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COLUMN: Colorado Springs can lead in the fight against obesity

October 20, 2017 Updated: October 23, 2017 at 5:33 pm
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America's got a bigness problem. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its annual study on obesity. The numbers were chilling: nearly 40 percent of adults are obese, and when that figure is added to the overweight numbers, the total climbs to 70.7 percent (meaning it is abnormal nowadays to be an American adult at a healthy weight).

Scarier still, America's population of obese children has quadrupled since 1980. I'm no medical professional, but these figures point to a public health crisis on the order of AIDs and cancer.

Of course, those are national numbers, and it's fair to remind readers that Colorado is regularly the state with the lowest obesity rate in the country. But that crown seems a little less shiny when the Council for a Strong America recently reported that 27 percent of the state's kids are overweight. Excess pounds are a real problem, even here in Colorado.

Opportunities are born from calamities. The country requires fitness leadership, and Colorado Springs is poised to leverage its unique geography and exceptional demography to establish and nurture a broad, inclusive athletic culture to get all citizens moving and grow the next generation of Olympians - the home of the fit and the brave.

There's a reason the Olympic Training Center is here. If the realtor's motto is "location, location, location," then the coach's creed is "weather, weather, weather" - and Colorado Springs is the perfect mixture of both. With 300 days of sunshine a year, four full temperate seasons (sometimes in one day), trails as far the foot can walk, rocky red gardens made for the gods, the country's most famous non-gym stair-stepper, and America's mountain to boot, it's hard to see too many competitors. When it comes to an abundant landscape and fertile infrastructure for year-round athletic endeavors, Colorado Springs is head and shoulders above nearly any other American city.

Demographics matters, and Colorado Springs has several of the fittest: a large military presence, a sizable number of Olympians that come here to train, an increasing cohort of college students, and an exciting running community. This city has a robust foundation of athletically-inclined citizens to build from, another edge in any head-to-head comparison.

So Colorado Springs has natural athletic advantages in the land and the people. The question is what to do with them. And for that, we might look to a town of 3,000 in Connecticut for tips.

Norwich is in the remote northeast: over three hours from New York City and two from Boston. Yet over the past three decades the tiny town has produced 11 Olympians, one on each Winter Olympic team (except one), as well as two Summer Games.

Their athletes have won three medals, beating out countries like Spain (nearly 50 million people) and New Zealand (almost 5 million people) in the Winter Games.

Sports writer Karen Crouse, for a forthcoming book, went and lived in Norwich to learn what made for such an athletically successful, physically active community. First, she found the kids didn't specialize early: 10 of the 11 Olympians changed sports with the seasons through high school. Second, these were "quirky" athletes (think ski jumpers not figure skaters) that were "not attracted to their sports to get rich."

Importantly, parents in the community modeled an "active" lifestyle: "exercise for the sake of exercising, not for competitive purposes."

Crouse also explained how the town "highly valued education" and "community" in particular, relating the story of Hannah Kearney, a 2010 Winter Games gold medal-winning moguls skier. Kearney stumbled to bronze at the 2014 Games and was devastated. When the town heard about her despair, they made it a point to throw an even-bigger-than-2010 "welcome home" celebration and parade. The town wanted her to know they cared, no matter the outcome. Kearney later said this had an immeasurable impact on her career.

The point isn't that Norwich is a perfect model for Colorado Springs. It's that there are real communities out there this city can learn from. But above all, leverage this fantastic geography and exceptional demography to inspire more adults to get moving and put more local kids on Olympic podiums. It's one thing to be the Olympic City; even better to be a homegrown City of Olympians.

Because when it comes to our obesity crisis, it's clear America needs a leader right now. I nominate Colorado Springs.


Major ML Cavanaugh is a U.S. Army strategist, a Non Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and looks forward to connecting via Twitter @MLCavanaugh. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.

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