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On second thought

A healthy holiday to you

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / February 20, 2011

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For decades, George Washington’s birthday (now Presidents Day) has been our metal holiday, the one that has us sprinting to car showrooms across the land. In honor of our first president, we kick, we haggle, we angst, we spend, we drive. All in the name of motoring down the road in a brand new set of wheels.

Talk about a holiday driven into the ditch. And given our country’s dire need to improve physical fitness — especially among our bloated, sedentary, pop-drinking, and video-game-addicted youth — right now would be an ideal time to change the direction of this holiday.

Ol’ George predated the Model T by more than a century, and if he wasn’t on foot or on horseback, he wasn’t on anything. Washington was green before his time, and physically fit, too. He was a very able wrestler, as was Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday has been twinned with Washington’s in a holiday we celebrate as a misguided and somewhat comical Ode to Motor City. Nothing weirder than those TV ads that have a cartoon rendering of Washington mouthing encouragement to buy a Mustang. Was that really his dream version of four on the floor?

Though we think of most of our modern presidential athletes as golfers (Barack Obama’s love of basketball notwithstanding), a good many of the early Commanders in Chief were wrestlers. Only a small menu of sporting options existed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Washington, like many of the colonists before him, also enjoyed pitching the bar, the recreation imported from England that no doubt was the precursor to millions of Americans today suffering debilitating back problems. To pitch the bar, a competitor used both hands to cradle a heavy, long pole of iron or wood, held vertically at approximately waist level, then ran a distance, pulled up at a designated launch line, and heaved the projectile as far as possible. Longest pitch took the title. And herniated many a disk.

Through the years, our wrestling presidents also included Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike liked to golf, too. Richard Nixon only dabbled on the links, but displayed amazing prowess in dodgeball, especially during his final days in office.

It’s a reasonable bet that none of our nation’s First Wrestlers, especially Washington and Lincoln, would be pleased that their “day’’ has been carjacked. For the record, I have nothing against cars. Well, there was my first car, a used 1970 red Ford Maverick, that not even a Hurst shifter and a cassette player could make a respectable ride. How I would gladly trade the growing spare tire around my waist today for the one it had in the trunk.

Anyway, it’s an equally good bet that Washington and Lincoln would be pleased as cherry pie if we made Presidents’ Day our national fitness day. It couldn’t be easier. Kick the car dealers to the curb and make Presidents’ Day the one day, in memory of Washington, Lincoln, and all their fellow wrestlers, bar pitchers, golfers, and hoopsters, that Americans improve our physical fitness.

Presidents’ Day. National Get Out There And Do Something Day.

There is a very easy fit here, and that’s the existing and ready-to-rumble President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. Take a couple of minutes to check out the website (www.fitness.gov). It’s very impressive. There are some well-known, highly esteemed members, including Drew Brees, Dominique Dawes, Tedy Bruschi, Grant Hill, and Billie Jean King. Imagine what these fit Yanks could do if handed a national holiday to help kick our unfit derrieres.

Nationwide, we are faced with a horrendous spike in diabetes, particularly among aging, overweight baby boomers, too many of them wastin’ away in their Barcaloungers. Childhood obesity (see: video games), according to some experts, now has American kids projected to live shorter lives than their parents and grandparents.

Frightening. All the more so when you consider the medical advances of the 20th and 21st centuries.

All those medical inventions, some of them virtual miracles, offer millions upon millions of extra years to live, and we sit here and let our kids sit here. Washington died at age 67 in 1799. Will our children age as gracefully?

Faster than Bob Barker could bellow, “a new car!’’, all the president’s men and women of the Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition Council could be handed the holiday and activate around a rebranded, restylized Presidents’ Day.

With but a slight repurposing, for one day we could see ourselves as a nation of doers, not drivers. Instead of power windows and OnStar, we could make Presidents’ Day about power squats and trying to be an all-star.

Across the country, most public school kids are on vacation during the week that includes Presidents’ Day. How easy to design an annual sporting event, a national youth fitness week, in downtown D.C. Year-round, school children could compete in their hometowns with the hope of getting to Washington to face the best and brightest other US kids in a race down Pennsylvania Avenue, or across the National Mall, or between the Washington and Lincoln Monuments.

It wouldn’t be so much about winning the race as being in it. Winners to be invited to the White House for dinner and a game of H-O-R-S-E with the First Hoopster.

“ ’Tis well,’’ allegedly were Washington’s final two words.

As a country, we’re not well. Physically, millions of us remain unfit, untrying, untested, grossly undervaluing the wealth of health. It’s time to walk away from the showroom, and make Presidents’ Day our first step.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.