A competitive ice skater for 15 years, and a national champion ballroom and Latin dancer, Lisa E. Oliphant, executive director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, combines a passion for physical activity with a background in public policy to head up a charge to get and keep Americans fit.
Ci: What is different today when compared to past councils?
Oliphant: We have a unique situation right now. I am excited to be the executive director of the council at a time like this. First of all, I don't think we've ever been faced with a problem of inactivity and obesity in this country that we have right now. It is becoming extremely clear that if we are going to tackle this country's health problems we are going to have to focus on various aspects of prevention and physical activity is one of those key areas.
We have tremendous leadership and support in our mission. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson's major initiative is his prevention initiative and physical activity is one of the themes at the center of that. The secretary has begun to walk the walk himself. He has begun running races and has publicly challenged himself to lose weight. He has also done press events and high publicity events to promote physical activity.
On top of that the President of the United States is a fantastic example of somebody that lives according to the philosophies of the council. He runs everyday and understands the importance of physical activity and being fit in adding to the quality of a person's life. I also tell people that if the President of the United States, who is the most busy person in the free world, can find the time to fit in physical activity not one of us can use the excuse of not having the time to be active or exercise. He is so interested that when he announced our new council it was part of the bigger initiative called A HealthierUS.
Ci: Can you explain that initiative a little?
A HealthierUS is a four-pronged initiative to promote health behaviors that each and every one of us can incorporate into our lives to make us healthier. Americans have turned their personal health into rocket science. We are constantly seeking the latest, greatest solutions. We are searching for a magic solution that can work overnight. We are buying books looking for the newest discovery and we are still losing the battle.
What the president is saying is that we really need to get back to our “ABCs.” We have forgotten some simple truths that we could benefit from if we add them back into our lives. The first is physical activity. It is also healthy eating, regular health screenings and avoiding risky behaviors. I think that it is significant that he puts physical activity at the top of the list. It's recognition of the critical role that regular physical activity plays in promoting a healthy and happy life. It is also a great show of support on the president's part for the mission of the council.
President Bush has appointed a new council that is proactive and understands the need to reach out to all Americans. We have Lynn Swann as our chairman and Dot Richardson is our vice chairwoman. I think what makes this council unique is that we have a tremendous combination of individuals that when brought together cover the objectives that we hope to accomplish under this council. We've got not only athletic luminaries but we have a director of a state health department who has overseen the creation of a public health initiative to raise awareness of physical activity; we've got the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and we have a number of exercise physiologists and more. We have a great amount of diversity and expertise on the council. We really are more than just a cheering team. We are a team of people looking to devise real solutions and do some good grassroots work with communities across the country.
I think something else that distinguishes this council is that it is organized and focused. It does not want to leave here in two or two-and-a half years from now with only a small legacy. It wants to create a major sea change in the way Americans live their lives. We are taking a well-rounded approach, because we are interested in making a difference and having something fabulous to report to the president when we are done.
Ci: What are the primary goals of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports?
Our goal is to raise the awareness of all Americans — of all ages, backgrounds and abilities — about the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. Not just about the fun of being athletic, but the benefits of being someone that incorporates the benefits of movement into all aspects of their life. We are finding out more and more how important it is to live a healthier lifestyle.
Ci: How are you going about getting this message out to the masses?
We are interested in reaching all Americans and realize that there are different ways of reaching different Americans. We have to tailor the message to reach a lot of different audiences — whatever it takes to get people active. There is nothing wrong with the body beautiful message. We just have to understand that there are a lot of Americans that don't respond to that particular message. There are some that respond to that and there are others that don't, and may even be intimidated by that message, pushing them away from fitness and a healthy lifestyle. It is getting people to understand that what we aren't trying to do is get them to be hard-core exercisers and that they don't have to be extremely athletic. What we are trying to do is simply encourage people to start moving for their health and well-being.
Ci: How does the health club industry fit into this?
There is always a question when you are working with people within the industry whether you are reaching out to the people that are already convinced or if you are reaching out to the people that are underserved and unaware of the need for fitness. I look at it that these people, from within the fitness industry, are the ones that really want to help us carry out our mission of educating and motivating people to get fit and live a healthier life.
There are so many different things to take into account when looking at ways of doing that. You have to think of all the reasons why people aren't active and we know they aren't because an astounding 60-plus percent of adults are overweight or obese and it's going up. The number of children that are overweight has doubled in the last decade. At the same time, the number of adolescents that are overweight has tripled over the past few decades. We have an epidemic on our hands and the lack of activity is a major contributor to that epidemic.
Ci: So you feel this is an epidemic? Why is it that some people aren't physically active enough?
For some people it is lack of awareness. For others it is lack of motivation. For some it is lack of understanding of what is needed to derive benefits from physical activities. Some people think that to gain results they need to run marathons or play on a sports team or hit the gym everyday. What we are saying is that if you can't or don't want that you should still do something because every little bit helps. We maintain that every adult should aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week. While it would be great if they went to the gym, we tell them that if they have to get it from activities like walking to and from places, taking the stairs instead of the elevator or even pushing the lawnmower instead of riding on one. We want people to know that if they don't want the regimentation of working out, they can have fun being physical in any number of ways.
Ci: So motivation is the primary culprit in your opinion?
Another reason that people may not be getting enough physical activity may not have anything to do with awareness or motivation. Sometimes, it has to do with a lack of access to the avenues to physical activities. They may not be able to afford a health club membership. They may wish they could walk to school but the streets aren't safe. They may want to ride their bikes but wish there were more bike paths. We are also focused on helping to provide for these avenues. We have to give people the healthy support that they need to get and stay healthy for life.
If people have questions about physical activity or what is required of them individually or what are some fun alternatives to get this activity, they need to be able to get this information. We are creating a one-stop shopping Web site and we have something we call the Research Digest, published quarterly by the President's Council. It's about encouraging communities and providing the necessary support. It is also about personal responsibility — responsibility to yourself, responsibility to your family and responsibility to your community. If you change your life through physical activity you can become a shining star to others. The council likes to say that friends help friends get fit. Every one of us has someone in our life that isn't active. We should take it upon ourselves to become an encourager and help these people become active.
Ci: What is different from today's initiatives and other health warnings and fitness promotion from the government?
I believe this is an opportunity for health clubs to take advantage of these programs. It is not every day that you have leadership in place that is behind an initiative like this. When people are getting presidential recognition because the president really wants to do this, I believe it is sustainable.
I think there are amazing community resources that are not leveraged often enough. I meet with people from the private sector every day that are looking for ways to get involved and reach people in their communities and the council provides a number of ways to do this. It is really a matter of people getting together and putting their heads together and coming up with ways to do this — it truly starts in the community. This is where I think health clubs are so critical to our effort. We can exercise leadership and vision at the national level, but it means very little if there aren't folks there at the local level to put it into action. I think that fitness club leaders and the fitness industry can reach out to their communities to help promote and be the nexus of citywide and statewide initiatives.
Ci: What benefits can health clubs see from these initiatives, especially with emphasis on activity no matter where it takes place?
People who become active anywhere may use the fitness center in the end. If you look at it from the point of the fitness industry you have to remember that physical activity is like a drug in that once you get involved you seem to want more. Of course, unlike a drug there is no downside with the exception of possible sports injuries. It makes you feel good and it's good for you.
The fitness industry shouldn't just be looking at this as what can we gain from this but what is our responsibility to our community as fitness industry professionals. They need to figure out ways to do community outreach and although some of these folks may never get pulled into the fitness center, you're bound to get some business from it — even if they don't join, they may help a friend get fit and they may join. You are the folks with the knowledge and the creativity and can make the difference in your community.
I also think that as a taxpayer I would rather see my tax dollars invested in prevention-oriented activities rather than curing or attempting to cure health problems…it is helping your fellow taxpayers into something that is meaningful and advantageous.
Ci: What programs are available to health clubs to work with the council and help spread the word?
Promoting our Presidential Awards is a great way to get less active people involved in activities. It is an inexpensive opportunity for health clubs to make a difference in people's lives. Our awards programs are oriented to physical activity and not just on competition between kids — they are geared toward all ages.
The Presidential Active Lifestyle Award and the Presidential Active Adult Lifestyle Award allow people to get presidential recognition for engaging in any kind of physical activity — 30 minutes for adults and 60 minutes for kids — five days a week for six weeks. They can also get the recognition for taking a certain number of steps on a pedometer during that time. That allows the person to see this as a challenge to themselves, with themselves as the only competition. This reinforces the idea that it can be done in or out of the gym.
This program allows health clubs to get creative with promotional opportunities built around an inexpensive program. There are also sports-specific awards that allow clubs to help promote other aspects of their clubs like swimming, basketball and volleyball. We are trying to reach the people that are inactive and incentives like the awards program can be a great incentive, especially when mixed with club incentives like water bottles, T-shirts and memberships. The hope is that once a person completes the six weeks to four months it takes to earn the recognition they have developed the healthy habit, which can translate to increased memberships for the clubs.
Although the program has expanded since the 1960s and encompasses all ages, there is still a large component aimed at children.
Some of the stigma is gone with being overweight. While that is good in a sense that you don't want anyone treated unfairly or harshly, they should feel the onus to take control of their health. At the end of the day what we are looking to do is transform the lives of just some individuals. Those individuals can become guiding lights to others. That's why we are reaching out to parents and hope that health clubs reach out to parents and create activities and opportunities for the whole family to be active. We would love to see health clubs come up with more events, more fitness walks and more classes that are intergenerational. Parents can be influential on their children and vice-versa. Children that turn their lives around can be an inspiration to a parent to take better care of their health.
There are endless creative opportunities for people in the fitness industry and the opportunities are phenomenal. Their businesses can benefit from them and at the very least the people can benefit by feeling good about doing something great for people that need your help. And it can be done with little cost to the club.
Ci: What obstacles are there to getting kids active?
The notion of play is key. Kids' notion of play today is different than it was in the past. It used to be getting permission to play meant going to the park or running around the yard. Today, it is about TV and video games. There is nothing wrong with those activities, except they end up crowding out physical activity. There are only so many hours for leisure activities and if they are spending the bulk of them in front of the TV and the video games they are missing out on physical activity — they aren't even getting activity in school anymore. The fitness industry can reach out by helping schools shape programs for all students or donate awards, equipment and time to schools that can't afford equipment.
You can't ignore business but this is a good business involvement — it's all about karma, you do something good and something good will come back to you.