*Note: This essay was published in the New York Daily News print edition on November 5, 2017. It can also be found online here.
Sunday, 50,000 physical elites will line up to run the New York City Marathon. Watch and you’ll see the best of the endurance world: lean, lithe and little in the way of body fat. At a start line a few miles from the site of the Occupy Wall Street protests, another enviable 1% will congregate.
Most runners will be fairly uniform; spectators won’t see many, if any, overweight competitors. Slower movers don’t make the cut: The “sweep bus” pulls anyone out of the race taking over 15 minutes per mile. Police support and precious volunteer hours drive down the time the course is open. This deters the obese, the overweight and aged.
A serious runner myself, I’ve seen this at races for years. But with a younger brother that’s struggled with weight, it’s become personal. This past June, part of an effort to help him lose weight, we signed up for a hilly 10-miler. I finished the same as I did 11 years ago and then walked back to my brother.
He was six miles in, the hills taking their toll, and as we began mile seven together, the “sweeper” pulled him and ended his race early. With extra time, he would have finished.
My brother’s war on weight represents America’s. A few weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its annual report on obesity. It was chilling: nearly 40% of adults are obese, and when that figure is added to the overweight numbers, the total climbs to 70.7% (meaning it is officially abnormal to be an American adult at a healthy weight). Since 1980, childhood obesity rates have tripled.
This epidemic has even cut into the military, where I serve: About one in four young adults is too overweight to join.
This sizable canyon between a fit few and a heavy many is bad for society because such widespread weight problems are dangerous for America’s health, wealth and security. Americans now too often die of weight-related non-communicable diseases, like diabetes and high blood pressure, which have contributed to the first decline in national longevity in two decades.
Our health-care system, stressed by an increasingly sedentary public, is the costliest in the developed world. And the stock of physically ready young people is relatively lower than ever, even than when John F. Kennedy in 1960 called our increasing lack of physical fitness “a menace to our security.”
So what can be done? Other nations’ citizens live longer, healthier lives than Americans, particularly some of our strongest allies. In Japan, physical activity is socially encouraged and incentivized by government. In Germany, volksmarches (“people’s marches,” non-competitive fitness walking) are common.
America could learn something from these societies: to aim for wider exercise participation over narrow athletic competition. This baton would be well carried by run clubs, race directors and runners themselves. They might make their events more inclusive and conducive to the needs of our obese, overweight, and older citizens.
Even by adding slower options, these events would be real feats of endurance. For example, who had the tougher 10-miler? Me, matching a previous result? Or my brother, at a much higher weight, moving six miles? Slightly different, both were tough physical tests.
Sure, we have our share of walks — but not nearly enough. They should be ingrained into events like the New York City Marathon to encourage wider participation.
There are challenges: Runners will have to share courses with slower movers and race directors will need to negotiate for more road time.
But the upside is enormous. Race directors and run clubs might tap into the revenue that currently lies dormant in tens of millions of potential patrons.
Local communities and politicians that support such efforts will free up resources otherwise destined for health care, and win socially through the sweaty solidarity that comes with an upbeat community event.
My brother’s weight is trending down, and having logged enough miles as a walker, he’ll start jogging. I have no doubt he’ll continue his progress. He’s driven. But he had to start somewhere.
For him, it started with a runner asking a soon-to-be-runner to cross the fitness divide. Those first steps are never easy.