I just flew in from Sweden and boy, are my feet tired.
It’s almost a cliché that Scandinavia is populated by skinny blonde model-types. But in touring Sweden and Denmark recently, I encountered the greatest number of physically fit people I’ve ever seen in one place. There were more lithe bodies walking around on the streets of Stockholm than backstage at the American Ballet Theatre. Most ordinary Danish citizens make our Olympians look like “Biggest Loser” contestants.
And this is the home of the smorgasbord!
Here’s one possible reason why: As my wife and I made our way to the Copenhagen opera house, we saw far more bike racks than parking spaces. In every neighborhood, bicycle repair shops outnumbered gas stations. Every road came with a matching bike path.
The biggest traffic jams were just crowds of people in helmets.
And I was amazed by how the locals ate — petite women washing down starchy, meaty meals with pint after pint of draught beer. The paltry nutrition information on Swedish packaged foods would make the FDA scream in horror. Familiar American fast-food brands dotted the cityscapes, like in every other urban center on Earth. But menu-board tallies of calories and fat were nowhere to be found.
Also nowhere in evidence? An obesity epidemic. It simply wasn’t there in the city-dwellers I met.
I’m convinced that’s because Northern Europe has engineered rigorous exercise into the daily urban routine. Planners are constantly reinventing cities to make streets pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly. Exercise is generally the easiest and most economical way to get from Point A to Point B.
There are overweight Scandinavians, of course, but they’re mostly clustered in rural areas where agricultural technology has turned yesterday’s field laborers into today’s button-pushers.
It’s counter-intuitive, but true: The middle of nowhere, the rural places where you don’t find Golden Arches, is where you do find the highest obesity rates. But the city folk are quite healthy.
Unlike their American counterparts, Scandinavian urbanites aren’t clamoring for greater government scrutiny of their meals, or for more politicization of the “calories in” half of the digestion equation. But they’ve taken real ownership of the “calories out” half.
Elevator buttons typically came with signs reading “please use the lift only if you are unable to climb stairs.” I even saw escalators with “on” and “off” switches for the benefit of people who would prefer to exercise.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the cost of owning and operating a car is impossibly high by American standards. A gallon of gasoline costs over $8 — the same as the starting fee just to open a taxicab’s door.
Would these prices fly in New York? Nope. But rather than complaining, Danes and Swedes take out their frustrations on shoe leather and handlebars. I met two slender bankers in the oldest part of Stockholm who commute to work every day, 45 miles each way, on racing bikes.
Could America warm up to an increase in people-powered commuting without first seeing $8 unleaded? I don’t know, but we’re moving in the opposite direction now. Only 14 percent of U.S.
students walked or biked to school in 2001, compared to one-half in the late 1960s. And 88 percent of American workers drive to work, logging an average of 14,500 miles every year.
Our public-health debate about obesity is mostly a back-and-forth between proponents of food-based solutions and those exercise-based answers. Some experts even believe fitness trumps fatness to such a degree that your love-handles are irrelevant as long as you’re in good cardiovascular shape.
But maybe it’s time to change the debate around.
What if we talked more about moving our bodies, instead of moving automobiles — even hybrids — off dealership lots?
Call it the “burn calories, not fuel” diet.
Rather than regulating what we put into our bodies, government would get more bang for its public-health buck by focusing on how we exercise those bodies. Deep down, most Americans want permission to stop wringing their hands over lunchtime calorie-counts and fat grams.
We all know we need to lose weight. But nobody wants to be scolded by the food police. And bike helmets come in fun colors.
The Scandinavians have taught me that life’s too short to waste time with such trivialities anyway. We need all the time we can spare to shop at IKEA. Did you know that putting your own furniture together burns calories?