Leave the car at home

To truly drop pounds, to truly get svelte, to truly get toned, there has to be a little bit of discomfort involved.

If you believe most media reports these days, losing weight is not only difficult—it’s impossible. Exercise has lost a lot of its luster. And dieting has proven itself a recipe for rebound weight gain as newly-starved dieters finally succumb—once, twice and then forever–to that heavily-buttered blueberry muffin or steak-and-cheese omelet. Calories, too, are far trickier than anyone realized, their effect on the body owing in part to whether they come from fats, proteins or carbohydrates.

And the truth is that the reflexive recommendation of every mainstream health professional—that we should eat a ‘balanced’ diet combined with ‘regular’ exercise, pursued for certain amount of time, in a certain place, and at a certain intensity level–leaves us looking pretty much the way we do now: a little more toned and a little more relaxed, maybe, but hardly ready to grace the catwalk or appear on the cover of Men’s Health. Running and sit ups, combined with broccoli and blueberries–pursued in between breaks from my computer–haven’t given me a permanent six pack, I can assure you.

To truly drop pounds, to truly get svelte, to truly get toned, there has to be a little bit of discomfort involved. And it occurred to me recently that on the two or three occasions in my life when I did get svelte—and toned—I was just a little bit uncomfortable.

What made me uncomfortable was distance. As someone who doesn’t drive and travels frequently, I’ve often found myself in spots that, for one reason or another, were off the beaten track. In Ireland, I lived on a farm that was 3.7 kilometers away from the nearest town and 10 kilometers away from decent shopping. In New Zealand I had to walk or ride miles to buy a decent cup of coffee or get my hair cut. And at the moment I’m in a spot that—according to Google Maps—is 3.5 kilometers to the nearest grocery store and 10 km to the nearest big town: Sidney, British Columbia.

I usually don’t notice it when I’m actually living in these various spots, but as the days and weeks–and in some cases months–pass, jeans get a little easier to button, t-shirts seem a little looser, and it becomes a whole lot more comfortable to walk or ride a few miles. I follow my normal exercise routine—some light jogging with push-ups and sit-ups–but something about moving around in the middle of the day seems to rev up the metabolism and keep it up.  

Negotiating distance as part of life, not as part of a set workout routine, seems to be a sure winner when it comes to slimming down. But not just because it burns extra calories. Covering distance without a car also demands a certain amount of dietary compromise. 2-liter bottles of Pepsi, for example, aren’t as appealing when you have hills to climb on the way home. Bags of sugar, canned food, cartons of cream, ice cream, frozen chickens, and even blocks of cheese also begin to look less attractive. You start gravitating toward foods that give you the biggest nutritional ‘punch’ without taking up too much space or deflating the wheels of your bike: dried beans and lentils, leafy green vegetables, powdered milk, strawberries and blueberries, dried fruit, nuts and seeds, garlic and chili peppers, and filleted meats. A pound of brown rice wins out over a pound of potatoes for compactness. You don’t always do it consciously, but by a slow process of attrition, you shift your diet to one that causes you less pain to gather and transport. And this diet, offering few snacking opportunities, few extraneous calories, and a whole lot of nutrition is great for the waistline—and the bottom line.

Now living in the middle of nowhere as a way to get fit is hardly practical for most of us. We’re an urban society and becoming more urban all the time. And commuters have to get to work quickly, parents have to shop for their kids (and pick them up from soccer practice), and—let’s face it—it doesn’t hurt to have some Pepsi in the fridge or some chips in the cupboard when cravings must be satisfied.

But there’s something to be said for making things a bit difficult, for keeping the car in the garage, for using foot power or pedal power to get to where you’re going, and for limiting your purchases to what you can carry comfortably as a pedestrian or a cyclist. And when you travel and stay somewhere for any length of time, don’t be afraid to stay a bit out of the way. A little more exertion and a little more sacrifice, made necessary by where you choose to live and how you get to other places, can make all the difference when it comes to getting and staying fit. It doesn’t have to be exhausting—it just needs to be a little inconvenient. And a little more inconvenience for a lot less waistline is not a bad trade-off.

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Uploaded by Michael Cummings