This is a rant.
165 days. Five and a half months. That’s the minimum military service a Finnish male has to complete after his eighteenth birthday.
The time spent in the service is almost a third less than what it was in the 1950s. Back then, the fine youth of the nation had to gear up for at least eight months. Although the length of the service has changed, one tradition never fades.
Whenever the current group of young men (and women who’ve volunteered) enter the service, you hear the previous generations loath how “It’s not what it used to be. Dammit”.1 I echo this. The current service probably isn’t as tough as what it was when I did it. And let’s be honest, when I did it in 2003 it wasn’t that tough.
Yes, it felt tough at the time and I hated most of it. And yes, our last camp, called “guerrilla battle”, because each team spent a week wandering in the middle of fucking nowhere avoiding being captured, was cold. As in Artic-Circle-in-December-even-reindeers-are-struggling cold.
But as little as I enjoyed it, it wasn’t physically that tough. I definitely wasn’t fitter than an average recruit when I did my service. I might’ve even been below average. Yes, I did occasional weight training. But that was the extent of my fitness or sport endeavours as a 19-year-old youngster.
I also know that the military service in 2003 wasn’t nowhere as tough as it was in the early 90s. And in the early 90s it probably wasn’t nowhere as demanding as what it was when my dad’s generation did it in the 1970s. One only has to imagine the tension of the Cold War. Combined with the ever looming anger of the power hungry leader dicks of the Soviet Union.
And obviously I won’t even discuss any of the above in the same paragraph when comparing what my grandfather’s generation must’ve gone through before and during World War II. Back when the most of dickish of them all, Father Josif, came knocking.
Each passing decade since the World War II, the physical demands of the Finnish military service have gradually gotten easier.
Some aspects of the easing of standards make sense. We do not fight the modern wars the same way as we once did. I don’t think we need to expect the same physical demands from most of our youth during a wartime than was the norm in the 1940s. But I won’t dwell into the triviality of the modern warfare here and now.
The fitness possessed by an average rookie who enters the service is not what it used to be. The Finnish army admits they’ve had to lower the standards because physical demands of the service have to be within a reach of the current youth. However long that reach might be.
And that’s why the definition of being fit enough to go through a military service is different to what it was twenty or fifty years ago. Let alone what it was eighty years ago when one needed a level of physical robustness to get through life.
Today, when an average unfit rookie enters the service, he or she can look around and think of himself or herself as rather fit since most of his cohorts are in the same shape. Oddly, it might be those who enter the service with a high level of fitness that are the outliers.
Women enter the service voluntarily. And it takes a certain character to do so. I assume that most, if not all the women entering the service are much fitter than an average male.
Frightening as it is, the people entering the mandatory military service provide us with a deep cut into our society’s state of health and fitness. Or at least the future of it. Whether it’s Finland or Australia, it’s clear that our physical fitness is declining.
And it makes me sad and upset. Really upset. As in, “I’m going to Sha Booms!”2– upset.
Where we live shapes our fitness standards
Let’s look at the data in Sydney. For those who live in the inner city suburb of Mosman (I don’t) the standard of being fit is very different to those who live in the Western Sydney3 (that’s me, ish).
In Mosman, the outlier might be the unfit individual. In the West, the outlier might be the very fit-looking person. All we need to do is spend a day observing people in both locations.
So unless we have the means to live in a fit and affluent suburb, being fit means we have to fight against cultural norms. If we see a lot of morbidly obese and extremely unfit people around us it’s easy to think we’re acing health by being “a little unfit”. Even if it means a looming metabolic illness in the horizon.
And because it’s always hard to go against the norm, both locations provide a feedback loop that keeps reinforcing the habits of the population. Great for those living in Mosman. Not so for those in the greater Western Sydney.
It’s possible to bypass this fitness-straightjacket.
Whatever our suburb, we can improve our odds of being fit by surrounding ourselves with people who share our values of health and fitness. It’s possible to create our own pockets of Mosman (health-wise, because, well, if you’ve been to Mosman you’d know) regardless of where we live.
This could be about spending more time with active friends and finding a local community of like-minded people. Or by joining “I Order a Salad at McDonald’s!” – Facebook group. Although, with the current online algorithms that group is probably a breeding ground for the future Anti-Vaxxers and “Finland Does Not Exist” – conspiracy theorists.
It’s not just the people around us that we look for feedback.
As our society is getting less fit the surrounding infrastructure has to adjust to it. More travelators at the airport (except those with illness or movement problems, who would not want to walk every meter after a long-haul flight?). Convenient parking close to services. Drive-through everything. Elevators instead of stairs.
Our world is reinforcing the decline of our fitness by giving us the permission, or at least tempting us, to be less fit. We seek comfort. We don’t have to try, so why would we? We are heading into the direction, if we’re not already there, where we don’t have to be physically active to live.
We are at a point where to get any form of physical activity we have to make a conscious decision to exercise. Whereas a physical activity can be a by-product of doing a wide-ranging tasks or learning skills, we exercise with a narrow purpose of increasing our fitness.
It takes an effort to exercise. And despite all the science on the benefits of doing it, most people don’t. Because it’s too hard, boring and time-consuming.
We’ve becoming a society where at a sight of physically demanding task we spin on our heels and let the people mover take us into the opposite direction. And it’s only going to get worse.
1 Or, in Finnish, “Ennen piti vetaa sukset jalassa telaketjutonta panssarivaunua umpihangessa ainaki kaks kilometria. Ylamäkeen. Perkele.”