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The crumbling pyramid

THE NEW food pyramid shows a person going up the side on stairs to symbolize physical activity. Exercise video star Denise Austin, a member of the President's Council on Physical Fitness, helped unveil the pyramid with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in a webcast press conference with such enthusiasm that she got the press to stand and stretch.

Austin brought greetings from President Bush, calling him ''one of the fittest presidents ever in the history of the presidency. He's in the top 1 percent of men his age. He's committed to physical fitness and eating right every single day, so he's a fantastic example to all of us."

The buoyancy of Austin could not hide the deflating truth. The government tells people to cut the fat with fitness at the same time it is trimming fitness right out of the budget. In Bush's budget proposal for fiscal year 2006, he would cut federal funds for physical education teachers and equipment from $74 million to $55 million.

That is just the top of a crumbling pyramid. The budget crunches in the states, due in part to White House priorities for war and tax cuts to the wealthy, continue to result in physical education classes being stripped from schools all across the country. The percentage of high school students who participate in physical education dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 28 percent in 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Similarly, only 25 percent of high school students report doing exercise that makes them breathe hard and sweat at least five days a week. A significantly higher percentage of high school students, 38 percent, watch television three or more hours a day during a school week.

Everyone knows that lack of physical activity, combined with the proliferation of junk food, is fueling an obesity crisis among young people. A recent study of state data in Pennsylvania found that as bad as obesity is in the cities, with 16 percent of youth being classified as such, the percentage is 20 percent in rural areas. A recent story by The Washington Post reported that more than a quarter of all fifth-graders in primarily rural West Virginia and a quarter of all public school children in Arkansas were obese.

''Whatever the situation was, rural areas are leading the way now. They're ahead of the curve," Michael Meit, director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Rural Health Practice, told the Post.

They are not leading the way up the pyramid. In a nation where 28 percent of men, 34 percent of women, and about 50 percent of non-Latino black women are obese, America, for all its medical technology, is facing the real prospect of the first drop in life expectancy in the United States after two centuries of steady increase and predictions that life expectancy could rise into the 80s in this century.

Last month, a special report in The New England Journal of Medicine found that obesity is now such a significant factor that ''it is larger than the negative effect of all accidental deaths combined (e.g. accidents, homicide, and suicide), and there is reason to believe that it will rapidly approach and could exceed the negative effect that ischemic heart disease or cancer has on life expectancy."

The report added, ''Unless effective population-level interventions to reduce obesity are developed . . . if the negative effect of obesity on life expectancy continues to worsen and current trends in prevalence suggest it will, then gains in health and longevity that have taken decades to achieve may be quickly reversed."

How fast could the gains be reversed? ''Although estimating the negative effects of epidemics on the future course of life expectancy is problematic," the report said, ''it has been established that infectious diseases, when they do emerge, can wipe out a century's worth of gains in health and longevity in less than one generation."

When you hear that, it makes the pyramid seem like a puny instrument, however well-meaning, to fight obesity. The best first step, if the president and Americans are committed to physical fitness, is to send a message to America's children and parents that we are returning physical education to the schools. The classes were among the first to be cut during the mad dash toward standardized testing. Now the truth is beginning to emerge. At the same time we drive them up the ladder of achievement, we are preparing the pyramid to be their tomb.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

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