What 50 Million Strong by 2029 is

I admit it. I’m disappointed, confused, and more than a little bit frustrated. It’s now two-plus years since SHAPE America announced 50 Million Strong by 2029 (50MS) and some people still say they don’t know what 50MS is. Well, okay, “some people” (as in, those outside our profession) I can understand. But physical education and health education professionals, really? I don’t get it. So, let me give it another try with a teaching example:

In your mind, think about a school location you are familiar with. You are the elementary physical education teacher and teach 400 different students annually. Now imagine a world in which each and every one of your students is regularly physically active and doing their best to make healthy lifestyle choices. What are your students doing to live this lifestyle? What does the school day look like that supports this vision? What are you doing in your classes and outside of your classes to help your students succeed? What are your students choosing to do before and after school that keeps them physically active and healthy? What is happening in their homes, with their families, on weekends, and during holidays that supports this vision? Close your eyes and take a moment to visualize what this new and very different world looks like.

Welcome to the world of 50 Million Strong. It’s not hard to imagine. It’s not hard to understand. And it’s not hard to commit oneself to creating a classroom, a school, a state, and a country in which all school-aged students are choosing and doing their very best to live physically active and healthy lives. And isn’t this new world precisely what most physical educators and health educators would agree is the best measure of teaching success? Why else do we do what we do? If getting our students to be active and healthy is not our purpose what is? Surely this is our reason for being?

If that’s not enough, here’s what 50MS is not. It is not a program. It is not a curriculum. And it is not something anyone is being asked to sign up for instead of doing something else. Committing to 50MS doesn’t stop anyone from participating in FUTP60, JRFH, the President’s Challenge, GenYouth, Active Schools, Partnership for a Healthier America, Alliance for a Healthier Generation or anything else. 50MS is a vision – a world in which healthy choices and being physically active are the norm for America’s youth. And if you want to make this vision of creating a healthier world for youth a reality then 50MS becomes your personal commitment. A pledge to do what you can to make it happen.

What’s especially disappointing to me is when colleagues demand a clearer definition of what 50MS is before committing to or at least supporting rather than disparaging what SHAPE America envisions as a timely profession-advancing change movement. Please…commit to the vision and think about how you, your program, your school, and your community can contribute to making it a reality!

“What exactly is physically active?” “How are we going to measure and report it?” “What do you mean by healthy or healthy choices?” “Isn’t this what physical education and health education teachers already do?” “Isn’t this the same as standards-based teaching or physical literacy?” “Isn’t this focus on physical activity going to undermine the teaching of movement skills?” “Won’t school physical educators be replaced by physical activity leaders?” The questions go on and on. I could add many more of my own. They’re reasonable questions but they shouldn’t distract us from the exciting vision of truly changing student behaviors and from figuring out ways that each one of us can contribute.

This is very different from what we’ve done on the past. We all need to see the 50MS vision as the BIG professional change it really is. The data is clear. Despite our best intentions we’ve not been very successful at changing our students’ physical activity and health behaviors. Our hopes and best intentions are simply not good enough if we aren’t getting the outcomes we want and society needs. And we aren’t. Too few of our students are actually living physically active and healthy lives. And if we want different results we all need to be willing to change what we are doing.

Another favorite target of critics is lamenting the lack of 50MS leadership by SHAPE America. SHAPE America can and should do more to support 50MS but it isn’t going to nor can it create some sort of one-size-fits-all national implementation plan. We might expect guidelines, a timeline, a broad template, and support, but a detailed plan would not be appropriate. And here’s why. 50MS was announced and remains as SHAPE America’s “moonshot” vision. So let’s remember the original moonshot.

It was May 25, 1961 when President John Kennedy delivered to Congress his ambitious vision of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth before the end of the decade. It was the charismatic Kennedy that inspired popular support and energized the country’s scientific community to solve the many challenges that needed overcoming in less than nine years. BUT it wasn’t Kennedy who solved the vast array of technological hurdles NASA faced. Professionals in the scientific fields stepped up to the challenge and took responsibility for the things that they could impact. It was through imagination and innovation, trial and error, that the space program advanced and in the end succeeded.

50MS is not so different. America has more than 100,000 public schools and not one of them is identical. The same is true for our 50 million students.  Do any of us who are parents have two children alike? Of course not. Why then should we expect a one size fits all solution? Teachers in inner city schools face vastly different opportunities and challenges with 50MS than teachers in rural schools. Every state is different. And every school within every state is different. Let’s not fool ourselves that this is something simple the physical education and health education professions can achieve. 50MS is truly a moonshot challenge, fraught with all sorts of known and yet-to-be discovered difficulties.

But that doesn’t mean any of us can stand back, claim confusion, and do nothing. That’s just a cop out. Nothing less. And I for one don’t buy it. At the recent 50 Million Strong by 2029 Forum in Boston, Jessica Shawley a middle school physical educator from Idaho pointedly told the audience “It begins with US!” Pretty simple. Us. You and me. No excuses. No finger pointing. Get on with it. Commit, get started, get others on board, and don’t give up.

Whether you teach public school or prepare future teachers, succeeding with SHAPE America’s 50MS moonshot vision begins with YOU. It begins with YOU committing to the vision. What you can do is different from what I can do. It doesn’t matter because success is going to take a team effort. But what we don’t need are spectators, sideline critics who claim confusion but are unwilling to get their hands dirty finding solutions. That kind of attitude is what’s going to ensure that our professional moonshot vision probably will fail and I guess will confirm the naysayers were right all along.

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3 Comments
  1. Right on! I am in. I realize it begins with US.
    I agree it’s about thinking different, and acting on the thoughts that can make a difference.
    It’s about a cultural shift – the research is pretty clear that active, healthy kiddos perform better academically – but also feel better, deal with stress better, have a better long term outlook with their help, and much more.
    I agree that the key is committing.
    I am an ‘in the trenches’ physical educator – at a K-6 neighborhood school in Worthington (Columbus), OH. I’ve been educated (college) by some of the best (Judy Rink – USC; Phil Ward, Daryl Siedentop OSU). I have a background in sport – grew up skiing the Poconos, playing multiple sports, finding a sport that would lead me to youth national teams and the Olympics, but MOST IMPORTANTLY finding a LOVE for being active. It’s why I still move today – skiiing, bike commuting daily, trail running, hiking, etc etc…
    I still coach (youth) in the sport I achieved the most in growing up, but realize I have a MUCH bigger role helping students FALL IN LOVE with moving their bodies, and the freedom that comes along with moving daily (the freedom to take control of their overall health).
    I am rambling, but I AM in… let’s help grow each student’s LOVE for moving AND then begin to change communities. It’s worth it!

  2. Rob, thanks for your enthusiasm for 50 Million Strong. You are absolutely right that in your position as someone “in the trenches” you can truly make a difference in the lives of the children you teach. What 50MS seeks to do is to get all teachers moving in the same direction. Presently, our PURPOSE is not clear. It’s not clear to the public because it’s not clear nor agreed upon by all of US! Our ongoing attempts to do many different things and claim so much does not help us but hinders us. If we could just focus on getting our students to love being physically active and motivated to live physically active lives, AND to make healthy choices that’s quite enough to attempt. Sadly, it’s a challenge to get everyone on the same bus headed in the same direction. Until we do this we will continue to struggle for respect and support. It would be great to have you share with others your efforts and challenges to get your students to love being active. Please consider writing something for PHE America. (And congrats on your own sport successes!)

  3. Steve, I echo your comments. I have seen how 50 Million Strong impacts our students in McAllen (TX) ISD. I share our success stories and yet, our profession does not move to embrace the movement. To make matters worse – other great initiatives that could help our profession also struggle! Fortunately, my passion and drive is too strong – I am looking forward to the 2017-18 school years and my partnership with 50 Million Strong.

    Mario

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