says he supports pending legislation that would increase those requirements.

"It's basically a no-brainer that if you allow the students — and it's true for any walk of life — if you feel stressed and you go out and take a walk or you get out and get a little exercise, you clear your head," Sterling says. "It works the same for kids. The solution is out there. It's just how to go about getting it done. We're trying to make everybody aware and realize that each hand is going to wash the other. Academics would certainly improve if we get these kids out and get them a little more active."

Dave McGillivray, director of Palm Beach's marathon, is also concerned with childhood obesity. He's so concerned his foundation is planning to open a lake side camp near his home in New England for kids and parents to share active retreats. Friend-Uhl has a program called Fit Play at her CityPlace gym, The FIT Studio, in which kids do fast-paced, non-competitive circuit training and occasionally train on the beach.

"Right now, you go to Disney World, there are so many kids there out of shape, obese and overweight," says Friend-Uhl, who has a 3-year-old daughter, Brianna. "And whether they will admit it to you or not, it's affecting their self-esteem, and that affects everything from their homework and schoolwork to their relationships with friends.''

In recent decades, the school system served up a double whammy, allowing more vending machines and fast-food options onto school grounds, sometimes for fund raising. Lately, however, they've begun to disappear.

In Palm Beach schools, students are offered fruits and salads daily, but this week's menu includes a less-healthy choice each day, from pizza to hot dogs to cheeseburgers.

We're all to blame

So where do we go from here? Do we even get off the couch and go anywhere? Whose fault is this, anyway?

"Everybody wants an easy answer," Spurlock says. "And the answer is, we're all to blame. The government's to blame, we as consumers are to blame, the corporations are to blame.

"What we need to do is we need to stop pointing fingers at everyone, and go back to the adage that my grandfather used to tell me: Every time we point a finger at someone, we're pointing three at ourselves. What we need to say is, 'Wow, what can we do collectively to fix this? What can we do collectively to change this?' "

Roby: "It took 40, 50 years to get where we are now, and it's not going to be an overnight solution, either. It's going to take a generation or two of us to reverse the trend."

Then start now, Parra says.

"We have to wake up," he says. "This is our life. We don't get a dress rehearsal."

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