Summer in Colorado means long, sunny -- and sweaty -- days in one of the fittest states in the country. Chiseled, sinewy men and women, with body-fat percentages roughly equivalent to the number of doughnuts consumed daily by the average Midwesterner, struggle to decide whether to go mountain biking, running, swimming, hiking.
Naturally, the children of these finely tuned athletes are striding alongside their panting parents into cardiac karma, right? Wrong. Odds are, they're sitting on their spongy butts playing video games.
You think you have a hard time peeling your La-Z boy or girl away from the Game Boy? Then pity poor Darryl Moore. As executive director of the Colorado Governor's Council for Physical Fitness, he tries to do so every day, for every kid in the state. Talk about physical exertion. "There's so much to do," he sighs.
Everyone knows that Colorado has one of the thinnest, most active populations in the U.S. But that's the adults, who, even outside of Boulder, can't seem to stop running. When it comes to kids, however, all signs indicate that this state's youngsters are just as hefty as pint-sized tubs across the rest of the country.
"There is a bit of a disconnect between adults and kids here," observes Joseph Brady, a specialist in behavioral change in physical activity at Metro State's Department of Human Performance, Sports and Leisure. Besides, he adds dourly, "While Colorado is fitter than the rest of the country, that ain't saying much."
At first blush, it would seem that putting a government committee in charge of fitness might be about as effective as hiring Arthur Andersen to figure out your household budget. After all, it's reasonable to ask whether an institution commonly described with words like "bloated" and "pork" really should be the top choice for trimming genuine fat. And you can't outrun the politics. Two years ago, Moore proposed changing the council's logo to remove the silhouette of the state capitol building -- a symbolic effort to distance the group's efforts from the bureaucracy. It took various committees more than a year to vet the new letterhead. Such sparring isn't unique to Colorado. In California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the high-profile chairman of that state's fitness council, is in the middle of a spat with Governor Gray Davis.
Still, the Colorado council gets credit for trying. Most of its bank account is filled with corporate donations and volunteer sweat. Even though the governor isn't required to drop in on meetings, the state donates a copying machine, some mailing costs and an office -- although the last time Moore checked, the space was being used for storage.
Convened initially in 1975 by then-governor Dick Lamm to "promote fitness among Colorado citizens," the council has been going through a midlife crisis. This year, it announced that after 27 years it would no longer provide financial support for the Governor's Cup road race. Moore figured that the people who showed up to run probably weren't the ones who needed the government's help getting in shape.
Rather, he says, it's high time to ferret out the fat. "If we're there to do behavior change," he says, "we've been hitting the wrong people."
Adipose-addled adults are still a growing problem. The number of obese Coloradans climbed from 36 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2000, a rate of increase that can't be attributed solely to the influx of Texans. Still, Moore has decided to concentrate his efforts on chubby kids, the idea being that if they change their high-calorie habits early, they will be much less inclined to balloon later.
Many of the reasons for the swelling numbers of fleshy tots and teens aren't new. "Too many damn video games," grumbles Brady. "Too much TV. You've got a lot to compete against. I mean, George Lucas can't even compete against Spider-Man, and you're going to tell your kid to take a walk?" A move to the suburbs means more car rides to school, soccer practices and sleepovers. Lurid crime reports convince parents that walking to school is an invitation to a kidnapping or a hit-and-run.
But some causes are less obvious. Even when activities are close enough to walk to, urban planners unknowingly conspire to keep kids inactive. Moore describes, for instance, the sidewalks at Fox Run in Northglenn, where he lives, which often peter out for no apparent reason, leaving children with literally no place to go except into the street. "Sidewalks these days are like big curbs," says Brady. "Our newer neighborhoods are being designed for automobiles, not for kids to bike or walk in."
Institutional pressures that take the form of social correctness also coddle kids. Neil Williams, a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, continues to update an unfortunately influential list known as the "Physical Education Hall of Shame" -- a catalogue of supposedly inappropriate games that kids are forced to play during gym class. Everyone knows by now that dodgeball -- that rite of passage in which kids rifle hard rubber balls at each other -- is allegedly damaging to epidermis and esteem. But Williams also pans Duck Duck Goose, kickball, relay races, musical chairs, tag and Simon Says.
The result is lame gym classes. Moore explains that Colorado is one of only two states in the country with local control of school curriculum -- which means no mandatory physical-education standards. Thus, while Colorado Springs School District 11 has phys ed four days a week, my daughter's school in Jefferson County offers it every other day for one quarter of the year. The local charter school in my mountain district has no gym classes at all.
Even when there is a rare gym class, teachers are reluctant to press kids into doing something uncomfortable -- like, say, birthing a bead of sweat. "Research shows that if you force kids to do something, they will rebel," Brady explains. "So teachers turn to cup stacking [and other non-exertive, non-competitive activities] in a desperate attempt to find a spark." Nobody is pushed to do much of anything. "Some of the gym classes out there," declares Moore, "are pitiful."
School administrators have become timid about fitness, as well. The student body has become a scary place, full of potential to offend. This past spring, a Pennsylvania school district began sending notices home to the parents of pudgy kids in an attempt to warn the families of impending health risks. Parents, naturally, raised a holy stink: How dare a teacher call their child fat!
Moore says he's tried for years to get Colorado schools to give him basic information about kids who participate in fitness programs -- primarily before-and-after heights and weights -- to see how well the programs are working. But administrators have, without exception, refused for fear of stigmatizing overweight children with truthful information that is obvious to any mirror.
Indeed, fat warriors find that it's difficult to imagine what will offend somebody next. Last year, the governor's fitness council came up with a snappy new campaign to grab kids' attention. It was to be called "War on Obesity." To emphasize the point, the slogan would be printed on crisp camouflage shirts.
It never even got off the ground. When Moore floated the idea to a few school districts, the campaign was shot down emphatically: You can't have camo clothing in school, he was told patiently; it smacks of war and violence.
So Moore and his cohorts are forced to take baby steps. Next year, the governor's council, along with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, will begin presenting to schools the "10K, Five-a-Day," fitness plan. Patrick Barnett, manager of the Colorado Nutrition and Physical Activity Program to Prevent Obesity, who helped design the program, says participants will be given pedometers to clip onto their belts, like pagers. They will then be encouraged to walk 10,000 steps a day. (The "five-a-day" refers to the nutritional component of the campaign; the "10K" portion is a kid-friendly reference to "The 10,000 Steps," an earlier title that "was kind of daunting," according to Barnett.)
The pedometer plays a crucial role in the experiment: In addition to tabulating steps, Moore is hoping the small machine will capture kids' imaginations. "We're trying to put the same excitement in this as picking up a Game Boy," he says. "The bar is set pretty low, but we need a way to make it work."
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Other programs set the bar low enough to bust an ankle. For the past couple of years, Moore and the council have helped put on the Cycle Safety Circus for Kids. Sensibly, the event is designed to help kids learn about how to ride a bike without getting hurt. But Moore says that the program has an even more basic goal: "To get kids interested in biking." Another component instructs children in the fine art of...how to walk to school.
As the state health department's Barnett comments, "You have to start somewhere." This fall, he and Moore will be pushing the "Walk-In School Bus." Aimed mainly toward skittish parents, the plan calls for an adult "driver" to walk in the lead, with another taking up the rear. The metaphorical bus navigates a planned route through a neighborhood, picking up kids along the way and ending up at the local school.
It's a swell idea. And there is plenty that's positive about programs that try to get kids to monitor themselves while walking 10,000 steps, or to propel themselves to school, or to endure ten minutes of vigorous physical activity per day as required by the ongoing Shape Up Across Colorado. But there's something vaguely sad about it, too.
"It's natural for kids to move," Moore points out. Brady adds that his years of disciplined research into what makes people want to exercise has yielded an obvious answer: "It's gotta be fun," he says. "If it's not enjoyable, kids aren't going to do it." Makes sense. But it also makes you wonder: When did fun leave the building?