Will we survive the next hundred years? At the rate we're going, we're either going to blow ourselves up or eat ourselves to death. As individuals we have little influence over macro events, but we have choice over the variables that impact on our size and health. Right? We have the capacity to rationally understand and avoid the lifestyle that leads to degenerative diseases and premature death -- sleep deprivation, a poor quality diet and lack of exercise. Right?
Apparently, the answers to the above questions are wrong and wrong. No pun intended, but this topic has been written about to death. Regardless of how hard people try to take control of their lives, to date, most fail miserably. We have become a nation of sick, obese people. At the rate we're going, it is estimated that virtually 100 percent of the population will be obese by 2048. So what's left to talk about?
Well, perhaps we can expand on a couple of ideas that might, when fused together, provide a framework for generating a more useful strategy for dealing with this overwhelming problem.
The first concept worth exploring is sensory feedback, the information that we are continually receiving from our bodies as well as the external environment. In an earlier post I talked about how infants are born with organic intelligence -- the ability to sense satiety, fatigue and the need to move. Infants never overeat, delay sleep or remain immobile while awake. These feedback mechanisms are hardwired into the brain. Over time, due to a complex combination of family and cultural conditioning, children develop amnesia for this sensory information. In essence, we become "viscerally blind."
The second idea worthy of attention is digital addiction. This needs very little explanation since it is universal. We are all smartphone junkies. Whenever there's a pause in the flow of everyday life, heads go down and screens light up. Cell phones and thumbs rule the world. So, the question becomes, how can digital addiction -- a perceived negative behavior -- couple with sensory feedback to provide a strategy for healthy living?
Here's the idea. We all know of the wave of wearable devices (soon to be joined by the Apple Watch) that generate feedback about movement, eating and sleep. Typically, these wristbands calculate steps taken, calories consumed/burned and hours slept.
Before anyone gets all up in arms about the accuracy and value of the current generation of trackers, let's make the following assumption: Over the next decade the quality and accuracy of these devices will improve dramatically offering not only better data, but more. If my assumption were correct, then becoming addicted to this feedback would be extremely beneficial. So where do we go from here to make this concept more useful?
The answer is "young." I'm thinking kindergarten as an ideal place to begin introducing this kind of device within the context of a lifestyle-learning program lasting through elementary school. Build these feedback mechanisms into a child's life so, like learning a language which is always easier when you're young, one becomes fluent. In this case it's the language of human energy -- food, calories, exercise, muscles, heart rate, breathing, sleep, etc.
This strategy would build both a foundation for healthy living and an academic platform for traditional subjects like math and science. For example, instead of numbers simply being abstract concepts, why not create an arithmetic curriculum with problems focused on calories, exercise and food. The older the child is, the more complex the set of problems. In other words, inject practical importance into traditionally dull schoolwork.
The key to all of this is continually reinforcing awareness of internal feedback mechanisms so that choices are governed by organically intelligent needs and not by external stimulation. Consequently, some variation of mindfulness training woven into the fabric of a child's day-to-day school experience could provide that necessary component.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell noted that to become really proficient at anything, you need 10,000 hours of practice. Well, one can make a case that children watching the poor lifestyle habits of adults for 10,000 hours (a conservative estimate) will similarly achieve a high level of proficiency. Unfortunately, in this case, proficiency is disastrous.
Are we really prepared to deal with the catastrophic consequences of training another generation in how to become obese?