A few days ago I put on a shirt that had fit me loosely in Japan and found it was a bit tight. My first thought was that it had gotten shrunk in the wash, but then I realized that that could only be wishful thinking. The hard truth of the matter was that I had changed.
When I had returned from living in Germany I noticed that I had come back in better shape than I had left in, and being a bit of a data geek I decided to try and see if I could quantify this during my stay in Japan. Armed with a few pre-departure readings I headed off in search of truth and knowledge with a tape measure in my suitcase. Although I had continued taking some measurements since my return, I had not bothered to sit down and look at them in any detail… Until the shirt no longer fit.
The results were interesting. I had been in the 170 – 175 lb range for the last several years but never really paid attention to it. I had been what I would classify as moderately active – I didn’t often make use of gyms or fitness centers, but I did go out for walks, cross country skied, and generally stayed in motion… enough to balance off unashamedly sampling the culinary delights to be found at Pike Place market when I was in Seattle. From the time of my arrival in Japan, though, I basically lost weight and inches until I left (despite trying as many different foods as I could), and I came home at roughly the size I recall being when I graduated from high school. Within a few days of being home, I found myself spending quite a bit of time on the road, mainly in Tucson, and all the improvements of Japan went away in a matter of weeks until by the end of the year I was larger and heavier than I have ever been.
The cause is incredibly simple: higher calorie intake and lower energy expenditure in Tucson. In both Tokyo and Tucson I usually ate out at least one meal a day, but in general portion sizes in Tokyo were smaller and there were fewer high calorie “additions” with a meal. Likewise, Tokyo was a city set-up for walking – when I got a pedometer toward the end of my stay I found I was averaging between 20,000 and 25,000 steps a day, almost without realizing it. In Tucson that dropped to 5,000 steps a day or less – partly due to the weather (walking in the heat of mid-summer Tucson is not overly pleasant) but mainly due to the automobile culture.
My experiences with living in Germany and Japan have been that for me leaving the US culture behind generally leads to improved health and fitness. There are of course exceptions, and perhaps it isn’t fair to compare one of the world’s major cities with a sprawling collection of desert communities, but there are some basic areas that could be easily improved for the US to become a bit more competitive.