Saturday, February 2, 2008

2-2-08: Fitness vs. Fatness: The American Conundrum

I was on a stationary bike at the gym today and realized something while staring at all the fancy bells and whistles on the machine: exercise technology has come a long way. Then, while watching a program on the TV above my head, I saw some ridiculous advertisement for "The Biggest Loser," a game show where the contestants race to lose money. On another TV I saw a funny McDonald's advertisement.

Then it dawned on me. This triple convergence of fitness vs. fatness was so typical of American societal views for and against fitness. Technology isn't fighting for one side over the other; there's a tremendous amount of food research and marketing prowess that McDonald's spent on that Big Mac you just bought and consumed. But... it's also easier and cheaper to buy a gym membership. I pay $20 for basically the top package at Planet Fitness. It's a great deal, and the machines are pretty good at the locations I frequent.

But then I asked myself: who is winning the race? I know there's been a movement towards healthier eating in the past 10-15 years. Almost anything is available fat-free, even bacon! But there's an "epidemic" of obesity spreading through the country. I think this is caused by one or any of the following three things:

1. Lazy kids. Have you seen those advertisements featuring popular NFL players like Reggie Bush, which start out with a bunch of kids just sitting around? The players come in and say "What's going on here? You should be out playing!" They now have to not only tell kids to play outside, they have websites that have ideas of what to do. Video games, the Internet, and TV are all responsible for fattening up America's kids. When you're done reading this sentence, stop, go outside for a few minutes and do something, then come back in and finish reading the next two. They're worth it.

2. Poor measurement. I'm sure you've heard of the Body Mass Index. Well, it might not be the best indicator of obesity. I remember watching an episode of Penn and Teller's Bullshit several months ago where they describe the history of the BMI. Well, it was invented by a Belgian statistician (well, a polymath to be more accurate) who was performing research in "social physics." He wasn't a physician of any sort. He was a math guy. But his invention of figuring out your health as a ratio of your weight and height has become the standard. Well, physicians have been saying for years that the BMI isn't the best way to determine obesity. So it is possible that the "epidemic" isn't as bad as it is made out to be. But, that's not to say it isn't present.

3. The economics of fast/cheap food. Cheap food usually has higher fat content. I read articles a few months ago about politicians who ate on $21 (a guess) weekly budgets, which is the average food stamp payment for low income Americans. They realized that healthy food wasn't so easy to come by. So it's possible that poor Americans simply can't afford to eat healthy. And, on top of that, it's possible that they resort to fast food, which is well documented in its fatness, instead of cooking healthy. Real problems have real causes. People just find it easier a lot of the time, and with all the advertisement and new, flashy restaurants, the fast food chains aren't helping. But I don't blame them: it's business. There's nothing more American than that.

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