American Society Creates Unhealthy Population
> 4/5/2007 11:20:22 AM

An incessant consensus provided by all corners of our media leaves little doubt that Americans, as a whole, are a very unhealthy people. But the root of the current malaise is not a lack of initiative on the part of our citizens. Our destructive lifestyles are ensured and reinforced by the very structure of our society, leading to a "toxic environment" centered on material security at the expense of social and physical well-being. As much as we focus on financial and professional achievements (and one's relative wellness in many ways mirrors his or her socioeconomic standing), the most affluent of our citizens are not significantly healthier than their less-established counterparts.

One of the main reasons that we are so demonstrably less healthy than, say, our European counterparts is that we work considerably longer hours and encounter the increased stresses that inevitably come from such demanding schedules. Another major source of this deficiency is the increasingly widespread sense of social isolation encouraged by our work environments and our society's widening income gaps. Many keys to American success - such as a high-quality private education and extensive health care coverage - are much more expensive here than in comparable countries like Britain, leading to an increased sense of competition and insecurity among our citizens. Americans, on average, have fewer close acquaintances than their foreign counterparts as well, partly due to more work hours and less time to spend with friends. In repeated surveys, Americans report  higher levels of alienation and social inadequacy than those living in other countries. Many of us, of course, respond to these emotional challenges by furthering our bad habits.

For a society so obsessed with body image and dietary issues, we score very poorly on all measures of eating habits. The ubiquity and convenience of fast food chains located in every conceivable corner of our country ensures that a large portion of our population will not get the nutrients they need from a diet high in fat and carbohydrates and low in daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Again, long hours on the job leave less time for quality dining or home-cooked meals which are usually much healthier than burgers or pizza.

The physical layout of our country does not help either. A culture in which individuals spend most of their time either indoors at work, inside a car, or sitting in front of a screen obviously does not lend itself to the simple (and extremely beneficial) pleasures of a vigorous bike ride or a walk in the park. And according to a panel of experts convened for a 2006 neighborhood quality-of-life study, one of the essential components of revising this framework is a sea change in zoning, development and suburban planning. The physical layouts of our neighborhoods, particularly those of the sprawling semi-rural and suburban varieties, only compound the problem, with regulations requiring large separations between residential, commercial and recreational areas. This setup makes it necessary that we drive almost everywhere, and a 2004 survey conducted in the severely congested urban area of Atlanta, Georgia indicated that each daily hour spent in the car led to a 6% increase in the likelihood that an individual would suffer from obesity, while each kilometer the same individual walked on an average day led to an almost 5% reduction in the same number. Such settings lead not only to more sedentary lifestyles but declining environmental factors like air quality and the presence of communal green spaces.

When health problems so ingrained in our societal structure, its no wonder that Americans spend exponentially more on healthcare than those in any other country in the world. Will these multiple epidemics eventually lead to fundamental revisions in the American lifestyle? Perhaps not. But waiting for sea changes is not enough. Individual choices are the only option. Our society makes it very difficult for many to maintain their own personal health, but letting oneself give in to easy fixes and lower life expectancies is not a solution. 

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