Thursday, January 14, 2010

Culture: Weight Flows South?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A recent story on CBC Television's "The National" highlighted what was regarded as disturbing news that Canadians have gained weight over the past 30 years. Digging a bit deeper into the study done by Statistics Canada, it comes out that the average waist measurement of a Canadian male aged 20-39 is 35.7 inches, up from 33.2 inches in the early 1980's. For women, the average waist size is now 32.6 inches, up from 30.3 inches previously. StatsCan provides the numbers however one wants to look at them (body mass index, weight, waist size, etc.), but with average heights constant, waist sizes pretty much tell the story.

Yet, if one wants to really see over-sized individuals, head south of the border. The first thing I noted upon leaving Canada last month and landing at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport was how large people in the airport seemed to be compared with what I was used to in the Toronto area. Indeed, United States residents, on average, have a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) by about 5%. What was really striking during my recent travels, though, was the regional variation observed.

To be honest, I didn't notice notice much difference in size of people in northern California, Oregon, or Washington state as compared with Ontario. However, as soon as I headed south to Arizona, I felt like I was encountering another species. Several times, despite some wide sidewalks, I couldn't pass two people walking abreast--and I wanted to pass, since these wide individuals were probably walking half as fast as I wanted to go. Oddly, statistics don't back up this observation. While California, Oregon, and Washington are tied in BMI at 26.3, the same as Canadian men, Arizona is actually lower at 26.2.

I don't know how that can be. The low-density development everywhere except the very core of downtown Phoenix, combined with poor accommodation of pedestrians and extreme heat for most of the year, makes it very believable that people would not get their exercise outside and would drive everywhere. I can understand why most people I know in the Valley of the Sun have a gym membership in order to get exercise. I guess the people that go to the gym are the ones pushing the average BMI lower, and aren't the ones I ran into in public places like the light rail route, college basketball games, and restaurants.

The impression that I was left with--from the larger people in Arizona and in the airport in Texas, was that weight seems to do what one would expect based on gravity--go down, or in this case south. Gravity actually draws one toward the Earth, not toward the equator, you say?

Well, I took a nearly two-hour walk to downtown Toronto this evening, and I rather enjoyed it. If we all did that regularly, there would be a lot less concern about BMI's and waist sizes.

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