Technology isn’t helping America’s fitness and obesity problem

Recent fitness articles report that about 75% of the population is overweight or obese. This means that if you are at a weight that is considered normal for your age, gender and height, you are in the minority. How did this startling statistic come about? I read a chapter in the book “Spark” that mentions that former African Olympic or World Long Distance Champions grew up relatively poor and had to walk or run if they wanted to go anywhere. The irony of this is that most of their children are not fast runners. The difference is that the parents grew up in a culture where they walked or ran everywhere. Now that parents are famous and rich, their children now go to school in the family car. Children grow up in a culture of luxury and the need to walk or run is not part of their environment.

I remember getting my first bicycle for my birthday. It was an ACE single speed bike that weighed almost 20 pounds. If you have to pedal up a hill, you stand on the pedals, pull the handlebars and put all your weight on the pedals. It was a great leg strength builder. To go faster, you pedal faster. Then technology came on the scene. First it was a three-speed bike that made it easy to find a gear to help you pedal up the hills. Then 10-speed bikes came along and there weren’t many instances where you had to stand to pedal. After all, bikes come with gear ratios ranging from 12 to 20 speeds. While this looks like a great deal to the bike enthusiast, it’s misleading to the average cyclist. The gears are like a stick-shift car. You must be in a suitable gear and be able to shift into another gear. The same goes for engine speeds. There are gears for different road conditions. Depending on whether the road is flat, downhill, slightly uphill, steep uphill, or flat for a long distance, the rider must shift to the correct gear. Many of today’s younger drivers cannot drive a shift car. If they find it difficult to shift on a three- or four-speed shifter in a car, you can imagine how confusing a 10-speed motorcycle is for them. Some of the cyclists I’ve seen find one gear and stay there for the duration of the ride. Having 10 gears on a bike is a nice addition, but too many riders seem to only use two gears.

My son grew up in an era where skateboarding was all the rage. It was good exercise as you had to push off with one leg to gain speed. The constant pushing and bending of the legs was great exercise. As the skill level increased and jumping in the air with the board involved most of the body in some way. You don’t see many overweight skateboarders in skate parks.

In recent years, technology has increased the ease of transporting bicycles, scooters and skateboards. Sitting on my front porch on nice evenings, I see electric skateboarders zipping up the slight incline as fast as a car. Not much exercise while standing on a skateboard and riding down the street at high speed. It reminds you of Marty McFly and his skateboard in the movie Back to the Future.

The same goes for the electric scooters that are popular now. They can “rent” a scooter to go back to their apartment or home, leave it there, and ride it back to school or work the next morning. It amazes me the speed these scooters can move on the road.

Electric bike advertising is also at its peak now. I see bikes of various sizes riding down the road without pedals. The rider sits in the saddle and the only exercise is if he has to turn the handlebars to go around the corner. There are electric bikes for kids, mountain bikes and road bikes for the erstwhile riders who have used cycling as a good form of exercise.

This modern way of traveling from young age groups to older people is one of the reasons why most of the population is overweight and obese. It begins at an early age and continues into adulthood. The method of walking, running or pedaling a scooter, skateboard or bicycle is now a thing of the past. I remember walking several miles to go to the movies uptown. Then, when the little kid reached the age of 16 or 17 and could get a driver’s license, something more than two blocks away, he had to drive to that place. Now it has become unpopular to walk or run to get somewhere.

Technology is good for many things, but the consequence is that calories are not burned in the realm of exercise and weight gain is not a healthy outcome. The older means of travel had some advantages.

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