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Why Aren't The Swiss Fat?

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I just got back from snowboarding in Switzerland over the holiday. My friends have a family chalet in Vercorin, a couple hours outside Geneva. The picturesque town is complete with a tiny grocery and bakery that rests 1300 vertical meters up a long windy road from the valley. The summit is another 1000 meters up from there. Their chalet couldn't have a more perfect location. It sits above the town giving breathtaking snowy rooftop views, and is conveniently steps away from the ski trail. So the last run of each day we boarded our way into their back yard, and headed into the house for some hot chocolate. Pretty awesome!

Our friend Alex met us at the train station in the valley and drove us up to town. We parked and grabbed our bags. I thought we had arrived, but not quite. In the winter the last stretch of road leading up to the chalet is covered with ice and snow and is not driveable. So here is where the hike begins.

Ah ha! That's when it dawned on me. The Swiss are in such great shape because they climb mountains just to get in their front door! In addition to snowboarding that week we snowshoed and hiked along some of the 250km of footpaths that this mountain area provides. It's not uncommon to spot a Swiss person randonnee skiing, otherwise known as ski touring, which is skiing up the mountain. Why pay for a lift ticket when you can go up on your own power? It's interesting to note here that the Swiss do this for fun. It's a respected activity that would call for the equivalent of the American high-five or "props," if you will.

The mountains serve equally as a playground for the Swiss in the summer, for hiking and mountaineering. Unlike American ski areas that turn into ghost towns when the spring snow retreats, the Swiss take full advantage of their mountains every month of the year.

Of course, food is a huge issue when it comes to weight/health management. Fresh fruits, vegetables, bread, wine. chocolate, and cheeses were all enjoyed at the chalet. The freshest water I ever tasted flowed right out of the kitchen faucet. Mireille Guiliano, bestselling author of French Women Don't Get Fat, emphasizes the enjoyment of food. She speaks of her own struggles with weight when she spent time in America as an exchange student, recalling eating while stressed, and on-the-go. She ate too many processed foods, larger portions than necessary, and as a result, gained a lot of weight.

The Journal of Physical Activity and Health released a study titled Walking, Cycling, and Obesity Rates in Europe, North America and Australia in 2008. The study examined the relationship between active transportation and obesity rates. The findings were that countries with more walking and cycling had lower obesity rates. Much lower. That makes sense. What I found shocking was the number of transport calories burned per day in the most active countries was surprisingly low. In 2000, Europeans expended between 48 and 83 calories per person per day in active transportation, compared with 20 calories per person per day in the United States. That's only a sliver of a cupcake! How could that difference possibly contribute to the 8% obesity rate in Switzerland, and the 34% obesity rate in the United States?

This is where it gets really interesting. The metabolic energy requirements for active transport in Europe are roughly equivalent to oxidation of 5 to 9lbs of fat per person per year, compared with only 2lbs in the United States. Weight gain is usually gradual, over time. We've all heard some version of the "5 pounds a year" gain. We aren't healthy one day then the next day obese. How does it happen? The frog in hot water theory comes to mind. If you place a frog in cold water and gradually raise the temperature, the frog won't jump out. It will cook. We are roasting too, just a small amount each day, and forgetting to save ourselves.

Interestingly the survey found that 78% of New Jersey train commuters meet the national recommendations for physical activity, compared with 45% of all U.S. adults. I imagine around 98% of New Yorkers meet the target as well, including our daily hikes all over the city to get everything done. Running to catch a cab should even count for something.

I say, the Swiss have it pretty good. It's their lifestyle. They have gorgeous mountains, fresh air and fresh foods to enjoy. Lucky them! They take mid-day naps and it's in their culture to move at a slower pace than us. Many Americans have 8-12 hour work days accompanied by long commutes, endless highways, strip malls, and bills. When is our time to enjoy life? No wonder we are so obsessed with celebrity culture. They seem to have an easier life and we desperately need an escape from ours. My Swiss friends surprisingly couldn't report any of the names of the Jolie-Pitt kids and weren't the least bit interested in the status of Jen's love life.

So what the heck are we supposed to do? I can't imagine rural Americans walking along the highway several miles to the grocery store to pick up some milk. The risk of getting run over outweighs the potential physical benefits. People get in their car and drive to work. Unless you live in a walking city that's just how it's done. We have to find exercise in other ways. My Dad still chops wood for the wood-burning stove and Mom walks down their long driveway in rural Illinois every day to get the mail. My parents have a lot of common sense when it comes to health. They are modern hippies like that. We have always had a garden that provided us with fresh fruits and vegetables and we've stayed away from junk food mostly, except ice cream which was to be enjoyed almost nightly in my house growing up. The key word again here is enjoyed, going back to Mireille Guiliano's theory. Food is to be enjoyed, not shoveled in.

When your system is clean and you give it the premium stuff like fresh vegetables, fruits and grains, it will perform efficiently. You'll have more energy and feel better than if you give your body the cheap processed stuff like the dollar menu meal at McDonalds. High levels of sodium, sugars, and fat may taste good for a moment, but when repeated daily you won't feel good at all. Fuzzy brain, sugar crashes, food addictions, weight gain, diabetes, vicious cycles, oh my! Give yourself the good stuff. You deserve it! Your health shouldn't be the last priority. It should be the first.

Bestselling author Michael Pollan tells us to maintain a garden if we can, and buy locally from farmers markets. Cook your own food so you know what you are eating. Stay away from eating fast food and processed food as a habit. Pollan said in an interview that going to McDonalds with the grandkids every once in a while isn't going to result in diabetes. It's what we make a habit of, what we do every day that shapes us, literally. He gives an easy-to-understand explanation of how subsidizing corn production for already highly-profitable farms is making high-fructose corn syrup extremely cheap, and therefore a major ingredient in thousands of food items and all fast food joints. So basically the government is subsidizing fast food. Pollan suggests you can vote with your fork. You can choose what you eat and what you feed your kids. Check out these interesting Bill Moyers talks with Michael Pollan for more information on food and agriculture.

We all have to find our own way to health, and use our creativity. Most of us don't have to climb a mountain to go to the grocery store. Take the stairs at work, leave the building and walk out to lunch if you can, eat fresh foods and cook more meals. Re-invent the in-home dinner party with friends. Take back control of your life. Enjoy!

Pollan and several other studies emphasize that food trumps exercise in matters of obesity and health. But how we live has a big impact too, a point made clear in European comparisons. I want to offer a health stimulus package, a bailout for all Americans: a regular yoga practice.

Yoga practice offers a physical release from the high levels of stress that most of us acquire daily. Imagine being able to shed your tension as easily as you take off your coat when you come home. Stress buildup at work and home erased, and replaced with feeling good. Say goodbye to unnecessary arguments and wrinkles.

A vigorous physical yoga practice fills our exercise needs, and leaves us feeling refreshed. Imagine being able to sleep better at night because your body has been efficiently expended during the day. Imagine waking up every morning excited for the day to come. Say goodbye to insomnia, depression, and fatigue.

A meditative yoga practice offers increased self-awareness and intuitive abilities that will aid in better decision making when it comes to all of life's activities, including food. Say goodbye to obesity.

Trip to Switzerland not required. America's health bailout plan is ready to go right here at home. Everything you need is right there within you.

We should celebrate rather than poke fun at the growing popularity of yoga in the America. It's silly to fight over what style of yoga is better, who is the best teacher, and who is the most advanced. We need to encourage and raise the level of teaching and practice in Americans. This sort of movement grows from person to person. If you know a great yoga teacher, share the class with friends. Bring co-workers to your yoga class. Ask around and learn how to cultivate a home practice that's both physical and meditative. Then share your knowledge and benefits with others.

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