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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  3/1/2018

Gung Hay FAT Choy

Did you watch much of the recent Winter Olympics? I watched quite a bit of the coverage although I had a hard time getting excited about some of the arcane sports: why am I suddenly supposed to care about this? From biathlon to bobsled, from slope style to moguls… I know these athletes are dedicated and hard-working and incredibly skilled at their chosen sports, but still, a little goes a long way.

Anyway, this isn’t really about the Olympics. But watching all those different events left me pondering a curious contrast. On the one hand, we were seeing these lean, super-fit athletes doing their amazing exploits, and then, during the commercial breaks, we were buried under an avalanche of ads for the most fattening, unfit foods imaginable. It seemed like every fast food burger chain in the country bought ad time and trotted out their most over-the-top mega-monster-double-patty-bacon-cheese cholesterol whoppers. If it wasn’t the burger burghers it was some restaurant chain offering us heaven on a heaping platter of deep-fried somethings. Or it was the cola folks.

Okay, time to insert the usual disclaimer: I have written other columns about the dire state of our national diet, once, in a general way, in February, 2005 (A Voice Crying in the Wilderness) and again, in detail, in May, 2009 (The Vast Waistland). In both columns I stressed that I am not setting up shop as some health food nazi. While I consider my own diet mostly moderate and wholesome, I do like some things that would make a true health food fanatic blanche. I never patronize those fast food burger joints but I do end up in a few brew pubs now and then, and when I do I’m likely to order something like a cubano or a platter of batter-fried calimari. So no holier-than-thou from me. What I eat is not better than what you eat. 

This column isn’t even about wholesome food choices, or not exactly. In broad outline it’s about putting on weight. That’s pretty much exactly what The Vast Waistland column covered. (I just reread it for the first time in years and it’s pretty good.) But what made me want to revisit the issue, nine years later, is a recent report from the World Health Organization pointing out that being overweight or even obese is no longer a uniquely American pandemic. Now being fat is becoming all too common in almost all developed countries. According to the report, China’s percentage of chubbos is rising faster than almost any other country’s. (I came upon an article about the report right around the Chinese New Year, hence the header at the top.) If you google something like “worldwide obesity” you’ll find the WHO report or articles about it.

The column from 2005 was only tangentially about being overweight. It was a lament about the ways our world is being developed…ways that favor the automobile over other forms of transit. A fair bit of it was devoted to China, just emerging from its long slumber under the old communist rule and now barreling full speed ahead into a future built around cars. Remember, not all that long ago, when we all thought of the Chinese as the great nation of cyclists? Everyone rode a bike. But it wasn’t some health-driven choice for those billions of bikers. It was all they could afford. Given enough prosperity, they dumped their bikes and bought their first cars in the millions. That’s all well documented. 

Now, a dozen years later, one of the results of swapping their bikes for cars is that their rate of obesity is rising at a spectacular rate. I noted in that piece that India was coming along right behind China in the race to grab the big brass ring of prosperity and plenty. That is holding true for being fat as well: more prosperity, more cars, less exercise, more food, more fatties. America is still the runaway world leader in terms of obesity, but China and India are now catching up. A rising tide bloats all folks.

The central premise of that Waistland column was simple: if you eat the same (or more) but exercise less, you are going to gain weight. Duh! Add in the slowing of our metabolism as we age and things only get worse. Back then I noted that, thanks to a high-revving metabolism and many, many miles of hard, hammerin’ biking, I was still holding my own—almost—in the battle of the bulge. Giving ground grudgingly. In my early sixties, I was still within a few pounds of what I considered my optimum weight. Now, in my early seventies, a few more pounds have come to visit and don’t seem inclined to leave anytime soon.

Slowing metabolism aside, the big culprit for me is my miles, or my lack of miles: about 4000 fewer per year than back in my heyday. In other columns—as recently as last month—I have somewhat complacently confessed that I no longer worry about pounding out the big miles. After a lifetime of biking, there are other things capturing my interest lately. That’s fine. But every one of those miles not ridden represents a fair number of calories not burned. That adds up. It pads up, right around my middle. When I went shopping for pants recently, I finally conceded the point that it is unlikely that padding will go away…not with the way I’m riding. So I moved from the 33” rack to the 34” section. I’m not too happy about it, but at least the pants are comfortable.

If there is any cold comfort in this situation for me it’s that I am not alone. All those stats about overweight or obese Americans? That includes cyclists. Supposedly, cycling as a demographic would select toward lean, mean calorie burners. Certainly at the level of serious racers, you do still see those whippet-thin bodies. To some extent it’s true for the longer, harder marathon rides as well…doubles and big brevets. But for the crowd signing up for your average century or 100-K? Not so much. Based on my entirely unscientific observation of the riders around me on a typical century these days, I would say a big old boy packed tightly into an XXL jersey is going to be a much more common sight than some skinny guy in a race-cut medium. Ditto for the women. And these are folks in their 20s and 30s and 40s…not in their 60s or 70s. Porky is the new normal.

My use of terms such as fatty and porky and chubbo might suggest I am dissing all those overweight people. Not really, unless I’m also dissing myself. I now count myself as one of their number. And while it’s not a club I ever wanted to join, here I am, taking up a little more horizontal space than I used to. I spent a lifetime being lean and now I’m not. It’s a new reality for me and like the old adage about walking a mile in the other guy’s shoes, I now have a little more empathy for all the people who are over on the roly poly end of the spectrum. I have a little more appreciation for how hard it is to take the pounds off and keep them off. 

I know I’m not going to ramp back up to the miles I used to do. Those days are gone. But at least when I do get out I’m working myself a bit: Spring Mountain, King Ridge, Mt Tam. Grinding up those wicked walls has not yet produced any impressive results when I stand on the scale—or look in the mirror—but at least I’m feeling like it’s not a lost cause…not yet anyway.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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