Let’s Learn from the Scandinavians!

Visit Scandinavia, and you’ll notice two things in comparison with the U.S. of A. (besides the proliferation of IKEA stores): fewer obese people, and more of them moving. Sweden, Denmark, and their Nordic neighbors have the same ubiquitous fast food restaurants as we do. Their menus include paltry (if any) nutrition information. And this is the home of the smorgasbord. Yet there’s no "obesity epidemic" to be found in places like Stockholm and Copenhagen. Is it something in the water? In the gene pool? Well, there’s certainly something in local attitudes about exercise, as we’re telling readers of the Rocky Mountain News today:

Northern Europe has engineered rigorous exercise into the daily urban routine. Planners are constantly reinventing cities to make streets pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly. Exercise is generally the easiest and most economical way to get from Point A to Point B …

Unlike their American counterparts, Scandinavian urbanites aren’t clamoring for greater government scrutiny of their meals, or for more politicization of the “calories in” half of the digestion equation. But they’ve taken real ownership of the “calories out” half.

Elevator buttons typically came with signs reading “please use the lift only if you are unable to climb stairs.” I even saw escalators with “on” and “off” switches for the benefit of people who would prefer to exercise.

We’ve been arguing this point for years. And finally, the world is catching on. A new Florida law requires children to receive at least 30 minutes of exercise per day. James Sallis, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, calls the law “a step in the right direction.”
Just look at the key differences between America’s healthiest and unhealthiest urban areas. The Associated Press now reports that in the healthiest city (Burlington, Vermont), “Bicycling, hiking, skiing and other exercises are common.” In the unhealthiest city (Huntington, West Virginia), on the other hand, even on a warm day it is “unusual to see a runner or bicyclist.” This is not a coincidence.
Across the pond, Britain will soon test out a program to reward people for exercising with sporting goods and gym memberships. Some Australian medical experts believe it could be their answer, too.
Common sense tells us that these programs will generate more measurable results than any amount of finger wagging over how many calories are in a chicken sandwich. And we believe it’s only a matter of time before enough bad ideas (menu labels, obesity report cards, "fat" taxes, for instance) are tried and discarded in favor of workable solutions. As we told the Rocky Mountain News:

Rather than regulating what we put into our bodies, government would get more bang for its public-health buck by focusing on how we exercise those bodies. Deep down, most Americans want permission to stop wringing their hands over lunchtime calorie-counts and fat grams.

We all know we need to lose weight. But nobody wants to be scolded by the food police. And bike helmets come in fun colors.

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