Gadd’s Truth: What Is Real-World Fitness?

Will Gadd discusses the concept of "real world fitness," and proposes some radical (or perhaps not-so-radical?) solutions to North America's obesity crisis.

Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

It takes an effort to avoid seeing what every government in North America is calling a “Public Health Crisis.”

The signs are obvious and literally large: obesity, diabetes, motorized scooters cruising Big Box stores, seat-belt extenders on airplanes and extra-sized operating tables for ever-larger patients. Thirty per cent of kids are now considered obese, and 70 per cent of the general population is overweight. But if the symptoms and problems are so evident, then why are the proposed solutions so much worse?

If someone is “out-of-shape,” and the bar for that standard is so low that it’s nearly meaningless, then the proposed solution is usually to join a gym, wrestle with some sort of ridiculous piston-based weight-training machinery, then do some “cardio” on a treadmill until bored senseless. This is obviously going to fail in short order as it’s about as interesting as watching daytime TV — wait, that must be more interesting as people will actually do it year after year.

Most gyms survive on human optimism. Stats show about 70 per cent of people with gym memberships never actually use them and much of the remainder quit going to the gym only two months after buying a membership. Yet fitness professionals and doctors keep making the same suggestion.

The only thing more repetitively, more colossally stupid than this prescription for health is the usual diet attached to it; not one of these diets ever works for very long because dieting inherently involves drastic caloric or food-type restriction. Your ancestors survived because they ate when they had the opportunity — those who didn’t died off; to fight this is to fight our very genes. Studies have shown that after six months, 80 per cent of people who go on a diet will have put all the weight back on.  But, just to put the final touch on the ridiculousness of the whole situation, more and more research suggests being somewhat “overweight” isn’t actually all that bad for you. Being active is more important than being a whippet, and if society recognized that not everyone is going to be skinny then perhaps more people would stop feeling like they should look like whippets while exercising.

Years ago, I was hiking out of Mexico’s Copper Canyon when I was smoothly passed by an older woman who had both a huge collection of sticks on her back and more than a few pounds around her middle. She was far, far fitter by any relevant measure than most people ever will be. She had never been told to run on a treadmill; exercise was just a natural part of her life. And that’s where North America has gone wrong. A century ago, we had to fight for classroom time for kids; the usual active farm and life activities competed with sedentary mental education. Getting intellectually “educated” became the goal, as there was no shortage of physical activity, but today less than 10 per cent of schools provide daily PE classes. And we wonder why kids are out of shape? Now it’s time to fight for physical activity as we used to fight for academics; to take our bodies back, in all reasonable sizes and shapes, and to move.

The solution is not to put a bigger TV monitor in front of the treadmill but to radically change our culture, our beliefs and our standards of what it means to be fit. Just as no student should be allowed to graduate from Grade 12 without being able to read, no student should graduate without being able to walk 10 km in two hours. To do a pull-up (my mom can do one and she’s 66 and not a featherweight; shut up already with the, “I can’t do one.” You can). To broad-jump their own height. To swim one-kilometre straight without drowning. To jump one-fifth of their own height into the air, etc. Set standards, devote school time to them and instill in kids that being active is not only normal but also desirable, in any physical form. This is basic physical literacy on par with being able to read and write, and really important to a functional, decent life — not a life that involves rolling around in a scooter due to medical problems brought on by being sedentary (and possibly obese, but the fat is secondary).

There may be kids (and adults) who can’t hit these goals due to legitimate physical limitations, but they should be a minority, not the vast majority who are unfit through cultural choices or opportunity first and second, with ignorance a strong third factor. If a school day is six hours then at least two should be set aside for hiking, biking, skiing, skating, sports or whatever it is that kids like to do and can do. Because that’s the secret, and the antidote to all this gym-oriented, heart-rate-monitor-wearing unsuccessful “fitness” blathering. Teaching kids that activity is fun, that being able to do what you want physically is important, and that it matters both individually to long-term qualify of life and collectively as the cause of massive wastes of tax dollars. Give kids and adults an activity they actually like to do and will keep doing instead of quit in two months and we’ll do better as a culture.

As I travel the world, I see stark physical differences between cultures. Throughout Europe people expect to walk through airports — the average person is not running single-digit per cent body fat, but they sure aren’t riding the beeping “too unfit to walk through the airport” North American cart-of-shame either. In Norway, I see senior citizens of all sizes and shapes out skiing, in addition to the youth in the thousands. The elite athletes are wearing Lycra and heart-rate monitors, but most people are just out to feel the sun and the wind and have some fun — for life.

When I visit Germany on business I watch literally thousands of people of all ages happily ride to work every morning on bikes with fenders, panniers and lights (but no helmets or Lycra). I have never seen bike rage; but road rage something I see every time I’m stuck in traffic in Los Angeles or Toronto. Movement is part of life in many European cities, and the morning commute is more fun on a bike and more practical in a bike-friendly city. In Canada, we’re offered super-slick “commuting” bikes with low handlebars, no fenders and no baskets. Might as well pick up some Lycra shorts and a heart-rate monitor with that bike, none of which will be used for very long. Unless you’re under 25 and a bike messenger, riding to work most “commuter” bikes is as ridiculous as lifting weights and running on a treadmill.

If this idea of simultaneously defining fitness as enjoyable life-long function rather than mechanized suffering toward single-digit body fat encased in Spandex sounds radical then it’s nothing compared to the next step: to recognize that our current reliance on the automobile is killing us. Sitting on our butts for two hours a day commuting is the same as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day in terms of life expectancy and in lost joy in life. So let’s tax the hell out of roads in cities to pay for better bike lanes and public transportation (which you have to actually walk a little to reach), stop ripping up farmland to build houses in the middle of nowhere and stop taking the “physical” out of “education.” If this sounds expensive, then just look at what we’re spending to treat medical problems that result from inactive people draining the health care system. It’s time for change, to both set physical standards and stop expecting that everyone is going to look hot in spandex. We’re humans, and humans are happier, healthier and all-around better when they can function fully as physical individuals.