Why Do We Make It So Hard for Ourselves?

by DavalosMcCormack on July 29, 2008

I recently moved to a new office. It’s nothing fancy, just a cubicle in a fairly ordinary looking office block. But several things that have happened since moving in have highlighted for me the problems we all face in trying to lead healthy lives, even when we really want to.

My cubicle is on the fifth floor of the building, so I have to take the elevator up to my cubicle every day. I have to take it because you can’t use the stairs. They’re locked. Oh, you can get out in an emergency if you need to but you can’t use them to get up and down during the day. Not even if you just want to walk down one flight. So if you are on the fifth floor and want to see someone on the fourth floor, you have to take the elevator down. Then take it back up.

I’ve asked for a key to the stairwell so I can use the stairs but so far I haven’t been able to get one. I’ve been told that limiting access from the stairs to the offices is for security purposes. They are trying to make sure people don’t just wander in off the streets and walk up the stairs to the different offices and steal things. It struck me as odd that the only people in America these days apparently using the stairs are crooks!

Now, at a time when people are being told they need to be more active, where every health-related website or fitness expert is talking about easy ways to get more activity into your life such as “taking the stairs”, it seems a little ridiculous that many offices don’t allow you to do that. In fact, by forcing people to take the elevator we are not only being prevented from burning up a little human energy, we are also burning up fossil-fueled energy to get from floor to floor.

If we could just open the damn doors we could solve the obesity problem and reduce greenhouse emissions all at the same time. Well, maybe not quite, but it would be a start!

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the office manager then removed a big refrigerator from the break-room and replaced it with several large vending machines. So, at one stroke they took away people’s ability to bring in food and keep it cool and fresh, and forced them to buy snacks from the machine.

OK, so no one is being forced to buy a snack, but if you get peckish in the middle of the day and you don’t have anywhere to store things like fruit or yogurt and keep it fresh where are you going to go to get something to nibble on? Right. The vending machine. Which happens to be chock-full of candy and chocolate and chips and sodas.

What is particularly ironic about all this is that I work for a hospital (though I should point out this is an office building and there are no patients here). We’re supposed to be in the business of promoting health, encouraging people to lead a more active lifestyle and eat a more balanced diet, to reduce their risk of ending up in the hospital. Maybe business is slow and this is a way to get a few more customers, to drum up some new patients!

By themselves these are just small things. But over time small things like this add up. People don’t have time to cook a healthy meal every night because they are so busy taking the kids to and from soccer or music or whatever. Our jobs are increasingly desk-bound so we are sedentary all day. Then we sit in cars or buses or trains on our way home. Once winter rolls around it’s too cold, in many parts of the U.S., to exercise outdoors. So, increasingly our options for activity are narrowed down. And when the buildings we work in are making it impossible to use the stairs then yet one more opportunity for a little exercise is being taken away.

Not to draw too profound a conclusion from what is, after all, a relatively small example, but this shows that if we are to become a healthier society it’s going to take greater awareness from everyone. Individuals clearly need to start taking more responsibility for what they eat and how active they are. But companies, governments etc need to play their part in making it easier for people to be active and having healthy food options.

That means companies opening up staircases so people can go up and down. That means state and local governments keeping community centers or school gymnasiums open at night so people can go there and exercise after work. These are not difficult things to do, but over the years we have become so concerned with protecting ourselves – from thieves using stairwells or the risk of law-suits because someone slipped in a gym working out – that we have ended up limiting what we can do or where we can go. And those steps are posing a much greater threat to our health.

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