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Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Monday, June 4, 2018

10-Minute Neighborhoods: The Low-Tech Solution to Almost* Everything

Health. Energy. Climate. Crime. Education. Happiness. Water. Housing. What if it were possible to make headway on all these issues with simple changes to our neighborhoods?

10-minute magic. (missingmiddlehousing.com)
What if we could cut our medical costs in half? What if we could give the average American an added five years of healthy life? What if we could cut our energy use, our water use, and our greenhouse gas emissions by more than half while improving our happiness and prosperity? What if we could provide affordable housing for millennials staggering under student loan debt? What if we could help elders age gracefully in a connected community, with their mobility and cognition intact? What if we could create communities where children can experience both safety and independence? What if we could cut in half the cost of essential services provided by cities and towns? What if we could prevent prime farmland from becoming suburbs and McMansions? What if we could create biodiverse greenbelts and wildlife corridors around our towns and cities? What if inside our cities we could create calming tree canopies, community vegetable gardens and open spaces for all to benefit from?

The missing housing we used to build. (opticosdesign.com)
All this can be achieved with 10-minute walkable neighborhoods, neighborhoods where everyone can step out their front door and reach a wide array of goods and services within ten minutes by foot. All it takes is enough density within a half-mile radius of a commercial shopping street to allow the businesses and services there to prosper. We’re not talking Hong Kong or Manhattan density, just 16 or so housing units per acre, which can be easily achieved by allowing again the “Missing Middle” of housing that was so common before World War II. What is the Missing Middle? Duplexes, townhouses, courtyard apartments, small multiplexes, and accessory dwellings units. Sprinkle this Missing Middle on the corners or edges of single-family neighborhoods where they can form transitions between single family and commercial districts. Allow homeowners to create accessory dwelling units by converting garages, basements and carriage houses to small apartments. Replace parking lots with townhouses, community gardens, and communal green spaces. On commercial streets, add a couple stories of residential apartments over ground floor shops and services. Suddenly you have enough density to support a thriving commercial district. Suddenly you have housing in a range of sizes and affordability that can host people of different incomes and at different stages of life.

The prime benefit of a 10-minute neighborhood is that it motivates walking. This is vital because we are born to walk. Indeed, the result of millions of years of evolution has not only made us excel at getting around on two legs, our body actually needs to walk in order to be healthy. This may come as a surprise to most Americans, given that the last seventy years we’ve treated walking like polio or malaria, a scourge to be eliminated at all costs. Happy motoring was the answer, but car dependency has turned out to be disastrous for American health and happiness. 

Unlike the circulatory system, the human lymphatic system has no pump and so requires muscular movement to push lymph around. You likely never learned about lymph at school, but it does critical double duty in our bodies distributing nutrients and removing cellular waste. This means we must incorporate substantial movement into our daily lives or pay a high price. You can be a little overweight and be healthy. You cannot be sedentary and be healthy.

If walking were a drug, it would be so potent you could sell it for $1000 a pill. Walking 30 minutes a day not only prevents but reverses the following conditions and diseases: type-2 diabetes, pre-diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, knee pain, Alzheimer’s in its early stages, chronic constipation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, edema caused by being sedentary, and fatty liver disease. It can slow down the progression of Parkinson’s disease. It prevents strokes, vascular dementia, osteoporosis, varicose veins, breast cancer, colon cancer, and cognitive impairment. It reduces stress and all the health problems that go with that. It boosts your immune system. People who walk at least 20 minutes a day have 43% fewer sick days. It helps you sleep. It enhances balance, making it less likely you’ll fall once you hit old age. A short walk fifteen minutes after a meal evens out your blood sugar and improves your digestion. Heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity are among the most common and costly of all health problems. These diseases not only kill people, they make them miserable along the way. And they are preventable. By walking. For free. (It also helps not to smoke and to eat more vegetables and less crap food. Also free.)

The free part is important. 86% of annual health care expenditures in the US are spent on people with chronic physical and mental health conditions. Much of this expenditure is avoidable simply by people walking 30 minutes a day. On top of that, chronic diseases make people unhappy. By making people healthier, you make them happier.

But there’s more! Apart from inducing chronic disease, a sedentary lifestyle increases odds of depression by 25%. Walking, on the other hand, is proven to prevent depression. If you’re already depressed (it’s estimated that 1 in 11 Americans share your condition), walking is as effective as anti-depressants in treating depression in the short term and more effective in the long term. And it has no nasty side effects. People who walk or bike to work consistently have higher well-being scores than those who drive. The more time you spend in your car, the more miserable, fat, and unhealthy you are. Moderate exercise such as walking reduces both anxiety and stress better than medications, but it should surprise no one that walking in nature, or along a tranquil tree-lined street, is more effective than walking next to a six-lane traffic sewer. The combination of nature and walking is so powerful that even a five-minute walk in a park will substantially elevate your mood. Walking boosts energy and reduces fatigue. It reduces chronic back and joint pain. It increases creative thinking and cognitive function. It improves memory and attention span, especially valuable for the elderly and school-age children. Moderate exercise such as walking is the number one way seniors can retain their health, mobility and cognitive function as they age. Staying connected to friends, family and neighbors of all ages is number two. If you want a happy old age, a 10-minute intergenerational neighborhood will do far more for you than an expensive, car-dependent retirement community.

Of course, will you even get to old age? No doubt you’ve read that American life expectancy has been declining the last few years, causing us to trail even further behind a substantial portion of the modern world. This is not good news, but even more troubling are our years of healthy life expectancy. On this measure, France and Spain leave us in the dust. Their citizens can expect five more healthy, active, happy years than we can. And this is after we spend nearly double the money on health care than they do. And this occurs even though they smoke at far higher rates, which should be killing them off younger. (Smoking generally reduces one’s lifespan by ten years.) The French and the Spanish don’t eat crap food in the quantities that Americans do, to be sure, but they also walk way more. The average European walks 237 miles per year, while the average American walks just 87 miles. If you walked 30 minutes a day, (1.5 miles) that would put you at 548 miles a year. You would be on track to be healthy and active well past age 74, instead of your body failing you at 68.5, as the average American experiences currently. And you would feel good in all the intervening years, not to mention need many fewer meds, uncomfortable medical procedures and time-consuming visits to the doctor. Daily walking does not mean you will never get ill and die. It means you will postpone and reduce the number of years of debilitating illness at the end of your life. And it means you will drastically reduce your lifetime medical expenditures, whether it’s paid by you or by society at large.

A reason to walk. (missingmiddlehousing.com)
It’s been proven that the best way, hands down, to get people to walk is to give them something to walk to, or destinational walking. This means our built environment is enormously important. And this is where 10-minute neighborhoods come in. We can make walking a normal, useful, enjoyable part of everyday life again.

What’s needed to produce a thriving 10-minute neighborhood are 20,000 to 22,000 people, all living within half a mile radius of a commercial shopping district. A ten-minute walk is long enough to give people exercise and short enough not to tire anyone in reasonably good health. Three-fourths of all trips made in the US are for purposes other than commutes—mostly errands and socializing. A commercial shopping district, if designed correctly, acts as the hearth of the neighborhood, a place where people gather, hangout, and connect. Where they get an opportunity to feel a part of something larger than themselves. A 10-minute neighborhood should not only include shops, it should include cafes, mom and pop restaurants, dental offices, medical clinics, a library, a post office, a couple of K-8 public schools, a few child care centers, a community garden, a park with a children’s playground and sports field, a once-a-week farmer’s market, a dog park, a senior center, a public plaza gathering space, an indoor community meeting space, therapists, alternative medicine practitioners, and, very important, at least one grocery store. A hardware store, a pharmacy, a bakery, a shoe repair shop, a bike shop, a barber, a few hair salons, a used clothing store, and some offerings for kids (art classes, tae kwon do, dance, etc.) will round out a 10-minute neighborhood nicely. Even with the trend towards internet shopping, 22,000 people can support this much commercial activity if they all live within walking distance. People on foot tend to buy more locally than people in cars, and a “sticky” attractive commercial street, the kind people want to hang out on, guarantees foot traffic. If you’re going to be passing by the hardware store anyway, you might as well pop in and pick up an LED bulb there rather than order it on-line.

Duplex density (missingmiddlehousing.com)
A 10-minute neighborhood should include all kinds of housing—housing for different income levels, different ages, different phases of life. The Missing Middle of housing not only increases the price points and range of affordability, it provides for greater social equity and intergenerational living in a community. Young people just out of college might be very happy in an affordable apartment created out of a garage, basement or carriage house in the back. Young families might appreciate starting out in a duplex with a small back yard. Downsizing babyboomers or recent widows/widowers might be quite content in a townhouse with just a patio and a flower/vegetable bed to take care of.

When we talk about affordability of housing, we really need to talk about the affordability of one’s living arrangement. This should include housing + utilities + transportation. And if we care about the actual health and happiness of our population, the hours of life sacrificed to commuting should also be considered. Say you are a family of four, both parents working. A 3000 sq. ft. house on a large lot on the suburban fringe might seem cheaper than a 2000 sq. ft. house on a small lot in a 10-minute neighborhood. Indeed, the 10-minute neighborhood house might cost 20% more. Your mortgage company will likely approve your suburban fringe home loan with alacrity, and it might seem like you’re getting a lot more house for your money. But the calculations change when you factor in utilities (1/3 higher heating bills, 2 times the water bill), and the cost of owning an additional car, including maintenance and repairs, gas, registration fees, insurance, tolls, parking, carwashes, traffic tickets, and parking tickets. In a 10-minute neighborhood at least one spouse can likely walk, bike or take transit to work, so you can get by with just one vehicle (or none!) Public transit is far more likely to be available in a 10-minute neighborhood because its density makes public transit cost-effective.

Big but distant.
But there’s more! Add on ten additional hours a week spent commuting between the two parents, additional childcare or afterschool care costs while the parents are commuting, maintenance on a yard you and your kids are never in except to mow the grass, the cost of fast food dinners because you’re too tired to shop and cook due to your stressful commutes, higher healthcare bills and hours spent visiting the doctor due your family’s lack of exercise and questionable diet. Since your neighborhood is strictly zoned for single-family use, most of your neighbors are families in the same boat, but you don’t know many of them because all of you are so rarely home. Because your neighborhood is often empty, it’s targeted by thieves for break-ins, and even though everyone has an alarm system that blares when set off, the police don’t seem to be able to get there fast enough because they’re stretched thin due to budget cuts. Your kids are overweight, taking ADD meds, and struggling in school, but you haven’t been able to meet with their teachers because you never get home from work in time. You don’t know what to do about it anyway, since doing better in school was what the ADD meds were supposed to be for. This evening traffic is more terrible than usual due to a rear-end collision ahead. As you creep past you see angry people yelling and gesticulating. You wish everyone would just get out of the way since your wife is on a business trip, and it’s up to you to pick up the kids at the aftercare program. (Your fifth and seventh graders can’t be trusted to hang out at home alone, especially not with all the break-ins.) You honk and pound the steering wheel, but still you don’t get to the school until 6:10pm, which means you incur a $20 late pick-up fee. The kids are tired and grumpy, and getting burgers, fries and sodas for dinner doesn’t seem to cheer them up. When you get home and ask about homework, your daughter melts down in tears; your son says his school is a prison, and all the teachers and kids are jerks. When you yell that school is important, the kids flee to their rooms, banging doors on the way. You sit down with your bills, frustrated that your mortgage plus utilities plus transportation eats up almost two-thirds of your household income. And although you have health insurance, paying for all the deductibles and copayments is killing you. It seems like the kids are always sick, and you and your wife have had a couple visits to the urgent care clinic lately as well. Exhausted, you plop down in front of the TV. Tomorrow you have an early start (5:30 am!) so you can pick the kids up early and take your son to the orthodontist. It’s a never-ending treadmill. You look forward to your business trip the next week when it’ll be your wife’s turn to deal with this mess.

Smaller, but within the magic radius.
In the 10-minute neighborhood, your kids can safely bike to and from school and to afterschool activities. (You can keep track of where they are with an app.) On leaving work you hop on a light rail line for 15 minutes and then walk to the store to get fresh vegetables and tortillas for tacos tonight. After that you swing by a games cafe to pick up your son where he’s been playing board games with friends. He tells you yes, he remembered his orthodontist appointment and gives you a grin to show you his tightened braces. Next is a short walk to the park to pick your daughter up from soccer practice. As you walk home with the kids under a leafy canopy of trees, (they push their bikes the short distance so they can accompany you) the three of you joke and laugh as they tell you about their day. Because you’ve met most of your neighbors, you say hi to quite a few on the way. Jack Boodle, a widower who rents out his basement to pay for his kids’ college tuition, tells you there’s been a break-in and theft one street over. You and the kids are alarmed but then reassured upon hearing that a neighborhood watch group was formed at last night’s neighborhood community meeting. (You apologize for not attending. Whoops! Your wife is on a business trip and it slipped your mind.) Myrna Roodle, an artist who lives with her son in one of the new duplexes built on the site of the old strip mall, asks your kids if they’d like to help paint an outdoor mural this coming Saturday. (The son would; the daughter has a soccer game.) Sally Coodle, a new teacher just out of college who lives in Ms. Noodle’s converted garage, hands you a flyer for her babysitting/tutoring service that you read with interest because your son could use a little help with algebra. Once home, your kids start on their homework at the kitchen table while you make dinner. After dinner your son’s classmate who lives down the block comes over and the two of them finish a diorama of Machu Picchu while you work on bills. You note with satisfaction that your mortgage plus utilities plus transportation costs come to well under half your income now that your wife is riding her electric bike to work and you’ve sold your second car. You’re thinking of lowering the total even further by putting solar panels on the roof. A week later, Mrs. Toodle, a retired school librarian who lives in Mr. Boodle’s basement flat, calls a suspicious van into the police, a tip that ends in an arrest. At the next neighborhood community meeting (that you do remember to attend), Sam Voodle, a dedicated activist who lives frugally in a studio apartment in the multiplex on the corner, lets everyone know that your neighborhood’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions last year were one-third of the US average, right around Sweden’s. The Swedish grandmother knitting calmly in the front row next to the Somalian grandmother, both of whom live in courtyard apartments just down the street from their grown children, says Sweden has just added dozens more miles of pedestrian-only streets, and that their emissions will fall further, just wait and see. You reflect that you haven’t driven your car in two weeks and wonder if you should sell that one, too? If it weren’t for visiting the kids’ grandparents in the suburbs you could just rent a car the few times a year you need one. Hmm. Maybe the grandparents could move into one of those new townhomes going up six blocks away . . .

In the end, which house is more affordable? Which is the better value?

The Missing Middle need not be huge. (missingmiddlehousing.com)
These days, it seems everyone wants a walkable neighborhood—millennials, young families, retirees. In fact, these neighborhoods are in such demand that they’ve become quite expensive. If the number of 10-minute neighborhoods quintupled overnight, it still wouldn’t meet all demand but it would make millions of people healthier and happier before the year was out. Again, skyscraper density is not required. Missing Middle housing need be no taller than three stories, with no greater footprint than a large house. Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people,” but living in fewer square feet near neighbors need not be hellish. Good fences may make good neighbors in the countryside, but in a 10-minute neighborhood, good design and good soundproofing will do the job.

 Words fail. (urbanmilwaukee.com)
As we’ve seen, walking is so important for human health that it should be considered a fundamental human right. Instead, in almost all American communities driving is what is encouraged and optimized for. Walking is an afterthought or, worse, made completely impossible by streets designed solely for cars. A proper 10-minute neighborhood puts walking first, biking and transit second, shared cars third, and private cars last. This is because cars are huge beasts, and making room for them pushes everything so far apart that the density needed for a 10-minute neighborhood becomes impossible. 10-minute neighborhoods instead repurpose car storage and car infrastructure into more socially useful space. Parking lots become townhouses and green spaces; street parking becomes trees and bike lanes; garages become apartments; car dealerships and auto repairs shops turn into mixed use residential over ground floor retail. But what about people who still really need their cars, you ask? One, 95% of everyone under 80 in a 10-minute neighborhood can get around very well by walking, biking, electric biking or electric triking.
Fun! (cozytrikes.com)
If you don’t think so, then you’ve never ridden an electric bike or trike. An electric cargo bike can carry two kids and four bags of groceries uphill, no sweat required. They are true game changers. Two, ridesharing and taxis are great options for those over 80 who probably should be weaning themselves from driving anyhow. Three, drivers could be provided with a parking lot—one!—on the edge of the neighborhood commercial district that encourages them to park once and then become pedestrians for the rest of their visit. Four, if you’ve got true 10-minute neighborhood density, then the shops and services will flourish without the need for any car-driving customers. Those who insist on car-dependency can drive to the malls that want to cater to them. Yes, this might cause a few extra miles worth of greenhouse gas emissions, but making a walking lifestyle possible for tens of millions will reduce emissions far, far more than this small amount of extra driving will produce.

There are other benefits to 10-minute neighborhoods. They put more eyes on the street, reducing crime. Since sprawl is costly, they’re good for the bottom line of cities and towns, especially those teetering on the edge of insolvency. Indeed, it costs less than half as much per capita to provide public services such as police, fire, public transit, roads, sidewalks, clean water, sewer and waste water services to 10-minute neighborhoods than it does to suburban neighborhoods. And studies show that children who walk or bike to school are able to concentrate the first four hours of the school day far better than children who are driven. Not only do they have better test scores, they have improved cognitive performance all around.

* As the title of this post indicates, 10-minute neighborhoods don’t solve everything. They  don’t address the widespread corruption that is strangling our democracy. They don’t address the burgeoning wealth inequality that is burning through the fabric of our society like a slow-fuse time bomb. They don’t address the need, worldwide, for young women to have access to birth control and education through high school so that the world’s population can peak and then gently decline 1% a year to a level the planet can reasonably support. They don’t address the changes needed to create sustainable, or better yet, restorative agriculture. They don’t necessarily make the awful American diet, full of sugar and junk carbs, any better. But they can make us healthier, happier and more connected. They can cut crime and create social cohesion. They can improve our quality of life while reducing our cost of living. They can help children become more independent and do better in school. They can cut healthcare spending, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by more than half. All it takes is getting rid of parking lots and other car infrastructure, and adding the Missing Middle forms of housing, something that human beings have known how to do for hundreds, if not thousands of years. This is not rocket science. Mostly what needs to be changed are little lines of writing in your town’s planning and zoning codes. Low tech, indeed. 

Just a hunch
A note about biking versus walking: You may wonder why this article emphasizes walking rather than biking. I am an urban bike rider and use my bikes (one regular, one electric) extensively for trips over half a mile. It should be more widely known that electric bikes are the most energy-efficient form of transportation known to humankind. Regular biking is second. But when it comes to bone health, walking beats out biking because it's a full weight-bearing exercise, while biking is only partially weight-bearing. Walking creates gentle motion in your arms and shoulders, areas that tend to be immobile during bike riding. In contrast, riding hunched over can develop considerable tension in the neck and shoulders and strain the lower back. Since the whole body movement of walking promotes more optimal circulation of lymph and blood, it has the stronger claim for overall health, especially as you age. Your quads and abdomen will no doubt be more impressive with intense biking, but you'll probably live longer if you incorporate a good amount of walking in your daily life. The good news is that the people I know who bicycle for transportation (as opposed to pure recreation) tend to get plenty of daily walking in. So it doesn’t have to be a choice. Do both!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Gasoline--Such a Big Bang for the Buck


Are you a fan of beheadings? Are you fond of autocratic regimes? Do you want to help those kooky, lovable Koch brothers purchase another member of Congress? Do you yearn to support Saudi Arabia, Iran, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin, but it seems so difficult to give them direct, individual donations? Lucky for you, there’s an easy answer! Just buy gasoline!

Yes, it’s that simple. Oil is a worldwide commodity. Any gallon you purchase props up the price as a whole, enriching international oil companies and oil-exporting nations, with a handsome portion trickling to the politicians they’ve bought. (Oops, “support.”) Your money is guaranteed to enable stonings of adulterous women and beheadings of political prisoners, not to mention facilitate juicy environmental damage from oil spills and toxic fracking waste. In fact, you can rest easy knowing that every dollar you spend on gasoline works hard to attack human rights, cripple the environment and enable political corruption. A three-fer!

But there’s more! On a local level, the gasoline you burn has the happy side benefit of inflicting asthma and cancer on the poorest in your region since it’s the poorest who live along freeways and traffic sewers where tailpipe emissions are highest and the rent is cheapest.

Make them richer and more powerful! It's easy!
As a bonus, it’s easy to double the impact of your gasoline purchase by doing your best to make miserable the lives of anyone traveling without a car. With a little persistence, you can force them to get their own car and buy gasoline just like you. So honk at bicyclists as you pass them. Rev your motor loudly to show them who’s boss. Don’t stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Yell rude things at them instead. From time to time even come close to hitting them. (If you actually do hit them, no problem. As long as you aren’t inebriated and you cooperate with the police, there will likely be no consequences to you.) Complain loudly and frequently at public meetings about how bike lanes and pedestrian safety projects take away parking. Refuse to fund public transit because you don’t take it. Turn purple with rage at any bicyclist who delays you by half a second. Lament the unfairness of pedestrians jaywalking and bicyclists rolling through stop signs while ignoring that car drivers routinely disregard stop signs, run stoplights, speed, kill people, and occupy ninety percent of the street space. And be sure to belittle and jeer at anyone who attempts to make their life less oily. After all, taking trains and drinking from personal water bottles won't buy anyone's seventeenth or eighteenth house.

Fun guys! They'll do great things with your money!
If democracies annoy you, rest assured your gasoline money will go to some of the least democratic countries in the world. Let’s look at the top oil exporters and where they fall on the Democracy Index. For comparison’s sake, the United States (which is the #2 oil importer in the world, not exporter) is 21st out of 167 countries on the Democracy Index. (Don’t worry, we’re doing our best to become more autocratic and drop!) As you can see below, most of the top exporters are in the bottom third of the Index, if not the bottom tenth, Yes, Canada, at number 6, is an anomaly, but don’t let that distract you. Most of the rest are either totalitarian autocracies or nearly so. They totally deserve your money.

Oil Exporter
2016 Oil Income (Billion US $)
Democracy Index Ranking (out of 167 nations)
1. Saudi Arabia
$136.2
159
2. Russia
$73.7
134
3. Iraq
$46.3
114
4. Canada
$39.5
6
5. United Arab Emirates
$38.9
147
6. Kuwait
$30.7
121
7 Iran
$29.1
154


And one last benefit you get from your gasoline purchase. No, not an Esso tiger tail or an Arco Noah’s Ark animal, like the gas station giveaways of yesteryear. This is the big kahuna. Climate change! Every gallon of gasoline you burn is another nail in the coffin of humanity! Though you’ll likely not be around to witness it, you can go to your grave knowing that you personally helped billions of people die from famine, drought and disease. Another billion refugees bobbing up and down in their little boats across great seas will have you to thank. There will likely be wars and social chaos. If we get really lucky, there’ll be total extinction of the human race. So fill up those tanks! Every dollar you spend on gasoline packs a punch. As bargains go, it doesn’t get much better.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Get Rid of Your Belly! (There's No Resilience Without Good Health)


How do you envision yourself at age eighty? Do you want to be active, mobile, and of sound mind and body? Or do you think you'll be lucky just to be alive?

Good health is not luck. Yes, luck plays a role, as do genetics and the presence or absence of toxic pollution. But the vast majority of Americans have the health that we ourselves create. What kills us, immobilizes us, and makes us dependent on medication is largely within our control. Indeed, the Center for Disease Control estimates that 80% of heart disease, 80% of strokes, 80% of type II diabetes, and 40% of all cancers are preventable through lifestyle changes. Researchers at UCSF estimate over half of Alzheimer's cases are likely preventable. This is good news! It means we have a good chance of steering clear of them. Even better, it is completely possible to reverse a host of the most common debilitating and/or fatal diseases with just a change of personal habits. Without drugs, medical procedures or much money, you can lessen/eliminate chronic pain, reverse diabetes and heart disease, avoid dementia, steer clear of most cancers, improve your digestion, beat depression, and generally increase your happiness and life satisfaction.

Awaiting rescue
I don’t know if you noticed during the plethora of natural disasters this last summer, but people with poor health and/or poor mobility tend not to fare well when fires/floods/hurricanes strike. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have compassion and evacuate people with poor health/mobility before Mother Nature slaps us around. But it cannot escape the attentive that being dependent on electrically-powered medical equipment or drugs that come via a lengthy, fragile supply chain make one extremely vulnerable should the power go out or the drugs not be delivered. Plus, not being mobile may mean you simply can’t escape quickly enough from fires or floods. (The majority of the victims of northern California's recent fires were senior citizens.) If you anticipate there may be food or energy insecurity in our future, you can bet that medical services will hiccup long before that. Solar panels, orchards, and canned food are all well and good, but good health is absolutely the best investment you can make to prepare for whatever lies ahead. Plus it will make you feel great in the meantime. I mean really great. And if disaster strikes, it will put you in the position of being able to help friends, family and community members instead of being the one who needs help.

My health is good, you may be thinking. Or at least good enough. Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. We could examine whether you’re able to walk a couple miles without exhaustion. We could inventory how many medications you’re taking and whether you’d die in short order if you ran out. But let’s look instead at an even better prognosticator of your immediate and long-term health. Let’s look at your waist.

Squeezing the fat doesn't actually eliminate it.
The ratio of waistline to height has been found to be an accurate predictor of current and future health, much better than BMI (Body Mass Index). Go find a tape measure and measure it right now. If you're unsure where it is, measure one inch above your navel. If your waist is more than half of your height, you’ve got visceral abdominal fat wrapped around your organs that is slowly (or not so slowly) working to kill you. This is true even if in terms of pounds you are not considered overweight or obese. Unless you're pregnant, a big belly is bad.

Visceral abdominal fat is much worse than any other fat in your body because this kind of fat functions almost like a gland, secreting hormones, cancer-contributing proteins, and inflammatory biochemicals that will cause you lots of problems. As a result, visceral fat is directly linked to heart disease and type-2 diabetes, and, for women, breast cancer. Because visceral fat influences the production of blood lipids, it's also directly linked to higher levels of bad cholesterol, lower levels of good cholesterol and insulin resistance. It also increases risk of stroke, dementia, depression, arthritis, sleep disorders and cancers of the colon, liver, pancreas, intestines, uterus, gall bladder and kidneys. Don't worry about other body fat. This is the fat you want to go after.

Reach for a Lucky and you'll be toast.
The good news is that reducing your abdominal fat will dramatically decrease your chances of the diseases listed above, especially heart disease, breast cancer, colon cancer, and diabetes. Heart disease is the number one way Americans die. Cancer is number two. Stroke is number five, Alzheimer's is six, diabetes is seven. One in three US seniors die with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. Forty percent of American adults are diabetic or prediabetic, most of them unaware of their condition. It is far, far easier to prevent these diseases than to cure them. (Many cannot be cured, only managed.) If you can deal with your belly--deal with it now—you will likely avoid much future suffering, not to mention an early death. You’ll also feel way better now. It’s win-win all around.

Tapeworms are not your friend
But how to get rid of visceral fat that causes a big belly? The human body tends toward homeostasis. It has a set point weight it tries to maintain, and it will fight change to the downside. (Unfortunately, it will let you add fat without much resistance.) It will even send you hormonal signals that tell you you’re hungry when you obviously have plenty of fat to burn. What can you change about your life that will not only improve your energy levels, make your immune system more effective, but also jumpstart you body into losing those visceral fat inches?

As you likely know, the United States spends way more per capita on health care than any other country in the world. Sadly, such ruinous spending doesn’t actually give us good health or long life. The US average lifespan is 31st among nations and dropping. Even worse, our years of healthy life expectancy is 36th among nations. Growing old doesn't have to entail ill health or disability. The citizens of Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Italy, Israel, Iceland, France, Spain, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, and Austria on average enjoy good health well into their seventies. Most of these countries also report higher levels of general happiness than the US does. They certainly consume a fraction of the anti-depressants , sleeping pills and opiods. And they spend a fraction of the money that Americans do to produce these superior results.

Old-fashioned pill-popping
I’m going to suggest three lifestyle changes that will significantly increase your odds of making it to the age of 80 not only alive, but with good mobility, of sound mind, and generally feeling good. All three are within your control; none of the three cost much. Even better, the three together will improve your life right now. They'll drop your needs for most drugs; they’ll increase your energy and stamina; they’ll help you sleep better and make you look great. But you’re going to have all sorts of arguments why you can’t do them. You may even think you’d rather live with a decade of debilitating illness and then die before you're old enough to collect social security than do what I’m proposing. Wow, how bad can they be? Read on.

    1) Walk thirty minutes a day. Your lymphatic system is the Rodney Dangerfield of the body. It gets no respect. Most people are unaware it even exists. However, it’s essential to health because it rids the body of toxins and wastes and transports infection-fighting white blood cells around the body. But this is key: unlike your vascular (blood) system, it has no pump. It requires your body’s movement to operate. There is absolutely no way you can be healthy without some form of moderate daily exercise to get this lymph moving around. It doesn’t have to be walking, however brilliant walking is. Bicycling counts. Yoga and tai chi count. So does gardening. So does sweeping, snow shoveling and hanging the laundry to dry. Do more vigorous exercise if you wish on some days, but every day do at least thirty minutes of moderate exercise without fail.

Laxative abuse does not create health.
This may sound simple, but you’d think I was asking people to jump over the moon given the raft of excuses they come up with. If you live in a neighborhood that is dangerous for walking and biking, you live in a neighborhood designed for poor health. Consider moving. (I’m serious. The average American changes residences 11.4 times in his/her lifetime. Next time, make your health a factor in choosing where to live.) Ladies, if you wear shoes that hurt to walk in, get some comfortable ones. Save the high heels for special occasions. (High heels cause an abundance of health problems that will eventually cripple you anyway. Better to be sexy via a slim waist than by permanently damaging your feet, ankles, knees and spine.) If you can’t walk thirty minutes in a row right now, start out at ten and add five minutes each week. You’ll get there. Walking alone will likely not drop all your belly fat, but it will strengthen your bones and leg muscles, prevent varicose veins, improve your lung and oxygen capacity, lift your mood, prevent countless chronic diseases, improve your digestion, and improve your balance and coordination. And it will help you sleep better. It will make a huge impact on how you feel and your general health. 

Empowerment! (blackgirlsrun.com)
The easiest way to fit thirty minutes of walking or biking into your day is to make it a natural part of how you commute or do errands. This is why the very design of America’s car-based society (that ensures nothing is close by and renders walking and biking dangerous) is terrible for American health. But here’s some good news: if you are fit in your fifties, you significantly delay infirmity. This is true even if you weren’t particularly fit earlier. You may eventually get the same chronic conditions as those who were unfit in their fifties, but you’ll get them in the final five years of your life instead of the final 10, 15, or 20 years. You will live much better—happier! active! mobile!--the last 20% of your life. And you don’t have to be super fit, just the regular fitness level that comes from walking thirty minutes a day.

Thirty minutes of daily, moderate exercise cuts your chance of Alzheimer's in half. It is the number one tool to protect your memory and your mind that you have at your disposal. (Here are some others.) You don't want Alzheimer's. Your family doesn't want you to develop Alzheimer's. Trust me on this.

     2)   Sit less than six hours a day. Yes, sitting is the new smoking. Our bodies were built for movement. Is it any surprise that sitting all day in a chair is bad for you? Too much sitting causes your metabolism to slow, your blood circulation to stagnate, less oxygen to be delivered to your brain, and it significantly increases your risk of heart disease, cancer (colon, endometrial, and lung), obesity, type 2 diabetes, muscular infirmity, and depression. It also impedes the functioning of the key enzyme that breaks down fat. Thirty minutes a day of exercise, while imperative for your lymph and circulatory systems, does not counteract the badness of twelve hours of sitting. No matter your age, the combined ill effects of extensive sitting basically double your risk of premature death. If you’re already on your feet all day with your job, you’re probably fine, unless it’s a job that requires you to stand still. (Standing still can give you back aches and varicose veins. We’ll talk about how to solve this in a second.)

Ergonomics!
If you have a desk job, I strongly encourage you to get a standing desk. It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. I spent $40 on a stand to put my laptop screen at eye level, another $140 for a keyboard and trackpad separate from my laptop so I can keep my arms perpendicular to my body, and $80 for an anti-fatigue mat that is contoured and keeps my calves activated. (Explanation to follow.) There are also inexpensive standing desk hacks.

Unappreciated
It may seem an oxymoron, but you don’t want to just stand at a standing desk. The key to great health with a standing desk or a standing job is to activate the calf muscles. We all know that our heart pumps blood away from the center of our bodies. However, gravity fights the return of that blood from our legs. That’s why calves are sometimes called the second heart. The activation of our calf muscles is what gets that blood back up to our hearts. When we sit, those calf muscles do next to nothing. When we stand motionless, it’s not much better. However, when we stand it’s not so hard to dance, wiggle, lift up our heels, or walk in place, all of which activates those calves. I find an anti-fatigue mat with bumps and contours promotes calf activation as well. If you want to try a walking treadmill desk ($), go for it. There are many studies that show (and I can verify from personal experience) that standing desks improve neurocognitive function, including memory, focus and alertness. I can attest that I’ve never felt sleepy at my standing desk. And it is far, far easier to keep good posture standing than while sitting if you pay attention to ergonomics when creating your standing desk. If you have neck, arm, hand, shoulder, back or carpal tunnel problems, it’s very possible that poor posture and/or poor ergonomics created them and good posture/ergonomics will help them disappear (as will dropping weight and strengthening your muscles.) Better to eliminate the source of pain than to rely on opioids to get you through the day.

Posture check
In tai chi, there’s a concept called suspended headtop. Think of the top of your head rising up, as if suspended from a string. Relax your shoulders down; don't stick your chest out military style. Bend your knees slightly and keep your weight towards the balls of your feet. Don’t slump, don’t lock out your knees and put all your weight on your heels. (Rocking back on your heels from time to time is fine.) Your butt muscles should be relaxed, not clenched. Your chest should be relaxed enough that you can breathe deep into your belly. Remember not to stand motionless. Shift your weight from foot to foot, lift up your heels, rise up onto your toes, wiggle, and wobble around. Swing your arms from time to time, even walk in place. Sitting down ten minutes here and there is okay, just remember to get back up. (It’s easy to get caught up in something and, before you know it, ninety minutes have passed and you haven’t moved.) If your job absolutely requires you to sit on your butt eight hours a day, I’m sorry to say you have a job that will lead to your infirmity and early death. Do they pay you enough for that? Truly consider a different job or a different line of work. If you can’t quit immediately, then getting up every 30 minutes to stretch and walk around for a minute will help a whole lot.

My favorites
Ladies, standing desks require flat shoes. (Socks and bare feet also work.) I recommend Softstar shoes because I love mine so much, not to mention that Softstar is a great small business that is environmentally conscious and treats their workers well. Wearing “barefoot” style shoes such as these will strengthen your feet, improve your balance and can even reverse a host of foot problems. I buy one pair a year and wear them for everything except running on hard pavement, walking over three miles on concrete, and fancy occasions. At work keep formal shoes in a desk drawer for when you need them.

As for other ways to refrain from sitting: walking meetings work well when you’re meeting with just one other person. If you can talk your employer into it, standing meeting tables are proven to increase productivity and reduce meeting times. At the very least, make a concerted effort to make your screen time standing time.

Screen at eye level
Now don’t try to go from sitting twelve hours a day (American average) to six overnight! Try standing for ten minutes an hour and then adding five minutes a week until you can do 45 minutes at a stretch. The hardest thing is travel. Either in a car or airplane, you’ve got forced butt time. (This is part of the reason truck and cab drivers have some of the worst health in the country.) On public transit you can stand; on a train you can get up and walk. Choose those options when you can.  

Okay. Let’s talk about waistline reduction again. As you walk, exercise, and stand, you’re going to be strengthening your legs. Adding muscle. This is good! However, since muscle is heavier than fat, even if your abdominal fat is vaporizing, your weight may not drop immediately. That’s okay. Weight is not nearly as important as your waist. If you’re replacing visceral fat with leg muscle, you’re doing amazing things for your health. Don’t even step on a scale. Get a tape measure and focus on your belly.

So we move on to lifestyle change number three. This is the one that people say they’d rather die than do. Oh my gosh. Seriously?
           
     3)   Cut out wheat and sugar for six months. (Noooo! I hear you all screaming.) Wheat and sugar are the king and queen of obesity, inflammation and diabetes. Combined with a sedentary lifestyle, they’re almost guaranteed to make you sick, weak and immobile before your time. If you've got problems with belly fat, eliminate all wheat, high fructose corn syrup, and desserts from your diet. Also all added sugars. For six months. I must point out this includes bread. Even whole wheat bread. It includes pasta. Beer. It certainly includes doughnuts. Freaking A, it includes most crackers.

Oh. My. God. The world is going to end.

If you want a detailed explanation of the problems with wheat, read Wheat Belly and Grain Brain. Suffice it to say that wheat has been massively hybridized the last fifty years into a form very different than what has been consumed by human beings the previous ten thousand. But I’m not telling you to give up wheat forever. Get your belly gone, and you can reintroduce wheat and see how it affects you, perhaps trying ancient and heirloom strains that haven’t been so manipulated to produce higher yields, pesticide accommodation, perkier baking properties, etc.

There are all sorts of good reasons to clear wheat and sugars from your diet, including the nasty way they spike your blood sugar, make you insulin resistant, age your skin, make you fat, weaken your bones, and diminish your mental acuity. But let’s put those aside for the moment. I propose you totally clear wheat and added sugars from your diet for the next six months because of homeostasis.

Your body doesn’t like change. Your body doesn’t want to lose its belly. Even with your new regimen of walking thirty minutes a day and sitting less than six hours, it will not say, “Sure, no problem, this belly has got to go.” No sirree. It will fight losing those inches. Cutting wheat and sugar from your food supply will jumpstart the process. It will reduce your high blood sugar levels that directly lead to visceral abdominal fat, not to mention diabetes, cataracts, arthritis, dementia and heart disease. Dropping wheat and sugar will make those fat cells say, “Whoa, what’s going on?” It will tell your body you mean business.

I can tell you that when I hit 50, I was not obese or overweight, but my weight was creeping up. I was running 5K three times a week, I was walking 30 minutes a day, I ate little in the way of sweets or desserts. Still my weight was creeping. Then I cut out wheat. My body made a marked shift; I dropped ten pounds without otherwise changing my diet. My waist dropped two inches. Yes, dropping wheat is that powerful.

But you have to cut the sugar, too, because it’s also nasty bad for you and can fill in for wheat at the drop of a hat. Yes, cutting out wheat means no more office cupcakes. Yes, it means avoiding the center of the grocery store and every beautiful bakery that wants to lure you in with its luscious scents and its big-eyed whole-grained muffins that can’t possibly be bad for you (can they?) Yes, it means forgoing most fast and prepared foods. (This is a feature, not a bug.) If you don't cook, you may have to start. Don’t replace wheat with “gluten free” processed corporate crapola products. They’re mostly made from rice starch, tapioca starch or other starch that is largely nutrition-free. You want the food you put in your mouth to both fill you up and actually have nutrition. (Ahem, this means not gorging yourself on potato chips or tortilla chips either, even if they don't contain wheat.)

Wheat stimulates the appetite. Getting it out of your diet will help you to not be constantly ravenous. Satiate your appetite with good fats—avocados, avocado oil, olives, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, and seeds. (Trans fats are so awful for you that I'm assuming you cut them out of your diet years ago?) You need protein, so throw in modest amounts of pasture-raised dairy and meat. (If you're vegan, you should already well know healthy vegan sources of protein.) And throw in lots and lots of vegetables that will give you the nutrition and micro-nutrients that your body needs and probably hasn’t gotten in years. Go easy on the rice, potatoes and non-wheat grains. Instead of snacking on pretzels and cookies, try carrots, pumpkin seeds or raw cashews. For a quick breakfast, grab a hard-boiled egg rather than a bagel. Trade your lunchtime sandwich for a salad sprinkled with cheese and sunflower seeds. Ever have grated sweet potato sautéed in coconut oil? Delicious!
           
Oh. My. God. You’re saying no pizza and beer. Ever.

First off, there are some wheat-free beers, and there are ways to make wheat-free pizza. And we're just talking six months. Wheat and sugar are addictive; both have properties that cause you to crave them. After a month or so the cravings will die down. I walk by bakeries now and I don’t even want a muffin. But that wasn’t true at first. Once you get your waist to a healthy circumference, then, if you really want, you can reintroduce wheat and see how your body reacts.

If you would rather die early than give up bread for six months, so be it. I’ll just suggest the one bite rule. Sometimes, if you’re craving something--if something looks so good, you might die if you don’t have it--one bite will get you far. Perhaps it’s a beautiful cake that everyone is raving about, ice cream that's magical, or the best biscuit in the history of the universe. Take exactly one bite. Your tastebuds will get most of their gratification (sweetness, texture, flavor.) Same with ice cream. Seriously, one bite gets you 80% of the joy. (Note: this works better for sweet/floury things than salty/oily things.)

This should be obvious, but cut out the soda and the sweet tea. This includes diet soda. (Very nasty for your poor brain, increasing risk of both stroke and dementia.) Hydrate mostly with water from your personal stainless steel water bottle. (Please, oh, please, don't buy bottled water. It's bad for you and bad for the planet.) Once you get rid of added sugars, food with natural sugars will start tasting quite sweet to you. Foods with nutrition, like milk, carrots, snap peas. Some fruit is okay, but don’t gorge on it. Get creative with vegetables instead. If your body is really stubborn about homeostasis and that belly fat won't budge, try switching to zero starch dinners (just protein and vegetables) or even skipping dinner a couple times a week to get over your body's set point inertia.

Let me also point out the foolishness of smoking and/or destroying your liver by drinking too much. It's simply bonkers to work hard on improving your health on the one hand while simultaneously monkey hammering it with drink and cigarettes on the other.

Don't say you don't have the time. It's all about priorities. Many people postpone prioritizing their health until their first heart attack or stroke. Or until they're diagnosed with cancer. Or they need a limb amputated. Then they must focus on nothing but their health for quite a while, with medical interventions that are stressful and unpleasant. How about preventing the heart attack, the stroke, the cancer, the amputation? How about taking action right now so that you can live actively and joyfully from age 60 to age 80? (Possibly even beyond.)

Yes, whatever you do, you might still get unlucky and get clobbered by a texting driver or contract a debilitating disease there was no way to prevent. But why not give yourself the best odds possible? Follow these three steps (that might seem impossible but really aren’t) and you will ignite your immune system and increase your strength and stamina. You’ll fire up your metabolism, reduce your current and future need for medications, get rid of your belly, and save both you and the nation oodles in future health care expense. You will feel energized, creative, and powerful not only when your belly’s gone, but as it’s going. Don’t choose death, disease and suffering due to the siren calls of sugar, wheat and your easy chair. However old you are, whatever shape you’re in, turn your health around. You can do it.


Note: this is not medical advice. I’m not a doctor! I just read the research and studies and tell you what I’ve experienced myself. I receive no remuneration for any products I recommend. I share things that have worked for me and that I like. Indeed this entire article benefits me in almost no way whatsoever except for the fact that if you’re a sane, non-evil person, and you improve your health, the world I inhabit gets a little better.