Friday, February 1, 2008

Let's Move

In today’s USA Today there is an article touting the benefits of taking mass transit, saying that it improves health, because walking is exercise.

Well, duh. Our modern day work culture is absolutely awful for our health and well-being. For many of us, we walk—alone—to our cars to sit—alone—to drive a distance usually plagued with traffic (because we all have to be at work around the same time) to sit in a cubicle all day long, with a brief break for “lunch”, where most of us just either stay put or drive to pick up something unhealthy which we rationalize away, or maybe we walk a few feet to the break room to sit. We sit all afternoon, maybe walking a few feet for a meeting or to chat with someone, and then we go back to our cars to be comforted by our radio as we sit—alone—through more traffic. Once we get home, we have to make dinner for everyone, take care of ourselves and our families, and then try to squeeze in some “relaxing” time in the midst of trying to make sure the house doesn’t fall down and the bills are paid.

It’s a horrible system. If you’re a person who wants to eat healthy and wants to exercise, if you work a 9-5 cubicle job that becomes extremely difficult. If you go to a gym after work, it’s guaranteed that it will be crowded and you often will be tired. Also, trying to squeeze in “regimented” exercise can be tough, especially if other things get in the way. The best way to get exercise is to get it naturally—that’s where those 30 minutes of walking a day come in. But eating and walking is difficult, eating at your desk while you work slows productivity and dirties your workspace, and frankly, sometimes the weather disinclines us to walking (not to mention business attire).

There’s definitely a trade-off between working in a city and commuting from the suburbs and driving to work: time. USA Today points out that commuting by car takes on average 24 minutes while taking a train or bus is 48…which translates to waking up earlier for work. Not an alternative many people want. But that’s where you get your exercise time, without even consciously noticing it.

There are days where I feel I live in my car: I drive to work, if I want to run errands at lunch then I’m driving to random stores, then as soon as I leave it’s back to sitting again. I eat (more sitting), and then I drive to the gym. I wish I could walk there, but it’s a few miles away, and while I plan to attempt to walk there one day, I know I would be too tired to put in a full workout and then walk home.

I can feel my body just atrophy. My limbs call out to move. I try as much as possible to move at work, and I’m naturally fidgety, swaying and stretching. It bothers me, and going to a gym a few times a week doesn’t cut it.

The freshman fifteen is commented on often, because all those ice cream bars and unlimited soda pack on the pounds. But that is often negated by all the walking college students do. This of course varies campus to campus, but many colleges feature rolling hills, parks, walking paths, and beautiful gym facilities, all things that are touted as incentives to go there. Walking to the dining hall two or three times a day is added exercise, as you never had to walk much to get dinner at home. Add in the running between buildings for classes, the hike to the library, and leisurely strolls between dorms to visit friends and all of a sudden your exercise quota for the week is filled. In fact, many people gain weight after they graduate because all the walking they did before has been replaced by sitting in front of computers and time in vehicles.

In the very interesting book Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, Jennifer Ackerman discusses the concept of Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis. NEAT is basically all the energy expended without it being exercise: it’s the random tapping of feet, the shaking of heads, the shrugging of shoulders. Studies have shown that people who tend to move more, who engage in NEAT rather than sit still, generally gain less weight. This is independent of metabolism.

I’m naturally fidgety anyway, so this is good news, and now that I’m aware of it I try to wiggle a little more in my chair, bop along in my car. I stretch more often. I don’t really think it makes much a difference, as I still yearn to walk everywhere, but it’s still something.

I love computers, but for all the revolutions they’ve brought in communication and commerce, they impede exercise. Although technically you can work out and watch television, this is often impractical for many people, since you need to have the appropriate space to do so (and of course be watching programs that do not require concentration). I sit in front of a computer all day at work, but I don’t look up online videos, balance my checkbook, or email or chat with friends until I’m home, which also requires me to plop my butt down in front of a computer for another several hours.

I find the modern workday very frustrating. Being healthy and exercising—really, just moving—is important to me. All everyone ever complains about is weight and body image, which can be corrected if people worked to make themselves healthy. But our habits, our culture, doesn’t support it when we live in exurbs that have no sidewalks and weak mass-transit systems. A regimented day requires us to not get sunlight, exercise, or sometimes, interactions with people, all of which are necessary for a healthy life.

Bringing baked goods to the office doesn’t help, either.


John said...

Blast it, Steph! Now I can't stop twitching at work, and it's all your fault!

Public transportation is pretty damn awesome in a lot of ways. You may have to get up earlier to catch the train (or, in my case, bus) but you get to sleep during the ride. Try THAT in your car and see how far you get! Plus, that walk between the bus station and my office is the only time I see the light of the sun sometimes. I wish we had a break room at my job, though. I have no choice but to eat lunch at my desk. At least I can use that time to catch up on my TV shows on DVD. Speaking of which, it's time for lunch and Torchwood!

Emily said...

Sometimes if our receptionist can't get to the phone in time, I'll pick it up and take the call. Yesterday someone asked for my boss, but when I called her office she wasn't there. I knew she was around somewhere, so I got up to look for her. She then said, Em, we gotta get you to use the pager! (It's like a PA over all the phones). So she taught me. But I said, no it's ok, I could use the excersize (seriously, it's about 20 steps from one side of our office to the other). She thought I was kidding, but I really really wasn't. Just another way to make things "easier" for us, making me even more sedentary.