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Is being inactive and unhealthy an individual s problem or one that is shared by the community and governments?
The debate is among issues that have polarized conservatives and liberals in the past six years, but some unlikely advocates the military are working to bridge the difference of opinions with a new argument: Simply, getting America moving is critical to national security.
"This goes beyond just military readiness," says Citadel health professor Daniel Bornstein, "because if we don't have the military that's ready to fight, then we have a problem. That's clear."
But what about the percent of GDP spent on the treatment of preventable conditions? What about a workforce that is not as productive as it is in other parts of the world because people are sick, tired and missing work? Those are all issues that are intricately tied to national defense and all positively impacted by physical activity.
Bornstein, who is the project coordinator for the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan, says individual responsibility, indeed, remains a factor, but that getting governments and communities to recognize the societal role is equally important.
Yet Bornstein's approach focuses more on physical activity rather than obesity and weight loss, which gets more attention and dollars.
Many cadets taking a course by Bornstein at The Citadel, titled "Physical Activity and National Security: Where Exercise Science Meets Political Science," this semester have had some beliefs changed in recent months.
When Ryan Branch, a junior from Fairfax, Va., decided to take the class, he wondered how physical activity and national security were related.
"I was definitely confused about what I would be learning," says Branch.
"Now that we re deep into class, it has shed some light on some areas for me. ... I used to think of it (being active) was purely on the individual responsibility side, like this person is just lazy," says Branch. "The more and more I got into the class, I realized there are some environments that don't support physical activity."
Branch adds that he was raised in an Army family and that he was surrounded by the ethic of staying physically fit, which had a role in his personal relationship with fitness.
Senior Nicole Levermann, who lives near San Antonio, Texas, says the class, and living in Charleston where you see people running everywhere, has helped change her perspective on the community's role in fitness. She's already helped change her mother s attitude on the issue.
A general's perspective
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who serves on the President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition along with New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees and tennis legend Billie Jean King among others, is passionate about the subject and will bring his knowledge to The Citadel this week.
Hertling will give a talk, titled Out of Shape Recruits: A National Security Concern, 12:30-1:30 p.m. Friday in room 165 at Bond Hall. The event is free and open to the public.
Near the end of his 37 years of service, which included a Distinguished Service Medal, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, Hertling revamped the Army s basic training program and implemented a modern fitness and nutrition program.
Hertling says the problems facing the military with unfit recruits are the same facing businesses with employees today. And it's too big to leave in the laps of individuals alone.
Both he and Bornstein draw comparisons between smoking and the inactivity epidemic. They say telling individuals to stop smoking or to be active does not work, but creating a range of policies, penalties, incentives and disincentives does work.
The turnaround in smoking took place after we put all the tools available to us to work, says Hertling. We, as a nation, have yet to take the same initiative when it comes to physical fitness.
And Hertling says fitness will play a key role in national security if the country doesn t embrace fitness. Notably, the percent of the gross domestic product will balloon and take a greater share of dollars that otherwise could be used to build and strengthen the nation.
"It's a national security issue because we're going to deplete our country's resources if nothing changes," says Hertling. "We're complaining about it (increasingly poor health), but not a whole lot of us are looking for answers."
A battle plan
Bornstein hopes to do his part as project coordinator of the National Physical Activity Plan, a strategic plan to create physical and social environments that support active living.
"If you think about Daniel Island, for example, it's a perfectly designed community for active living. The essential purpose of the NPAP is to have more Americans meeting or exceeding the Federal Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans", says Bornstein, noting those guideline are available at www.health.gov/PAGuidelines.
Launched in May 2010, the plan is comprised of evidence-based recommendations across eight sectors of society, including business, health care and education.
"The primary target audience for the NPAP is policymakers and those looking to influence them. A policymaker could be an elected official, but also could include a CEO of a company, an elementary school principal, or a director of recreation," says Bornstein.
He adds, however, that the plan encompasses more than national security and military readiness. The primary goal of the plan is to decrease the incidence and prevalence of chronic disease by getting Americans to adapt a physically active lifestyle.
To that end, policymakers must be convinced doing so fits into the interests of their constituents.
"While there are many making the case about the relationship between physical activity and academic performance, or physical activity as a sound investment for business, very few are talking about physical activity and national security," says Bornstein.
"The Citadel is the perfect place for this conversation and this research. The purpose of my Physical Activity and National Security class is to inform the next generation of policymakers and policy advocates about this important issue," says Bornstein. "There's no better audience for this educational message than a room of Citadel cadets."
David Quick covers health, fitness and outdoor lifestyles for The Post and Courier. Reach him at 937-5516.