Today marks an important – though totally artificial – milestone: the day Roger Bannister first officially broke the 4 minute mile. It is important because it removed a mental obstacle – and it is artificial because it is an arbitrary round number. That mark remains a goal for all milers and a remarkable achievement for any runner. The American Running Association is using the anniversary to push fitness and running among young people with their ‘R U A MILER’ campaign.
The American Running Association is hoping that by pushing the mile in schools they can get more kids involved with athletics and running, and overall just get a push into a more active lifestyle. ARA is a nonprofit organization founded in 1968 to promote healthy living and active lifestyles among all Americans.
“The ‘R U A MILER’ focus is intended to get more of our youth motivated and enthused to run,” said ARA’s Executive Director Dave Watt. “The Mile is a good test and a great first step.”
This is all part of a school-based infrastructure around health and fitness that goes back 60 years – back to a report from NYU professor Dr. Hans Kraus about how unfit American kids were compared to European kids the same age, which he attributed to affluence and leisure. Dwight Eisenhower started a Council on Youth Fitness, and JFK modified it to reflect the need for more fitness activities for all Americans. LBJ instituted the first formal program in 1966, and that has remained in place ever since with only minor tweaks and attention from Nixon and Reagan.
In 2010 Barack Obama made the latest changes by emphasizing the role of nutrition in overall health and fitness, as part of the administrations hope to end the epidemic of childhood obesity in a generation. All of which sounds great – but for kids with little interest in sports, it means getting to show off in public their inability to do a chin-up.
OK … now I just have to ask – do you remember being pushed to run a mile, or do other sets of ‘Presidential Physical Fitness’ tasks back in elementary school through high school? I remember them well and have related the lingering impact of being tormented by my elementary school Phys Ed teacher for being so slow.
Neither of my boys are likely to give Roger Bannister a challenge, but neither do they look like I did at their age. And each of them dislike the way their Phys Ed classes are handled. But whereas I ended up involved in football and tennis, the competitive nature of high school sport – and even those at much earlier age – makes it so that only ‘serious’ athletes can take part.
The result for slow or non-athletic kids is a constant air of disdain and ridicule, blatant favoritism from the gym teachers who are always also coaches, and an overall environment that makes ‘sports’ a distasteful word for non-athletes. Of course, since my kids are in the ‘honors’ and ‘AP’ classes … I get to hear how the teachers refer to the kids taking the lower ‘math skills’ or ‘science skills’ classes, so I don’t pretend that this is all one-sided.
But as a man who once hated gym class and now considers myself an athlete, I look at my younger son with a body shape and endurance profile that are perfectly matched for cross-country long distance running – but I know he won’t even join me for casual runs at this point; he won’t until he is separated from the toxic high school sports environment for some time, and that is unfortunate.
Why mention all of this? Because the goal SHOULD NOT be to get some check-box ticked off on a sheet, but rather to develop a love of activity. Just like any activity – singing, playing an instrument, writing, biking, dancing and so on – some do these things naturally, and others will always struggle. But if you can find a space in that activity that works for you, you can build a love that will turn to a passion, and that passion will eventually become a major part of your life.
And isn’t this all about getting physical fitness and activity into our daily lives?