For Anthony Taylor, one of the seminal moments in his relationship with health came at age 18, when he quit the University of Minnesota football team. He had hoped to both play ball and study engineering but found that the combination demanded more than he could give.

But Anthony still wanted to stay active, so he started biking to an off-campus health club to work out. Then, one day, he didn’t stop at the health club. He continued exploring Minneapolis. The experience changed his relationship with the city. It connected him to his environment, and eventually to the community around him.

Now, Anthony is a member of the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission, on the equity advisory board for the League of American Bicyclists, vice president of the National Brotherhood of Cyclists, and is founder and director of strategic initiatives for Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota. In and outside of all of these spaces, Anthony is working to build equity in his communities. Listen to the episode or read the transcript.

Changing our perspective on physical activity

Sports are a big part of American culture, and Anthony believes that they have a huge influence on our relationship with exercise at large. In many cases, kids grow up with exercise framed in terms of competition, of performing at one’s best for the sake of a win. With that also comes the experience of getting cut or benched if you don’t perform well enough. It can be discouraging.

Anthony sees this discouragement play out with fellow adults when he mentions that he’s a cyclist. Framing the conversation around the specific activity like that, people make assumptions. They judge and often disqualify themselves from the possibility of doing it themselves. So it’s easy to picture people doing this repeatedly, of opting out of multiple distinct forms of activity for the same reason, whether it’s fear from past negative experiences or an unwillingness to commit to pursuing excellence.

Anthony’s point is that this is not a useful dynamic. Instead, we should be having conversations about how much we move, regardless of what form it takes. If we frame activities as the vehicle for movement, for getting outside, for building community, we can circumvent negative associations and unreasonable expectations. We have to change the picture of success so that it’s easier for people to envision for themselves.

Normalizing movement early

In addition to reframing the physical activity conversation for adults, Anthony sees a great opportunity to set it up for both parents and kids at the clinic level. He points out how the patient-provider dynamic changes around pregnancy and after birth. There are far more visits. The conversations are more intimate. Family and other people around the person giving birth are more involved. Even after the baby is born, there are frequent well-child visits.

Anthony argues that if we made physical activity part of a child’s developmental milestones – such as by setting goals around walking, running, swimming and so on – it could have multiple benefits. For one, children would have a relationship with activity in its purest form before being exposed to sports. But at the same time, those children’s families would be thinking about physical activity in those same terms, as something fundamental to a balanced life.

Equity requires partnership

Anthony puts emphasis on the prenatal and early childhood periods because they also represent the kind of relationships we need for making change. Ideally, the trusting, deeper relationships that are built during these times would be carried forward, beyond well-child visits and into life in general. Ideally, the patient-provider dynamic would be framed in a larger context, in which we are all trying to help each other do better.

This kind of partnership requires commitment from both sides. People have to trust their providers enough to have open and honest conversations about what they want for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. With that, providers have to be willing to engage in conversation, to look at care not simply as solutions to problems but as input that can be taken back to people’s communities. It’s a lot, but it’s also enough to change a culture.

As Anthony says in closing, connectedness is the ultimate measure of health. If we can build authentic relationships with people, both inside and outside clinical settings, we’ll see benefits for everyone. To hear more from Anthony about his equity work, the cultural role of fast food and why outdoor activities are the greatest spaces for human development, listen to this episode of Off the Charts.