Monday, January 3, 2011

A few words on health and lifestyle

It was inevitable, I suppose. People everywhere, inspired by the connotations of a new year, embark on improving their health. Lots of people promise to join gyms to shed all those unwanted kilos and improve their fitness levels. Equally do these same people vow to eat better, to take up healthier hobbies, to quit smoking and to take better care of their sleeping habits. The research on these issues is both plentiful and conclusive: taking good care of your bodies will go far in staving off a lot of diseases. This is all good, of course, and for those who have chosen to embrace better health, indeed your lives will improve, you'll feel better, fitter, less stressed and will probably sleep a little better too.

So, why is it that we're not a much healthier nation overall? According to a recently published news item, roughly two thirds of the Canadian population is overweight. This was stated by Dr. Arya Sharma of the University of Alberta and after having examined information from Statistics Canada. I won't delve too deeply into the news item itself; you can click on the link and read it yourself if you haven't already. For me, what's both important about this issue and what appears to be lacking somewhat in the news item is the psychology of this problem and, yes, it is a problem.

I have my own thoughts and opinions on the matter and they're mostly related to how our society doesn't value health nearly as much as it purports.

Specifically, ours is a world in which we value results in the shortest time. We want it all and we want it now, as personified in the stereotypical boss who wants it yesterday. Thus, vigour and unquestioning devotion to results is praised. You can call it competition and it is - those who turn in results the soonest get the prize. However, that perpetual mindset can easily backfire when it comes to health. Witness the level of vigour and unquestioning devotion to the gym membership one has recently acquired. Newly made uber-athletes set out goals which, frankly, are often unattainable. It's because we want results instantly, or even yesterday. We completely fail to understand that overweight and obesity don't happen overnight so it's equally silly to assume (let alone expect) that one can shed excess weight in so short a time. That's not to say we shouldn't set the attainment and maintenance of a healthy weight as a goal but it is to say that those goals should be reasonable and we should not generally expect to reach any lasting weight loss goals in three weeks.

Another factor to consider, imho, is a certain sense of shame that many overweight and obese people feel about their condition. While the standards of feminine beauty are changing, they still tend to reflect a certain unreality. True, the buxom beauties of women like Marilyn Monroe or Jane Mansfield are no longer de rigueur and the stick figures of Twiggy and Calista Flockhart are now parodied. However, there is still the pervasive notion that whatever you look like isn't good enough...for...what... We are still stuck on the idea of merely looking good and not of being healthy.

We like the idea of progress. I think we've become addicted to speed and convenience. We want our computers to run faster and faster, we want our line-up to move the quickest and we want our food ready to eat this instant. We're prepared to pay the price for that desire; faster computers cost more and I'm sure grocery stores have to jack up their prices to pay, in part, for the convenience of being open 24/7 or for having that express check out lane. Collectively, we see this as social progress and as some kind of human birthright.

But I have to admit that with the data before us - and we've all seen it - it gets pretty tough to believe that discounts on gym memberships and gyms themselves that are open 24/7 will be seen as more convenient than the new pizza place that just opened up the street. We're creatures of convenience and so with gym attendance getting easier, that itself is set against the fact that it's even easier to just zip out to that nearby convenience store and get that extra ginormous bag of chips, get home and plunk ourselves onto the sofa to watch a re-run of that show we missed.

It all adds up. Tied together, we have a fat, unwell society with rising obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer rates. I often wonder if medical advances to increase our lifespans are being outstripped by the trips to fast food outlets we make in our SUVs because three blocks is just too far to walk.

I'm not being judgemental here either. How many of us have been inundated with ads for restaurants that are now "open in 6 new locations near you" or open 24 hours with free delivery and in locations that have huge parking lots "for your convenience". It is now possible for many of us to zip out at 0 dark hundred hours to the nearest grocery store and buy a box of Corn Flakes...or a table top sized chocolate bar...thus depriving ourselves of precious sleep so that we are too tired to go to the gym. Of course, this is what a lot of people come to expect, isn't it? There seems to be this idea of 'quick to commit, quick to fail' and that only makes things worse, I feel. So, now we have the person who is gung ho to lose excess weight, eat better and otherwise take better care of himself only to lapse into old habits some three months later. How tired and defeated that person would feel.

I'm not blaming anyone either. It's not about blame. It's about setting sensible goals, taking small but steady steps towards improving one's health and running counter to that social norm that demands instant results.

Small steps made frequently bring big results.

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