April 26, 2006

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Burning Your Own Energy

As I write this, it's a glorious Sunday late-afternoon in April. I'm wearing old yoga pants, a cheap tank top, and a bandana wrapped around my forehead as a sweat band. I've spent much of the afternoon out in my new yard, mowing our very considerable expanse of lawn.

"Very considerable" is defined here as roughly two and a half to three acres. We mow it with your standard walk-behind mower - not a lawn tractor; not even a self-propelled mower, but one we have to use muscle to push. That's how we mowed our previous yard, with roughly an acre of lawn. This time of year mowing is a near-constant task - the grass is growing fast in Southern Indiana!

I steadfastly refuse to get a ride-on mower. Why on earth would I spend over a grand for the equipment, plus pay for a whole lot of extra gasoline, just to encourage us to get less exercise? Yet this is what Americans have been increasingly doing for the past few decades - burning gasoline instead of their own energy.

When we moved in last fall, I did a lot of raking - if you think a lawn this big grows a lot of grass, you should see how many leaves it can accumulate! We don't own a leaf blower. Again, I'd have to spend a bunch of money on the equipment, and then on gasoline - all to the purpose of getting less exercise.

I did, however, decide to buy a leaf-sweeper. I went to four stores before I found one made to be walked behind and pushed by hand, instead of to be towed by a garden tractor. The help at the stores looked at me kind of funny when I asked for the people-powered variety. After all, doesn't everyone prefer to burn gas rather than their own energy?

Back in my early twenties I had a habit of walking uptown in the evening to hang out at the only bar in town. I figured that I burned off some of the wine by walking, and anyway, I'd never have to concern myself with driving under the influence.

When people found out I'd walked to the bar you'd have thought I'd said I flapped my wings and flew! "You - WALKED?!" Shock! Surprise! Near disbelief! Simply unheard of!

How far was it? About a mile and a quarter. I found myself thinking of Pa Ingalls in Little Town on the Prairie, saying of the family's new claim in South Dakota, "It's only four miles from town - just a nice walk."

Yet I've read that the average American now fires up the car rather than walk as far as the length of a football field. It bemuses me to think how many gallons of gas we burn up circling parking lots, rather than simply parking in the first spot we see and walking a few hundred feet. My sister, who has recently joined Weight Watchers (she's been counting points and doing low carb simultaneously - ie, eating low carb points - and has lost nearly twenty pounds) reports seeing people driving around the lot looking for the spot closest to the Weight Watchers meeting. More ironic it would be hard to get.

What does this have to do with low carb diets, other than the obvious connection between exercise and weight loss? A couple of things.

First of all, exercise has been demonstrated to improve insulin sensitivity. There's every reason to think that the dramatic decrease in exercise over the past century is a co- factor, along with the massive increase in the consumption of junk carbs, for the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and other carb intolerance diseases. Trying to improve your body's carbohydrate metabolism and reduce your risk of disease by diet alone is kind of like trying to push a wheel barrow while holding only one handle - it's a whole lot harder than it ought to be, and you're just not going to get very far.

Secondly, one of the most common complaints about a low carb diet is that meat and vegetables are more expensive than pasta, rice, and potatoes. This is true, though I have long held that food that makes you fat, hungry, and sick wouldn't be cheap if they were giving it away. Few investments will yield you the impressive results that money spend on good food will, and I don't just mean in looking and feeling better. I'm talking finances. Improved health means less money spent on increasingly pricey pharmaceuticals, lower rates for health and life insurance, fewer sick days, less time and gas and co-payments spent on trips to the doctor, not to mention the money saved on buying new, larger clothes every year or so.

But to add to those savings, the money spent on decent food can, to some extent, be made up by spending less money on gas, and using our own energy to do things instead. As the price of gas goes up, this strategy will become more and more economically effective.

It goes beyond money saved on gas, though. You can skip buying all kinds of pricey equipment, too. I certainly spend less on garden equipment than people who use tractors and leaf blowers!

For that matter, if you could walk to work and back, for a total of say an hour to an hour and a half a day walking, you'd not only save on gas, you could drop any expensive gym membership you might be paying for. Around here we're talking $20 a month for most gyms. Or you could skip buying that treadmill. Oh, and let's not forget the reduced wear-and-tear on your car.

Don't have the time to walk to work? How about the time you're spending at the gym?

I realize not everyone can walk (or bike) to work; some people simply have too long a commute, while others have no safe route. But is there some other way you could burn your own energy, instead of gas? Maybe when you're running a half-a-dozen errands within six or eight blocks of each other you could park the car and walk to all those places. Maybe you could get off the bus or train a stop or two early, and walk the extra distance - some places, this maneuver will save you money on your fare. Maybe you could just vow to never move your car for any trip shorter than a quarter-mile, unless you have to haul something heavy, or the weather is truly foul. And of course, keep your eye out for household and garden chores where you can use muscle instead of motors.

Get your kids in on the act. Before the lawn tractor became a suburban fixture, kids mowed the lawn, raked the leaves, weeded the flower beds, along side the grown ups. My family used to giggle at the folks next door, who had four-count'em-four strapping teenaged sons, yet paid a landscaping service to mow their lawn. Seemed silly to us. Yes, your kids may whine about yard work. Big deal. Aren't they always telling you "I'm bored" anyway?

Kids used to walk or bike everywhere, too. I walked or rode my bike to elementary school and back, a little over a half-mile either way, not only morning and afternoon, but home for lunch and back. That's over two miles of walking or biking, five days a week, all through the school year. (Not uphill both ways, just one way. But yeah, I walked in the rain and snow.) I wanted to go to a friend's house? . I wanted to go into town? (For you young folks, "going downtown" is the archaic version of "hanging out at the mall.") I wanted to go to Friday Night Rec at the Y? I I wanted to go to the village pool to meet pals? I walked or rode my bike.

Are you thinking "But the world was safer then?" Actually it wasn't, at least here in the US. Crime rates were rising sharply in the 1960s, and especially the 1970s, but have fallen since the 1990s. According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, crimes against children have dropped since 1993. And the US Department of Justice says that specifically, sexual crimes against children dropped 40% between 1992 and 2000.

What has increased is media coverage of this sort of crime. Twenty four hour national news coverage has made the world seem like a much more dangerous place than it was in my childhood, when in reality, the US has actually become safer. Sadly, the greatest crime danger to kids (outside of their families, but that needn't concern us for the purpose of this discussion) comes from people who disguise themselves as "helping adults" - scout masters, coaches, babysitters, that sort of thing - rather than from strangers who might grab kids on the street. Not saying it doesn't ever, ever happen, but it's very rare. Child predators mostly try to find a position where they can "groom" children over weeks or months.

In the meanwhile, there is not just a risk, but a full-blown epidemic of obesity and diabetes among the same children who are being protected against the "dangers" they might encounter while walking and biking. We're protecting children right into diminished lives and early graves.

You may live where the roads aren't safe enough for your kids to walk or bike to school. I live in such a neighborhood; biking to the nearest school/shopping area/subdivisions - only a few miles - involves a mile stretch along a country highway with a narrow shoulder. (That's why out here we need big lawns for exercise instead.)

But in areas that allow for walking or biking, I'd love to see a renaissance of kids getting places under their own steam. The more of them are out there, the safer it will be. And wouldn't it be nice to free up all that time you spend playing chauffeur? And all that money you're spending on gas?

How about getting some family time walking or biking? Walk or bike to the park together for a picnic and an afternoon of playing in the sunshine, or to the grocery store or convenience store for a dozen eggs or the Sunday paper. Walk to church (you could bike, but most Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes aren't conducive to biking.) Beats sitting in front of the tube together.

In short, I challenge you to think of creative ways you could be burning calories instead of gas.

It's at least worth thinking about.

Maybe while you're mowing the lawn.

Posted by HoldTheToast at April 26, 2006 09:16 PM