Lately I’ve gone out of my way to avoid articles and posts I feel are deliberately trolling the internet, mainly because my button that allows me to give a fuck about such things has been pressed with such force and regularity that it is now broken. Some media outlets are worse about this than others, like Slate, which is basically known these days for turning out contrarian opinion pieces that get people all bent out of shape, which leads them to all write counter-posts of their own, which in turn makes the rest of us start checking out real estate listings for shacks in the middle of the last wifi-less place on earth.
I have a suspicion that a piece Slate published earlier this week was intended to do just that, and I would have resisted my urge to counter-post had I not found her argument really interesting. It launched me off on an interesting thought experiment, and I realized that I’m curious to hear what other people think about this as well.
The essay is entitled “Taking a Pill While Watching TV Just as Good as Exercise, Study Finds,” and is written by economist Emily Oster, who last surfaced in the world of the internets when she wrote a piece debunking a lot of the no-nos of pregnancy, like drinking alcohol and eating soft cheese and such. In her recent Slate post, she makes the following argument:
Think back to that study showing exercise and drugs are equally effective at preventing mortality. What we learn is that the benefits to the two things are the same—preventing mortality. As for the cost: For most people, taking a pill every day is preferable to having to adopt a rigorous exercise program. In truth, the coverage of this study should have been more like, “Exercise is no better for you than taking a pill and sitting on your butt in front of the TV.”
She also talks about the cost of exercise in terms of gear, “opportunity cost”(or the time spent) and also the fact that a lot of people just plain hate to exercise. She goes on to say:
If we think exercise is free and easy, then of course they should. But once we recognize that it has a cost—monetary, yes, but also in enjoyment terms—this is much less clear. Let’s stop putting moral judgments on exercise, or the lack thereof.
(I bolded that last part because I completely agree with her. More on that later.)
Before we begin, I just want to point out a few flaws with her argument:
- The drugs she refers to comprise a drug treatment aimed at treating heart disease mortality, but heart disease is only one of the conditions that can be helped by regular exercise. Everything from anxiety and depression to osteoporosis to metabolic syndrome has been found to respond to a regular exercise regimen.
- It’s not as simple as pop a pill and the health problem vanishes. Most medication has side effects, some quite severe. (Four-hour erections, anyone?) A medication that works for some people may not work for all, and may be downright dangerous for some.
- Medication costs money. Often times it costs a lot of money. And not everyone has the kind of health insurance that will provide them with affordable access to that kind of medication. (And of course, there’s also the fact that insurance isn’t free.) That might change under the Affordable Care Act but it remains to be seen.
All this said, I find the concept underlying her argument intriguing, and so I wondered, if medical researchers were to develop a pill that could provide all the physical health benefits of regular exercise, and that pill had no side effects, and it was as inexpensive as a bottle of aspirin – would I still continue to be as physically active as I am?
I thought about this for a while, and here is my answer:
Now, if my idea of being physically active was in line with the popular concept of “working out,” which generally seems to mean “plod away on the elliptical while watching Judge Alex yell at a divorced couple fighting over a broke-down Datsun,” then that pill could not get in my mouth fast enough.
That’s not how I roll, though. I consider myself an endurance athlete, which means the things I do – all the miles I run and cycle, the weights I lift, the laps I swim – are not just because I’m trying to be healthy and all buff-looking. (Although I’m not going to lie, those are nice benefits.) It’s because I enjoy doing them, because I am passionate about pushing my physical and mental limits, and because I take a lot of pleasure in testing myself against other people who share my passions. Trust me, if I was trying to just be healthy, there are a lot of much easier and less time-consuming ways to do that than training for a marathon.
Not only that, being physically active has taken me to some pretty amazing places. I have run along the Pacific Coast Highway and the northern coast of New Providence in the Bahamas. I have snorkeled with barracuda and (gulp) a shark off the Florida Keys. I’ve watched the sun come up while swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, and I’ve run at night with a cloud of bats flying over my head. I have stood in crowds of thousands of people, all of us anxiously waiting for the warning gun to sound, and I’ve exchanged silent nods of recognition with other runners and cyclists out on the trails.
I could go on and on but you get my drift. Television is really amazing, don’t get me wrong. I am as obsessed as anyone with a good show (and there are a lot of them). But it’s one thing to watch other people experiencing things through a screen, and it’s another thing to experience them for yourself. I am trying to do less of the former and more of the latter.
I had similar thoughts while reading about the science teacher who lost 37 pounds in one month by eating only McDonald’s. That’s great and all, but he still only ate at McDonald’s for a whole month. I mean, I could totally strap a bag full of their fries to my face like a feedbag during my monthly, but sometimes I’d like a fish taco, or maybe a piece of lasagna, or some roasted brussels sprouts, or maybe some kind of food I’ve never even heard of before. Sure, I could probably find a way to be healthy while eating McDonald’s for every day of my life, but it would be a rather limited culinary existence.
It’s helpful to have numbers by which to gauge things, but there’s also something to be said for the less quantifiable aspects of life, the experiences, the sensations, the memories – the things that can’t be sealed up and delivered in neat little packages. So yes, I would continue to be as physically active as I am, even if a pill were available that could give me good health with no side effects at all.
Now, check it out – I’ve just laid out all of my reasons why I would keep being physically active even if medication rendered it moot. What I didn’t mention is that I think the invention of such a thing would actually be a really great idea. For one, it would be good for people who cannot be physically active for whatever reason, like if you have an autoimmune disorder or chronic pain or a neurological situation, but I also would be okay with it because, as Oster said, it would do away with the moral judgements put on exercise. People who really would rather spend their time reading or working on crafts or whatever, they wouldn’t have to make themselves do things they don’t enjoy just to have a healthy body. I don’t know, maybe I’m just not Puritanical enough, but I don’t believe suffering is a necessary component of happiness.
This is a long-winded way of saying, absolutely no judgment on my end if you respond and say that you would happily take the pill and never lift a weight or run a mile again.
Okay, your turn. What would you do, and why?