Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Riding to the Buffet

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 15, 2002 --  

With a frightening new survey showing that nearly a third of Americans are obese, I knew just who to blame: the manager of my hotel. I had waiting several minutes for the elevator to take me to my second floor room, and then grew impatient enough to schlep my bags up the stairs. No dice. Security concerns had led the hotel to lock the stairwell doors, preventing their use for anything other than a fire exit. Guests simply aren't allowed to expend energy walking up one flight of stairs to their rooms -- they have to go the sedentary route and ride the elevator.

It's not hard to see where these kinds of policies lead. The next morning at the complimentary all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, I recognized an obese man whose body had sat motionless for hours in the hotel's hot tub the night before. He and his compatriots gorged themselves on the limitless supply of food, their ever-increasing girth supported -- almost dictated -- by the hotel's carrot-and-stick policies. This is typical of the contemporary American customer-service culture. High calorie foods are made omnipresent and opportunities for casual exercise are made nearly impossible.

Returning home to Washington DC, I joined a few other skinny riders on the city's subway system defiantly walking up the escalators. Walkers must navigate around the increasingly hostile overweight majority who stand still. Metro's management has removed signs advising passengers to stand to the right -- walking is now discouraged to help extend the life of the escalators. Unbelievably, there's even been talk of forbidding people from moving.

When you get off the subway escalator, things often don't get better. From the top of the Pentagon City station, it is nearly impossible to walk the half-mile distance to the new Pentagon Row shopping center. Architects have built an automobile-oriented system of ramps and access roads that force pedestrians to walk in a much longer loop around the area -- or abandon walking in favor of a sedentary ride in a taxi.

Given these disincentives to move, it is no surprise that obesity has become more common. A new set of survey results published in the Journal of the American Medical Association show that the obesity rate in America has climbed to over 30 percent.1 Public health officials have condemned this trend, and have warned of dire consequences for years. But the situation never improves. People just keep getting fatter. The good news, if there is any, is that things can't get much worse. It's easy to predict disaster by projecting current trends far into the future. But trends rarely continue long-term, especially when the consequences seem so obviously unsustainable. People just can't get much fatter. When it comes to obesity, the tide is bound to turn soon.

If public health officials want to expedite this change, the first step would be to encourage public agencies and corporations to stop preventing people from exercising as a part of daily life -- especially when it comes to walking. Unlock the stairwell doors. Build sidewalks. Not only allow, but encourage walking on escalators. Better yet, just build stairs.

When enough of the countless tiny factors encouraging Americans to put on weight change, the growth of waistlines will cease. We'll reach equilibrium in obesity. Americans will still be able to visit the all-you-can-eat buffet, but they'll have to climb the stairs to get there.

Related Web Column:

Segway to Obesity, April 30, 2002


1. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Prevalence and Trends in Obesity Among US Adults, 1999-2000, October 9, 2002