Finding Fitness

“In France, we aren’t always eating like you.”

Wow! Is that what other nations think of North Americans? I try to eat healthy food and a healthy amount of food. So, when a friend from France made a comment about snacking, it surprised me. It made me think about the differences in culture and how culture can affect our health. It made me kind of want to go to France because then eating healthy would be easier as the environment would support my efforts.

Here, being healthy is hard. Our country and society are full of unhealthy things. We have access to tons of unhealthy food. We live an inactive lifestyle. Fitness has become a confusing mystery for professionals; it’s no longer about a healthy lifestyle that anyone can attain. We need to work against all these cultural norms to maintain health. No wonder it’s hard!

Like my friend said: we are always eating. People say that what gets measured will improve. So I tracked my meals for 3 months. Everything that went in my mouth was recorded on paper. Yeah, it was a lot of work. And she was right. I was snacking all the time! To be fair, a lot of it was pretty healthy. A few carrots or peppers in the morning, grapes and nuts in the afternoon. But there were also the cookies at lunch and a bowl of ice cream before bed.

Thankfully, I have a very high metabolism. I’ve always been skinny. As a kid, I was asked (several times) not to sit on people’s laps because my bum was too boney. In swimming lessons, I never could float: my body fat was too low. But I gave everyone an example (every single class) of what the first stages of hypothermia look like. Even though I was eating all this food I was not gaining any weight and was even told by my trainer to eat more if I wanted to build muscle. But I don’t think doctors tell that to many people in North America. Most people aren’t snacking on carrots here.

In North America, we have a “treat yourself” culture. Buy that chocolate bar: you deserve it. Treat your friend to frozen yogurt, it’s a nice thing to do; and get one for yourself while you’re at it. When I’m on the road, I’ll find myself buying a bag of chips at the gas station because “I deserve it, I’ve got another 5 hours of driving”. “Treating ourselves” has quickly become an excuse to give in to temptation. 

Another factor of our culture is the sheer variety of foods and snacks. It makes us want to eat more, just to taste the variety. Whenever I get a box of Christmas chocolates, I am tempted to try each flavour, so that I can decide what my favourite is, then eat all of them. The many flavours and verities of snacks create a sense of anticipation for each new flavour and increases the dopamine released when we eat them.  It’s kind of like gambling: there is a sense of “risk” and unexpected reward.

In France, snacking is not as common. The pre-packaged snacks we love for their convenience in North America are switched out for fresh foods when the French do snack. When things are made fresh, it is tough to create as many varieties. This eliminates the desire to snack just for the sake of trying it. You would think with the quantity that we eat, we would have put the highest value on the food of any country. Yet I would say that Europe has put a higher value on food than us. In Europe, you don’t stop at a fast-food restaurant for a quick bite. No, you stop for a full-on dinner, sit down, enjoy and chat with those you are with. This perspective has given them a culture that places high importance on quality food. In North America, as long as it is fast, we don’t care. So we often settle for fatty or sugary foods.

Sugary foods combined with a sedentary lifestyle are not a good mix. A large portion of us drive to work, sit at a desk for 8 hours (often eating donuts…), then drive home and sit watching TV. That’s a lot of sitting!

“But, Duncan,” you say, “not everyone has office jobs.” Very true, but think of even the jobs we consider to be more “manual”. Farming, construction, warehousing and maybe mail delivery. Farming is an active role to be sure, yet now, we have machines that can do much of the work for us. A good part of the work is… sitting in a tractor. Construction is also a very physical job. I have roofed, plastered, framed and dug my share of ditches. It’s not easy work. But even for the heavy digging, we have help. We can even dig a whole basement while… sitting. Even mail workers do most of their errands while in their truck… sitting.

Our culture has been shaped by wealth (the ability to buy machines) and a perspective that physical labour should be avoided at all costs. The body’s natural response to painful things is to stop. So we have found clever ways of making jobs easier. But this has seeped into our minds as well. Now we view manual jobs as second rate. This is because of the origins of work. originally those that had “desk jobs” were more educated and thus revered: lawyers, doctors and teachers. Now, because of trade regulation, most occupations require schooling of some sort. But the cultural stigma surrounding physical labour remains.

We even avoid work in our transport. Instead of walking or cycling places, most people drive. Granted, some people don’t have jobs within reasonable cycling distance. How far is reasonable to walk or cycle to work? 5 blocks? 1 kilometre? 5 kilometres? It’s amazing what you do when you need to. For a year, I avoided buying a car because I was saving money. So I walked 5km every day to get to work. I walked through blizzards where 3 feet of snow fell in an hour, I walked through rain and I walked in the 30C July heat. Often, our perception of what is possible is limited. In Europe, you will find that most people think nothing of biking several kilometres, whereas that would be considered quite a feat here. In Denmark, for example, it is standard to cycle everywhere. In the capital city alone so many people bike to work each day that it is equal to cycling to the moon, twice. Really! The people from one city, collectively cycle to the moon and back each day!

To be sure, I am very thankful for the ease of our life. But the use of machines has limited the amount of work we are required to do every day. Because we drive everywhere, we often don’t get any activity during the day and instead need to go out looking for it.

We have gyms where you can focus on being healthy. But that’s just the thing, it makes health something removed from normal life. And gyms are expensive. It’s something for only the elite and wealthy.

We see celebrities in the media who seem to be perfect. There is no way we can attain that, so what’s the use of trying? This contributes to the view of elite fitness and discourages people from striving to be healthy. 

We have even lost our understanding of what being healthy means. When a culture is healthy, it’s easier to get information about fitness. I have seen this even on a micro-level in my own life. Recently I made a few friends who have a great fitness routine. I have been able to learn so much from talking with them about how to develop fitness of my own. Imagine if the whole country was like this. Then it would take lots of the mystery of “the perfect routine” away and just make it normal. Being healthy shouldn’t be confusing. It’s just eating healthy food in moderation, being active, getting rest and staying hydrated.

Having those friends also challenged me. I could see their health and knew that it was possible for real people to attain this. Rather than be deterred by the “unattainable” I was spurred on by them. However, in our culture, it is very easy to rationalize the opposite and maintain our normal lives. When most of society is overweight or inactive we will always be more fit than someone, so we don’t do anything. But if everyone was moderately healthy, wouldn’t that push us to continue with a healthy lifestyle? 

Right now, instead of being pushed to be healthy by the culture and cultural norms, we have to work against it to be healthy. Our diet is full of confusion about how much to eat, what to eat and when to eat. Our idea of normal is a breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast. We can change the perception of normal. In Asia for example, a normal breakfast is a savoury vegetable soup. Many Asians also have a naturally active lifestyle due to the lack of machines. We could take note and try to incorporate more activity into our daily lives. This would help health become something for everyone, instead of only something for elite models.

A healthy culture is possible. We just need to... work at it. 😉


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