Let’s start with the assumption that being fat is not the best thing. Until just a few months ago it was thought fairly severe diet restrictions tacked years onto life, but the latest studies suggest that slightly overweight people might have the advantage. Its not that they are fitter but that if any crisis comes about, they have reserves to draw upon; they can safely lose weight. The perfectly thin people are on the edge and cannot afford a chronic illness. But once you go from slightly to quite obese, you assume too many added risks to keep the advantage over the thin.
And it is not so long ago that fat was a status symbol, considered attractive because it indicated you had the resources to obtain good food. Recently, in India, this had a modern manifestation when diabetes was considered a bit of a status disease, a byproduct of success. In the developing world, thin is still rarely a matter of choice whereas in the developed world you have the thin rich and the fat poor.
In our world, fattening food is cheaper and in the developing world fattening food is dearer. Fattening food tends to be processed and so it makes sense it would be costlier. In North America, strangely enough, processed foods are subsidised to a much greater degree than “natural” foods. The result is that if you are poor and wish to fill your belly, processed foods are the most reasonable choice.
Obesity has ended up being a more complicated issue than anyone thought it would. Where once it seemed a simple equation of how much you ate balanced against how much you exercised, it turns out that our physiology complicates things so that once you have extra weight on, you become more efficient at retaining it. And if you measure exercise in terms of calories burned , that measure tends to be terribly overestimated (its lower than is commonly thought, and it is usually and erroneously compared to zero when it needs to be compared to the calories that are burned in the resting state). Take almost any exercise and compare it to the calorie counts of foods and if that is the equation, hours of exertion can be undone by a muffin or two.
Of course, exercise is very good for you. It just isn’t necessarily the calorie burner in and of itself. For one thing it makes you fitter, which is somewhat independent of weight, and for another it may have further effects on your general metabolism (you might burn more at other times than when you are actually exercising) and of course it seems exercise puts one in a better frame of mind. (And while you are exercising it is unlikely that you will be eating muffins).
The thing is that exercise cannot make up for the lack of physical exertion in our everyday existence. We used to have to work for everything. We tended to have a manual job, and once that was done, we still had to expend effort to keep things going. Its not as though you couldn’t be fat in the old days but if you were, you were less likely to be soft.
Everwhere I go I see assists for everyday tasks. I hardly have to use energy to open a door anymore. Now I make a point of never using these things but though they might have been originally developed to make life easier for the disabled, the people I see using them the most are the children. They see the big buttons and its fun to see the door open in front of you, so they press it. Add to this all the automatic doors even without buttons, the elevators being used to go up one floor, escalators instead of stairs, moving walkways in airports, golfcarts both on the course and in airports now, power windows and brakes, and so forth. Remove these and many of us would drop a few pounds right there and we’d be stronger to boot.
And you just know there are a few stairclimbers in that gym.
The other great contributor I see to promoting weight gain and loss of fitness is the greater geographical freedom we have now in work and school. When I went to school, you attended the one near where you lived. As a consequence almost everyone walked to school. Now as a result of people choosing schools, sometimes across the city, it is too far too walk, and the schools now are major sources of traffic congestion (and global warming I might add). This also contributes to a loss of community.
In my city, and many others, public transportation is so poorly supported that is makes more sense to drive and even that walk to a bus stop would make a difference.
Its a choice. Modern civilization has been geared towards ergonomics when inefficiency and friction would make for a healthier population. Success breeds new weaknesses. Maybe this is one of those tradeoffs we prefer; better to be coddled and get a little fat and soft in the process. Everything has a cost and all things considered we are living longer despite being weaker.
I do however feel insulted by what seems to be a conspiracy against my self sufficiency. The unfortunate Safeway clerk will lose their job if they forget to ask if I need help out with my bag of oranges. (I’ve stopped joking; its just sad now). I don’t like it that while elevators and escalators are prominent, stairs are hidden and out of the way. I like to use my body. It was made to do things not just to move effortlessly through space. I am particularly annoyed that this culture of cars has transformed public space into something unpleasant to walk through.