Sixteen Going on Sixty – Fitness in Decline for the Young

If our kids are in poor health now, how bad will it be for them later in life?

A recently released study found that teens today have the same activity levels as 60-year-olds. At an age when they should be on their way to their physical prime, they are instead entrenched in lifestyles that ensure chronic health problems, orthopedic issues, and sluggish energy levels. They’ve accepted the model we’ve given them that virtually ensures their actual physical prime falls closer to age 7 than 27.

While athletes might experience a later prime, their lack of proper human movement patterns and foundational stability often lead to compensations that manifest in major injuries by the time they graduate high school. Even if you are an athlete, the hours spent at practice are not enough to offset the constant sitting at school and at home, your rounded posture while you stare at your phone screen, and the fast food lifestyle that dominates the other hours of your day.

The Accepted Human Decline

Our standard model has been to separate mind and body. Few understand the interconnectedness of movement, proper nutrition, energy, and optimal mental acuity. Generally, people only think about eating and activity as a means to improve physique, and don’t care about the bigger picture until they’re forced to. Few people think about the necessity, benefit, and joy of strong, mobile, agile, and controlled movement, until their potential for it vanishes.

We don’t do a lot to promote movement among 30- and 40-year-olds—in fact, we do less than with teens. It’s accepted that your body goes to hell by the time you’re 30, and from then on, it’s a downward slope of losing physical skills and experiencing more aches and pains. Then around retirement age, people start to care about their health again, because a lifetime of neglect has taken its toll. They have a laundry list of health issues and prescriptions, and are forced to see the consequences of the model society gave them.

One wonders if the 60-year-olds referenced in the study above move more than they did in their 30s and 40s. Has the immediacy of their health situation and their impending mortality finally moved them into a respect for their health and activity levels?

A Bleak Future

What does the future look like for our shockingly motionless teens? How likely are they to move and appreciate movement during their typically sedentary 30s and 40s, particularly when their bodies weigh and ache more on average than past generations?

Are we really okay with giving this standard model of life to our kids? While this latest study has gotten plenty of attention in the media, it should come as no shock. The warning signs are everywhere. Parents all have seen the lethargy and isolation brought about by today’s digital culture. Scan any public place, and kids are less likely to be running, jumping, and growing a personality (at the expense of their parent’s sanity). More likely, they are quietly sitting, pacified by the glow of the iPad. One need only examine our typical school day to see that it doesn’t get a lot better when they leave home.

So what do we do about it? When will we start to take seriously our duty to instill the tools and mindset in our next generation that will allow them to thrive? We’ve obsessed over providing for them materially, but this does not create great people, nor happy people.

We Have to Think Long Term

Adults must have the wisdom to see the long-term benefit of discipline, and know what values they are trying to instill. Unfortunately, good information and education on health and fitness is not ubiquitous. While I contend it should be the true core of education for all people, our educational institutions have not concurred.

In my job, I’m constantly talking to athletes and students about nutrition. One day, I entered the training room to see the typical buffet of fast food and give my typical rant, when one athlete asked, “Why does it matter? I look fine and don’t need to worry about those things until we get older.” He was sincere. In his eyes, health was only a concern for the elderly.

But he doesn’t know how lucky he is. He’s a great athlete, and has made it to age 16 with no outwardly obvious health-related ailments, other than the typical chronic sleepiness from poor sleep habits. Still, like most of his classmates, he could live a far more energized, mentally and physically vital life with better health, if he only understood how.

His sentiment highlights our odd thought process. It won’t matter until later, so let’s all dive into the soda and fast food at every meal, and sit all day. The results of these habits are cumulative, and they are deadlier than smoking. Somehow, we have no problem teaching kids the dangers of smoking, while pouring them their morning bowl of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs.

Where Should Change Begin?

Where do we start to fix the way our culture actively promotes poor health? We should all demand intelligent changes in public policy. For instance, our government subsidizes corn production, which is why high fructose corn syrup (about the same as any added sugar) is so cheap and omnipresent. Government subsidies are the biggest reason why bad food is so cheap. One proposed solution is to quit subsidizing corn, and instead subsidize apples, greens, and other more nutritious products. Then we’d see apples become cheaper than a Butterfinger.

As with any necessary change, there would be some short-term transitional pains, but the overwhelming benefit would be tremendous. The arguments against this are the same ones Blockbuster tried to make against the rise of Redbox and Netflix. History moves forward.

Next, let’s set our sights on the primary cultural nucleus: schools. This should be the foundational launch point to fix societal issues. Schools should make lifelong mental, physical, and emotional health their primary mission. This would require them to clarify a vision and stand up for what they believe in. Schools exist for human development, and it is their responsibility to lead the charge to counteract any pattern that presents a significant impediment to fulfillment.

But more than just schools, every gym in America should be broadcasting this message and setting up affordable camps to help change patterns. Every institution and organization from colleges, to religious camps, to dentists’ waiting rooms should be championing the value of nutrition and movement.

Let’s Work Together

Technology is not neutral. It seeks to addict our minds and keep us scrolling and checking back in every few minutes. Food is not neutral, either. Food companies intentionally seek to create addictive patterns to foods that do long-term harm. School and society must not be neutral, either. We must value health.

All of us in the fitness industry can unite behind this message. We can drop any insistence that ours is the only way, and join together to change these deeply entrenched societal patterns. A rising tide lifts all ships, and this unity of effort will only result in rising memberships and greater success for everyone. But beyond money, most in the industry seek a greater purpose for fitness, and I contend that this is it! Culture needs to change, and that can only happen if and when we unite.

Coach Shane Trotter is Breaking Muscle’s Expert Coach in Residence. If you are looking to get into Youth Development and want Coach Trotter to cover a topic you are interested in, or would like him to address a specific issue you may have, email [email protected] Put Coach Trotter in the subject line, and let us know what you need in your training.