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What IF…? The Future of Sports and Fitness–the Fourth of Four Conversations

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

What do you imagine as an ideal future for sports and fitness?

Suppose you were to imagine an ideal future for sports and fitness in our society. What would it look like? What might we do as a society to travel toward this future?

Below are some of the different ideas that came up in the fourth of our four Community Conversations in collaboration with IONA Senior Services. We asked the participants to think big, to imagine a future they’d like to see. A great deal of agreement emerged around the notion of prioritizing a robust sense of “fitness” or “wellness” for the entire population. As a society we should make sure that people of all ages, ability levels, genders, races, socio-economic classes, etc., have access to sports and fitness activities. The participants felt that we should try to maximize sports and fitness participation for the whole population because of the potential gains society-wide for health and wellness, whether we’re talking about physical, mental, or social health. There were different points of emphasis about aspects of these ideal futures, and about how we might move toward them.

If you’re interested in the prior sessions, you can read summaries of the first (on what sports mean to us), second (on sports and health), and third (on sports and justice) community conversations. (Our Future of Sports and Society discussion project adds some other ideas). One constant feature of these discussions was that most of the participants came to them with little personal interests in sports. Still, they emerged from each session remarking about what a complex and compelling topic sports are for us to explore as democratic citizens. They consistently found that there was more to think about than they had supposed–and that sports were, and could be, a vitally important part of a healthy society. This series has been part of our ongoing work with the Weaving Community, reweaving social connections through the practice of generous conversations.


What if we shift the culture around sports and fitness activities to integrate them fully into everyone’s daily lives as an accepted and expected part of all lives?

To get there, we might…

  • Shift the prevailing social and cultural expectations from treating sports and fitness activities as luxuries to treating them as universal necessities for having a healthy population
  • Normalize a new cultural practice for a community-wide midday sports and fitness break—as a sort of analog to the siesta break that is common in many warmer countries around the globe
  • Empower people to experience sports and fitness activities not as a burden but as fun, recapturing the sense of inherent joy and play that is common among children
  • Use public support to open up lots of options for physical activity, including cooperative activities or things we might not often think of as “sports” (like dance), since this would
    • help people find the activity that is fun for them and
    • avoid the stress that can come from competitive activities
  • Sustain an atmosphere of appreciation for whatever gets people up and moving (stop focusing so much on competitive sports that deter some people from taking part)
  • Encourage the practice of people socializing via sports and fitness activities rather than while being sedentary
  • Encourage more child-directed free play by creating safe, accessible spaces for children’s sports and fitness activities and develop a community mindset where everyone is mindful of the children


What if we invest in the material conditions or infrastructure to make it possible for everyone to take part in sports and fitness activities?

We might…

  • Publicly invest in multi-use sports facilities that are for all the public (regardless of age, socio-economic status, disability status, etc.)
  • Maximize access to community sports facilities by keeping them open 24/7
  • Build more Rec Centers—fewer prisons
  • Treat barriers to sports and fitness activities as the enemy to be vanquished (e.g. shouldn’t bar access for financial reasons)
  • Remove barriers to participation faced by those with disabilities
  • Design and build walkable neighborhoods with infrastructure to support human movement: sidewalks, dedicated and separate pedestrian and bike lanes, green space and parks to encourage all people to get outdoors
  • Saturate the environment with opportunities for sports and fitness activities so that people do not have to travel out of their way to participate
  • Return a percentage of profits from pro sports to local communities to enable sports and fitness for all


What if we had a cradle-to-grave public program to encourage lifelong sports and fitness activity as an entitlement, not a privilege?

We might…

  • Publicly invest in multi-use sports facilities for all
  • Create a program of lifelong sports sampling, where people are encouraged to explore a range of activities to find what they love to do
  • Create a sports “passport” to keep track of the sports they’ve tried
  • Encourage multiple sports or fitness activities for all, so that people might avoid overuse injuries from a single sport—or so they can shift to new sports as they age or for different seasons


What if we shift our focus from sports competition to fitness?

We might…

  • Make competition subordinate to the joy of physical activity, recognizing that competition discourages some people from participation
  • Limit collision sports until after high school, since bodies and brains are not made for repetitive blows and minors can’t give informed consent
  • Have a future with no football, since the cumulative brain damage is too great a cost for individual and public health
  • Encourage more cooperative rather than competitive activities, since they are less likely to exclude people and they can help develop a focus on the inherent joy of movement rather than on external markers like the score
  • Rein in pro or elite sports—it’s going too far when people are risking their health and taking performance enhancing drugs to boost their competitive abilities


What if we shift the way we approach sex, gender, and sports?

We might…

  • Stop the practice of sex-testing female athletes, allowing people to compete as they are without having to medically alter their bodies
  • Create possibilities for mixed-gender or open competitions, where people compete on ability levels, not segregated by sex or gender
  • Encourage more mixed-gender sports, with mixed-gender teams (which might help diminish sexism)


What if we use technology to boost the benefits of sports and fitness for all?

We might…

  • Encourage technologies that enable social connection and cooperative play, rather than social isolation (e.g. VR sports where you play with others remotely)
  • Use fitness trackers to encourage people to get up and out—and to individualize fitness activities