Disappearing Middle Class… Increasing Waistlines?

– Derek M. Hansen –

A number of recent phenomena have made me closely examine the progress and advancement of modern civilization – at least as it relates to health and fitness. While we are marveling at the advances in both computer technology and biotechnology, we seem to be stumbling in other areas. If you follow the news lately, there appears to be crises in finance, energy production, education, food production, health and personal fitness. And, in many of these specific situations, we are witnessing a disappearance, or at least a thinning, of the middle class. Our kids’ schools are either really bad or really good. Our food is either low quality or very high organic quality. The rich are getting richer, but more and more families cannot afford the basic requirements for housing, healthcare and nutrition. Having watched recent documentary films such as “Waiting for Superman,” “Food Inc.” or “Capitalism: A Love Story,” I have become inundated with examples of the significant deficiencies and disparities within our modern western society.

In the case of health and fitness, I was most significantly disturbed by some statistics identified in a New York Times graphic. Following the recent passing of health enthusiast, Jack LaLanne, the Times published a timeline that indicated the lack of progress that has been made in health and fitness, despite the growth of the fitness industry since the 1950’s – the decade in which LaLanne began his widespread public promotion of exercise on television. If you consider the fact that health clubs did not exist back in LaLanne’s time and private sector fitness has now become a 15 billion dollar industry with membership at roughly 50 million in the United States, you would think that America would be a nation of super-fit individuals. However, the New York Times tells us that between 1960 and 2006, the percentage of Americans between the ages of 20 and 74 who are obese rose from 13.3% to 35.2% (with the number of obese children doubling in number during this time). This translates into a whopping 67.3% of all Americans in the 20-74 age range that are considered to be overweight. One wonders what would have happened if we didn’t spend $15 billion on fitness?

On the other end of the spectrum, we have kids specializing in sports at the ages of five or less, receiving surgeries for injuries that were typically isolated to the pros, being prescribed orthotics and braces, and visiting sports psychologists weekly. An August 2010 article published in the Columbus Dispatch titled, “Kids’ play, serious pain” summed up this phenomenon in this excerpt:

“We have started to foster a culture where it is total sports immersion for our kids,” said Dr. Kelsey Logan, pediatric sports-medicine specialist at OSU. “His or her identity is this sport. The main motivation for parents is that they want their child to be happy, do well and live out their dreams. It makes it all really hard for everyone.”

We also have adults who are into extreme sports, obsessed with body image and engaging in various forms of hormone therapy, botox injections and anti-aging regimens. Marathons, triathlons, mixed martial arts, back country skiing, ice climbing, kite surfing and over-zealous Cross-Fit workouts have replaced casual recreational activities designed to maintain fitness and bolster health. A small proportion of the population wants to be hyper-fit, not satisfied with simply maintaining fitness and separating themselves from the average person. The sad part is that even if they simply maintained fitness through regular, moderate exercise, they would still be separating themselves from the “average” overweight population.

What appears to be happening is that North American citizens are either extremely engaged in regular, intense physical activity, or they are not doing much at all. In effect, there is a disappearing middle class in the realm of fitness and exercise. Much of the problem likely stems from a combination of factors, including poor eating habits – spurred on by the availability of calorie-dense fast foods and processed foods – and a reduction in the amount of high quality exercise being followed by the average citizen. It doesn’t help that many exercise products and programs try to entice individuals by making claims of, “Only 15 minutes per day, three times per week” to look like the fitness models in the commercials (who likely work out 8-10 times per week, starve themselves and engage in undocumented testosterone therapy).

The simple truth is that people need to put some effort and regularity into their exercise routines – this includes both children and adults. Daily exercise must take hold as a regular habit, no different than eating and sleeping. This means no less than six days of the week need to include some form of structured exercise. The exercise itself must have some element of high intensity included from time to time. Doing the same monotonous routine will not only be psychologically taxing, but also lead to a plateau in your fitness, and can even result in a de-training effect. Increasing intensity by progressively bringing up the load or velocity of your exercises can have useful positive adaptation effects. Runners can shorten the distance of their runs and increase the speed. They can run hills to increase load and increase the recovery times between intervals to bring up the intensity of individual runs.

On a final note, it has become more and more apparent to me that individuals need to take personal responsibility for knowing how to exercise properly, much to the chagrin of personal trainers. We have too many other people taking care of our finances, our food preparation, the maintenance of our homes, the raising of our children and, yes, the exercising of our bodies. The more we “outsource” these aspects of our lives, the more distant we become with the potential consequences, and lose touch with what really needs to happen.

Being a father of two young children, I constantly find myself feeling pressure to enroll my kids in different sports and activities so that they are exposed to a variety of sports. Every season we scramble to find good programs for our kids. But my wife and I are typically disappointed with the quality of programming and technical instruction provided by these programs. We have finally decided to take responsibility for our children’s development by participating with and teaching them the skills by ourselves on a weekly basis. It is a win-win situation for all involved, as we get to spend more time with our kids, as well as exert some quality control over the skills presented to the kids.

In essence, taking control of your own fate is the central theme here. Relying on others to provide you with the best nutrition, financial advice, education and fitness recommendations is not necessarily in your best interest. It is not an absolute certainty that you will fall out of the upper-middle or middle class in these various areas, but simply having faith in the “system” to take care of your needs is naïve at best. This desire for self-sufficiency must be coupled with some self-discipline and self-motivation when it comes to exercise. Let’s face it. In the last few decades, the exercise industry has been handled more by entertainment and marketing departments than by exercise scientists. Quality exercise need not be entertaining or solved by an infomercial gadget that can be bought with three easy payments of $29.95. The average person simply needs to bite the bullet and put in the time and effort required to stay fit.

The simple act of running as a means of exercise begins to take on more prominence as we start to simplify our lives and address our fitness needs. It can be considered a middle-class activity – or even a blue-collar form of exercise – as all you need is a pair running shoes, shorts, a t-shirt and some determination. For almost anyone and everyone, though, it is a good place to start.





  1. mark greenberg says:


    I couldn’t have said it better myself. Our guru at yoga, is always talking about the one of the biggest problems in human life is the lack of self realization. People do not want to feel uncomfortable. They want the “blue pill”. It doesn’t work that way. I spend a great amount of time teaching my children that what they want in life they will have to work hard to get, and that includes a healthy fit body. It is ok to have coaches and trainers, but we are ultimately the ones in charge of keeping ourselves healthy….

    • Yes Mark – DIY (do it yourself) has been my mantra for years. Of course, every time I climb on the roof of my house or clean out the gutters, I wish I would have paid someone else to do it! But I do think it is good to have your kids seeing you do all of these things (including working out) so that it becomes part of their belief system.

  2. Great post, Derek. The continuous advances in technology and communication has caused us to place exercise as “another thing to do” like taking the dog for a walk or going to the grocery store. It would behoove everyone to incorporate exercise as part of your life: Walk to the store, take the stairs, etc. These little things will go a long way towards healthier individuals. I try to convey this to my patients and my readers of my blog.

    • Good to hear from you Kelsey. Hope you are doing well and passing on your wisdom to your athletes and clients. It is the accumulation of these “little things” done properly that make us who we are. I actually find the undertaking of these everyday “menial tasks” to be therapeutic in a Zen sort of way. Building good habits is a big part of a complete way of life. All the best… Derek

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