I have never done anything for the good of my health.
Actually that’s not entirely true. I am a vegetarian for reasons of nutrition, which is sort of the same thing. My mother was an abominable cook. If she had to cook Christmas dinner she’d put the Brussels sprouts in to soak the week before, “just to make sure.” Quite why sprouts needed such treatment was never adequately explained. Her cottage pie tasted like it was made out of real cottage – a cottage built above a swamp that had been condemned owing to dry riot in the rafters, damp in the basement and a leaky sewage pipe flooding the living room.
Vegetarianism was simply my survival instinct kicking in.
Apart from that singular lapse in the direction of self-improvement the only time I ever think about good health is when I am toasting a friend’s possession of it down the pub with a large glass of something no less than 14% vol. Otherwise it simply wouldn’t occur to me to do or not do anything in order to make a marginal statistical improvement in the national health.
I don’t think that’s unusual. For most people the reason for doing something is immediate and tangible. Eat cake, drive to work, sit watching telly all evening – nobody pretends this is good in the long term but in the moment it’s just what the doctor ordered. The reward is right here and now. We all like our jam today. Improving health is jam tomorrow. And it doesn’t even sound like a preserve most of us would choose if we could help it.
You might have noticed that it’s National Walk to Work Week. And I approve. Of the walking that is. I’ve never had much time for the gainful employment malarkey – that’s a definitely overrated activity – but if it gets people out and about, enjoying the streets and the random encounters of city life I can make an exception. But should we be encouraged to walk for the good of our health? Will telling people that walking will make them feel better in the long run make them walk to work – or walk anywhere – more often?
I’m a walker. I walk everywhere. But I haven’t much choice as I have bad eyesight, too bad to drive, and you really wouldn’t want me on the roads on a bike. Even on foot at a steady 4mph I can be a lumbering menace, especially to children, small people and those snappy toy dogs on ridiculously long leads that infest our streets for no good reason. I have rationalised my condition into a love of walking – a positive rather than a limitation – and this, combined with a thick streak of masochism, has made me a bit of a militant pedestrian. Still, even I admit, walking can be a right pain.
I go visit my mum a lot. She lives in a small village between Leeds and Wakefield. The nearest shop is over half a mile away up a steep hill. The nearest shopping centre is Rothwell, which is two bus journeys. Luckily all her neighbours have cars and the local taxi firm know her well. I often walk to the office in Leeds from here (just shy of eight miles) but it is a miserable, ugly and desolate journey that I’d never attempt after a downpour – the narrow paths are next to massive puddles, you get drenched.
And it’s not just bad in the sticks. Try crossing the road near the Playhouse (a four second green man to cross two lanes), the junction just past White Cloth Gallery (you need a degree in traffic management to decode what the signals mean for a pedestrian) or the Wetherspoons entrance to the train station (a steady stream of taxis dropping off and an equally steady stream of people trying to cross, and no lights! You’re playing pedestrian skittles whenever you risk crossing here.) And if I want to leave the office and nip to the Coop (which I can see from my window, it’s fifty yards away) for a KitKat I have to cross ten lanes of traffic and up to four waits for the green man.
The reason people don’t walk more, even for short journeys, isn’t laziness or lack of motivation. It’s that places are designed and built around making things easy for cars to get around and walking is often a miserable, dangerous and nerve-wrecking experience. Does it matter that walking to work burns off half a muffin if the experience makes me exhausted, frazzled and in the mood to treat myself to a milkshake and double fries?
If we really want to get more people in Leeds walking let’s forget the “good for your health” stuff and focus on practical things: slow the traffic, increase crossing times, get rid of most of the street scrap (guardrails! if we melted down the guardrails of Leeds we could build the Tatlin Tower) and make the experience of walking safe, convenient and pleasant.
That would be good for my health. My blood pressure at least.
PS According to Public Health England 29,000 deaths a year are caused by traffic pollution, which accounts for over 5% of all deaths in Yorkshire annually. And when is air pollution worst? The morning commute …