© 2013 Toni Yancey - All Rights Reserved                             Site Design / imagine Y

Towards fitness on a large scale

Published: October 26, 2010

D. Murali

The time is ripe to create a groundswell of support for making physical activity an essential ingredient of daily life, for our own personal and our collective good, says Toni Yancey in ‘Instant Recess: Building a fit nation 10 minutes at a time’

(www.ucpress.edu). To improve fitness on a large scale, we require modest changes in physical activity through low-intensity intervention, and then move to the radical restructuring of the physical, social, and cultural environments needed to permanently and consistently support active lifestyles, she suggests.

Easier to be active

Making ‘the active choice’ can be made ‘easier,’ and the opposite, ‘harder,’ the author assures, describing a few examples: “Easier, like getting the whole stadium up and dancing with the celebs during pre-game or halftime shows at spectator sports events. Easier, like creating brief dance routines that people can do with their co-workers on company time. And harder to be inactive, like reserving nearby parking spots for the disabled, so that able-bodied workers, students, or shoppers have to do a bit of walking.”

The book advocates a systems change to structure short bouts of group physical activity into our social interactions and cultural expectations, as well as our built environment, and market active living. Ruing that too much attention is currently directed towards eating and way too little is focused on activity, Yancey avers that physical activity is the foundation or cornerstone of our ability as a society to reverse the accelerating erosion of our physical fitness and wellness. (Though the target of the author is the US, much of what she writes can be relevant to many other countries.)

Recess breaks

Yancey draws inspiration from the ‘fun and games’ time of childhood days, when the recess bell in school created ‘the wave of exhilaration, the sigh of relief, the sheer release, the transformation of fidgeting into linear motion’ with ‘all that pent-up energy exploding into air and space and wind and sunshine.’ Why not ‘recess’ for adults, she asks, therefore?

“Recess breaks at work could boost energy levels, get the blood flowing back from the buns to the brain, alleviate stress, lift spirits – just as they do for kids! They could be done right in the work space, anytime, in any attire, by anybody.” Instant recess, the author defines, is ‘a brief, low-impact, simple structured group physical activity… done to music and integrated into the organisational routine at work, school, meetings, churches, sports stadiums, and other settings in which people gather.’

Recommending a ‘push’ strategy for fitness, the author calls for hosting walking meetings, supporting mass transit access with subsidised passes, restricting nearby parking and elevator use, and establishing automobile-free zones around shopping areas, and employee drop-off locations. These strategies push, or nudge, people towards a socially desirable behaviour, rather than pulling or beckoning them along, driven and sustained only by their own internal motivation, she reasons.

How to get people to move

A chapter devoted to ‘marketing fitness’ opens by stating that to get people to move, you have to seduce them a bit – sell them on its attractiveness and immediate utility in their lives. The author frets, however, that ‘immediate’ for most people rarely involves their health until catastrophe strikes and they have a heart attack or stroke or cancer diagnosis. She is also aghast at the abysmally little commercial mass marketing for physical activity.

“Even targeted marketing of tennis racquets, tee times, stability balls, and personal trainers is limited to upscale venues and vehicles such as in-flight airline magazines, affluent neighbourhoods, university alumni magazines, and TV shows catering to high-income demographics.”

Verbs out there

Among the marketing campaigns discussed in the chapter are VERB and HEAL. The first, the brainchild of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, encourages ‘tweens’ (nine- to thirteen-year-old pre- and early adolescents) to participate in physical activity by choosing a verb such as ‘run, bike, dance, skate,’ as a starting point. A related TV ad message was, “Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, there are verbs out there just waiting for you to get into…”

The VERB campaign, as Yancey explains, ignored the disdain of adult public health academicians and practitioners and grounded its messages in hip-hop culture. “A huge budget by public health standards – in excess of $150 million by a direct congressional appropriation – was invested, mostly in engaging a top advertising firm. The organisers tried hard to tie the campaign to ongoing youth group activities, as well as to state and local health department initiatives and parks and recreation programmes that provided active leisure opportunities.”

HEAL interventions

The second campaign, HEAL, an acronym of Healthy Eating Active Living, is of Kaiser Permanente (KP), the largest private, not-for-profit health care organisation in the US. One learns that the campaign promotes physical activity through: delivery system interventions (‘training docs to write exercise prescriptions’); community health initiatives (developing ‘strategies to change institutional practices, public policy, and the built environment’); organisational practice changes (‘increasing access to physical activity opportunities through on-campus walking trails and connections to public transit and other alternatives to driving’); public policy advocacy (backing ‘legislation designed to make it easier for people to be active’); and advertising (‘colourful and fast-moving images against varied backdrops of energetic and upbeat people of both genders and varying ages, sizes, classes, and ethnicities dancing and playing, with mouthwatering shots of fruits and vegetables’).