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Tuesday 25 October 2011

Exercise in Everyday Life

New Yorkers: An exception?
When I teach outside Canada people sometimes ask me to compare cultures and lifestyles.  What are the main similarities and differences between people?

Recently I spent some time in California at a conference and noticed something that made me think there is a perfect research study just waiting for someone to conduct.

The meeting was held at an enormous conference centre on two levels that were connected by escalators and stairs.  The first morning I wanted to attend a talk on the upper level and stepped onto the escalator.  I automatically began climbing the risers but soon stopped behind a pair of fellow conventioneers who were chatting amiably on the way up.

Looking past them I saw that everyone was similarly stopped, waiting for the escalator to deliver them to the top.  Some singles stood on the right, others on the left.

In much of Canada this would result in a number of people saying “excuse me” and squeezing past, plus at some times of day some unpleasant looks.  The usual habit is to stand on the right, leaving the left for people to climb the steps.  Couples usually stand one in front of the other on the right, or stand side-by-side, but step up or down and to the side when climbers pass.

For the rest of the conference I paid attention every time I changed floors.  Feeling vaguely self-righteous, I made a point of using the stairs.  This was helpful for a) waking me up between sessions, b) partially compensating for the lack of exercise at the convention (I tend not to seek out the local gym), and c) making me feel childishly superior.

As I watched I noticed that very few people seemed to walk either up or down the escalators.  Those that did seemed flustered and sweaty, obviously rushing to a late meeting.  Virtually no one used the stairs.

Is this a general phenomenon?  I have no idea.  The convention centre had high ceilings, so the escalators were a little longer than usual.  And I was only in one city.  It would be interesting to compare different cities, states, and – most interestingly of all – countries.

So:  The study?  Send experimenters with clipboards to shopping malls around the world and surreptitiously watch escalator behaviour.  Note how many people walk and how many ride.  Where escalators are beside stairs, calculate the proportion of people who use one or the other.

I’m always encouraging exercise for the people I see at the clinic.  For depression, anxiety, anger problems, and just about anything else exercise can be remarkably helpful.  And I encourage people to get their exercise not just in the gym, or on dedicated runs or swims, but in everyday life.

I suggest that they forget that elevators are capable of taking them three floors or less, and (hypocritically) encourage them to think of escalators as very dangerous devices to be avoided whenever possible.  When they take transit I encourage carelessness, so that they get off a stop earlier or later and have to walk a little further to their destination.

Somehow we've created a culture in which getting exercise means getting in the car, driving someplace, getting changed, exercising while accomplishing absolutely nothing else (not harvesting crops, not hunting buffalo, not traveling to the next village - nothing at all), getting changed again, and driving home.  Exercise is a complete add-on to our lives. No wonder we neglect it.

Instead of this (or in addition - our culture is organized so that no matter what we do we can't get enough exercise without making that the focus) we should become less efficient and waste a great deal of the one energy source that we need to expend more:  our own.

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