Too Fat to Ski?

Fitness
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Fitness
Dave's Healthy Skier 0900

Where have all the skiers gone? That's what ski resort operators and industry types want to know. Since the late Seventies, skier visits have hovered around 50 million per year, a no-growth nightmare for an industry doling out buckets of cash for high-speed lifts and fancy-schmantzy hotels. "What more can we do to lure people to the slopes?" ski executives ask.

Here's an idea: Offer free doughnuts-big, gooey jelly ones. Want to know what former and future skiers are doing these days? Check out the nearest all-you-can-eat buffet line. Because assuming that skiing requires even a modest level of physical fitness, the most significant statistic in skiing today may be that 55 percent of Americans are overweight and nearly one in five are classified as obese (30 percent over ideal weight). The future is grim, too, with 11 percent of children ages 2 to 20 considered obese and another 20 to 25 percent at risk. The only powder these folks are interested in is the confectioners' sugar sprinkled on their crullers.

Simply put, and as politically incorrect as it may be, the reality is that as Americans get fatter, skier numbers go flatter; the pool of people fit enough to ski is diminishing at an alarming rate. Over the past 10 years, the number of Americans participating in alpine skiing (more than once per year) has plummeted from 11 million to 7.4 million; last season 3.5 percent fewer people skied compared to the year before. Even snowboarding, which showed an increase from 1.6 million to 3.3 million over the same 10-year period, dropped 8.8 percent in 1999. Apparently even the diehards are bailing.

As Claudia Carbone says in her book "Women Ski:" "Skiing is a sport you must be fit to do, not a sport you do to get fit." This is a sentiment echoed by Karyn Thorr, a full-time ski instructor and director of skiing at Crystal Mountain, Mich. "People who are overweight tend to be more tentative and less confident in all of their physical activities, and that pattern is definitely displayed on the slopes," Thorr says. "Their endurance and flexibility are often diminished, which makes it tougher for them to ski. From an instruction standpoint, teaching an overweight person to ski may be a slower process."

Unfortunately for instructors, the Centers for Disease Control has classified obesity as an "epidemic" that is affecting both genders, every age group and all ethnicities. And if you think things are going to improve soon, guess again. According to a report issued by the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, 40 percent of the American population is "completely sedentary." In the same report, 59 percent considered walking to and from the mailbox exercise. Presumably they look forward to the arrival of the new phone book so they can do some serious powerlifting. Do you think these people will make the quantum leap to skiing? Not likely.

Studies and reports aside, for a real-world look at America's weight gain, the proof is in the posteriors. As a standard for American design, the average width of a seat at a ballpark, arena, theater or public transportation has been between 16.5 inches and 17.6 inches since 1907. New York City is now in the process of junking its 17.5-inch subway seats for 23-inchers to accommodate "Big Apple bottoms." And even the famed Central City Opera House in Colorado ripped out its century-old 17-inch seats and replaced them with chairs 20 to 22 inches wide. Clearly, "American Expansionism" has taken on a whole new meaning. On the bright side we should all be skiing faster, now that we're shaped like bowling balls.

"We're really concerned about the shift to a sedentary lifestyle," says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. "The trend is aggravated by the growth of the e-world, cable TV with hundreds of channels and a media that would rather have you sitting in a spectator seat (and watching their commercials) than engaging in a participation sport. Getting people to go skiing isucking the trend."

Accommodating the new wide-body America has not been lost on the ski industry. Chairlifts, for example, are getting bigger. "We're increasing the size of our six-passenger chairs this year," says Randy Woolwine, vice president of Doppelmayr USA, a major chairlift manufacturer. "We react to what skiers want, and they're asking for more shoulder room and more comfortable chairs. Compared to the past, our chairs are ergonomically designed to be wider and deeper, with higher backs."

Larger skiers pose a challenge for gear manufacturers, as well. Luckily, the revolution from traditional to shaped skis has come at the right time, according to Atomic Marketing Director Matt Miller. "Today's shorter and wider skis have made participation in the sport easier than ever," Miller says. "A given ski can perform well for a fairly broad range of skier sizes."

Boots are a different story. Bob Shay is president of Surefoot, with 20 ski boot stores in North America, Europe and Australia. Over the years he's noticed the size scale creeping upward, and bigger feet present specific challenges in fitting ski boots. "The major problem is foot cramping," Shay explains. "The structure of the foot is just not meant to support excess weight. But we can usually correct that problem with an orthotic."

According to Shay, the second most common complaint is tightness in the forefoot of the boot, requiring it to be widened. The third biggest problem is a cut-off of circulation in the calf area, which is common with women because their calf muscles are lower than men's. "To their credit, manufacturers have provided us with options such as lower boot collars, adjustable buckles and different forward-lean settings to correct the problem," Shay says.

That's fine if you have the time and money to invest in a custom boot fit, but what about the legions of skiers who rent equipment? "Rental fit is a challenge," Thorr says. "I've seen overweight skiers skiing with their boots completely unbuckled. It's not safe, and it makes it tougher for them to maneuver their skis, which affects their sense of enjoyment on the slopes."

People's expanding girth is an issue that skiwear companies have had to address, as well. "We've seen an increase in the demand for special sizes, like tall sizes and XXL," says Barbara Owen, director of sales and marketing for Obermeyer in Aspen, Colo. "Ski retailers are educating shop employees so they know that these sizes are available and can be ordered. In our juniors' and ladies' pants we now have a seam that can be altered to increase the waist size, and the men's pants have waistband adjustments."

If there is a glimmer of good news in the relationship between weight gain and skiing, it's that there does not seem to be an increase in the number or severity of ski injuries suffered by overweight skiers. According to doctors at the Howard Head Sports Medicine Center in Vail, Colo., weight doesn't seem to be much of a factor in the surgical repair or rehabilitation of injuries either. However, they do suggest that dumping excess pounds can result in better skiing. "As the body adds more weight, there are more forces and pressure applied to our joints, thus creating undue wear and tear," says Sean McEnroe, the Center's director of rehabilitation. "This stress is not needed. In fact, if you can lose ample weight it will help your skiing because you'll last longer on the slopes. Plus you'll have better balance and coordination, your turns will be crisper, and you'll have more fun."

But shedding extra pounds doesn't come easy. More Americans than ever are tied to desk jobs for the bulk of the day, making it tough to find time and energy for exercise. On top of that, we eat way too much of everything. The recent National Nutrition Summit revealed that we average 230 more daily calories than we did 20 years ago, a sum that would take a 150-pound man approximately 50 minutes of brisk walking to burn off. So, if your idea of exercise is walking to and from the mailbox, your box needs to be about two miles from your house for you to get near your exercise quota.

Don't despair, however. The National Nutrition Summit's wake-up call has to be music to the ears of skiing. Debunking the claims of popular fad diets, the Summit's conclusion is that anyone can lose weight by using a simple, common-sense credo: Eat less, move more. Plus, a call for more emphasis on physical education in schools could reap long-term dividends for the ski industry.

The National Ski Areas Association has jumped into the fray, in conjunction with the National Sporting Goods Association, lobbying for Congress to pass the Physical Education for Progress Act, which would authorize $400 million in grants for local school districts to expand physical education programs.

"Only 20 percent of the schools in America require more than one hour of physical education per week," says NSAA's Berry. "We're trying to send the message that kids need to 'Get up and get out' as a life-sport philosophy."

Whether or not Americans heed the call for a more fit lifestyle is critical for the survival of skiing as we know it. Never before has a "bottom line" been so important.

Health HitWest Virginia has the highest percentage of obese people (23 percent), while Arizona had the least (13 percent).
-Centers for Disease Contolf your idea of exercise is walking to and from the mailbox, your box needs to be about two miles from your house for you to get near your exercise quota.

Don't despair, however. The National Nutrition Summit's wake-up call has to be music to the ears of skiing. Debunking the claims of popular fad diets, the Summit's conclusion is that anyone can lose weight by using a simple, common-sense credo: Eat less, move more. Plus, a call for more emphasis on physical education in schools could reap long-term dividends for the ski industry.

The National Ski Areas Association has jumped into the fray, in conjunction with the National Sporting Goods Association, lobbying for Congress to pass the Physical Education for Progress Act, which would authorize $400 million in grants for local school districts to expand physical education programs.

"Only 20 percent of the schools in America require more than one hour of physical education per week," says NSAA's Berry. "We're trying to send the message that kids need to 'Get up and get out' as a life-sport philosophy."

Whether or not Americans heed the call for a more fit lifestyle is critical for the survival of skiing as we know it. Never before has a "bottom line" been so important.

Health HitWest Virginia has the highest percentage of obese people (23 percent), while Arizona had the least (13 percent).
-Centers for Disease Contol