Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Segway to Obesity

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 30, 2002 --  

When the Segway scooter was first shown on Good Morning America last December, I joined many people in expressing great disappointment at the revelation of the over-hyped secret invention. For almost a year prior to its unveiling, the secret invention had been touted as a revolutionary product that would eclipse the Internet in importance. A scooter? Are they kidding?

But the mind-boggling thing is that people are actually taking the scooter seriously. State and local lawmakers have been going out of their way to pass special laws to allow it on sidewalks.1 Segway's manufacturers tout the supposedly revolutionary scooter as a product that provides "personal transportation for the masses" that is "pedestrian-friendly."2 Gosh that sounds revolutionary! But last time I checked, a means already exists to this end -- it's called walking.

Since the speed of a Segway is limited to that of pedestrians on the sidewalk ahead, the only practical difference the scooter could make is to give people yet another excuse to stop walking. Automobiles have already replaced walking for simple errands. Escalators have made it unnecessary to climb steps. Now, the people at Segway have come along to snuff out the last remaining bits of movement still handled by physical activity.

I shudder to think of the consequences brought by this over-hyped tool that extends our sedentary culture. Late last year, the U.S. Surgeon General's call to action on overweight and obesity reported some alarming statistics. In the late '70s, 47 percent of American adults were heavy enough to be considered overweight and 15 percent were heavy enough to be considered obese. By 1999, however, these numbers had risen to 61 percent overweight and 27 percent obese.3 This is a frightening increase.

And if the old cliche is right -- that our children are our future -- then our future is looking even fatter still. Only five percent of American teens were overweight in the late '70s, but that rate had almost tripled to 14 percent by 1999. Just imagine how big they'll be when they put on their freshman fifteen, and eventually hit middle age!

Pundits and experts have spent countless hours analyzing the cause of Americans' fatness, usually focusing on fast food and the hyperinflation of portions. But the output side of the equation is just as important. And nowhere does American culture seem more dysfunctional than in the area of exercise.

Exercise. Even the word is unpleasant. In my mind, it conjures up images of my anally retentive and intellectually challenged junior high school physical education teacher forcing us to run laps and do sit-ups as punishment for minor transgressions.

Americans today see exercise in exactly this kind of light -- as something unpleasant that they have to do to keep in shape. People buy expensive gym memberships so they can have access to the exercise equipment they think they need to keep the pounds off. Alternatively, they buy a stationary cycle or treadmill to put in their living room so they can do something pleasant (like watch television and eat potato chips) that helps them through the drudgery of exercise. And horrifyingly, they actually buy electrodes to stick on their bodies that send pulsed shocks. This way, in theory, they can exercise their muscles while lying on the couch eating ice cream.

The common theme that is missing here is the realization that physical activity can actually be fun in and of itself. I love riding my bike in the fresh air. On sunny days, I shake my head in disbelief as I ride past the windows of gyms where I see people pumping stationary bicycles in the stale air over sweat-soaked mats. The same goes for times when I run. I have routes that take me past the most beautiful monuments in Washington D.C. I find it incomprehensible that anyone would rather pay an expensive gym membership to run inside on a treadmill. Running outside in the fresh air is free! And if you find a nice place to go, it's even fun!

I have come to believe that exercise equipment actually causes obesity. America's consumer-oriented capitalist system is excellent at creating products and convincing people that they need them. It's a great system, but in the case of fitness, it does people a terrible disservice. Millions of marketing dollars are spent convincing people that they actually need that exercise bike, or the "Abdomenizer," or countless other gadgets to take off pounds. People buy these products, then quickly find out how boring and unpleasant they are, so they stop using them -- and stop exercising.

What the product marketing campaigns don't tell you is the obvious concept that physical activity is free. And the free forms of exercise are also the ones that are the most enjoyable. Is shocking your thighs with costly electrodes really more fun than a game of tennis on a public court? I think not.

But exercise isn't solely about having fun -- it's about living your daily life. I am aghast when I see flabby middle-aged women on specially made biking trails with small weights tied to their wrists, swinging their arms wildly in a "power walk." Walking is not a high-intensity activity that should be relegated to weekends on the athletic trails. Walking should be a part of daily life. Don't take the escalator -- walk up the steps. Don't circle the mall looking for a close parking spot -- just walk from the back. Don't take the minivan or SUV around the corner to get a quart of milk -- just walk over to get it.

Just walk. If followed, those two words of advice could go a long way toward countering the rising tide of obesity. Unfortunately, the tide -- with extra momentum provided by the Segway scooter -- may be too powerful to be overcome.


1. The Washington Post, Rolling Right Along, April 25, 2002

2. Segway, LLC

3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General, The Surgeon General's call to action to prevent and decrease overweight and obesity, December 2001