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Obesity, Exercise, Beauty, and the Good Life

Appalaichian Trail

Appalachian Trail

My wife, Nancy, and I just returned from a vacation trip and read a New York Times blog piecethat declared that “teenagers are exercising more, consuming less sugar and eating more fruits and vegetables, a trend that may be contributing to a leveling off of obesity rates.” The piece suggested that public service efforts like Michelle Obama’s three-plus-year campaign, Let’s Move! were having a positive effect. We also found in our latest AARP magazine an article about how the Clinton Foundation was battling childhood obesity. These reports were good news indeed because on our trip we experienced obesity at its worst and exercise at it its best.

The worst was on the boardwalk at Ocean City, Maryland, a 2.5-mile stretch. We walked the 5-mile roundtrip and never saw so many obese people (walking, sitting, dining, coming out of shops, etc.) in such a short time (no more than an hour). We commented on the many ways that life must be more difficult for very obese people, including the greater health risks they faced like heart disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes.

The best was at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where we talked to various exercising people, primarily hikers and bicyclists. Despite the fact that Harpers Ferry is associated with some sad events such as Civil War battles and the prior raid, capture, and nearby execution of abolitionist John Brown, it is a beautiful place, ideal for hiking and cycling through, much of it part of National Park lands.

It’s the halfway point of the Appalachian Trail, which extends over 2000 miles, all the way from Main to Georgia. On one of our hikes, along the Shenandoah River, which runs into the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, we talked to a young woman who was hiking by herself from Harpers Ferry to Georgia, over 1000 miles. On another hike, amidst one of the city’s many hills, with a beautiful view of mountains in the distance and the Shenandoah and Potomac below, we were passed by another young woman who was hiking and jogging and told us she often took this trail. I commented to Nancy how great it was to see so many people, young and old, women and men, out exercising amidst beautiful natural scenes. Neither of us recalled many people jogging or walking when we were young in the 1950s. I jokingly said that if I saw anyone running on my neighborhood street when I was a kid, my first thought might have been “thief on the run.”

We also talked to two separate groups of bicyclists who had biked from Pittsburgh to Harpers Ferry and were then going to continue on to D.C., a total distance of about 335 miles. The Great Allegheny Passage rail-trail runs from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, where it joins the C&O Canal Towpath, which goes through Harpers Ferry C&O and then to D.C. We also ran into a guy here who had left Seattle in late June and has been biking ever since, intending to end his trip in D.C.

Michelle Obama celebrates "Let's Move" (Photo: Chuck Kennedy)

Michelle Obama celebrates "Let's Move" (Photo: Chuck Kennedy)

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The hikers and bikers we met seemed fit and happy. There are too many plusses associated with being in good physical shape to list them all, but one example I just read about was in aNew York Times piece that stated that “children who are physically fit absorb and retain new information more effectively than children who are out of shape.”

In an earlier essay on Yosemite, I quoted naturalist John Muir, who did so much to further the National Park (NP) movement. And once again on NP trails in Harpers Ferry we felt grateful to him and remembered his words of 1908:

For everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul. This natural beauty-hunger is displayed in poor folks’ window-gardens made up of a few geranium slips in broken cups, as well as in the costly lily gardens of the rich, the thousands of spacious city parks and botanical gardens, and in our magnificent National parks–the Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, etc.–Nature’s own wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world. Nevertheless, like everything else worth while, however sacred and precious and well-guarded, they have always been subject to attack, mostly by despoiling gainseekers,–mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to supervisors, lumbermen, cattlemen, farmers, etc., eagerly trying to make everything dollarable.

Muir was correct to identify a contrast between nature’s beauty in our “own wonderlands” and “despoiling gainseekers . . . eagerly trying to make everything dollarable.” Think of the environmental damage that has been done by BP in the Gulf of Mexico and by numerous fracking companies. We were reminded of this contrast as we passed through Wheeling, WV, where we once lived for three years, on our way to and from further. In the Wheeling area is the beautiful Ogelbay Park, but polluting has also become more common east nearby as the fracking industry has come to town and surrounding lands with a vengeance. The local newspaper, despite its usual right-wing slant (for example, see here), editorialized about two drilling companies fined a combination of $350,000 “for polluted-related infractions.”

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In a recent New York TimescolumnFrank Bruni suggested that many people are obese because they eat too much. As with many other matters, however, it is best not to be too judgmental about those who are obese. Circumstances, including good genes, favor some people over others. Socioeconomic factors can affect one’s weight. Time, money, and location may also play a part.

Poor people may find it harder to shop for healthy foods at places like Whole Foods. Poor knees, hips, or other joints may make it more difficult to exercise properly. Nevertheless, it seems a no-brainer to conclude that healthy eating and exercising, especially among nature’s beauty, is preferable to bad eating and a constant sedentary lifestyle without much exercise. A healthy diet, ample exercise, and enjoying as much beauty as we can may not guarantee a good life, but they certainly help.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss

Sunday, 22 September 2013