How Fitness Can Help Heal a Fractured Society

If we sweat and strive together, it will not be so easy to tear us apart.

Photo by Bev Childress

Photo by Bev Childress

It seems the world has never been more polarized, and our discourse more divisive. Every side of every issue seems to have come to the convenient conclusion that the other side are idiots. Social discontent has permeated every public arena, from the football game to your family barbecue. The world seems unstable, scary, and in deep need of healing.

Yet, as I go through my daily routines, I’m encouraged. I’m struck by how peaceful and friendly people can be. I live in a diverse, suburban community in Texas, situated between two big cities and the surrounding rural countryside; a textbook example of cultural convergence. When I go to the grocery store, I smile at people, and they mostly smile back. I joke with people at the checkout counter, and they laugh and seem to feel the same human connection that I do.

Division is Learned

People of all different ages, races, genders, creeds, and opinions on the issues of our day somehow manage to get along in remarkable harmony. In our daily in-person encounters, none of our differences seem to matter. It makes you wonder: are we really so divided, or are we taught to be divided? If we weren’t so saturated with incessant news and public commentary, would we notice any significant conflict? If we weren’t told to be outraged or afraid, would we be? If we weren’t encouraged to call those who think differently idiots, would we find other opinions so absurd and threatening?

Years ago, as a civics teacher, I always looked forward to the political beliefs unit. Part of the curriculum was a political spectrum quiz known as the Nolan Chart, which categorizes personal beliefs on a spectrum that includes libertarian, statist, conservative, liberal, and centrist ideologies. Invariably, most of my students were shocked to hear that beliefs could be more complicated than just Republican and Democrat, and that their actual beliefs often fell outside of the range their parents would have liked. When we took the labels and the intense external rhetoric away, these young adults found they were surprisingly moderate and understanding of other points of view.

In a climate of mass information and unbridled expression of opinion, constructive dialogue vanishes, replaced by confirmation bias and a carefully curated echo chamber. Everyone talks, no one listens, and our digital lives make us feel more isolated and separated than ever before.

How Fitness Can Help Us Heal

This is where I believe fitness can step in and help heal society’s wounds. When live, personal interactions replace digital ones, our differences as people tend to vanish. When we work together, sweat together, and struggle together, our politics become less important than our humanity.

Let’s heed the advice of Theodore Roosevelt, jump into the arena, and strive together towards a goal. Now is the best time to commit to a community of movers. Sign up for a seminar or certification. Grab a buddy and sign up for a bike race, a Tough Mudder, a Spartan Race, or a half marathon. Consider volunteering to help the massive effort of setting up one of these races. Join a yoga studio and commit to show up enough that people start noticing and talking to you. Take up a new challenge like Brazilian jiu jitsu or Krav Maga. If you are just starting out and don’t know where to begin, get a few friends to join you on my Fit for the Holidays challenge.

Whatever you decide, do it with other people, even (and especially) people unlike yourself. You’ll be happy that you got off the sidelines and chased a goal that forced you out of your comfort zone and into a real community. When you do, you will find, as I have, that the world isn’t so scary as the news makes it out to be. There are a million ways we can get off the sidelines and use fitness to grow and enrich our sense of community. Every step we take in that direction will help heal us as a society, so please don’t be among “those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”