Make fitness a Pittsburgh value

Physical activity should be woven into the social life of all our communities, writes Y chair MICHAEL MALONE

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Many of us now work online, socialize online, order food online, date online, shop online — the list of what we can’t do online is quickly shrinking. How long will it be before we barely leave the comfort of our beds and couches at all during the day?

A British study just came out with a disturbing prediction that by 2030, average people will use only 25 percent more energy during the day than they would if they just stayed in bed. The report went on to say that in many areas of the United Kingdom, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, people reported exercising less than 30 minutes each month.

Here in the United States, the outlook isn’t much better. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2013 that only about one in five Americans is getting the recommended amounts of cardiovascular and resistance training, with low-income families getting less than wealthier families.

There’s no shortage of research showing the dangers of inactivity. In 2012, the media dubbed sedentary lifestyles “the new smoking” after a study showed that one in 10 deaths worldwide are caused by physical inactivity. Multiple studies have connected physical inactivity with increased risk for cancer, particularly breast and colon cancer. And just a few weeks ago, a study published in The Journal of Comparative Neurology suggests that physical inactivity may actually affect the shape and functioning of the brain.

How much more evidence do we need to get us moving?

Perhaps a core problem is that physical activity is seen as an individual responsibility instead of a community value. Frequently, our work, social, school and home activities involve sitting. Many people actually feel selfish if they take time away from these obligations to exercise.

While we must take personal responsibility for our health, we also must decide as a society to support community efforts to make physical activity a priority.

Unfortunately, shrinking budgets have meant that many public physical education and fitness activities are being removed from our institutions, particularly public schools. Just recently, a Brighton Heights man wrote to the Post-Gazette with the news that the Community College of Allegheny County had cut its community physical education programs at its North Side campus, the only one accessible by public transportation (“CCAC Fitness Cuts,” letter to the editor, Jan. 28). What’s worse is that these cuts often hit hardest in neighborhoods in which residents need public fitness programs the most and can afford alternatives the least.

As chairman of the Y of Greater Pittsburgh’s metropolitan board, I look to the role that nonprofit organizations play in getting the community up and moving. Since it first put gymnasiums in its buildings in the 1860s, the Y has encouraged physical activity as an essential part of physical, mental and emotional wellness. The Y offers fitness programs to everyone in our community, regardless of their ability to pay, through our Building Bridges fund, which provides scholarships based on income.

Historically, the Y has been a place where physical fitness and community have joined. Some older Pittsburgh Y members recall playing ping-pong with civil rights leader Bishop Charles Foggie at the Centre Avenue YMCA. In the early 20th century, the Wilmerding YMCA helped to integrate immigrant industrial workers into American culture by offering English classes alongside world-class swimming pools and gymnasiums. And countless numbers of Western Pennsylvania leaders credit the social and physical experiences they had at YMCA camps as formative to their development.

I tell the story of the YMCA to bring to light the importance of integrating community and physical activity, strengthening both the bonds of neighborhoods and the bodies of the people who live in them.

The new Live Well Allegheny initiative launched by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and headed by Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Board of Health and Public Health Department, shows great promise in renewing a culture of physical fitness. The initiative includes free one-week YMCA memberships to Allegheny County residents, and future plans include activities in schools and individual neighborhoods.

The bottom line is that, as a community, we must work harder to make physical activity an essential part of our culture, with affordable and accessible programs for everyone.

We all must help put physical activity on the community agenda. Take part in public fitness activities. Support organizations — public, private and nonprofit — that bring physical activity programs to the community.

If we are going to become healthier and more active, fitness programs cannot be an individual luxury but must be a value woven into the fabric of our communities.

Michael Malone is a producer at Henderson Brothers Inc., an independent insurance agency, and chair of the Y of Greater Pittsburgh metropolitan board of directors.

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