In America, the month of May is National Fitness and Sports Month, so designated by the President’s Council on Fitness in 1983. Getting 60 minutes or more of vigorous physical activity every day, says the council’s executive director Shellie Pfohl, is necessary for young people to be healthy. Presumably, it’s also important for adults. Many people recognize this month and use its existence as a conversation starter, just like I have. But that’s not the point of this blog post.
Here’s the point of this blog post: The fact that we have a “National Fitness and Sports Month” suggests something important about the dominant, mainstream culture of America: people generally don’t want to think about their physical fitness. In fact, fitness is not (currently) a core American value.
Let’s look at other special months that aim to raise awareness, specifically Black History Month (February) and Mental Health Awareness Month (also in May). (These are just the first two that popped into my head.)
Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history. Why is Black History Month necessary? Because most Americans going about their day-to-day lives are simply not aware of the achievements of Black Americans. If they were, the awareness month would seem silly. (Imagine a “Men’s History Month” or, even sillier, “Rock Music Awareness Month.”) Because Black History Month exists, we learn an uncomfortable truth about mainstream America: Black achievement hasn’t yet entered the American consciousness on a national scale. So this month, which is clearly for Black History awareness, reveals what our dominant, mainstream culture is specifically against.
(A fitness analogy: you wouldn’t need motivational/inspirational quotes if you just naturally had motivation to do hard stuff. Point is, nobody really does. Hence the plethora of quotes and cool graphics out there.)
Mental Health Awareness Month fills a similar role; it brings to light something most people are ashamed or scared to talk about: mental health and its counterpart, mental illness. Mental Health Awareness Month combats the cultural stigma against individuals who suffer from mental illness; it legitimizes the discussion and even the suffering individuals whom society would prefer to ignore. People start talking instead of reverting to the default, mainstream cultural behavior, which is pretending mental illness doesn’t exist and everything is fine.
So, looking at these two other months, it’s clear that “awareness” months reveal something important about our collective, cultural unawareness. They’re like symptoms of a cultural disease. Regarding the months mentioned above, the two respective diseases are a large-scale ignorance (or denial) of Black achievement and a large-scale devaluing of individuals with mental illness. So it goes with any other awareness month, whether it’s oral hygiene awareness month (also February), National Bullying Prevention Month (October), or Lupus Awareness Month (also May). If the dominant culture lacks awareness of anything, the awareness month appears. And if there were no lack of awareness, the awareness month would be superfluous. After all, you wouldn’t take medicine if you weren’t sick, would you?
That said, the reason behind National Fitness and Sports Month is clear: despite the fitness movement, obstacle racing and all the Globogyms in our dear homeland, physical health is simply not a part of American consciousness. (Yet.) And if it is, it’s not big enough to make health normal. In America, it’s not normal, expected or common in our country for average Joe/Jane to be physically healthy. In fact, it’s very normal to be physically unwell. Politically, physical health is progressive—contrary to the status quo. It’s even contrary to our economics, as 86% of all American workers claimed to sit all day earning their living. It’s clearly not just laziness that keeps people glued to their chairs. It’s the strong gravity of the dominant strain of American culture, which envelops and shapes every aspect of our lives.
As with real medical issues, it’s important to find the cause of the illness, not merely mask the symptoms. So, as we celebrate National Fitness and Sports Month, let’s take a critical look at the forces in our lives that pull against our countercultural push. What keeps you from making your daily commitment to health and fitness? What turns you into a bedridden lump on Monday mornings? Which voices in our culture encourage you? Which voices try to make fitness seem less vitally important?
Or, a simpler question: what are three things that keep you in your chair?