The History of Physical Activity in the Past, Present, and Future of Kinesiology’s Big Questions, Hot Topics, and Prospects for Integration

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Since the 1981 publication of Perspectives on the Academic Discipline of Physical Education, the history of physical activity has secured a prominent place in the field of kinesiology. Yet, despite encouraging signs of growth, the subdiscipline still remains an undervalued player in the “team scholarship” approach. Without the integration of historical sensibilities in kinesiology’s biggest questions, our understanding of human movement remains incomplete. Historians of physical activity share many “big questions” and “hot topics” with researchers in other domains of kinesiology. Intriguing possibilities for integrating research endeavors between historians and scholars from other domains beckon, particularly as scientists share the historical fascination with exploring the processes of change over time.

A quick perusal of the 1981 anthology Perspectives on the Academic Discipline of Physical Education: A Tribute to G. Lawrence Rarick that inspires this special issue reveals a significant “key” development in the history of physical activity over the past 4 decades. In the original version of Perspectives, the history of physical activity did not fully make the roster for “team kinesiology.” Brooks (1981) defended limiting the space for history, arguing, “By definition, the study of history deals only with the past; therefore, the volume contains a single chapter on this aspect of the discipline” (p. xvi). While other subdisciplines received at least two chapters including a first segment on “emergence” (ironically on the “history” of the domain) and a second segment on the “current status” and “future research” prospects of the field, the history of physical activity only had the solo entry focused on the origins of physical education.

The strange border that Brooks drew for history that severed it from the present and the future would not have been recognizable to scholars in the discipline in 1981 nor in the centuries that preceded that date. Historians have always argued that the past is very much connected to the present and to the future, as have quite a few novelists, including William Faulkner (1950), who famously observed through his Southern gothic lenses that the “past is never dead. It’s not even past” (p. 73). Like one of Faulkner’s eccentric characters, the history of physical activity wandered into Perspectives on the Academic Discipline of Physical Education through a backdoor in the form of Park’s (1981) trenchant essay on the “The Emergence of the Academic Discipline of Physical Education in the United States.”

Park cleverly tackled the exclusion of history’s connection to the present and future in her chapter, explaining that the study of human movement had been historically buffeted by fractious and counterproductive debates over what should be in the canon and what should be expelled. Park also sagely observed that as physical education fitfully evolved into kinesiology, shared questions rather than shared methodologies provided the only stable foundation for building a cohesive field. Despite the contention that as a product wholly of the past, history had no future, Park sketched a brief vignette of a historical discipline that by the early 1980s had “moved away from chronological, descriptive, and reportorial studies toward an interpretive analysis” that focused on how modern social processes shaped human movement, from industrialization and urbanization to gender, class, racial, and religious dynamics (p. 39).

History, Park contended, comprised one key component of the sociocultural studies of physical activity portfolio that “increased markedly” beginning in the 1970s. The methods behind these studies, rooted in established disciplines such as history and philosophy and new disciplines such as anthropology and sociology, cross-pollinated one another and provided different ways to approach the shared questions of human movement studies from the other sciences and social sciences. The sociocultural domain concentrated on what Park identified as “reasons rather than causes, logical rather than experimental methods of substantiation, and its dedication to eliciting presuppositions which lie behind questions” (p. 40). These alternative methods of asking the shared questions, in particular, why do humans move and what makes movement meaningful in human societies, might provide, in Park’s estimation, a “useful corrective for such limitations as may exist in more dominant modes of modern 20th century thought” (p. 39).

Forty years later, it is a nice change to be welcomed at kinesiology’s front door as an acknowledged subdiscipline that merits an essay exploring our past contributions, our present condition, and our future prospects. We must confess, however, that in our professional homes we are reminded regularly of Faulkner’s perceptive insights about pasts that never die, as refrains of Brooks’ notion that the history of physical activity is only about the past and has no connection to the present or future of the field eerily echo in some of our interactions with colleagues from different silos. Brooks (1981) offered a brighter and more inclusive overview of the place of the subdisciplines in the broader field. He pitched Perspectives as a vehicle to welcome “graduate students of the discipline of physical education [or kinesiology in contemporary parlance]” and reminded scholars that “[w]e all are students in the discipline . . . [kinesiology] as well as other disciplines” and maintained that we all “remain students as long as we learn how and grow in knowledge” (p. xv). In that spirit, we are excited to join the team and sketch the key developments, big questions, hot topics, prospects for integration with the other disciplines within kinesiology, and future directions of the history of physical activity.

For all students new to our domain, we want to make it clear that we are not scientists. Recent rumblings from the realm of “cliodynamics” claim that “big data” and number-crunching software will transform history into some sort of predictive mathematics rather than contentious and conflicting narrative interpretations which understand historical “facts” as human constructions and not as naturally occurring data points for artificial intelligence programs to mine (Hoyer & Turchin, 2020). We disagree and repeat ourselves. History is not a science. History does not share with the sciences methods or assumptions or even definitions of what constitutes “facts.” History has its own methods which privilege reasons over causes, substantiates claims through logical rather than experimental methodologies, and frequently searches for the presuppositions that lurk behind the questions of other knowledge domains. What we do share with or partners in the human movement sciences is questions; for instance, why do we move, and what makes movement meaningful?

A Brief Sketch of the Last 40 Years

Before we tackle those rich big questions, a brief sketch of how we arrived at the kinesiology party 40 years after the original Perspectives is in order. In 1981, Park pegged history of physical activity as a discipline on the upswing. By many measures of academic vitality, that trajectory has continued. In terms of scholarly organizations that contribute to the subfield, the North American Society for Sport History (NASSH) that began in 1973 with 13 members has expanded and grown ever since. It is, as the third decade of the 21st century begins, a healthy, energetic organization that draws scholars from around the world to its annual conference, publishes a well-regarded journal (the Journal of Sport History), and has a robust treasury that funds a variety of research endeavors, none more important than the Roberta J. Park Memorial Graduate Travel Fund that underwrites the conference costs for the next generation of scholars. NASSH draws historians from kinesiology and human movement departments but also from history, sport studies, American Studies, journalism, and a variety of other programs (Dyreson, 2007; Riess, 1990; Schultz, 2017a; Struna, 1997).

In addition to NASSH, the history of physical activity scholars can join a host of other nation-based societies open to international membership in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Japan, Brazil, continent-wide groups that span Europe, and international groups such as the International Society for the History of Sports and Physical Education (Johnes, 2008; Magdalinksi, 2009; Terret, 2008). The proliferation of subdisciplinary societies has been matched by an increasing openness in the last 40 years to present historical contributions at major conferences in the parent discipline of history. The two largest history associations in the United States, the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, routinely feature sessions on the history of physical activity and the American Historical Association has a special session devoted to the history of sport in partnership with NASSH. The American Studies Association has a vibrant “sport studies caucus.” Scholarly societies in a variety of other subfields, from women’s history to African American history to the history of the American West to diplomatic history include sessions connected to physical activity and human movement. So, too, do American Studies, Popular Culture Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and the myriad of other cultural and critical “studies” societies that increasingly populate the humanities and social sciences (Dyreson, 2010a; Schultz, 2017b). In addition, “boutique” societies devoted to particular forms of physical activity, from every variety of football (association, rugby, American, Canadian, Australian Rules, etc.) to baseball to cricket to the Olympic Games sponsor academic gatherings (Booth, 2005; Delheye, 2014; Pringle & Phillips, 2013; Stone et al., 2015). The history of physical activity also litters the landscape at interdisciplinary kinesiology gatherings, from the mega-meetings of the old American Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (now mystically rebranded as “Shape America”) to National Academy of Kinesiology (NAK) meetings. The number of outlets for history of physical activity scholarship has expanded exponentially over the past half century (Park, 1983; Sage et al., 2005; Schultz, 2017a).

The number of journals devoted specifically to the history of physical activity has also mushroomed since Roberta Park surveyed the landscape. A recent analysis of history of physical activity journals noted that there were only three English language, peer-reviewed outlets in existence in 1981. That number exploded in the mid-1980s and 1990s. In 2021, seventeen English-language journals devoted to a variety of aspects of the history of physical culture crank out issues (Phillips, 2020). One of them, the International Journal of the History of Sport, has churned out more than 24 million words on the subject (Vamplew, 2019).

Even so, journals devoted to the history of physical activity will never record impact factors that dazzle other kinesiologists. Sheer numbers make comparisons to larger disciplines such as exercise physiology and sport and exercise psychology an “apples-and-oranges” issue. NASSH for the past 40 years has maintained a membership of roughly 400 individual and 400 institutional members. The American College of Sports Medicine counts 50,000 members. Without getting mired in the contested terrain surrounding bibliometrics and impact factor utility and veracity, reviews of the quality of history of physical activity journals have been quite positive (Linden, 2016). As Phillips (2020) observed in his recent analysis, journals such as Sport in History, the Journal of Sport History, and the International Journal of the History of Sport rank in the top quartile of the cognate discipline publications. “These achievements, along with the longevity of these journals that have been regularly published for over 35 years, attest to the vibrancy, status and success of the field,” Phillips concludes (p. 702).

In most of the other domains that comprise kinesiology, peer-reviewed journal articles stand as the gold-standard of research output. The history of physical activity presents a more complex portrait of research products, as the monograph, a book-length study, represents the commonly accepted pinnacle of scholarly achievement in history departments and retains its status in the history of physical activity. The number of monographs in the history of human movement has exploded since 1981, when scholars struggled to convince publishers that their subject had a market. Surveying the landscape in 2021 reveals that academic presses at every level not only publish individual titles on the subjects but have prominent series devoted to the history of physical activity. One sign of the “arrival” of histories of physical activity is the 2021 publication of a six-volume A Cultural History of Sport in Bloomsbury Press’s highly regarded cultural history series (Vamplew et al., 2021).

Another one of the strengths of the subdiscipline is that given the popularity, particularly of sport in contemporary global culture, major commercial presses publish histories of physical activity in an effort to attract general, as well as academic, readers. It is unfortunate that the NAK ranking system (Challis, 2021), which equally values journal articles and monographs does not help history’s profile as the latter, which constitute the coin of the realm in the history silo, require far more effort than the former. An average monograph equates to 10 to 15 journal articles. Still, in both book and journal article form, the publication prospects for historians of physical activity are unimaginably brighter than they were in 1981, and both the quantity and quality of work is measurably higher.

Reflecting those prospects, the roster of fellows for the august NAK, has seen the number of historians of physical activity increase in the last 40 years. Before 1981, the NAK tapped nine scholars whom contemporary historians would recognize as significant contributors to our field. Many of them were polymaths who contributed to multiple disciplines, but each had a substantial impact on history including R. Tait McKenzie (Fellow #2), Frederick Cozens (Fellow #32), Seward Staley (Fellow #56), Earle Zeigler (Fellow #184), Bruce L. Bennett (Fellow #194), Marvin Eyler (Fellow #202), Betty Spears (Fellow #236), John Lucas (Fellow #241), Maxwell Howell (Fellow #250), and Roberta Park herself (Fellow #261). Joining them were a handful of likeminded international peers. Between 1981 and 2020, the NAK selected as fellows eleven historians, fifteen international scholars who made their names in historical studies, and about a dozen “fellow travelers” linked to the history of physical activity. At least ten active members of NAK, which until recently has capped total membership at 165, regularly attend meetings–representing a not insignificant faction in the organization. Other encouraging signs include history as one of NAK’s (2021) “specialized areas” and within the American Kinesiology Association’s “core” components of an undergraduate education. As the AKA (2021) maintains, a “solid grounding in cultural, historical and philosophical aspects of kinesiology is an essential component of a Kinesiology education.”

Still, this rising tide of the history of physical activity in the academy has not lifted all boats. In at least one critical area, we are in a worse position in 2021 than we were in 1981. Over the last four decades the number of doctoral programs in kinesiology that train future historians of physical activity has shrunk dramatically. In 1981, the University of Maryland, Pennsylvania State University, Ohio State University, the University of Iowa, the University of Texas, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Illinois, Purdue University, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the University of Washington, and the University of Oregon—to offer if not an inclusive at least a representative list—graduated scholars who went on to careers in the history of physical activity. In 2021, the panorama looks quite a bit smaller. Penn State and Texas remain in the game while others have transformed into areas such as Physical Cultural Studies (Maryland) and Cultural, Pedagogical, & Interpretive Studies (Illinois), or have been folded into American Studies (Iowa). Still other programs, including those at Ohio State, U-Mass, and Purdue, have dissolved altogether. The entire West Coast is now bereft of doctoral programs in kinesiology, including the vigorous history program that Roberta Park once helmed at the University of California, Berkley (Rikli, 2006, p. 295; Vertinsky, 2007a). The lack of a history of physical activity component in many of the 43 doctoral programs in the United States that train future scholars does not augur well for the future of our subdiscipline.

Toward an Integrative Kinesiology

Despite those current challenges, the history of physical activity has expanded substantially on multiple fronts. New theoretical and methodological approaches have moved beyond the pattern of charting “origin stories,” such as Park’s (1981) narrative about the historical foundations of physical education and transformed the subdiscipline into a vibrant domain that focuses on the cultural power of physical activity to shape human experiences. Before the 1980s, many historians concentrated on depicting the ways in which physical activity habits mirrored broader social patterns, reflecting as Park noted, racial, ethnic, and gender divisions and highlighting industrial, urban, and technological developments. The “new cultural history” of physical activity sought to assess how sport, or physical education, or exercise not only mirrored social patterns, but could also serve as agents of culture change (Schultz, 2014). Drawing from multidisciplinary trends, including anthropology, sociology, and philosophy, the new cultural history has opened new horizons.

Underscoring this trend of interpreting physical activity as not only a mirror but also a maker of culture, historians now depict Jackie Robinson not only as a figure who reflects changing racial dynamics in the United States but also as an active force in the Civil Rights movement (Tygiel, 2008). They chart how even seemingly mundane technologies and trends not only reflect, but also challenge and reshape gender boundaries (Schultz, 2014). Their approaches fit well with turns in other kinesiological subdisciplines that advocate the culture-changing power of physical activity to alter social patterns and enhance human vitality and wellness (Park & Vertinsky, 2013; Schultz, 2010; Shurley et al., 2019).

Much of the best work on the history of physical activity has focused on a particular movement form: sport. While some of the subdisciplines have moved away from a sport focus for a variety of reasons, historians have found it a rich terrain for both addressing critical cultural issues and reaching broad audiences. Historians of physical activity have not, however, limited themselves just to sport and histories of exercise crises and fitness trends, and public health campaigns have expanded the horizons of the subdiscipline (McKenzie, 2013). This focus on the broad dimensions of physical activity has reinforced the arguments of new cultural historians that physical activity, be it sport, exercise, physical education, or public health programs, inevitably operates in a political and social context. “If the study of sport and leisure is not ‘political’ in the broadest sense of the term, then it isn’t worth a damn,” argues the prominent British physical activity historian Jeffrey Hill (2002, p. 187). In that arena, the renewed 21st-century focus of kinesiologists promoting active engagement in the political arena as essential to the profession’s mission dovetails neatly with the historians who have excavated the political dimensions of past crusades for physical fitness (Pate & Buchner, 2014).

The broadening focus on multiple forms of physical activity and the political and cultural dimensions of movement has, in the 40 years since Perspectives first appeared, presented historians with new opportunities to connect across the boundaries of disciplinary silos that comprise the kinesiological field. Sport and exercise psychologist Diane Gill (2007) argues that “interdisciplinary kinesiology that integrates sub-disciplinary knowledge is essential” (p. 275). While still too few and far between, a number of scholars have brought a historical lens to some of our most pressing kinesiological problems, including obesity (Schultz, 2017b), the epidemiology of youth sport injuries (Bachynski, 2019), and football’s alarming rates of concussion (Harrison, 2014) and heat-related deaths (Schultz et al., 2014), to name a few. Historical insights will undoubtedly prove invaluable as interdisciplinary research teams tackle COVID-related issues of health and human movement. Thus, the integration of subdisciplinary knowledge is “essential,” not just for understanding or explaining complex issues, but for how practitioners take up our research and navigate the political environments that they inhabit.

Histories of sport and exercise science and medicine, for example, demonstrate that “the body” is more than the sum of its biological, physiological, biomechanical, and psychological parts (see, e.g., Berryman & Park, 1992; Carter, 2014; Heggie, 2018; Hoberman, 1992; Vertinsky, 1994; 2007b). Bodies, and the knowledge through which we understand them, are produced in the cultural, social, and historical contexts in which they move. Within this broader line of inquiry, historians show marked attention to two issues in particular: doping and “sex testing,” both of which, according to Gleaves et al., (2015), “transcend individual sub-disciplinary silos.” As they explain, “interdisciplinary research works precisely because these problems emerge not from empirical observations about the natural world but the messy, complex, inter-subjective social worlds that people create” (pp. 11–12).

In the arc of historical inquiry, anxieties about the use of performance-enhancing methods and substances are a relatively new phenomenon, particularly exacerbated by the rising importance of international sport in the Cold War era (Dimeo, 2008; Gleaves & Hunt, 2016; Hunt, 2011). Without question, there are important concerns about athletes’ health, the ethos of fair play, and the “spirit of sport,” the three criteria around which the World Anti-Doping Code revolves. Yet, historicizing and contextualizing these criteria reveals deeper concerns about social class, gender, race, and geopolitics (Fincoeur et al., 2018). Even more, historicizing and contextualizing the World Anti-Doping Agency’s three criteria expose highly contested constructs that threaten to collapse under their own weight. Thus, any attempts to analyze, explain, and resolve the issue of doping in sport (and society) must hinge on an interdisciplinary approach.

The same is true regarding questions of whether and how to determine sex for participation in sport. Because most sport is predicated on a two-sex system, there have been ongoing debates about where athletes with differences of sex development, gender-nonconforming athletes, and trans-athletes should compete. At the same time, these debates from sport science “can act to essentialize social categories,” argues historian of medicine Vanessa Heggie (2010, p. 158). The result is to insist that women athletes conform to the scientifically established parameters of “femaleness.” Yet, historians, philosophers, and bioethicists show that those parameters change over time. Moreover, those parameters—whether based on appearance, sex organs, chromosomes, genetics, or, more recently, functional exogenous testosterone—fail to account for the complexities of sexual identity and their intersections with issues of geography, “race,” and social class (Jordan-Young & Karkazis, 2019; Pieper, 2016; Schultz, 2011).

As with “sex,” sport science has also played a hand in essentializing “race.” As historians Mark Dyreson (2001), Patrick Miller (1998), and David Wiggins (1989) demonstrate, the search for scientific explanations for Black athletic excellence, which began in earnest in the 1930s, ultimately naturalizes and reifies racial differences in ways that perpetuate racial stereotypes and hierarchies. Schultz (2019a), for example, notes that outdated ideas about bone density and “buoyancy” contribute to racialized differences in swimming and drowning. Other researchers find that scientifically racist ideas about Black pain tolerance affect contemporary sports medicine and athletic training (Druckman et al., 2018; Trawalter et al., 2012).

The practice of “race-norming,” initiated in a long-debunked era of scientific racism, also continues to discriminate against people of color. In her history of the spirometer, for instance, scientist Lundy Braun (2014) shows how the study of racial difference in lung capacity, perpetuated by physical education and other fields, affects workers’ compensation and insurance claims. In brief, the assumption that Black lung capacity is innately less than White lung capacity makes it more difficult for Black claimants to prove they have suffered pulmonary ailments, making them less likely than their White counterparts to receive renumeration.

The practice of “race-norming” stands at the center of a 2020 lawsuit against the National Football League regarding its compensation to former players who suffer the degenerative effects of traumatic brain injury. Investigations revealed that the league bases its compensatory decisions on a formula that factors in race. The formula, rooted in the outdated racial science, presumes that the cognitive baseline for Black players is lower than it is for White players. This implies some ugly, indeed racist, underpinnings. Consequently, a Black and White player might register the same neurocognitive test scores, but the Black players’ score would be adjusted in a way that makes it more difficult for him to claim neurocognitive impairment. Historical insights help us understand from where and when ideas about race originated, developed, and spread, how fallible, discriminatory, and pernicious they have been over time, and how, as interdisciplinary scholars Ventresca and Henne (2020) explain, “racial science continues to harm Black people by upholding racist beliefs about white superiority.” However, historians must work in tandem with their kinesiological comrades to not only analyze the practice of race-norming, but curb its pernicious effects.

With these efforts, as Vertinsky (2009) argues, historians “can show how scientific discourse and common sense combine to naturalize the truth about the body” (p. 163). Yet, Hochstetler (2008) reminds us that “the situation cuts both ways. Those in the humanities need to become conversant in the sciences as well if we are to move toward becoming an interdisciplinary field” (p. 338). The integration of humanistic, scientific, and social scientific knowledge—hallmarks of kinesiology’s multidisciplinarity—can move us to what the biologist and historian Stephen Jay Gould (2003) refers to as a “consilience of equal regard” (p. 247).

The most likely terrain for the emergence of Gould’s “consilience of equal regard” in kinesiology emerges from the “big questions” that Brooks and his colleagues (1981) scouted in their original Perspectives. From a macroscopic kinesiological vantage, the “big question” confronting the 21st century field in every domain—from scientific to social scientific to humanistic—and at every level—from fitness and wellness practitioners to professional educators to laboratory researchers—is why do we move? We seem to have gathered extensive data and mastered the details of designing exercise regimens that can improve the quality and longevity of human lives, but the tremendously difficult challenge of getting people to move so that they can profit from our wisdom remains a daunting challenge (Anderson, 2002; Kretchmar, 2007, 2017). From a historical vantage, the question of why we move stands as a fundamental query about the power of culture. As we do not just move on force plates and in front of motion-capture cameras in laboratories, but in all sorts of ways from the marvelous to the mundane, culture clearly helps to explain why we move, and conversely, why we do not.

Making a Case for a Place for Historians in “Team Scholarship”

The question of human movement took center stage at the 2013 annual convention of the American Heart Association, when Australian researcher Grant Tomkinson made a global splash in both the scientific and popular communities by reporting out data from 25 million children and adolescents in 28 countries from the 1960s to the early 2010s. The Tomkinson group’s analysis revealed that over the course of that half century, kids had become 90-s slower at running one mile (Tomkinson et al., 2013). At least one of us (the less athletic one) has been 90 s behind in his youth in a 1-mile race and realizes that this is a spectacular decline in performance which roughly equates to the painful memory of getting lapped in a four-lap race. Tomkinson (2021) himself observes that his 2013 paper “generated more than 760 international media stories and reached 400 million people,” and ranks as the “largest media story in the University of South Australia’s history”—Tomkinson’s current home institution.

In the English-speaking world, popular accounts of his research elicited breathless titles such as “Global Study: Kids Less Fit than Parents Were” (Marchione, 2013), “Hey Kids, It’s True: Your Parents Were Never This Slow,” (Tepper, 2013), and “Johnny Can’t Run” (Cook, 2013). Other accounts appeared in such reputable mainstream outlets as the Manchester Guardian, the BBC, the Atlantic Monthly, the Associated Press news service, the Christian Science Monitor, and U.S. News and World Report (Beard, 2013; Guardian, 2013; Hamblin, 2013; Roberts, 2013).

In an earlier study in which his influential talk was rooted, Tomkinson and Olds (2007a) sketched the fundamentally historical nature of their analysis of declining aerobic fitness levels in the world’s youth since the Second World War. Across “four continents” and “50 years,” they write, the “fitness of children may serve as a barometer” for social, political, and economic change (pp. 3–4). Clearly, these physiologists exercised their historical sensibilities as they tackled the question of why children who came of age in the decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki could lap children who came of age in the decade after 9/11 in a mile race.

Tomkinson and Olds (2007c) and their collaborators marshal impressive data sets to demonstrate that, after rising consistently from the end of World War II to about 1970, the aerobic-fitness performances of children have fallen steadily since (pp. 2). The data tell them that Johnny and Jane cannot run as fast as their parents and grandparents could at the same age because today’s youngsters have much higher body mass indexes. As they succinctly state in their findings: “A consideration of mechanisms, correlational data and temporal trends strongly supported an association between increased fatness and decreased fitness in young people.” Still, obesity only explained about 50% of the slower times in the mile, as even “fat” kids before the 1970s ran faster than equally heavy kids run in the 21st century. “Factors other than increased fatness are therefore contributing to declines in fitness performance,” Olds et al. (2007, p. 237) and their colleagues concluded.

If their studies did not strictly adhere to Popper’s (1962) dictum that good science requires the construction of implausible hypotheses—since the contention that rising obesity leads to slower running hardly qualifies as improbable—their conclusions nonetheless confirmed popular suspicions and sparked reflection. They clearly identified not only a scientific, but an historical argument about how times for the mile had declined over time—an idea useful not only to exercise scientists but also to practitioners of public fitness and even to historians and other sociocultural scholars. They struggled, however, to identify the factors beyond the body mass index that might contribute to the other 50% in the causational equation of this decline. “If young people are less accustomed to running, for example, their performance may be impaired,” they observed. “However, there is no direct evidence of this having occurred” (2007, p. 237).

Unfortunately, from our perspective, they could really have used a historian in their distinguished team of scientists as they crunched the numbers and speculated about these cultural and social factors. Historians of physical activity, have over the past few decades, written insightfully about the same landscape the exercise physiologists surveyed, cranking out critical works on how contemporary physical activity has both been shaped by and shaped what Tomkinson and Olds (2007b, pp. 3–4) identified as “the superabundance of postindustrial society” (Dyreson, 2013), “the integration of indigenous societies into the economic mainstream” (Ruck, 2018), the “industrialization of Asia” (Dyreson, 2010b; Havens, 2016), and the “fall of the Soviet empire” (Dyreson, 2018).

Historians could have pointed to all sorts of other examples that contributed to how “young people are less accustomed to running” since the 1970s, not only on the thin but intriguing terrain that Tomkinson and his team sketched in their studies, but also in numerous other areas. In the United States, after an upswing in compulsory physical education in the public schools during the Cold War vitality crises of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the opportunities for children to run a mile or get in other sorts of exercise has declined dramatically. Reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control at the beginning of the 21st century reveal that a mere 8% of elementary schools, 6.4% of middle/junior high schools, and 5.8% of senior high schools created a climate in which students could get daily exercise, let alone daily training for running miles (Buck et al., 2004, p. 10). On the way to and home from school, opportunities to walk or run (or cycle or skip) have declined perhaps even more dramatically. In 1969, 48% of children from ages 5 to 14 walked or biked to their schools. By 2009, those numbers for the same age group had plummeted to 13% (Everett Jones & Sliwa, 2016; McDonald et al., 2011).

Those numbers provide some social context for the vast decline in aerobic fitness and the sharp rise in obesity. They hint, however, at only the tip of the cultural iceberg that helps to frame why children do not run as much anymore. Let us begin with a simple and commonsensical proposition that would invite scorn as entirely to probable from Popper and strict adherents to his vision of scientific methodology, but that is illustrative. In the quest to get young people more accustomed to running, inhabiting a culture that values running, and other forms of human locomotion as meaningful and identity-making activities and experiences is advantageous. “Running cultures,” as historians dub them, promote communities that get people, young and middle aged and old, accustomed to running (Bale, 2004a; Haberman, 2017; Sikes, 2019).

The historic development of running cultures in certain parts of the world helps to explain some of the data that Tomkinson and Olds have observed (2007a, 2007c). They discovered the northern European kids are faster than kids from other parts of Europe and other rich nations, a data trend that has held since the Second World War. As historians have detailed, Finland, Sweden, and Norway were in the latter half of the nineteenth century the first modern nations to develop endurance running (and skiing) traditions and those sports have become longstanding national pastimes in Nordic countries. Indeed, Finland in the early twentieth century occupied the place in modern imaginations of human foot racing prowess that Kenya now holds—the land of Olympic champions and running phenoms (Berg & Dyreson, 2012; Vettenniemi, 2012).

Not only in Scandinavia but also in other nations around the world, the mile run—and its “metric mile equivalent”—was before 1970 a glamorous spectacle that drew tens of thousands of fans not only to Olympic arenas, but to stadiums in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, Latin America, and even North America. The great “milers” of the early Cold War era reigned as household names. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the quest to break 4 min in the mile, first accomplished by Britain’s Roger Bannister in 1954, captured global attention (Bale, 2004b; Bascomb, 2004). Jim Ryun of the United States, Kipchoge “Kip” Keino of Kenya, and Herb Elliott of Australia were mainstream sports celebrities in the 1960s (Robinson, 2017; Turrini, 2010). Today, outside of Morocco and the small world of elite milers, few people know the name of the current world record holder in both the “metric” and “English” miles—Hicham El Guerrouj. In terms of celebrity, status, and popularity, “running cultures” have changed dramatically around the world since 1970.

In the earlier era, “when running made history” as the elite runner, journalist, and historian of running Roger Robinson (2017) noted, public interest in many nations accustomed children to running, matching the data crunched by the Tomkinson team that showed a steady rise in cardiological fitness performances in many of the world’s children. The team’s data diverge from the cultural history of physical activity of the early Cold War period, however, in one key aspect. While the more recent studies of the rise and fall of mile times plot strong similarities between the performances of girls and boys, the “running cultures” of the period before the 1970s confronted females with formidable barriers. While everyone knew the names of Bannister, Elliott, Ryun, and Keino, practically no one knew the name of Diane Leathers, the woman who in 1954—the same year Bannister broke the men’s mile mark in under 4 min—broke the 5-min barrier in the women’s mile (Robinson, 2018). This has to do, in part, not only with the general neglect of women’s sport, but also with its delayed development.

In 1968, the Olympic movement finally restored the 800-m race for women, which it had banned after the 1928 games for its allegedly deleterious impact on female physiology (English, 2019). There was no metric mile for women until the 1972 Olympics. A contingent of activists pushed back on the gender barriers in the sport and by 1984 even the staid Olympic movement had added a women’s marathon, simultaneously acknowledging and sparking a growing interest in women’s running (Schultz, 2015, 2019b).

Clearly, vastly more accommodation to boys running than girls running existed before the 1970s, when the biometric data indicated increases in mile run times even for females. Paradoxically, as the Tomkinson team (2013) notes, as support for incorporating females into modern running cultures has expanded since the 1970s, the mile times of girls as well as boys has significantly declined. “The trends in aerobic fitness performance are quite clear: consistent declines in aerobic test performance since about 1970 in both boys and girls and across most age groups,” their studies conclude (p. 3). Certainly, in terms of participation in competitive athletic opportunities, the numbers, not only in the United States where the 1972 Title IX legislation made a profound impact, but across the world, undeniably indicates a vast increase for girls and women. Unfortunately, the star power of pioneers such as Roberta Gibb, Kathrine Switzer, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Gretta Waitz, and others has not translated into an aerobic improvement for the adolescent masses, as exercise science has documented.

With a historian among their staff, perhaps the Tomkinson team could have pointed to similar changes in global sporting cultures since the 1970s, regardless of sex. Even as women’s opportunities in athletics increased, the glamor and centrality of that sport diminished. Perhaps the fame of Mia Hamm and Cheryl Miller and Martina Navratilova encouraged girls to play soccer, basketball, and tennis rather than run laps on a track. Still, broader participation in those sports logically would seem to have improved the aerobic fitness of participants, so other factors are no doubt at work. Certainly, the changes in food production and consumption patterns that have revolutionized how affluent people eat have impacted both boys and girls and clearly impacted mile times. In addition, perhaps Jane and Johnny are 90-s slower in the mile because their parents are increasingly unwillingly to let them out of the house to exercise without omnipresent adult supervision. While children and youth have since 1970 seen an increase in opportunities to engage in adult-sponsored and adult-supervised sport, exercise, and fitness programs, their engagement in child and youth-led activities in parks, playgrounds, and sandlots without adult supervision has declined dramatically (Block, 2011; Gill, 2012).

In detailing where historians of physical activity could have expanded the horizons of the Tomkinson team regarding the shared scientific and historical question of why aerobic fitness levels have declined since the 1970s, we are in no way quarreling with the scientific methodologies and theories that they employed nor with the provocative data that they uncovered. Instead, we are advocating an expansion of the broad support in multidisciplinary kinesiology beyond the boundaries of “team science” toward an even wider understanding of “team scholarship” that includes researchers such as historians who are not scientists into our corporate efforts to tackle the “big questions” and “hot topics” that animate our shared field of endeavor.

In the 1981 Perspectives primer, Roberta “Robbie” (as those of us in the history of physical activity knew her) Park outlined a similar vision. She worked tirelessly thereafter until she passed away in 2018 to realize that vision and in the process contributed a great deal to the rise of the new cultural history of physical activity and to the establishment of a “team scholarship” approach in kinesiology, as her vast publication record makes clear. Following her lead, we think that 40 years from now the collaboration of scientists and historians to examine the scientific and historical riddles of human movement will be more commonplace.

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Dyreson (mxd52@psu.edu) and Schultz (jaimeschultz@psu.edu) are with the Dept. of Kinesiology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA.

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