Weekend Reading: A Pandemic of Sloth

In this weekly roundup, we scour the Web for our favorite long-form magazine and newspaper articles, collecting them here and on Longreads.com and Twitter. This installment focuses on the weight we're gaining, the addictions we're suffering from, the encroachments of me

Jul 20, 2012
Outside Magazine
A cyclist traffic jam

A cyclist traffic jam    Photo: Milton Jung

Nature is biting back. Between rabid beavers, bubonic plague carrying cats and belligerent otters, the couch is looking all too friendly. And that’s the absolute last thing we should be thinking—we’re too fat to afford to sit still.

The world is getting lazy, and it’s not good for our health. In fact, we’re suffering from a pandemic of sloth. Nearly a tenth of all deaths worldwide are caused by inactivity. A terrifying eight out of 10 teenagers aged 13-15 don’t get enough exercise. For adults, things are slightly better: only a third suffer from inactivity. Things, unfortunately, are worse for women; they’re even less active than men.

Taken country by country, the numbers are staggering and highly divergent. Malta is a rich Mediterranean nation where a full seven out of 10 adults fail to get enough exercise. Yet, fewer than five percent of adults are inactive in Bangladesh. Economics plays a large role. As countries mechanize everyday activities and make transportation easier, opportunities for activity are engineered out of the day. Active leisure pursuits or the necessity of physical action is replaced by video games and SUVs.

In short, our modern day environment is bad for motion. But that doesn’t mean things have to stay this way. Some South American cities close their streets to traffic for 72 days a year as part of a program called the Ciclovia that began 30 years ago in Colombia. That program is working: It allows 14 percent of the country’s population to meet weekly exercise programs. And similar programs are in place around the globe. Denmark even has a superhighway for bikes.

All this goes to show that there are plenty of ways to get active. And three out of four countries included in the recent studies have programs in place to increase activity. But funding is holding them back. Only 42 percent of programs are getting the money they need.

Meanwhile, Britain is spending billions on the Olympics to showcase the most elite of the elite. Unfortunately for the U.K. (a country that could use an ample activity boost), the Olympic Games don’t appear to rev up physical activity in the host country (excluding late-night activity), based on a study of the 2000 Sydney Games.

The answer then, according to the studies, is funding outreach programs, active transportation policies and the development of outdoor recreation spaces. Unfortunately for the U.S., this summer’s transportation bill put in place modest cuts in transportation alternatives like bike paths and pedestrian walkways.

Without further ado, here are the five stories you should be reading this weekend:

Modernization does more than make us inactive; it exposes us to some of nature's most terrifying diseases. Jim Robbins, The New York Times.

"But emerging diseases have quadrupled in the last half-century, experts say, largely because of increasing human encroachment into habitat, especially in disease “hot spots” around the globe, mostly in tropical regions. And with modern air travel and a robust market in wildlife trafficking, the potential for a serious outbreak in large population centers is enormous."

The same transportation bill that cut back funding on bike paths and walkways opened a loophole in the environmental review process: The transportation secretary was ordered to suspend environmental reviews of transit projects costing less than $5 million, in violation of the law. And that's only a small part of the Obama administration's failure to tackle climate change and protect the environment. Bill McKibben, The New Republic.

"There is, however, one looming gap in her record. And it’s in an area that will likely help determine both her legacy and her future prospects, at least if scientists are correct about the scale of the coming crisis. As a climate change diplomat, she’s got little to show for her efforts. On what may be the biggest, hardest international issue ever, she has more or less punted."

Some of us are inactive, but some of us lift SUVs. Brian Shaw is one of those few strong men. Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker.

"He has since deadlifted more than a thousand pounds and pressed a nearly quarter-ton log above his head. He has harnessed himself to fire engines, Mack trucks, and a Lockheed C-130 transport plane and dragged them hundreds of yards. In 2011, he became the only man ever to win the sport’s two premiere competitions in the same year. He has become, by some measures, the strongest man in history."

If you don't live in Houston, you may not have heard of the Addicks and Barker Dams. But you've likely heard of Katrina. And if these dams go, the damage could equal the disaster that befell New Orleans. Steve Jansen, Houston Press.

"For more than 60 years, the Addicks and Barker dams have prevented an estimated $4.6 billion in flooding damages by limiting large amounts of water from reaching flood-prone Buffalo Bayou. But the dams, once located in the rural nothingness of Harris and Fort Bend counties, have been pushed to their limits, largely due to all of the people and buildings that currently coexist upstream and downstream of the dams."

Video games, TV and the Internet are all partially responsible for our inactivity. Unfortunately, our odds of weening off these leisure activities is slim; we're addicted to technology. Bill Davidow, The Atlantic.

"In the Industrial Age, Thomas Edison famously said, 'I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent.' In the Internet Age, more and more companies live by the mantra 'create an obsession, then exploit it.' Gaming companies talk openly about creating a 'compulsion loop,' which works roughly as follows: the player plays the game; the player achieves the goal; the player is awarded new content; which causes the player to want to continue playing with the new content and re-enter the loop."

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