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In defense of walking: more on Honda's Uni-Cub, obesity, and our burden on resources

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At the risk of being labeled the guy on this blog who hates fat people, I want to follow up with a little bit more on the Honda Uni-Cub that I wrote about a few weeks ago. It hit a nerve when I suggested that engineering even more walking out of our daily lifestyles was not an awesome idea. I even suggested that it was one more flabby footed step towards the world of Wall-E, where our rather obese descendants cruise around on motorized La-Z-Boys with built in TVs and Big Gulp holders.

And you emailed and commented and tweeted that I had it all wrong and I wasn't thinking about the disabled, or that I was discounting every transportation advancement since we learned to ride horses. But I was considerate of genuine use cases (read: disabilities) and I maintained that my main point was valid: we should walk!

And I still feel that way. I'll point to a new study by Dr. Ian Roberts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that suggests we should consider humanity's weight when thinking about Earth's resources - not just population size. NPR's Linda Wertheimer has an interview with Dr. Roberts entitled - I didn't make this up - "Fat People Burden Earth's Resources". The researchers suggest that it isn't just feeding mouths we need to worry about, but feeding flesh, and moving all of that flesh around in cars, buses, and trains. Dr. Roberts says:

When the media talk about obesity in the United States, they always talk about certain individuals that have this problem, obesity, but what they miss is actually the whole population is getting fatter - even the thin people are getting fatter. So we worked out that if every country in the world had the same body mass index distribution as the United States, in mass terms it would be like having an extra billion people in the world. So there's obviously an increase demand on food supplies, but also there is an increased demand on everything. You know, bigger people need more energy to move them. Airplanes take more energy to get off the ground. It takes more of the shares that, you know, of the Earth's resources to actually support all that extra weight.

An extra billion people! That's like adding on another India or China. Think of the line at Chipotle!

And data from the CDC's obesity maps show Americans packing on the pounds in the last 25 years. In 1985, for the data available, no state had obesity rates greater than 15% (obesity as defined for individuals with a Body Mass Index greater than 30). In 2010, no state has an obesity rate lower than 20%, with most states, including Texas and parts of the south, with rates greater than 30%.

If you head over to the CDC's site, you can click through maps for each year. I find it unsettling to see obesity rates increase and spread across the country like an outbreak.

Next time you're driving around, take a look at the cars around you. Not only are we getting bigger, but our cars are inflating, as are our airplanes, food portions, and sodas. Take the best selling car in America, the Toyota Camry. An average Toyota Camry in 1985 had a wheelbase of 100 inches and weighed in at 2,300 pounds. Fast forward to 2012, and the Camry has grown another 9 inches and tips the scale at nearly 3,200 pounds. Granted, some of the additional weight is due to safety features, but the point is clear: we're getting bigger, and so are the things that move us around.

As our food appetite grows, so does our hunger for energy.

So when I see a video of the Uni-Cub cruising around, I concede that it is an impressive feat of engineering; a package of lithium-ion batteries, gyroscopes, and wireless technology. But for those of us who are able-bodied, I hope we keep walking.

Walking isn’t going to solve all of our health or energy problems. But if we’re using more energy to move ourselves around because we all weigh more, doesn’t it make sense not to engineer something out of our lives that burns calories, gets us places, and is natural? No technology needed!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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