The time-honored expression for weighing and measuring ourselves against the superficial indications of status among our neighbors and peers is "keeping up with the Joneses." In its most literal sense, the reference means gauging our own worth by comparing what we have to what our neighbors have.
This was always misguided and problematic. Intrinsically, the comparison is based on what is most obvious—things—and so is willfully materialistic. It is about what we see and think we know about our neighbors, rather than what is really going on.
But even leaving issues of materialism aside, the matter of keeping up with the Joneses has acquired a new veneer of post-modern menace. Because now, all the stuff the Joneses have does work that muscles used to do. And while we are committed to keeping up with the Joneses, the Joneses are committed to keeping up with the latest technological advancements. As Jared Diamond noted in Collapse, "invention is the mother of necessity." The Joneses— meaning any average family—simply have to have the latest, greatest gadget or gizmo—even if they had no idea they needed it until it was invented. But they need it now!
And so do we, or else we can't keep up with the Joneses. But both we and the Joneses are keeping up with technology that may be all about knowledge, and nothing about wisdom. Just because we can invent something, does that mean we should? Just because we did invent something, does that mean we're better off using it?
Most new inventions are in the realm of push-button electronics, but there are more flagrant examples of muscles being put out to pasture. People once managed to keep lawns and driveways clear with rakes and shovels. Now, we use blowers, and get less exercise while generating more pollution. Which part of that is progress?
Even as the evidence of diverse, profound benefits of routine physical activity continues to accumulate, so does the evidence that we are getting less and less. Physical exertion has declined dramatically during the typical work day over recent decades, which will surprise no one paying attention. Schools, pressed by competing priorities, are jettisoning physical education and recess. A recent analysis in the Lancet indicates that sedentariness is now a leading cause around the globe of reduced life expectancy.
We have evidence that sitting more and doing less reduces our life expectancy, while doing more and sitting less increases it—but guess which way things are going? And while we may hold out hope that technology itself may help redress the sedentariness it seems to encourage, namely in the form of "active video games," this is, as yet, nothing more than hope. A recent review in Health Education and Behavior found that most studies of such games failed to show a meaningful effect on overall physical activity.
The study I would like to see, but have not, is one that examines every new, labor-saving invention and its associated decrement in physical activity, measured in calories. In other words: If you buy and use this device, you will expend, on average, this many fewer calories a day! This would work best with a sonorous announcer of the "Tell them what they've won, Johnny!" variety. In the absence of such studies or announcements, we may reasonably infer that every new, push-button, labor-saving gizmo that becomes part of our daily routine reduces our habitual level of exercise by some amount. And into the bargain, reduces the number of calories we need each day.
While waiting for that information, here's some—if you are inclined to do something about your own daily energy expenditure. There are freely available ways to fit physical activity bursts into even busy school days (www.davidkatzmd.com/abcforfitness.aspx/) and at work or home (www.abeforfitness.com/).
So, these days, keeping up with the Joneses is apt to mean never having to lift a finger. Because if the Joneses next door are like most families, they have technology that does everything muscles used to do, and they feel obligated to use it all. If we keep up, then that's true for us as well. And more's the pity.
That we make use of technology, in the form of pedometers, to help motivate and measure our walking is fine. But if we are fortunate enough to have a pair of serviceable legs, the space and opportunity to stretch them, and the native animal vitality that comes standard with a human body in working order, it seems a shame, at best, that we feel obliged to count steps and disinclined to count our blessings.
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David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, is a specialist in internal medicine and preventive medicine, with particular expertise in nutrition, weight management, and chronic-disease prevention. He is the founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, and principal inventor of the NuVal nutrition guidance system. Katz was named editor-in-chief of Childhood Obesity in 2011, and is president-elect of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.