Thanksgiving is a time for family, food, and celebration. But it's no secret that the holidays are also a source of stress for many people -- there's the planning, the shopping, and, of course, all the food preparation. Perhaps too many people, against their own better judgment, plop down on the couch to watch the football games while overindulging in Thanksgiving delicacies. Maybe this Thanksgiving consider starting a new family tradition, one of activity and engagement.
Americans, by and large, suffer not only from a lack of civic engagement, but also a lack of physical engagement, leading to an epidemic of obesity and all the medical problems that go along with it. Part of this growing problem is no doubt the numerous alternative sources of entertainment that exist, particularly when it comes to children -- the internet, cable television, Netflix, video games, iPods, the list goes on and on. Children just aren't getting the physical exercise that they used to because they are spending more of their time in front of some sort of screen.
While Americans are absorbed with professional sports, far fewer are as passionate about participatory sports. Aside from the few highly talented individuals seeking an athletic scholarship or dreaming of a career in the pros, most are done with competitive sports by the age of 13 -- the local elite players continue on, while the rest become spectators. Professional sports have become a 24/7 industry -- a global media giant -- where the goal of the teams is victory at any cost and the goal of the leagues is profit at any cost. At any given time, you can find a televised game somewhere on cable TV -- the NBA aired five games last Christmas Day -- and if you can't, there are replays and highlights being analyzed and discussed. As for children, the desire to start pick-up games in local fields or parks has been replaced by performing in a digital setting as virtual depictions of their sports heroes in increasingly realistic video games. (The latest iteration of the NFL video game series, Madden NFL '13, sold nearly a million copies on the day it was released last August.) Schools aren't helping much either. Physical education and intramural sports programs are being cut in favor of varsity programs, an overemphasis on high frequency standardized tests, or other reasons. For many children, their exposure to competitive sports is primarily through the gaudy commercialism of the professional leagues. But sports weren't always about big money contracts, endorsement deals, video games sales, and TV ratings. Cutting away all the noise and excess, sports are a way to get some exercise, bond with friends and family, and relieve stress. Let's not overlook the benefit of that simple fact.
There's no easy answer to the issue of getting more Americans moving again, but consider this suggestion -- this Thanksgiving, instead of sitting around the television, try stepping outside and engaging in some friendly competition. Consider a return to tradition, especially during the holiday season, to help build and foster relationships amongst family members and encourage interaction amongst neighbors. Whether it's a game of touch football or merely shooting some hoops in front of the garage or playing catch, a little exercise with friends and family can go a long way toward a healthier life.
See leagueoffans.org for our work on sports activism. For more on sports reform, see the chapter "Get Back on the Field -- Literally" of my new book, The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future'.