At a recent workshop, I met two women, one from Europe and the other from Central America, who came to me with an interesting complaint.
“As soon as I moved here I started to gradually gain weight. I never had to think about my weight before,” one of them said. “In this country you have to drive everywhere and people sit all the time. In my country, our lives kept us moving constantly. It’s hard to do that here.”
What this insightful lady was suggesting was that managing weight in a sedentary culture requires a great deal of focus.
Americans can accomplish many tasks without moving much at all. Just think about a typical day in your life. How much can you do without even standing up? Most of our entertainment (watching TV, searching the Web, playing on our phones, eating) is enjoyed while sitting. Many office jobs can be accomplished while sitting.
The environment we’ve created even forces us to be sedentary. Grocery stores often are too far to walk or bike to. Even if they were closer, there might not be sidewalks that would make the trip safe.
Accomplishing a lot with little physical effort requires little energy and few calories. It’s the nature of animals, including humans, to conserve energy, if they can. When survival was more difficult, this was a good thing. Use as little energy as possible, live another day and have a longer life.
But as a society, we’ve focused on comfort and convenience to such an extreme that our environment, instead of helping us survive, is making us sick and out of shape. We’re not using enough energy to keep us fit naturally.
In many other societies, people have to move around more in order to do the same things that we do. They may walk to work and to run errands. Even if they take public transportation, they walk to bus and subway stops and frequently stand during the ride.
They may hang clothes out to dry, wash dishes by hand and sweep rather than vacuum.
So if your life requires little physical effort and you want to be healthy and fit, you have to focus on your fitness.
It’s no wonder we need pedometers, gyms and Zumba classes to get fit instead of letting fitness be a natural occurrence of living.
But to some extent, we can restructure our personal environments to require more energy.
My stepson recently announced that he was going to the convenience store. My husband, knowing he intended to drive, pointed out that it was just a 10-minute walk away. To his credit, my stepson changed into shorts, tank top and ball cap. While he was strolling to the store and back, he was gaining health benefits, almost effortlessly.
Maybe you really can’t walk to the store. But could you walk groceries from the garage to the kitchen, one bag at a time rather than all at once? Could you take laundry upstairs one small armload at a time rather than hauling the entire basket? Maybe you could sweep the driveway instead of using an electric blower or use a push mower rather than a riding mower.
At work, could you stand while speaking on the phone? Walk to see a colleague rather than instant-messaging? Climb stairs or walk around the block while on a break?
Longer term, how about trying to live closer to work so you can walk? Or walking on escalators instead of standing if stairs aren’t available? Work out while watching TV. Start a garden and tend it.
If traveling for pleasure, pick destinations that are walkable. And if you’re stuck at an airport waiting for the next flight, walk around the terminal instead of parking yourself in a chair that probably isn’t even comfortable.
With a little creativity, we can make our lifestyles more active so we automatically stay more fit. Or we can accept that if we choose the sedentary ways of our society but want to be fit and healthy, we’ll have to focus on formal exercise. You pick.
Previously published in The Tampa Bay Times