Functional Training Zones

Fit to Serve: Reshaping Youth Fitness for the 21st Century

by Ed Thomas, Ed.D.

Physical training plays a primary role in transforming our nation's children into fully realized, efficient, and useful citizens, and we are responsible for protecting them from cultural influences that hinder their physical development. As the senses of age are reached through the heart, the heart of youth is reached through the senses. Our nation's children and youth are epidemically unfit. To the degree that they fall short of their physical potential, history clearly warns that our mistakes will also wound their minds and emotions.

The steadily declining physical, mental, and moral fitness of our children and youth threatens our national productivity, military preparedness, and cultural evolution. The situation here in Iowa is sobering and reflects the nationwide societal crisis. According to Washington-based Mission: Readiness, seventy-five percent of our State's 18-24 year olds cannot meet minimum standards for military service because they are physically unfit, fail to graduate high school, or have a criminal record. We are currently losing the battle here in the Heartland, and the future of our State and nation looks bleak as we consider the implications. Rudyard Kipling nailed it generations ago:

Nations have passed away and left no trace, and history gives the naked cause of it--one single, simple reason in all cases; they fell because their people were not fit.

We are living in very dangerous times. Nearly 3,000 Iowa Army National Guard Warriors recently shipped out to Afghanistan. It is our largest single deployment here in Iowa since WWII. Most of them are citizen-soldiers from communities across the State, and they serve in just about any civilian job you can imagine. Now they are a world away in a physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding military operation that will almost certainly injure many of them and cost some their lives. Here at home, our first responders stand between us and the many dangers that threaten our safety. Growing tension with other nations including North Korea and Iran threatens to test our military preparedness even further, and the unraveling cultural fabric of our nation could easily put enormous strain on our domestic security. Now more than ever, our national survival depends on our capacity to physically, mentally, and morally reshape ourselves for the demands of a perilous and demanding future.

Fitness-related issues are complex, and we have been losing ground for generations. During WWII, for instance, around one-third of nine million registrants examined by the armed forces in early 1943 were unfit to serve in the military. Test results at the University of Illinois in 1940 are typical indicators of the fitness problems encountered among young men at that time:

• 13 percent could not swim at all.
• 64 percent could not swim 50 yards.
• 3.1 percent could not chin themselves once.
• 25.9 percent could not chin themselves five times.
• 24.1 percent could not jump an obstacle waist high.
• 41.7 percent could not "skin the cat."

Colonel Theodore Bank, Chief of Athletics and Recreation, Special Services Division, U.S. Army, reported during WWII that a slow 300-yard run exhausted far too many draftees. He wrote:

"Our physical education programs in high schools and colleges have been a miserable failure. Physical education through play must be discarded and a more rugged program substituted. We must assume our share of the responsibility for the unnecessary loss of lives. Many of our boys have perished because of the accumulation of fatigue, the lack of endurance, stamina, and certain agilities. You read about men who struggled through swamps, jungles, and over mountains for days and days before reaching safety or survived in rubber boats for many days before being rescued. They had the strength to survive such ordeals, but you don't read about the hundreds that did not have such strength and stamina. They did not live to make a report."

In 1960, more than fifty percent of our nation's young men were unfit for duty. In his 1965 book, The Wasted Generation, COL George Walton wrote:

"More than half of the young men called up by Selective Service were so fat, maladjusted, or illiterate that they are rejected for military service. Out of every four youths summoned for the draft, two will pass—mostly because the standards have been lowered enough to accommodate their flabby bodies and unlettered minds."

Perhaps even more revealing is the fact that around seventy percent of schoolchildren in the early 1930's had identifiable body mechanics deficiencies, and similar studies of children and youth in the early 1970's show no improvement in that generation's posture and body mechanics. Here in Iowa today, poor posture/body mechanics are the standard, and far too many of our children and youth are growing ever more inert, malformed, and clumsy.

School-based physical education and community/private sector fitness programs are ground zero in the struggle to mold today's children and youth into fit and vibrant adults. In the last few years, over eighty Iowa schools and over one hundred community partners have joined forces to create a statewide initiative called Iowa Team Fitness. In 2010, the Iowa Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance aimed its efforts toward developing all children and youth into adults who are Fit to Serve. Our 19-21 November 2010 State Conference in Davenport, Iowa assembled an A-Team of presenters and participants from over fifteen states who share a common vision of a strong and healthy nation. This unique event was open to the public, and the cost was minimal.

Mens Sana in Corpore Sano

Ed Thomas, Ed.D. is the Iowa Department of Education Health and Physical Education Consultant, an Associate Professor of Health and Movement Science at Graceland University, and President of the Iowa Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance.