Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Why the typical person doesn't live a healthy lifestyle

I recently taught the cooking merit badge to a group of young Scouts. Today's requirements are far more health conscious than they were when I earned that badge decades ago. When I showed the Scouts that one 20 oz. bottle of Mountain Dew contains as much sugar as seven large bags of romaine lettuce, most of the boys bragged about how quickly they could gulp down that bottle of Dew.

Our culture idolizes health and fitness. We admire famous and beautiful people (mostly in the entertainment industry) who appear fit and healthy. We pay money and spend time to watch movies that are filled with amazingly fit actors who benefit from professional trainers and chefs, and maybe from a little CG enhancement on screen.

Fit Marvel actors
Typical Americans
But as a society we don't typically DO health and fitness. The typical American doesn't look, eat, or exercise like their movie idols.

Why not? Well, judging by the content of a wide variety of broadcasts and publications, that's something that seems to regularly baffle health and fitness gurus. (Or maybe they're just using this as a foil to demonstrate their superiority to their average counterparts.) A couple of days ago I saw one healthy diet maven whine that while Americans have more healthy eating options than ever before, they seem to increasingly opt for unhealthy dietary choices.

There is really little mystery to this conundrum. Let's see if I can clarify matters for the clueless health and fitness scolds. Here is a quick list of reasons the typical American doesn't follow the experts' health guidelines.
  • Lack of real role models.
  • Social pressure to be more typical.
  • Changeover costs.
  • Sustaining costs.
I'm sure the list could be laid out differently, but this suffices for my purposes. Let's take a quick look at each of these factors, which are all interrelated.

Real life role models
Most Americans don't have many role models of healthy living in their own lives among their own peers and family members. The occasional nutritious eater and/or gym rat they encounter is an outlier. They seem to suffer from an odd fetish. Who has time to prepare gourmet health food or to spend hours at the gym anyway? Most Americans would rather spend their time doing something else, as evidenced by the fact that they actually do spend their time doing something else. They don't see themselves as health geeks.

Social pressure
This means that most of us are surrounded by people who eat the typical American diet and live the typical sedentary American lifestyle. We are inundated with incentives for us to be like those around us. Peer pressure is often mentioned negatively, but it is commonly applied to good, bad, and benign ends. It just is. Would we have to divorce our friends and find a new group of friends to look fit?

The price of change
Which brings us to changeover costs. Any kind of change imposes costs on us. Sometimes those costs are financial, such as the higher price of healthy food or a gym membership bill. The costs that present the greatest challenge, however, involve time and effort, as well as emotional, psychological, and social factors.

I can tell you from personal experience that undertaking a major dietary change is horrendously challenging. It takes a lot of time and effort to learn to plan for, buy, and prepare food for an entirely different eating pattern. Changing your eating regimen changes the way you socialize and interact with people, so it changes your relationships, sometimes in challenging ways.

Although healthy food choices have become much more available during the decades I have pursued nutritious eating, they still generally cost more, are less convenient, and taste ... well, you know. One factor that makes changeover challenging is the astronomical amount of conflicting information constantly hurled at us regarding nutrition. Sorting through all of that stuff is no mean feat. The tangible and intangible costs of changing your lifestyle are enormous.

Curiously, these higher costs seem favorable to those who seek to boost their self esteem by developing a sense of superiority to others. "Sure this lifestyle is expensive," they reason, "but, after all, I am worth it! By the way, do you want to see my new Apple Watch?" That's not to say that all who seek a healthy lifestyle think this way. But more than a few do.

The cost keeps going
Most Americans who attempt to switch to a healthier lifestyle end up reverting to their old patterns before long. It's one thing to get a little fitter and to drop five or ten pounds, if you even get that far. Most who try fail. It's quite another matter to make a permanent lifestyle change. Many of the same factors that affect changeover costs persist long after the change has been made, even when decent results are achieved.

Benefits of better health
The health conscious part of our culture does a great job of touting the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, including feeling better, being more energetic, thinking better, sleeping better, better sex, better mobility, needing less medical care and having less disease, and of course, progress along the endless pursuit of the great idol of greater longevity. And they've got valid scientific evidence to back up these claims.

The costs of (the attempt to achieve) better health
But these folks constantly undersell the costs involved in achieving these worthy goals. These costs, however, are not lost on the typical American who can't envision becoming a healthy iron chef or a gym rat. They have lives to live and they want to be happy. It's a simple application of cost-benefit ratio.

Cost-benefit analysis: It's personal
So maybe they won't live as long as the health nut down the street. So what? We all have to die sometime. And most would rather live shorter but happier lives eating pizza and a few cookies now and then over living long while eating roasted Brussels sprouts over warm Bulgar or a cold lentil salad.

And maybe the typical American will end up with a variety of obesity related health conditions. But so will all their friends and family. And then they will have something in common to commiserate about in their later years.

Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't give up on healthy living. After more than three decades it has become part of who I am. And I certainly wouldn't want to dissuade anyone from pursuing a healthier lifestyle. I'm just saying that there are costs to such a lifestyle and that each individual has to weigh whether those costs are worth the potential benefits that may or may not actually be achieved.

While each will ultimately reap the consequences of the health choices they make throughout their lives, the whole point of the human exercise to to pursue happiness. And it would seem, much to the chagrin of health obsessionists, that for many people this goal can be achieved outside of the parameters they prescribe.

The choice to pursue healthy living is not simply a choice between being healthy or not being healthy. It represents a trade off between expending one's limited resources in the (often elusive) quest for better health or using those same resources to seek after other goals. Economists call this opportunity cost. This life is a continual series of trade offs. Each of us makes countless such choices daily (under the specter of necessarily imperfect information) with the goal of maximizing our happiness.

I have often chosen the health fetish path in the belief that this improves my life overall. I have sacrificed other choices I could have made, assuming that these would have proven inferior to me. My choices have made me a different person than I would otherwise have been. And I'm OK with that. But many who have eschewed a fixation on health could likely say the same thing: that they are happy overall with the results of their choices, regardless of what health elitists think is best for them.