A letter in today's issue of the British Medical Journal warns that the obesity epidemic in the U.K. is so bad that action must be taken now; no more studies or research, says the letter writer. Do something now!
What does she think should be done? It's a question of infrastructure, she writes; we need to build more bike lanes and sidewalks and remove the physical obstacles to biking, walking, and swimming.
That sounds like a great idea to me. I live in a city famous for being bike-friendly. I bike to and from work when the temperature is above freezing (round trip: 6.5 miles) and walk the rest of the time, and I love it.
But I haven't lost any weight doing it, and I don't expect to. That's not why I do it. I bike and walk because I love the feeling of getting somewhere under my own steam--always have; I walked to and from high school, 2 miles each way, even though there was a bus I could have taken. My brain works better when I'm in motion, so I get a lot of my best ideas while I'm walking or biking. And the efficient part of me likes combining daily exercise with basic transportation--killing two birds with one stone.
The trouble comes when we pose such social changes as means to an end, ways to drop pounds, rather than an end unto itself. The philosopher Immanuel Kant spoke to this kind of mistake in his writings. In his view, all means to an end have a merely conditional worth because they are valuable only for achieving something else. In order to have value, something must be worth doing for its own sake.
Bingo! Let's build bike lanes and hiking paths and public swimming pools because we think there's intrinsic benefit in people biking, cycling, and swimming. Conflating weight loss with these activities just muddies the waters. What will letter writers propose when said improvements don't result in massive weight loss? I shudder to think.