The decline in kids walking to school

Several experts talk about the issues with many fewer American kids walking to school compared to fifty years ago. The negative effects? Less exercise, less learning about active transportation, less exploration in and knowledge of their own neighborhoods.

I suspect many people will blame parents and kids for this and tell them to simply walk and stop being lazy/decadent/unnecessarily scared/etc. However, it is not as if many Americans regularly walk places outside of major cities and denser neighborhoods. Some of this may be due to comfort but other factors are involved including nicer vehicles, more fear about crime, more sprawl (particularly in the Sunbelt) which means further distances and fewer pedestrian-friendly streets, less emphasis on physical activity in daily life (which is not necessarily laziness but rather more sedentary lives overall), and a shift toward technology (starting with television) rather than active exploration. In other words, this is likely a multifacted problem that is not easily solved by simply “making” kids walk.

Calories, as a statistic, don’t mean much to consumers

A group of scientists is suggesting food packaging should replace calories with data on how much exercise is required to burn off that food:

A 500ml bottle of Coke, for example, contains 210 calories, more than a 10th of the daily recommended intake for a woman.

But US scientists think that statistic is ignored by most people and does not work as a health message.

Instead, telling them that it would take a 4.2 mile run or 42-minute walk to burn off the calories is far more effective.

The researchers, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, found that teenagers given the information chose healthier drinks or smaller bottles…

They say that if a menu tells you a double cheeseburger will take a 5.6-mile hike before the calories are burned off, most people would rather choose a smaller hamburger which would require a walk of 2.6 miles…

Study leader Professor Sara Bleich said: ‘People don’t really understand what it means to say a typical soda has 250 calories.

The public vaguely knows what a calorie is – a measure of the amount of energy in food. However, the technical definition is difficult to translate into real life since a calorie is defined as “the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1 °C.” (Side note: does this mean Americans are even worse in judging calories due to not using the metric system?) This proposal does just that, translating the scientific term into one that practically makes sense to the average person. And, having such information could make comparisons easier.

I would wonder if the new exercise data would have diminishing returns over time. A new interpretation might catch people’s attention for a while. But, as time goes on, what is really the difference between that 3.6 mile burger and that 2.6 mile burger?

The workouts of the upper class aim to avoid “excessive displays of strength”

Workout goals and expectations about the ideal fit body type may just be related to social class:

Soon, however, I suffered a creeping insecurity. Looking into the eyes of a banker with soft hands, I imagined him thinking, You deluded moron, what does muscle have to do with anything?

One day, a skinny triathlete jogged past our house: visor, fancy sunglasses, GPS watch. I caught a look of yearning in my wife’s eyes. That night, we fought and she confessed: She couldn’t help it, she liked me better slender…

Sociologists, it turns out, have studied these covert athletic biases. Carl Stempel, for example, writing in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, argues that upper middle class Americans avoid “excessive displays of strength,” viewing the bodybuilder look as vulgar overcompensation for wounded manhood. The so-called dominant classes, Stempel writes—especially those like my friends and myself, richer in fancy degrees than in actual dollars—tend to express dominance through strenuous aerobic sports that display moral character, self-control, and self-development, rather than physical dominance. By chasing pure strength, in other words, packing on all that muscle, I had violated the unspoken prejudices—and dearly held self-definitions—of my social group.

I’ve never encountered this literature. But, I wonder how this might be related to historical social patterns, particularly the shift away from and the growing bifurcation between manual labor/unskilled jobs and the growing white-collar job force who often sit in offices all day. While the wealthy classes of the past may not have had to show any physical abilities, now the expectation is fitness across a wider range of classes. With less manual labor on the job, people today have more choices about exercise ranging from whether to do it at all, how much money to spend on what can become a very expensive activity, and what kind of path to pursue from older patterns to the latest trends.

h/t Instapundit

Numbers to back claims about “SEAL-mania”?

I am often on the look-out for news stories that relate to data analysis and interpretation that I can then use in my Statistics and Social Research classes. Here is an example of the AP reporting on “SEAL-mania”:

Stumpf is one of a growing number of Americans putting themselves through grueling fitness programs modeled after Navy SEAL workouts as interest in the elite military unit has soared since one of its teams killed Osama bin Laden. Everyone these days seems to be dreaming of what it’s like to be a SEAL, know a SEAL or at least look like one.

Book publishers say they cannot order the printings of the memoirs of former SEALs fast enough, while people are dialing 1-800-Hooyah! like mad to get their hands on T-shirts emblazoned with the SEAL insignia and sayings like: “When it absolutely, positively must be destroyed overnight! Call in the US Navy SEALs.”

Awe over the covert operation is even putting the city of Fort Pierce, Fla., on the map for vacation destinations. The city’s National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum — the only museum dedicated to the secretive SEALs — has been flooded with calls from people planning to visit.

But nothing short of joining the SEALs offers a more true-to-life taste of their toughness than the workout places run by ex-Navy commandos.

There may actually be an uptick in interest in Navy SEALS (apparently Disney and others are interested) but the story gives us little actual data to support this. We are told about some books, t-shirts, calls to a museum, and an increase in interest in workouts but no hard numbers to go by. In fact, the story seems to revolve around this tentative sentence: “Everyone these days seems to be dreaming of what it’s like to be a SEAL, know a SEAL or at least look like one.” I am skeptical about claims about “everyone.” The story could at least cite Google trend data (a big spike occurs in early May when searching for “SEALs”) or Twitter trend data (another big spike). These may not be ideal data sources but at least they provide some data beyond broad claims. If a media source wants to make a causal claim (Navy SEALs participation in the Bin Laden raid has led to “SEAL-mania” among Americans), then they should provide some better evidence to back up their argument.

(Another odd thing about this story is that the rest of it is about SEALs workouts. It almost seems as if there was some copy about these workouts waiting to be attached to a larger story and this raid presented itself as an opportunity.)

The morality of going to the gym

The adult life is often made of up little tasks that must be done to live: go to work, prepare and eat meals, do laundry, and various other activities. Perhaps there is another activity that must be added to this list: getting exercise and/or going to the gym.

“There seems to be a whole substitute morality, where your obligation is to go to the gym and not ask why,” says Mark Greif, a founding editor of the literary journal n+1 and the author of a widely discussed 2004 essay, “Against Exercise.” “If you don’t, you become a sort of villain of the culture.”

The message that perspiration is a gateway to, and reflection of, higher virtues is captured in health club slogans like ones used by the Equinox chain over recent years: “Results aren’t always measured in pounds and inches.” “My body. My biography.” “It’s not fitness. It’s life.” The same idea is encoded in the language of personal improvement. A “new you” usually means a trimmer, tauter version, not someone who has learned to speak Mandarin or picked up woodworking skills.

And the pectoral is political. The current president and his predecessor have made ostentatious points of their commitments to fitness routines. Whatever the differences in their ideologies, intellects and work habits, George W. Bush and Barack Obama both let voters know that they carve out time almost daily for cardio or weights or both. And while that devotion could be seen as evidence of distraction (Bush) or vanity (Bush and Obama), each politician safely counted on a sunnier takeaway. In this country, at this time, steadiness of exercise signals sturdiness of temperament, and physical leanness connotes mental toughness…

To be unfit is to be unfit: a villain of the culture, indeed.

An interesting commentary. More broadly, these ideas seemed tied to American ideals of youth and health. We like politicians and athletes and movie stars who are physical specimens. We argue that disciplining the body is indicative of discipline in other areas of life. Being healthy is not just being an appropriate weight or eating right or limiting stress: it should include muscles and toning.

Some questions follow:

1. Do other cultures have similar ideas or are we unusual in this regard?

2. When or where did the emphasis on muscles, beyond just “being fit,” arise?

3. For the average American, how much of this judgment regarding exercise and going to the gym comes from people around them versus comparing themselves to media produced images?

4. How much have professional sports contributed to this? If you look at athletes in the 1950s and 1960s, they did not train as much. Today, being an athlete is a full-time, full-year job in order to stay in shape.

The value of stretching for athletes

Henry Abbott at Truehoop looks at some recent research regarding stretching which suggests stretching before athletic events is not that helpful.

The question arises: why then do athletes go through a stretching routine before a game? I’ll throw out a possible answer: stretching is part of a routine that is psychologically helpful in preparing for a game. Even if stretching beforehand has limited value, as long as it is not harmful, it could help athletes feel like they are doing something worthwhile. Perhaps it helps improve their mental focus. For many, I assume it is part of an established routine that they were socialized into either at a younger age or by an expert. Since they have been doing it in the past, going through the motions helps them prepare.

Where this research could be used is with younger athletes. It is hard to break people out of established patterns but teenagers and kids could chart a new path that includes little or no pregame stretching and more postgame stretching. These younger athletes could then establish new kinds of routines that will be with them throughout their athletic careers.