Killing us softly

The 1968 version of the machine takeover – the computer HAL 9000 – from the movie “2001 – A Space Odyessy”/Wikimedia Commons


What the machines have done

So it has come to this, the American medical community resorting to threats evoking the C-word – cancer – to try to get people to walk up a few flights of stairs for the good of their own health.

“Couch Potatoes Take Note: Climb Some Stairs to Cut Cancer Risk,” the website MedPage Today headlined in July following on a headline earlier in the year promising “Small Gains in Cardiorespiratory Fitness Track With Improved Longevity.” 

All to be followed with the headline warning last month that “Dementia Risk Tied to Daily Step Count” above a story that went on to say that “At least one in 15 dementia cases may be attributable to physical inactivity.”

Some Americans have taken note, but most haven’t in a society that year by year for decades now has moved farther and farther away from exercise as a part of daily life in ways both big and small as machines have taken over.

Way back in 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction movie “2001 – A Space Odyssey” envisioned this happening in an aggressive way, but more than 20 years after 2001 it is obvious the takeover has been far, far more subtle but just as problematic in terms of human life.

Driving everywhere in a motor vehicle instead of walking anywhere is a part of it, but far from all of it. Almost everything we do now is made easier by machines, a convenience for which we pay a price we never consider.

Thanks to the machines, we don’t wash dishes; the dishwasher does. We don’t rake leaves; we blow them away with electric blowers. We don’t push a hand-powered mower across the lawn; we ride one or get towed along behind one that powers the wheels.

We don’t hammer nails; we use a nail gun. We don’t saw wood by hand; we cut it with a cordless saw or, for the bigger stuff, a chainsaw. Even the common pruning saw is now being replaced by cordless saws that do the same job just a tiny, tiny bit faster and easier.

We circle around parking lots in our motor vehicles to find a parking spot close to the door so we don’t have to walk 100 feet to get into the store. Or we avoid in-store shopping altogether because it’s even easier to sit on our butts, type the keys on our computers, and order our needs delivered to our homes.

And it’s all killing us in many ways: heart disease, cancer, metabolic disease (ie. obesity), dementia and, of course, the pandemic.

Documented sloth

Two decades ago, scientists put pedometers on a sampling of Americans and found they were “taking an average of 5117 steps per day.”

“Men and women living in the United States took fewer steps per day than those living in Switzerland, Australia, and Japan,” they later wrote in a peer-reviewed study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. “We conclude that low levels of ambulatory physical activity are contributing to the high prevalence of adult obesity in the United States.”

The Swiss were in 2003 walking an average of 9,650 steps per day – 10,400 for men and 8,900 for women, according to the study. That’s about 89 percent more steps per day than the average American at the time.

“The prevalence of obesity in U.S. adults was 23.9 percent in 2002,” the study said. “By comparison…Switzerland had an obesity rate of 8 percent in 2002.”

That’s a big difference  But now, 20 years on from when the study was published, obesity seems the least of it.

Today, the U.S. death rate for the pandemic disease Covid-19 stands at 351 per 100,000, according to the Worldometer tracker. The Swiss rate, on the other hand, is 165 per 100,000.

This is a difference of about 113 percent.

Or, to look at this another way, the Swiss, who walk almost twice as much as Americans, have been dying at slightly less than half the rate of Americans since the pandemic began.

And the differing death rates here clearly aren’t about vaccines or masks.

The Swiss concluded the latter don’t do much. An October 2022 study by Swiss researchers published in the peer-reviewed European Journal of Public Health reported that “the (Swiss) face-mask mandate was associated with a 0.3 percent reduction in all-cause mortality.”

Meanwhile, vaccine rollouts and uptake were similar in both countries with the Swiss in May of this year reporting 12.4 percent of the population had wholly avoided vaccination while in the U.S. more than 81 percent of the population had received at least one dose. 

So ignore those bandaids and accept the reality: The Swiss were far less likely to die of Covid-19 than Americans because they were fundamentally fitter, and fundamental fitness was fingered as a major protection against Covid-19 almost from the beginning.

Known, but nothing done

A United Kingdom study of the association between walking pace and Covid-19 mortality first appeared online in the late summer of 2020, only about six months into the pandemic.

“As Covid-19 primarily affects the cardiopulmonary system, self-reported walking pace is a key target for investigation with important implications for future Covid-19 research and public health,” the UK researchers observed then.

“Reported walking pace, a measure of functional fitness, has been shown to be a strong predictor of mortality. Subjects with a self-reported slow walking pace have two to four times the risk of cardiovascular mortality compared to brisk walkers, whilst also being estimated to die up to 20 years earlier….These strong associations with cardiovascular health are thought to reflect the fact that walking pace is a powerful marker of cardiopulmonary function and acts as a global measure of whole-body physical fitness, reserve and resilience.”

To determine how this fitness related to severe illness and death from Covid-19, the researchers dug through the medical records of a massive sample of more than 414,000 people on file in the UK’s Biobank and found that fat or thin, the fast walkers – those with the best “whole-body physical fitness” – were more than twice as likely to avoid severe Covid-19 as the slow walkers.

Overweight and obese fast walkers were at greater risk of severe disease than normal-weight fast walkers and at slightly more risk than normal-weight steady/average walkers, but still at significantly less risk than slow walkers of normal weight.

“Slow walkers had the highest risk of severe COVID-19 regardless of their obesity status,” the researchers concluded in a study later to appear in a peer-reviewed publication, “with normal weight, overweight or obese slow walkers all having over twice the risk of severe COVID-19 compared to normal weight brisk walkers.”

The response to these findings on the part of U.S. health officials? Almost nothing.

The words that never crossed the lips of U.S. Covid-19 czar Anthony Fauci were these: “You need to get up off the sofa and out of your cars and start getting fit if you really want to survive this pandemic.”

This despite Fauci’s confession to New York Times health columnist Jane Brody that he understood the value of fitness:

“Exercise is really important. I think that the fact that I’ve been a marathon and 10K runner for the last multiple decades has been very important in my staying fit, looking fit and feeling fit.”

Only fitness isn’t really about looks or feelings, it’s about the overall health of a species that over the course of a couple hundred thousand years evolved on the run. When homo sapiens stop moving, they basically start to rust away.

The machine is built to move, rest, recover and move some more. The body’s built-in immune system depends on this kind of regular reprogramming. Scientists have been aware of this for a long time.

The pandemic should have underlined what Americans need to do to stay healthy, but it clearly hasn’t.

If you believe in conspiracy theories, you might almost conclude the ruling elite want it this way. That old study on steps in America found those with a “less than high school” education were walking only 3,920 steps per day – about 75 percent of the already low national average.

Those less education have long suffered higher mortality in this country, and a peer-reviewed study in Public Health last month reported “low education is strongly correlated with Covid-19 deaths, with an effect size of a university degree comparable to that of being aged less than 65 years (old). If this correlation is indeed causal, then it would imply that low education accounts for between 1 in 10 and 1 in 7 deaths in low-education counties.”

Do nothings

The ruling elites, who largely run the political system, have done nothing to try to fix this. Instead, they’ve tried to make roads ever more efficient for motor vehicles so they can drive from their posh neighborhoods to a fitness club to work out.

Fixing communities by reducing crime and altering transportation systems to encourage people to walk or ride bicycles is an idea that has been ignored despite the evidence that it gets people moving and thus improves their health.

“Both Switzerland and Japan have much higher rates of transportation-related walking compared with the United States , which contributes to the difference in daily step counts,” the scientists involved in the steps-per-day study wrote 20 years ago.

If Americans could be encouraged to walk just another mile per day, they observed, “it would bring most Americans much closer to the average daily step counts seen in other developed nations (for example., Switzerland, Australia, and Japan), although to close the gap entirely would require Americans to walk about 30 to 40 minutes per day.”

The researchers settled on a mile walk instead of 30 to 40 minutes because, according to the study, “this could be easily achieved in about 20 minutes per day.”

Obviously, it wasn’t easily achieved. Americans are fatter today – weight being one easily tracked general measure of fitness – than they were in 2002 when 23.9 percent were reported obese.

Almost 42 percent of Americans are now obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and nearly half of non-Hispanic black adults are obese, which could partially explain why the black community was especially hard hit by Covid-19.

The pandemic should have been a warning to America to start redesigning its cities and suburbs to encourage people to walk, or at least ride bicycles, as much as possible to get from Point A to Point B, but there has been no sign of that.

If anything, the design of urban and suburban transportation systems seems ever more directed at motor vehicles, while the movement required in almost every daily chore short of eating and using the bathroom is being taken over by a machine, and it’s probably not long before someone invents a people-feeding robot so adult humans don’t have to lift their arms to stuff their faces.

Then they will be able to just sit in their chairs in front of the TV or computer screen and be fed like babies.











7 replies »

  1. I doubt anyone would argue that exercise is good. And comparing to US to other countries is interesting.
    But we aren’t all likely to move to Switzerland (more’s the pity). I wish you’d write about the higher death rate within the US, in Red states and Red counties, as compared to Blue states and Blue counties.
    Not only deaths from Covid (those were stark and tragic) but other causes as well.
    It’s likely educational differences that explains the Covid differential deaths, but the other causes?
    Not only exercise, but informed voting, is important for our health, don’t you agree? Make our government more like Switzerland’s, and we’ll have much longer and healthier lives.

    • Gail: That study is one of the worst I’ve read all year. It ignores so many confounders, starting with the possibility that most of the most of the people dying in those Republican counties could be Democrats toppled by the stress of living there. Not mention a lot of the differences in Covid deaths are pretty well explained by fitness and SES.

      Any sort of red-blue split makes Alaska pretty hard to explain and Nebraska and especially Utah, which was down at the bottom of the death list with Vermont and Hawaii the last time I looked. Is it God protecting Mormons?

      As to the South, I would also note that I’ve never seen buildings sealed up as tight as some of the air-conditioned buildings there, and the Chinese finger air-conditioning as a Covid-19 spreader only months into the pandemic.

    • Gail, this is yet another instance (like crime statistics) where state-level data is almost useless for accurately identifying and addressing the real issues.

      You have to go into the city or county level data, and, in the case of Covid which has a lethality so closely tied to pre-existing conditions, behavioral issues like obesity, and age, look at the individual demographics.

      It’s rather puerile to look at gross state-level governmental “political affiliation” and try to discern any sort of causality.

    • Which study do you think is the worst? The BMJ or the Pew or the Milbank Quarterly or the Health Affairs? I understand if you don’t want to read the entire article and linked studies, but surely you already know that there are several studies showing this, and four of them are linked to the Scientific American article. So I don’t know which you think is the “worst”.
      Alaska we know got the vaccines earlier than most other states, because of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and also we hunkered down early (see ADN article). Utah has a younger population, and as you know, Covid is much less of a killer of young people (although long Covid is a problem for them too). You can google that if you doubt me.
      And I guess you missed the fact that the SA article is not only about Covid, it’s all causes of death.
      Oh well never a dull moment here. As usual we must agree to disagree about what happened, but I am glad you are advocating exercise for all kinds of reasons.

      • Gail: All cause deaths are really the only way to measure the full impacts of a pandemic. And I don’t give a shit what Scientific American linked to because the links are only meaningful if you read the studies.

        The average age in Utah is 31.1; the average age in Alaska is 34.6. D.C. slots in between them at 34.1. These are the three youngest government units in the U.S.

        Some of the differences in death rates can certainly be explained by age. Covid wasn’t a big killer of young people. Well, actually, people under 50. Glad to see you finally recognize that. It’s only been being reported here for about two years. We shouldn’t have been treating everyone the same because it was obvious early on that Covid-19 wasn’t an equally opportunity killer.

        But the difference in age – 11 percent lower for Utah v. Alaska, and 10 percent for Utah lower versus D.C. – doesn’t fully explain the differences in death rates. The D.C. death rate was 20 percent higher than Utah; the Alaska rate was 19 percent higher than Utah. Then again any comparison based on average ages is meaningless without knowing the age structure of the population.

        The percentage of residents over age 65 is more important given who the disease killed, and there Utah, D.C. and Alaska do start to look more alike in comparison to their death rates. But then how does on explain Maine, which has the most over 65s in the nation (21.8 percent) and a death rate only 1 percent higher than Alaska – a tiny, tiny difference.

        But then there’s Republican Florida that is 8 percent older than Democrat New York, but had a Covid-19 death rate only 2.5 percent higher despite trying to go all Sweden on the pandemic. Then, of course, there is Sweden itself with an average age of 41.8 – higher than that in 42 of our states – with a death rate that was less than 70 percent of the U.S. average.

        Maine is one of the few states that skews even older than Sweden, and Maine and Sweden had similar death rates?

        Can we credit that classic Maine stanoffishness? That was undeniably the best protection against SARS-CoV-2 throughout the pandemic. Still is, but now people get this advice: “People infected with Covid should wear masks around others to prevent the spread of the virus.”

        I can’t think of better advice to spread Covid. Could it be people in Maine and Utah just had the sense to stay the hell home when infected so as not to infect others, given there is absolutely no evidence to indicate masks do anything in terms of source control. But then my fogged up glasses were warning me source control might be a problem as soon as we started masking.

        Hell, masking might have made things worse by aerolizing virus that would have quickly fallen to the ground in spittle, or by increasing close contacts as some research indicated. But it became pretty clear during all of this that people believe what they want to believe and evidence is secondary, which is why if we didn’t have religion already we’d have to invent it.

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