I didn’t get fatter; the world got easier

I was born in 1974. I remember having to walk to the television to change channels. Thankfully, someone invented the remote control. It served to protect the carpet from unnecessary wear. People shouldn’t scuff flooring with trivial jaunts to the TV screen. Come to think of it, I remember three channels, before Channel 4 was launched. Those were dark days. Grim days, some might say. Long before Channel 5 brought us the awfulness of low IQ TV planning. This is the UK, by the way. If you’re not from here, you’re lucky, you may have missed our entertainment drought. It was brutal. Now we have channels for everything. We went from not enough to ‘please, no more.’

And that’s just TV automation—the remote control. I knew cars before power-steering was a commonplace thing. Nowadays, you can waste rubber by turning the wheel in a stationary car. Glides like a pony on ice; namely, without friction but at great cost to the tyre. Picture the pony, poor sod. A bad thing. But in the old days, before servo-assisted wizardry was implemented, good luck trying to turn the wheel in a stationary car. That was a work out. Even in motion, a manually yanked steering wheel was a wrestle. No gentle fingers on the rim, one hand on a thermos, the other steering with an effete pinkie. No, it was as though taming a malevolent python on speed. A thick, PVC-encased wheel (leather, if you were rich) that was determined to end your life. A car without power-steering was hell, at least, that ‘s how I recall it to be.

Before the internet, there was a period known as the dark ages. This was when truth was found in books. A time in life when to learn something new, you had to walk to a place they called a library, and speak with a strange creature known as the librarian. Usually half-woman, half-ghost, these ethereal beasts would stamp the sign of the book-demon into the jacket and send you on your way. Often, they would say, ‘Bring it back in two weeks, or your soul is mine.’ At least, I think they said that. Point being, if I needed to know how to plumb a cistern, my phone couldn’t help. Because back then… there were no phones. Well, they had phones, just not proper ones as we have today. Old phones were designed by the ancestors of exercise manufacturers. Digit Gyms, they were. Bleak memories: trying not to break a finger as you toiled and spun a wheel around a dial. It took about a thousand turns to contact anyone. Plus, the phone weighed as much as an encyclopaedia. Tough, manual work just to phone a friend. Just to say, you could fix their loo.

Right now, I’m using a mechanical keyboard, crumbs and dust littered under the caps. I remember using an actual mechanical typewriter. Only briefly mind, before I bought a word-processor for Uni work. Those old devices required TLC and patience. The keys themselves were more akin to lever-gyms. One mighty push was required to launch a letter embossed on a small iron block into a wall of paper. It was a satisfying sound, a pleasant sensation. But again, just as everything else back then, it took more effort than what is required from us today.

And that is the point of this random carnival of 80’s memorabilia. Let’s take the television remote as an example. To change channels required you to stand up from your chair, or sofa, or perhaps even roll out of bed. To stand from sitting is basically a squat. That right there is what annoying gym folks call exercise. Yup, exercise, a bad word to some. One half-rep of one bodyweight squat. Whoop! Now you pace one step or two, maybe five if you’re wealthy and have a large house. But then, if you’re rich, you might ask the butler to change channels. Imagine, a biomechanical human remote control. A sort of cybernetic stone age. I digress. So, you’ve dragged your ass to the TV, pressed the buttons. Now what? You reverse that motion. That means a controlled descent onto the cushion where your bum-print is still visible. That’s what we gym commandants call the ‘eccentric’ phase of the squat. Pre-remote (or sans butler), channel surfing required one squat. Change channels 10 times a day, 365 days a year—count it—that’s 3650 squats. Think about it. That’s over 70 sets of 50 squats. Make that a 3-set portion per day and that’s 23 squat sessions per year. You see where this is going?

But that’s nothing. Walking is the big game-changer. In the nineties, I walked to work. 30 mins there, 30 back. One hour. Five days per week. In calorie terms, that’s 250 kcal/day. Add a 48-week year, and we’ve got 60,000 kcals/year. Or 16 pounds of fat. Now, imagine driving to work. No more walkies for Mr Fit. Time is precious, so we decide to sit on our bums for twenty more minutes and drive instead. In one year, you’ll pile on one stone of weight, all things considered. And that’s just the walk to and from work. Cars are ubiquitous these days, it’s normal to own one. And when you do, you drive it—everywhere. Why else own one tonne of shiny steel? Personally, I view the car as a mini-karaoke bar on wheels, without the booze, of course… officer.

What am I saying? Clearly, the correlation is between driving and getting fat. It’s called a spare tyre for a reason. The diminished reliance on walking is fundamentally linked to our downfall in the battle against weight gain. Those gym fiends (yes fiends, as in monsters, not friends) will tell you to train your way to a better shape. But it’s not true. Why? Because what you’ll do is drive to the gym, return home, and sit on your backside, making the erroneous assumption 45 mins of gym twice a week will work. Nope. It doesn’t. I’ve seen it so many times.

We used to be slaves to a domain of manual effort. But technology came along and saved us. Emancipated from the hellish shackles of ‘a smidgeon of effort’, we embraced the late 20th century ideal of ‘everything at your fingertips’. If I think back, I recall accompanying my mother to do the grocery/food shop. She had one of those weird, ’granny’ bags—a tartan-esque suitcase on wheels. But that was replaced, eventually, by the mini-karaoke bar on wheels, and now, in the days of automated Armageddon, you can arrange for unseen hands in a warehouse to pack your weekly shop and even get someone to deliver it to your doorstep in a diesel belching van. Wait—you have the gall to complain your plums are bruised? Really?

The reduction of manual labour, the reliance on automation, the lure of convenience: all of these things have conspired to make life too easy. We’re told by slick marketing to over-consume (I know I do). But in reality, food doesn’t make you fat; energy imbalance does. And in a world of zero effort, where I don’t even have to touch my phone to get it to answer me, our odds aren’t great in the war against apathy. There is, of course, an easy answer. Get up, go for a walk. Lots of walks. Forrest Gump your life away. Give it a shot, just as soon as you’ve ordered your pizza through Alexa.