When I was in college, I visited Hong Kong on a student exchange program. One morning I went to Victoria Park and watched hundreds gather for morning tai chi. Young and old (though mostly old), they gathered in gentle movement together creating a healthier life.
Exercise prevents diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. It therefore prevents strokes and heart attacks and kidney failure and blindness and amputations. Exercise also releases stress, preventing anxiety. It releases pent-up energy and emotions. It serves as a treatment for ADHD. It is one of my three go-to treatments for depression: counseling, medications or exercises.
In Colorado, where I went to elementary school, I had recess three times every day. We had a large plot of land surrounding the school—with a fort for the kindergartners with big tractor tires to play in, graduating to swing sets and monkey bars and a soccer field then steel rods to climb reaching fifteen feet into the air, as you got older and migrated to the classrooms on different sides of the school. The fifth and sixth graders had a playground that doubled as an adult fitness circuit after school hours.
Three times a day we would go outside and play tetherball and four square and soccer and football, balance on the balance beams and play on the bars and make up stories in the far corner of the playground about imaginary places.
We played, physically and mentally, three times each day, for fifteen minutes, a half hour, then fifteen minutes again.
In addition we had physical education twice each week, as well as after school sports, riding bikes along the network of bike trails that crisscrossed Fort Collins to city parks and soccer practice.
Colorado has the lowest obesity rates in the country, at 20%.
I am glad I grew up there.
In Connecticut, where I went to medical school, schools cut out recess for No Child Left Behind. They also cut physical education. Suddenly, children were chained to chairs in schools for hours on end, no relief, drinking soda for lunch, relying on caffeine and sugar to give them energy to make it through their school day. And contribute to the burgeoning obesity epidemic. One soda a day equals fifteen pounds each year.
Three recesses each day, playing outside, with physical education and sports, equals a lifetime of health.
As a society, as we look at the skyrocketing costs of medical care, we need to redefine our priorities to support health. We need to put funds towards supporting a population at play, with recesses and physical education and afterschool sports for the kids, bike trails and city parks and perhaps even morning tai chi for the adults. Supporting mass movement for population health.
Chicago’s Millennium Park, with support from McDonalds and the City Parks and Rec Department, sponsors free exercise classes every Saturday morning in the summer. The green space of Pritzker Pavilion is transformed into a gathering place for Chicagoans of all ages to meet together for yoga, pilates and zumba dance exercise. Hundreds gather, young and old (though mostly toned twenty something’s), in a mass movement for population health.
I hope these exercises survive budget cuts. They are a gift of health to the population of Chicago from a county government that also pays crippling medical costs to Cook County Hospital, the safety net hospital for the city’s uninsured.
May the dawn of this time of debt reduction see a mass movement towards disease prevention through community health promotion.