Online Edition: Summer 2010

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 American Idle

 A Journey Through Our Sedentary Culture

 Mary Collins

 Capital Books ($16.95)

 by Scott F. Parker

The kinds of facts a reader finds in Mary Collins’s American Idle are easy enough to predict (Americans eat badly, don’t exercise enough, and are killing themselves with their lazy lifestyle choices)—but the sheer extremity of the specifics is staggering. “The average American household keeps the television on seven hours a day.” “65 percent of Americans are overweight or obese and engage in moderate activity less than three times a week.” “Lifestyle habits account for 80 percent of healthcare costs in this country.” “A ten-year-old Hispanic child living in the United States has a 50 percent chance of developing Type 2 diabetes.”

Collins found herself drawn to this scary subject after a severe bicycle accident forced her to give up her active lifestyle and become “more like the average American”—more sedentary. As she worked through a long and difficult recovery, she began an investigation into our national idleness. And though she documents plenty of physical neglect, her findings and thinking on the subject reach far beyond our bodies. “Issues like body weight and heart rate certainly count for something, but the incredible decline in physical activity in the United States has ripped apart our civic life, further demoralized struggling low-income populations, undermined our collective morality, and has created a devastating rift between human society and nature.”

These are big claims that Collins backs up by surveying everything from the fossil record in Kansas to the strangely un-American walkability of New York City to animals in the National Zoo, and flushing out the implications of her discoveries for the modern American. It’s such an admirable goal—imploring us to reengage with our bodies for the sake of our lives—that the reader roots for Collins’s conclusions, and is inspired to follow her recommendations for individuals, gentle and achievable as they are. For example: incorporate activity in daily life, and don’t settle for simulated, in-front-of-the-TV activity. Get outside. Her societal goals—an American lifestyle with more free time and cities with accessible public parks and trails—are more complicated but equally necessary if we’re to stop idling and start moving. First things first, though: read the manual.


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