Tag Archives: health

Forest bathing

May 24, 2014

Cities can be stressful places. Crowds, traffic, crime, grime, offices, jobs, chairs, factories, chemicals, freeways, too many odiferous White Castle locations — it wears on a body. The industry formed around reducing stress to manageable levels is vast and worth some stressful number of dollars. Fortunately, many of the ways to counteract the stresses of living and living in cities are cheap and abundant. Breathing deeply, walking around, and finding some nature are obvious antidotes.

Finding nature, even in a city known for its wilderness — its pheasants and hawks, coyotes and foxes, fields of tall grass and sprawling mulberry trees — can be tricky. Officially, there’s Belle Isle, of course, and Rouge Park, and, if you’re really desperate, the meager route of the concrete-encased Dequindre Cut Greenway. But the pursuit of the real forest experience, free from the sounds and scents of civilization, encourages some Detroiters to trek outside the city.


What is it about nature that is so deeply relaxing to human physiology? Studies have demonstrated that simply looking at pictures of woodsy scenes calms the brain. Scientists have also been reviving and formally investigating the effects of supposedly traditional practices like forest bathing. Forest bathing! Just the phrase sounds like a balm for our frenetic selves. The Finnish Forest Research Institute is conducting a multi-year study on forests and human wellbeing, and South Korea is investing $140 million in a new National Forest Therapy Center. Japan is the leader in forest medicine, with 48 forest therapy trails as of 2012, and 52 more planned in the coming years. This is a big step beyond, for example, the healing gardens boasted by American hospitals that want to bill themselves as more progressive, holistic, green, and genuinely caring.

The Japanese government coined the term for forest bathing in 1982 — shinrin-yoku, defined as “making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest.” Inspired by ancient Buddhist and Shinto practices, it was a nondestructive way to use Japan’s forests, which cover two-thirds of the country, and to soothe a perpetually wired, frenetic society that has the third-highest suicide rate in the developed world. The government funnelled about $4 million into forest-bathing research between 2004 and 2012. Studies had already shown that hanging out in the woods benefits anxiety, depression, creativity, and cognition, but nobody really knew what was happening to the body on a molecular level.

Two scientists have shaped careers around coming up with an answer to this puzzle. Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a physiological anthropologist at Chiba University, might be forest medicine’s biggest proponent. He’s studied the myriad effects of nature on the body, comparing nature walks versus city walks according to various measures of stress — biological markers like cortisol levels, sympathetic nervous system activity, blood pressure, heart rate — and subjective ratings of moods, anxiety, and depression. Florence Williams, author of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, visited one of Miyazaki’s research stations in 2012, writing compellingly about her experience for Outside Magazine. As Miyazaki told her, “Throughout our evolution, we’ve spent 99.9 percent of our time in natural environments. Our physiological functions are still adapted to it. During everyday life, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.” In short, because humans evolved in nature, it’s where our bodies feel most at ease, even if our minds don’t know it.

Qing Li, an immunologist at Nippon University in Tokyo and chairman of the International Society of Forest Medicine, has also made some fascinating advances. Li’s work deals with identifying the individual natural components that make our bodies respond in such favorable ways. Li suspected that, in addition to the sight of nature, the scent of evergreens and other trees had a considerable role in the health benefits of forest bathing. He tested this by leaving subjects in hotel rooms with cypress aromatherapy, finding that their numbers of natural killer cells, which protect against infection and cancer, had similar increases with the simulated indoor “forest” and a visit to the real thing. Anyone up for a walk in the woods with some cypress aromatherapy tied around their neck?


Aims of forest wellness absent, Detroit isn’t without significant arboreal attention. The Greening of Detroit has been reforesting the city for the past 25 years, planting over 81,000 trees. It sponsors plantings all over the city every few weeks, and residents can apply to plant trees in their neighborhoods with the Greening’s assistance. This helps, but it’s not meant to make a forest. Last week, Hantz farms did a massive tree planting over 20 acres on the east side, the beginnings of what will be Detroit’s first forest in a while.

Volunteers spent Saturday morning plugging 15,000 trees into pre-dug holes at a cost of about $20,000, an amount Hantz Farms expects it will take a long time, if ever, before the tree farm breaks even. The new saplings are white birch, bur and swamp white oaks, flowering dogwoods, and sugar maples. No cypress, no firs or pines, Hantz Farms? Too bad. There are plans to tap the maples for syrup when they come to a riper age. As part of their hopelessly controversial deal in purchasing the land from the city, they’re forbidden to sell anything, making the more traditional agriculture they had in mind unfeasible. Instead, the trees will beautify and be a showpiece for what is possible with a large-scale urban farm. Nice, huh? For now, there’s not a lot to look at. A video drone captured a disorienting view of the neat rows of holes in the ground.

How open to the public will the new woodlands be? Can visitors freely wander through the rows and admire the trees? Hantz Farms hopes that the soon-to-be majestic stands of white birches and flowering dogwoods will attract visitors to the neighborhood, “a place of beauty in the lower east side that people can go out of their way to see in the spring,” as president Mike Score said in a radio interview. Hopefully this will be more meaningful than just a slow drive through the streets, a parade of idling vehicles offsetting the good atmosphere generated by the trees. Hantz Farms has been glowing with praise from the immediate community, about 200 of whom were believed to have attended the tree planting. According to surveys, 94% of neighbors supported the project. That’s much better than recent outcries over the Greening of Detroit’s dendroremediation projects, where frustrated residents voiced fears of air pollution as contaminated soil was unearthed. As John Hantz told the Free Press on Saturday, “It’s really a community deal happening today,” he said. “How many more people are out walking now? This will be the first summer they can walk to church instead of drive because they feel safe.” Let’s hope this is what happens!

Paradoxically, other dreams for significant reforestation in Detroit have been regarded with little but skepticism. Encouraging the growth of a dense forest was suspected to result in more places for criminals, rapists, drug users, and other objectionable types to hang out. If open spaces deter crime, some of the homes adjacent to Hantz Farms’ woodland might be in trouble, situated immediately next to the new trees. Will the trees be equipped with security cameras? It’s a strange deal to live in a city that turns increasingly wild as the years ebb — the quiet woods a tradeoff for the peace of mind in living within easy sight of each other that urban neighbors expect. Whatever the eventual social outcome, at least, according to data from researchers like Miyazaki, Li, and others, it might do wonders for residents’ blood pressure.

Unplug and play

May 7, 2014

Hello from Screen-Free Week! Screen-Free Week is a collective effort to “spend seven days turning OFF digital entertainment* and turning ON life! It’s a time to unplug and play, read, daydream, create, explore nature, and spend time with family and friends. *work and school assignments not included.” I’m actually writing this on my Etch-a-Sketch, so it doesn’t count. Surely no one gets hit by a car Etch-a-Sketching while walking.


The virtues of spending time without screens have made the news lately, for reasons beside the obvious or usual — obesity, heart disease, depression, other depressing conditions. Julia Filip, writing for the Atlantic, put together a tidy summary regarding the alarming worldwide increase in myopia. It’s not news, but in “Nearsightedness and the Indoor Life,” she suggests that we all get outside a bit more, reporting that between the 1970s and the turn of the century, myopia rates increased 66% among people between the ages of 12 and 54. The situation isn’t getting any less blurry. One quarter of people on the planet need glasses, a number that is forecasted to increase to a third by 2020 (futuristic as it sounds, that’s in just six years).

Much research is under way to find out why children need glasses at younger and younger ages, and what can mitigate the more serious longterm health risks that can arise from fuzzy vision. Filip talked with Dr. Maria Liu, head of the Myopia Control Clinic that opened last year at University of California, Berkeley. “The eyeballs are very adaptive while they are developing,” Liu explained. “If we impose a lot of near work on the eyes as they are developing, the eyes will interpret nearsightedness as being the normal state.” Filip writes,

Although modern lifestyle makes it harder to fight the disorder, there is something parents can do to prevent its early onset. “Increasing outdoor activities is a very strong protective factor for myopia,” Liu said. “Whether it is because hormonal levels are different outdoors, or because the light intensity is stronger, or because we do less close-up work, it has been shown consistently that outdoor activity is very protective and tends to slow the rate of progression.”

Taking breaks from myopia-inducing work every ten minutes and “looking in the distance” is also quaintly suggested. Last fall, Brian Palmer covered the subject for Slate, looking at studies comparing child development in Australia and Singapore and its impact on vision. Suspiciously, he notes that “small children look adorable in eyeglasses” — why do people like the sight of impaired kids so much? Maybe this early-onset myopia is a greater survival adaptation than we give it credit.

Palmer focuses on the outdoor aspect of the puzzle, saying that if near-work is really the culprit, it’s problematic for culture and education. Let kids be healthy and illiterate, or teach them to read and risk retinal detachment? “If the problem is just a matter of light intensity, however, you could send your child outside to read,” Palmer writes after reviewing some studies done with rhesus monkeys, who, you can bet, were not reading anything. Unable to suggest a solution, he goes on to cite statistics on childrens’ lost time outdoors.

What can we do? Lots! Screen-Free Week has a few relevant recommendations among their “essential handouts.” They look remarkably like living a normal life, but, perhaps, without stopping to text every three minutes. (Screens for communication are, however, permissible). Anybody want to go build a fort, taking care to include breaks every ten minutes to look into the distance?


Vitamins and minerals

January 17, 2014

As more people abandon their minty new resolutions and slip back into old habits, the fervor over the merits of movement increases. Walking is touted as a magic solution to making you happier, saving you money (also a very popular resolution), reducing anxiety, promoting better sleep, and pretty much any positive effect, probably even retroactively giving you that pony you wanted for Christmas as a kid. To add another gold star atop the seasonal hype, walking, when done properly, can also assist you in getting some of the vitamins and minerals you need.

Specifically, vitamin D is one necessary substance the body is able to produce in abundance, if given the opportunity. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, reduces inflammation, regulates cell growth, and supports neuromuscular and immune function. While plenty of it can be procured from foods or supplements, why not make it yourself? It’s fun and foolproof — a little bit of skin exposed to sunlight will do all the work. Even on these hibernal days, that’s not too tough.

It could be worse -- snowpeople, apparently, do not make vitamin D with sunshine.

It could be worse — snowpeople, apparently, do not make vitamin D with sunshine.

After all, what are our alternatives? In Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, one of Edible Geography’s top books of 2013, Melanie Warner looks at the food-processing industry and spends a chapter tracing the manufacture of the vitamins that make our meals complete.

The path starts in a strange place. Following the course of a ship leaving Australia, filled with all the raw material goods “you’d expect to be exported out of Australia”, Warner accounts its landing weeks later in the ports of Shanghai. “There isn’t a lot of historical precedent for wool being transported along this route,” she says, but recently China has been importing about 50% more Australian wool than it did at the beginning of the century.

“This is about much more than the manufacture of sweaters. Much of the wool China buys is equally valued for the grease embedded in it as for the wool itself. As ducks secrete oil to make their feathers waterproof, sheep produce a similar fatty substance that helps protect them from harsh weather. Australia’s wool is particularly greasy, and this grease — or various derivatives of it — is useful for making a whole slew of industrial and consumer products. Some portions go to produce lubricants for machinery and waterproofing for boats. Others, like lanolin, become lip gloss, moisturizer, and sunscreens.

And there’s another end point for this grease — something hardly anyone would ever associate with wool. At a factory in Dongyang, a burgeoning industrial center on China’s eastern coast, the grease’s cholesterol component is used to make Vitamin D. Zhejiang Garden Biochemical is the world’s largest maker of this vitamin — one that goes into nearly all the milk Americans consume (including organic varieties), as well as many of our breakfast cereals, breads, bars, margarine, and other dairy products.”

Ironic, then, that the ability to shield ourselves from the sun and to make up what we miss from its light are both derived from the same animal product. Why ship your vitamins across the globe if you can get them just blocks from your home? Isn’t it preferable to ensure enough vitamin D in your body with some simple, outdoor steps? Sunlight, even on a cloudy day, and fresh air (don’t walk by the incinerator) will be more certain help than synthetic compounds of questionable purity and efficacy.

No healthy bones for this snowperson, who has not been eating its vegetables.

No healthy bones for this snowperson, who has not been eating its vegetables.

Miscellaneously, as Warner discusses in an adjacent chapter, the feuding Kellogg brothers, cofounders of the sugary-sweet, vitamin D-fortified cereal empire, both lived to the advanced age of 91. In the late 1890s, John Harvey Kellogg developed a healthy dried-grain breakfast for former patients of his sanitarium in Battle Creek. His younger brother, Will Keith Kellogg, came to work with him. While John was out of town on business, W. K. tweaked the recipe for cornflakes, their breakthrough after various wheat-based concoctions, to include a measure of sugar. Customers were delighted and sales attained unprecedented heights. The only person who wasn’t thrilled was John, who demanded that the sugar be removed. When Will refused to acquiesce, the two split, with John maintaining the sanitarium, becoming increasingly destitute after the Depression, while W. K. Kellogg raked in the fortune.

One can only infer that W. K. most likely indulged in these new and improved cornflakes, though as Seventh-Day Adventists, both brothers kept to a strict vegetarian diet and reportedly avoided other vices. The pinch of sugar doesn’t seem to have impoverished his life any, and sheep-grease supplements were not all the rage then as they apparently are now. The twin spans of their longevity seem as good evidence as any against the verity of health claims put forth by these manufacturers of wholesome products.


January 15, 2014

It’s hard to believe it’s the ides of January already, well past the holiday season judging by the number of evergreens thrown to the curb.


Around the holidays, still in the thick of celebrations, the radio was already abuzz with ardent talk of resolutions for the new year. Shows about lush holiday entertaining were broadcast adjacent to those on which guests were interrogated about how they might resolve to become their better selves in a few days. As usual, a notable majority talked about being healthier. Women polled about their resolutions were more concerned with losing weight, while getting fit was how men envisioned their new year goal.

Since then, the media situation has not improved. Articles with instructions on sticking to these sometimes unrealistic expectations have proliferated, along with supporting materials. New York Times writer Jane Brody calls this the “Empty Diet Claim Season,” and reports being overwhelmed by 25 pounds of new cookbooks arriving at the office. Targeted to aid weight loss and wellbeing, titles such as Cavewomen Don’t Get Fat and Weight Loss for People Who Feel Too Much offer myriad ways to accomplish these aims.

Advice that can be easily assimilated from the comfort of a favorite couch or armchair means well, but the consensus is that neither diet nor exercise alone will cut it. Walking is an easy resolution target, too often seen as a compelling way to court fitness without breaking too great a sweat. While it might help maintain some level of fitness, walking isn’t going to get you in shape on its own, at least at the poky pace most of us move.

Some people vow to walk more; others to walk faster in response to recent research analyzing data from the National Walkers’ Health Study. Using data collected from almost 39,000 walkers, albeit a disproportionately female sample, researchers divided the walkers into four categories based on their typical speed as measured by a six-minute walk test. All four categories boasted suspiciously high speeds — the fastest group walking a mile in under 13.5 minutes and the slowest dawdling at almost 17 or more minutes per mile, which is still an above-average 3.57 mph.

In the slowest group, however, many walkers needed 20 minutes to finish their mile, the number of minutes by which Google times directions, and some took as many as 24 minutes. Comparing walking data with death records more than a decade after the study took place, the researchers discovered something not wholly surprising — the walkers in the fourth group were 18% more likely to have died, especially from heart disease or dementia.

The unexpected news from the study was that the death rate was still high for the slowest walkers even when adjusted for duration of their walk. Taking a longer walk, thereby expending as much total energy as a person walking “vigorously” for a half hour daily, did nothing to help the participants’ risk of dying. The very slowest walkers were actually 44 percent more likely to have died than others in the study, despite duration of walking or other exercise.

Who can tell, though, the researchers concluded, which problem came first — a lethargic walking speed or an underlying health condition, or whether the capacity for high intensity exercise is a characteristic independent of habitual physical activity. And although results were adjusted for other risk factors such as smoking, it’s worth noting that the fastest walkers also ate a lot more fruit, a lot less meat, and imbibed a shockingly higher quantity of alcohol than the slowest walkers.

All in all, whether such a study comes off as sound science or ableist propaganda, we’re still in favor of walks, long walks, and honoring the comfortable human pace at which we evolved to move. As avid New York walker Maggie Nesciur said, “I don’t walk fast; I don’t walk slow; I walk at my own speed,” her steady voice revealing a deep sense of integrity. It would be ideal if this pace happened to be the ultra-healthy 4.45 mph of the fastest walkers in the study, but as long as you can finish crossing the street without getting hit by a surge of traffic, it’s probably fine.

If not, one of the best parts of resolutions is how easily they can be changed, unlike the habits they are often meant to modify. Since many resolution-makers are already entirely off track by now, just two weeks into the new year, it’s about time to make some new resolutions anyway.

The rules

February 23, 2013

Walking into the world surrounding Harper High School in Chicago is entering a whole nother realm. A place it may be best not to walk into at all, actually, at least not without following the rules.

Rule number one, look at a map.
Rule number two, never walk by yourself.
Rule number three, never walk with someone else.

Confused yet? This American Life was too, so it sent three reporters to the school near which twenty-nine student shootings took place last year. Arriving at the school at the beginning of the academic year, they stayed for a full semester, and then they made this radio program. There is so much going on at Harper High School that the show was divided into halves; Part One aired last week, followed by another hour this week.

Rule number four, don’t use the sidewalk.
Every day at dismissal, kids drift out of Harper High School and walk along Wood Street– actually, right down the middle of Wood Street. It’s a strange scene. Cars drive slowly, waiting for students to move out of the way. One teacher told me that when she first arrived at Harper, she thought this was just plain hooliganism. The teenagers taking over. One afternoon, a girl named Alex explained, that’s not it at all.
“We feel safer like this. For some reason, we just feel safe like that. we never like to walk past trees and stuff, there’s too much stuff going on.”
“Too much stuff going on” is shorthand here for the shootings, the fights, the craziness. It’s better to walk down the middle of the street, where you can keep a broad view of things, and where you have a few more seconds to run if you need to.

"Too much stuff going on."

“Too much stuff going on.”

Some students in particularly compromising situations receive rides to and from school from administrators, and some choose not to leave the house except to go to school.

Chatting with a student named Deonte, the reporter asked, “Do you ever go out, just around the neighborhood?” Deonte insightfully replied, “Oh, no. No, not at all. And in a way, that can be bad as well. Because that’s when depression is easy to set in. That took a hold of me, because I’ve been in the house for about three years. I’ve been staying in the house a lot.”

What would you do?

Listen to Harper High School, Part One and Part Two and give it some thought.

Walking in a winter wonderland

December 28, 2012

The first snowfall of the year coincided unsurprisingly with an increased interest in ways to move around in the winter months without getting too cold. Treadmill desks have been rolling through the collective consciousness, perhaps outpacing the good old standing desk in news mentions. Remember the fuss last year about how, suddenly, sitting is lethal? The surest antidote for this was standing desks for office and home, in upstanding tradition just like Hemingway and so many others. Perhaps standing is the new sitting, and to further optimize our every moment, we must move more and faster than before, walking instead of merely loafing in place.

“Can you move it and work it on a treadmill desk?” asks Patti Neighmond as she puts one through its paces for the benefit of NPR listeners. She initially assumed that it would be an easy transition, but questions whether it is possible to accomplish thoughtful work on one of these machines.

“I thought I’d simply hop on the treadmill and be off walking all day while working. But it turns out it’s really hard to walk, talk, think and concentrate.

James Levine, an obesity expert at the Mayo Clinic who came up with the idea of the treadmill desk, told me that my experience was pretty typical. “There’s a tendency to want to jump on the treadmill and walk for hours and hours a day,” he says. “Don’t do that. Certainly, at the absolute maximum, do half-hour on, half an hour off, for two to three hours a day.””

That’s not a very long walk.

Walking is a wonderful pursuit in part because no special equipment is required — no rackets, swimsuits, golf clubs, rollerblades, patch kits for tire tubes, kneepads, goggles. Anyone can do it, lots of it, for free. Yes, shake your nordic walking pole as reproachfully as you like; it’s true. In the case of the treadmill desk, the entire premise is equipment.

So where, other than perceived necessity, did these contraptions come from? Treadmills have been around for centuries, about 4,000 of them, and have been used to pump water, grind grain, or operate machinery. They were an unfortunate feature of prisons through the late nineteenth century. Circumstances began to shift in the 1950s when treadmills were put to greater good as a diagnostic tool for heart and lung disease.

The big breakthrough came in the late 1960s when they were repurposed for home use. William Staub developed the curiously named PaceMaster 600 after reading Aerobics by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who was troubled by the dearth of affordable home treadmills to keep fit the weather-adverse.

How, then, did the treadmill morph from this glamourless beast hulking in the dark corners of basements and storage units, dreaming of a spandex and legwarmers 1980’s resurgence? The treadmill desk has actually been around longer than lore has it. While James Levine, an endocrinologist with the Mayo Clinic, is often cited as developing the first treadmill desk in 2005, the first to put the two together was actually Dr. Seth Roberts, a professor of psychology from University of California Berkeley, who began using one in 1996. Dr. Roberts freely admits that the popularization of treadmill desks is due to Levine’s efforts; he himself stopped walking while he worked after a few years. He wanted to move freely around the room, rather than trudging monotonously along the same path.

Dr. Levine was inspired by his research on non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, which he defines as “the energy expenditure associated with all the activities we undertake as vibrant, independent beings.” In 2005 he published a study showing that people who are continually engaging their muscles in activities such as fidgeting, standing, or basically anything other than slumping in a chair all day, burn more calories. He now markets activity consulting services and a $4,000 treadmill desk called the Walkstation, and “works at 0.7 miles an hour.”

Walking on a treadmill differs in essence from walking through a place, either indoor or outdoor, and walking on a treadmill harnessed to a desk even more so. While walking outdoors is frequently cited as a way to induce creative thought, or to clear the mind, it is difficult to imagine the slow plod of feet on the treadmill’s belt as particularly inspiring. Fortunately, companies that have implemented walking desks have found increased productivity and revenues, and Levine credits the setup with greater concentration and reduced fatigue, in addition to numerous health benefits.

In 2008, Celeste Headlee visited a suburban Detroit Starbucks to ask how folks felt about a treadmill workstation in their office. In her article for NPR, she reports that the “general consensus was, are you kidding?” Undeniably, the perception of treadmill desks has not always been kind, from being too challenging and tiring to being too newfangled, espousing an indoor landscape too similar to that of the Jetsons’ living room. As Levine stated earlier this month, “But it’s totally mainstream now. There’s been an explosion of research in this area, because the health care cost implications are so enormous.”

Is the enormity of these implications sufficient to incite latte-laden workers to action? Detroit Area Rambling Network ambled over to the midtown Starbucks to try posing Headlee’s question again, almost five years later. How have fates changed for the treadmill desk?

Favorably, and very, it turns out. Patrons of all ages and pursuits were, if not enthusiastic about treadmill workstations, at least amenable to the concept. “Awesome,” responded the first person when asked how she felt about treadmill desk work. “My friend has a standing desk, and she has one of those kitchen mats under it, so she stands barefoot. I think I’d prefer that, but a treadmill desk would be even better. Standing is good, except for the standing. I think walking would be easier on my body.” She concluded thoughtfully, qualifying, “If I still have to use a desk.”

“Why not?” asked a young woman, poring over her notes for class. “I mean, I read when I’m at the gym. It’s basically the same thing.” It might be good, mused one man taking a break from work on his laptop, “especially for those days when you feel sleepy at work!” Only one person, citing unfamiliarity with the idea, frowned and hedged that he thought he would prefer the usual office setup.

The treadmill desk was perceived as a convenient way to pack some exercise into an otherwise stagnant day. “I guess it would kill two birds with one stone,” one woman reflected. “I would like it, unfortunately,” another said. “There’s not enough time in the day, you know, so if I could get my fat self on the treadmill, you know, while I work…” she said, smiling.

Several people expressed worry over whether they could multitask. “It would be an inconvenience — at first, having to do two things at once, when you are used to just using your brainpower.” She tapped her index finger majestically against her temple. “But after that, it would be a good thing.” Perceived increases in work errors deterred another: “I think I might mess something up so badly… But for other people I think it would be beneficial.”

All the focus these days on indoor walking begs the question, what does walking mean to us? While pacing around a room has long been a fine way to clear the head and stimulate creativity, for whom is marching in place preferable over a stroll in the park? Now there is no reason to even go out and walk the dog, as the dog will be perfectly happy trotting along on a doggie treadmill next to you as you type.

It’s a peculiarly first-world problem, where walking no longer means moving oneself from one place to another, but is merely a means to the end of maintaining the often overlooked physical self. It’s unlikely that treadmill desks will become an acceptable surrogate for the real thing – walking outside for transportation, exploration, fitness, or fun – but they seem well-poised to offer a sound alternative for the worker while at their desk.

With the recent emphasis on constant motion, it’s curiously paradoxical how sleeping eight hours a day is touted as healthy and utterly virtuous. To be lying down, motionless, in perfect repose! One wonders if standing beds will become a thing. Despite the continual praise for a good night’s rest, even the undisturbed sleep period is under siege. Our ancestors divided their sleep into two phases, taking a break in between to get up and stretch, to read, write, socialize, or have sex. Just as relying on a treadmill desk to correct a deficit in daily movement is a modern and likely first-world problem, so is the preoccupation with “sleep hygiene,” the melatonin pills and the compulsion to re-engineer an optimal sleep schedule. While the segmented night seems to have been the norm in the past and may be a welcome alternative for some, fretting about what’s best is likely to unravel some of the intended benefits. With treadmill desks, it’s evident that many benefits can be realized, but they may differ from the ones offered by a traditional walk, like stress relief from the sense of having a break from it all. While laudable for delivering movement to those who need it, they miss some of the fundamental elements that make walking walking.

For more on treadmill desks, check out Wired’s “MacGyvering Your Own Treadmill Desk”, or arguably the cheapest walking workstation out there at $22. For a zanier solution to fitness away from the gym, there is this comprehensive setup.

For a lovelier and less dire discussion of the malicious intents of chairs, read “Chairs, are they killing us?”

Walking, “an untapped reservoir of opportunity”

December 4, 2012

Detroit Area Rambling Network hopes that you enjoyed a very merry Noel Night this past weekend! The record balmy temperatures may not have been as festive as we’d like, but threw no slushy obstacles in our path. We’re looking forward already to next year’s celebration of commerce, culture, and favorite Midtown establishments. Isn’t it satisfying to tick off items from your holiday shopping list on foot?

While it’s undeniably genial when an evening sets itself up for us to stroll in it, there is a clear need for more of these occasions — ones that you can make yourself, every day. This is especially crucial in the glare of recent studies on active transportation, that is to say, commuting on foot or bike. Previous studies have focused on Americans’ dearth of recreational meandering or workout jaunts, leaving this unfortunate statistic unobserved. Less than 25% of Americans spend more than ten consecutive minutes in active transportation as part of their weekly commute, according to research by the Yale School of Public Health. Furie and Desai, the lead researchers, went so far as to suggest that active transportation is “an untapped reservoir of opportunity for physical activity for many U.S. adults.”

This new figure is perhaps predictable, since the U.S. has one of the lowest rates of active transportation worldwide, says James Sallis, of the University of California San Diego’s behavioral medicine division. He cautions that our transportation preferences have been sculpted over decades by transit and land use policies, and this is turning out to be more detrimental than anticipated.

“Not surprisingly, the findings highlight that transportation policies that essentially ignore walking and cycling appear to be contributing to the major chronic diseases that account for 80 percent of healthcare costs.

These new findings point out how transportation policy is health policy.”

The news outside of these borders is equally grim, reporting that people are walking 80 miles fewer per year in Britain.

“Whereas in the late 1990s we each clocked up about 250 miles of walking journeys, by 2008 that had dropped to 170.

Look further back and the picture is even more startling: since 1975 the proportion of journeys taken by foot has halved, from 44 to 22 per cent. Now, a fifth of all car journeys cover a mile or less.”

Isn’t it absurd to think we’re somehow justified in regarding walking as “an untapped reservoir of physical activity,” and that “active living” should be a pioneering field of study? How paradoxical, to sit at a desk researching how insufficiently people move, and how to entice them to move more in the future. The Detroit Area Rambling Network is so excited for this future that it can’t sit still. We just can’t wait, so we’re going out for a walk. See you there!