Is it a civic responsibility to be healthy? I had the temerity to ask this on my Facebook page and the resulting shitstorm demonstrated just what a minefield this question is.
So... Buckle yourself in, it's about to get political.
The over riding philosophy amongst those in the fitness world could be characterised as right wing.
If we divide right and left along philosophical lines, The left position is that our lives are, at least to some extent, dictated by social forces and that the best way to create positive change is by affecting those forces (through policy change and regulation for example) and making them more fair.
Those on the right share a philosophy of personal responsibility. That your lot in life is your responsibility (or even your fault) alone and it's up to you to change things. This summarises the tacit views of most of the fitness world. You're fat because you eat too much and don't exercise. Which on an individual level is pretty hard to argue with.
If you know me even a little you can probably guess which way I lean politically. I've been known to read the Guardian, listen to Tim Minchin and am no stranger to a self-righteous rant about the evils of the Daily Mail. But I hope my views on public health are a little more nuanced than the black and white, stereotypical "bleeding heart" liberal.
As a small business owner I sympathise with certain aspects of "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" conservatism. On an individual level I know that through hard work it is possible to overcome poor circumstances. But when I take a step back and look at things on a global scale, the truth is unavoidable. If you're born poor you're more likely to stay poor. And you're more likely to be fat.
So who is right?
First things first, are fat people lazy? Well I would argue laziness is a biological norm. Evolution favoured the glutton. The animal that consumed as much as possible while conserving as much energy as possible survived. If we put that animal in an environment where food is cheap and abundant and there’s nothing to chase after or run away from, guess what happens? Sure you can join a gym and lift and run and change and mold your body like I do and you do, but we're the freaks, folks, make no mistake. We're the weirdos, and we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking we do it for the betterment of society, or to take pressure off the NHS, we do it out of vanity.
A comparison can be drawn with environmentalism. I’m no expert but I recognise that we’re putting quite an effort into hastening the demise of the planet. Of course we could all take personal responsibility, reduce our carbon footprints and stop supporting companies that are destructive to the environment. And some people do this, just like some people put huge efforts into eating well and exercising. But, admirable though these efforts are, they're minuscule when weighed against society as a whole. This is a result of "future discounting", a tendency to place less importance on long term consequences in favour of short term rewards. We're fighting against hard-wired human nature here, if we left it up to individual choice there’d be nothing left for our grandchildren.
It would be nice if everyone took personal responsibility for their weight, or for the state of the planet. It would be nice too if cats shat diamonds.
One of the greatest things we do as humans is look after each other. Its what sets us apart from animals. You can be as smug as you like about your achievements in terms of health, wealth, education or anything else. But you have achieved them because society has given you the opportunity to do so.
Of course personal choice must absolutely come into the equation. It’s ridiculous to think of all obese people as victims of Evil Corporations or The System. Any approach to fixing this problem must incorporate both personal choices and an environment that supports a healthier lifestyle.
The larger point is this; assuming that all of our opinions, experiences, knowledge and beliefs can place us neatly into one of two tribes, either definitively “left” or “right”, is problematic. It has a tendency to shut down debate as each side becomes more deeply entrenched in their own dogma. The right are not all reactionary bigots and the left are not all workshy commies. Tackling the big problems requires more mental flexibility than party politics tends to cater for.
In my view, it is inescapably true that social forces have a big influence on how our lives turn out and we should seek to make them more fair, but it is more useful on an individual level to try and take responsibility for ones self. One idea is true, the other is useful.
I may get hemorrhoids from sitting on the fence, but until I wake up one day and know it all it’s the best I can do.