Is it time for a U.S. Department of Exercise?

Around the world, dozens and dozens of countries promote sport and fitness for the masses through public policy and government agencies. But that group doesn’t include the United States – despite its status as one of the most developed countries in the world.
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Around the world, dozens and dozens of countries promote sport and fitness for the masses through public policy and government agencies. But that group doesn't include the United States – despite its status as one of the most developed countries in the world.

"Most countries have a sports ministry that issues some sort of policy to promote mass participation in fitness and sports. These policies address the approach of the country toward sports, training and development and funding," Lynn Jamieson, associate professor of recreation at Indiana University in Bloomington, told SNEWS.

Jamieson, who studies how countries organize physical activity and sport, said the United States is falling sorely behind when it comes to a widespread, national promotion of fitness and sport for everyone, and that the country should have a national "sport for all" policy similar to that of more than 120 countries she has researched.

"We have national policies for things like education," Jamieson said. "Why wouldn't we pay the same amount of attention to something as important as health?"

In the United States, she said, logical leaders would be the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. But neither has developed policies -- only programs -- Jamieson said. That leaves local organizations, businesses and schools scrambling to implement their own systems instead of following the guidance of and being supported by a national directive.

"We have a real anti-centralized approach in our society because of capitalism," Jamieson said. "The result is a fragmented system that is uneven across communities."

Ideally, the U.S. national government should provide comprehensive direction and oversight of state, local and private efforts, similar to other countries such as Australia, Brazil, China and Greece. That would promote activity in a unified manner equally through a coalition of providers such as government organizations, private clubs and companies and schools.

Jamieson recommends through her research that policy development begin with an existing national government entity -- but she stops short of insisting that a U.S. Department of Exercise is required, despite her passion. Once established, the policy could be implemented in a decentralized fashion, as has been done successfully in other countries like Sweden. Organizations such as the National Parks and Recreation Association; the American Alliance of Health, Physical Education and Dance; Boys and Girls Clubs of America; American Hiking Society; YMCAs; JCCs and even the club association IHRSA could make strides … if they banded together.

And what's the ultimate effect of a "sport for all" approach in America? It might encourage people to pursue more active lifestyles indoor and out, help with master planning for sports and fitness facility development, and enhance professionalism of those working in fitness, recreation, outdoor and sports areas.

"The concept of 'sport for all,'” she said, “is that everyone has a right to access sport opportunities."

SNEWS View: Having lived and traveled abroad – and seen the cultural pervasiveness in other countries of fitness and recreational sports activities, SNEWS found this concept fascinating as broached by Jamieson recently. We wholeheartedly support anything that has the potential to get more Americans moving in any way they enjoy, from group classes in clubs, to activities in the great outdoors, or to recreational or competitive sports. After all, the country would reap huge benefits in terms of better health and lower medical costs, and the fitness, outdoor and recreation industries would enjoy a boost as well. What's not to like?

Skeptics may argue that instituting a national policy is a lot like getting married—it's just a piece of paper, after all—but we tend to think that a national emphasis on “sport for all” ultimately implies more attention, commitment and effort—like a marriage is supposed to. And we agree with Jamieson that something is better than nothing when it comes to promoting activity for our embarrassingly sedentary and obese nation. Getting all the special-interest groups to work together without an overseeing body would be an impossible task, so some agency is needed to get this going. And an overseeing body could also make sure that efforts are redundant in far-flung communities.

The time to act is immediately, while we still have a fitness enthusiast in the White House who can lend his endorsement… if not perhaps actually even loosen a few purse strings. While the Department of Health and Human Services claims that it is directing an effort and dedicating funding to coordinate federal health and fitness programs, we're not convinced yet that this is much to speak of. The United States needs strong advocates to step forward and lend a growing voice of support. Without that, we're concerned that “sport for all” may end up like others in the "good ideas that never went anywhere" pile, which would indeed be a shame. Especially considering that along with that unused idea pile goes the health of the entire nation.

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