Up until about two years ago, through my early teens and mid-twenties, I struggled a lot with my weight. Then I moved to Paris, and all that changed.
Beforehand, from the time I was about 12, I oscillated between varying degrees of anorexia and bulimia, with the latter becoming so severe that I was sent to a psychologist and nutritionist. At the worst point, I was 5'9" and weighed around 115 pounds, putting my body mass index (BMI) at "severely underweight."
By measuring body fat based on an individual’s height and weight, BMIs sort individuals into four different categories: underweight, normal, overweight, and obese.
In college, my index hit overweight at 170 pounds.
Later, as a young-twenty-something, the scale continued to fluctuate as dieting remained a constant exercise in running up to 15 miles a day, starving myself, binge-eating, hating myself, and repeating the cycle.
It’s impossible to state more honestly just how much I believed this cycle was my fate—a fate shared by many young women, faced with today's impossible body standards. But then, two years ago, at the age of 26, I moved to Paris and, magically, without any thought or effort, that fate changed.
Now, aged 28, though thankfully not as thin as I was in high school, I’ve managed to maintain a weight not too far off, with a solidly healthy body mass index (if you want to know your BMI, checkout this handy-dandy online calculator, provided by the National Institutes of Health).
I’m not writing this to present myself as some victim. Sadly, eating disorders are something with which an unfortunate many grapple. In the U.S., the latest data indicate at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder. Among these people are the countless who starve themselves for prom or a wedding, or run themselves into the ground after indulging in chocolate cake.
The thing is, in high school, I would never have even looked at a piece of chocolate cake. In college, I would have eaten the whole thing. Now, I would probably enjoy one, or half of a piece.
The operative word there is enjoy.
In fact, I enjoy a lot of food these days; from the freshly-baked baguette with butter each night, to the multiple helpings of cheese before and after dinner.
This enjoyment is something I’ve painstakingly pursued since twelve. So why now?
Apart from the obvious influence of the French mindset—one that, no matter one’s body type or fitness aspirations, always enjoys a good meal—the biggest factor has been, simply, moving.
Curiously, whereas in the U.S. I went to the gym below my office every day at lunch, I don’t belong to a gym in Paris, so workouts consist of various at-home exercises and sporadic outdoor runs. When I do run, it’s never for more than six miles (sure, that’s not nothing. But it’s sure as hell not 10-15 miles every day at lunch). And yet, I’m slimmer.
So noticeable is the weight loss that I’ve even gone to the doctor, worried something might be wrong. How could I be losing so much weight without any intention or effort?
As best I can guess, it’s thanks to a more balanced diet (thanks, in large part, to fresher and cheaper produce) and, more importantly, walking.
Even on “lazy” days in Paris, which involve a 20-minute walk to the office in the morning and another back home at the end of the day, I average about three miles, without even trying. When back in the U.S. last month, however, it struck me just how rare it is for Americans to achieve this same level of mobility on any given day.
In cities like Washington, D.C. (where I’m still a resident) or New York, Americans walk about as much as Europeans. After all, with offices, grocery stores, restaurants, and all myriad of destinations just around the corner, how could you not?
But elsewhere across the U.S., where suburbs reign supreme and roadways connect the home to the grocery store, Americans don’t walk. We drive. A lot.
Cars, as explained by The Atlantic, conquered the daily culture of American life back when top hats and child labor were in vogue, and well ahead of such other innovations as radio, plastic, refrigerators, the electrical grid, and women’s suffrage.
But convenience, along with American history, culture, rituals, and man-machine affection, hide the true cost and nature of cars. And what is that nature? Simply this: In almost every way imaginable, the car, as it is deployed and used today, is insane.
It’s insane that, when in Alabama this October, for instance, I averaged a daily total of 1,500 steps (a little over 0.6 miles). Interestingly, despite moving very little, I managed to cover a lot more ground than I normally do in Paris. Indeed, in the hour spent driving around Birmingham on a few quick errands, I could have traversed the entire city of Paris, on foot.
That said, while the benefits of driving less are hard to argue, I recognize Americans are neither willing nor able to give up the car so easily. Unlike in Paris—the square-milage of which is quite small, even compared to other European cities (if you don’t believe me, see this map of Paris’ entire urban area imposed on London)—America is one big sprawling expanse of town centres and strip malls, connected almost exclusively by roads.
But even if Americans are not able to run the most routine of errands on foot, we can still, as individuals, make a greater effort to get out and get moving.
Moving is now more important than ever, with the CDC’s latest Vital Signs report finding America’s obesity rate has reached an all-time high. More specifically, nearly four-in-ten American adults have BMIs in the obese range.
In response to these findings, Johns Hopkins University rightly warns that the increasing obesity rate will only come with higher incidences of diabetes and heart disease—to say nothing of the increased risk of stroke, arthritis, dementia, and cancer. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that all cancers associated with obesity are on the rise.
Whether worried about your health or your waist line, these data, coupled with my experience in Paris, indicate that you don’t have to kill yourself daily at the gym to stay fit. An hour-long stroll around the neighborhood after dinner may just be all there is to it.