For the long term, the greatest threat to our society is not al-Qaeda and it is not North Korea and it is not Iraq. It is the way we choose to live, how much we choose to sit, how much we choose to eat.
We're supposed to be such a sports-loving society, but in fact, more and more we are letting a few actually play sports while the rest of us watch. Our children are even more inactive than we are. Researchers believe that the generation in school now will be the first in American history that will live a shorter life than its parents.
Dr. Frank Booth, a physiologist at the University of Missouri, has even given a name to embrace what is killing so many of us, sedentary death syndrome, SDS. For all we attend to the threat from abroad, we're not doing nearly enough to protect us from ourselves, from our indulgences and our sloth. Our children are at risk of an epidemic no less than what they suffered in the past from diphtheria or typhoid or polio, only it's not nearly as dramatic so nobody's raising money to fight it.
Obesity epidemic That's because this epidemic is just called fatness. As many as one-fourth of our children are obese, a number that's doubled in the last decade. And diseases generally associated with obesity and inactivity, like diabetes and cardiovascular or attention deficit disorders, are rapidly increasing.
Our kids are simply not exercising enough. What games they play are videos sitting on their big bottoms. Only a quarter of American children get so much as an accepted minimum of physical activity. And while we continue to spend billions of dollars on sports, much of it at schools and colleges, funding for physical education plummets. The best estimates are that today half of all students and three-fourths of high school students receive no physical education whatsoever.
In America, PE has become PI, physical illiteracy. Part of the reason for this is choice. As more and more states require students to take standardized tests in various academic subjects, money and time are taken from physical education so the children can learn better how to take tests. Subjects like music and art are also being sacrificed on the altar of test taking.
Might it be worth remembering that Socrates said that two main keys to a young person's development are the fine arts and athletics. In fact, we know that healthy active bodies encourage clear thinking. Kids would probably do better on those standardized tests if they had more physical education.
Poor children in worse shape It is ironic, too, that because so many of our best athletes are black or Hispanic, this creates an overall illusion. The fact is that the amount of PE a child receives is very much a function of class. Poor minority children tend to be in even worse shape than those children of the soccer moms in the suburbs where funding for PE has not been cut so badly.
Of course, this is not to say the kids themselves don't understand what they're missing. This is why more and more adolescent boys who have grown up fat and inactive have now started to use steroids or other drugs to make themselves look buff and athletic.
But then that's another epidemic.
Frank Deford is a senior contributing writer for Sports Illustrated and the author of 13 books. Readers may write to him at Sports Illustrated, 135 West 50th Street, New York, N.Y., 10020.