Fast, Frenzied And Fat: Convenience Saves Time, Not Lives

By Amanda Buhman, Madison Magazine

?All of the greatest technological inventions of man — the automobile, the airplane, the computer — say little about man’s intelligence, but speak volumes about his laziness.? — Mark Kennedy

Once upon a time, Americans used to churn their own butter. They used to wash their own clothes. That?s right, they would even clean their homes with hard work and elbow grease.

Fast-forward fifty years or so, and believe it or not, people would turn on the television by hand, and open their own garage doors, too. They used to leave the house to rent movies and shop. Can you imagine?

Americans consider themselves to be a technology-savvy population. We embrace gadgets that have the promise to make life easier or save time. Convenience and speed are the doctrines of our existence — but at what cost? America also happens to be the fattest nation in the world, with a staggering 30 percent of adults — or 59 million people — categorized as ?obese? in 2000. In Wisconsin, that number is 59 percent. Obesity nearly doubled in Wisconsin in the decade ending in 2001, from 12.7 to 21.9 percent.

?Genetics have not changed. And certainly people don’t care less today than they did 20 years ago. Major changes have occurred in the environment,? says Patrick Remington, professor at the UW Schools of Medicine and Public Health, and director of the Population Health Institute.

Technological advancements in the name of convenience have spawned ?lifestyle diseases,? a catchall term for a growing list of chronic, often fatal diseases in which lifestyle plays a role. Among these are osteoporosis, arthritis, sleep apnea, and countless others. Obesity is the most prevalent of the lifestyle diseases, contributing to — if not causing — other lifestyle diseases. These diseases are often preventable. Technological conveniences increase sedentary activity, contribute to over-consumption of food, poor urban planning, and even excessive substance use. While technology provides plenty of shortcuts, it may be shortening our lives as well.

Speed Eating In a recent study, Harvard University economists David Cutler, Edward Glaser and Jesse Shapiro proposed that technology has changed the way we eat. For example, using a microwave cuts down on food preparation time. That decrease in food prep time, also termed the ?falling time cost of food,? brings about an increase in consumption. Logically this increase has been found to be a major obesity factor. In their article ?The Price is Right: Economics and the Rise in Obesity,? Cutler, Glaser and Shapiro note, ?Technological innovations — including vacuum packing, improved preservatives, deep freezing, artificial flavors, and microwaves — have enabled food manufacturers to cook food centrally and ship it to consumers for rapid consumption. In 1965, a married woman who didn’t work spent over two hours per day cooking and cleaning up from meals. In 1995, the same tasks took less than half the time.? The Midwest?s ?value-driven? mentality hasn?t helped with food moderation, either. According to the National Institute of Diabetes, ?Our relentless quest for improved productivity and efficiency has fueled the increased demand for getting better and better deals — getting more for less.?

Food processing has advanced greatly, too. Preservatives and chemicals in food maintain flavor for literally years but also add fat, sodium and sugar. Most processed foods are nutritionally void, but dense in calories. We don?t have time for meals, so we graze on vending machine snacks and fast foods throughout the day. The vending machine may be the time-starved worker?s best friend, but watch out. Harvard researchers claim that the twelve-pound increase in the average weight of an adult male over the past forty years could be explained by an increased consumption of as little as 150 calories per day — or about fourteen peanut M&M?s.

Environments for ChangeCurrent research suggests we expend fewer calories than decades past. These days, everything?s automatic: garage door openers, car windows and door openers, email, Internet shopping, TV remotes, snow blowers, leaf blowers, elevators and escalators. ?Just watch how people stand on the down escalator the next time you’re in a shopping center,? Remington notes. ?When a moving sidewalk stops in the airport ? most people stand there just waiting for it to move again!?

Homes, workplaces, neighborhoods and cities are designed with convenience in mind — many removing physical activity from the equation. Seeking out exercise comes at the cost of money and time, two assets Americans hold dear. According the Economic Research Service, ?Years ago, Americans got their exercise through their work. Today?s desk jobs and sedentary lifestyles mean we must seek out that exercise.?

Take away technology, add exerciseReplacing time and energy-saving devices provides health benefits. Just look at the caloric expenditure for an average adult performing thirty minutes of each activity: Washing and waxing the car 180 calories Mowing the lawn and raking 165 calories Climbing stairs 275 calories Shopping for groceries, pushing cart 150 calories Conversely, sedentary activities (sitting) burn an average of seventy calories per hour

How long will it be before these ?lifestyle diseases? fueled by technological conveniences catch up with us? Remington says the best advice for the fast and frenzied Wisconsinites is to make small changes that add up to big differences in the long run. ?Walk instead of driving for short distances. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Throw the remote control away. Give your labor saving devices to someone who needs them,? Remington suggests.

?It is extremely hard for an individual to change their lifestyle and work against a toxic environment that provides fast food and little opportunity for exercise. Change will come only when people realize the cost of doing nothing.?