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Want to Save the World? Get Off Your Ass!

Stephen Hawking warns against yet another major threat to human existence. If we don’t stop eating and get to exercising, we simply won’t be around long enough to build a rocket ship and colonize Proxima b.

“Today, too many people die from complications related to overweight and obesity. We eat too much and move too little.”

That’s a lot more prosaic than what we heard from Stephen Hawking in yesterday’s Wall Street Daily: “Computers will overtake humans with AI at some within the next 100 years. When that happens, we need to make sure the computers have goals aligned with ours.”

And it’s less exciting than his take on climate change: “A rise in ocean temperature would melt the ice caps and cause a release of large amounts of carbon dioxide from the ocean floor. Both effects could make our climate like that of Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees.”

Finally, we have more basic paths to self-destruction: “The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression. It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory or a partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all… A major nuclear war would be the end of civilization, and maybe the end of the human race.”

The legendary physicist — author of the 1988 record-breaking best-seller A Brief History of Time, subject of the 2014 Oscar-winning biopic The Theory of Everything — is famously pessimistic about our future.

Indeed, just a couple weeks ago, during a talk at the Oxford University Union, he gave us maybe one more millennium to live on Earth:

The fact that we humans, who are ourselves mere fundamental particles of nature, have been able to come this close to understanding the laws that govern us and the universe is certainly a triumph. We will map the position of millions of galaxies with the help of [super]computers like Cosmos. We will better understand our place in the universe. Perhaps one day we will be able to use gravitational waves to look right back into the heart of the Big Bang. But we must also continue to go into space for the future of humanity. I don’t think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.

First things first, however, and before we can find a way off this mortal coil through interstellar exploration, we have to literally take care of ourselves in the most rudimentary fashion.

As he notes in a one-minute video recording on behalf of a campaign organized by Sweden-based nonprofit GEN-PEP: Obesity is “one of the most serious public health problems of the 21st century.”

Hawking — whose contributions to cosmology, general relativity, and quantum theory have earned him praise as the greatest mind in physics since Albert Einstein — can’t get his mind around “how being sedentary has become a major health problem.”

It’s “beyond my understanding.”

Hawking is terminally sedentary — not by choice, but because of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and/or for the “ice-bucket challenge” that spawned a social media craze a couple years ago.

Hawking — the most accomplished physicist of our times — can’t get his mind around “how being sedentary has become a major health problem.”

He was given a two-year life expectancy when first diagnosed in 1963. But he’s been blowing minds from his wheelchair for nearly half a century, powered by what Hawking’s wife described as a combination of determination and obstinacy.

At the same time, he places obesity on the same plane as artificial intelligence, climate change, nuclear war, and additional threats both external (alien colonization) and internal (genetically engineered viruses) as potential humanity-killers. Hawking, however, offers a startlingly straightforward theory to solve the particular problem at hand.

“Fortunately, the solution is simple: more physical activity and change in diet. It’s not rocket science.”

As GEN-PEP notes via the closing cards at the end of Hawking’s presentation, physical inactivity is now the world’s fourth leading cause of death.

Physical inactivity’s logical outcome, obesity, has been identified as a risk factor for chronic conditions including diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, stroke, heart disease, certain cancers, and arthritis.

The World Health Organization has more data:

  • Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980.
  • In 2014, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these over 600 million were obese.
  • 39% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight in 2014, and 13% were obese.
  • Most of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.
  • 41 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2014.

The WHO also notes that “obesity is preventable.”
While there are many ways to manage your food intake, we can set that — and a discussion of ways to boost quality of life by challenging your palate in new and exciting ways — aside for the moment.

“Suzuki has found that healthy people can improve their cognition with exercise right away.”

Let’s talk about the potential side benefits of the more challenging part of the equation: getting active.

Scientific experiment may soon confirm that exercise makes you smarter.

As Carl Zimmer of STAT reports, New York University psychologist Wendy Suzuki is currently attempting to measure the cognitive impact of getting off your ass:

She runs a lab where she can carefully measure the effect. Suzuki has volunteers run on a treadmill in her lab while she measures their oxygen consumption. Then she gives her subjects a battery of psychological tests to measure things like their memory and attention.

Suzuki has found that healthy people can improve their cognition with exercise right away. She has also found that people with brain injuries experience significant improvement in their mood.

You don’t have to do much, though it will require more than just walking… perhaps “several days a week of moderate exercise.”

That’s what I do.

I’m pretty much a “show, not tell” type of guy. But the interest of decorum prevents me from running a photo of me in my Speedos at my three-mornings-a week swim workout, where my wife and I share a lane, usually with a couple of other U.S. Masters swimmers.

I’m also rehabbing right-foot plantar fasciitis via strengthening and stretching exercises (and putting off, for the moment, an MRI that could reveal a stress fracture my orthopedist couldn’t see with a simple X-ray) after running through nagging pain to finish the Marine Corps 10K on October 30.

My wife and I trained together for this race, and there was no way on Earth I was going to miss it. The pain is worth the memory.

And nothing compares to the endorphin-driven early-morning good times we share with our daughters, members of the Nation’s Capital Swim Club, on our drives home and around the breakfast table.

Anyone can exercise. It’s good for us.

And getting fitter may, in fact, save the human race.

Money Quote

“A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise.”

— A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”

— Henry David Thoreau

“If I liked food and disliked exercise as much as a 400-pound guy, I’d be a 400-pound guy.”

— Scott Adams

Smart Investing,

David Dittman
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily

David Dittman

, Contributing Writer

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