Ever since I’ve started losing weight, I’ve periodically been looking into what caused Americans to gain so much weight. Over the past fifty years or so, we’ve, on average, put on something like 40 pounds per person. Or was it 30? Or 50? I forgot. It’s in that range, and any of those is too much. And from what I’ve seen, it’s the result of three things: Globalization, Pac-Man, and added fat.
You might be thinking I’m losing it. You might be saying to yourself “Triple D (nobody calls me that), what madness is this?”. But I don’t think I’m wrong. I recently wrote about how we eat maybe about 500 calories per day more than we used to 50 years ago or so, and added fat is a significant portion (maybe 60%) of that. I’ve also written before about how the introduction of more sedentary habits, like video games (hence, Pac-Man), reduced our physical activity.
But globalization? Am I spewing some loony theory about how obesity is the result of some cadre of global elites holding meetings in the Alps that somehow caused us to become unhealthy? No, don’t be silly. But there was a time where most of the population worked for a living. And by that, I mean physically worked. There were more farm workers, factory workers, and miners, just to name a few jobs that have declined in the past half century. But during that time between the late sixties and early eighties (which is roughly the time when our collective waist started expanding), jobs like these were gradually sent overseas, where the labor was cheaper.
Most people talk about the economic consequences this produced for the working and middle class, but there are also health consequences too. When you work at a muscle labor job, you burn a lot of calories. And when that job gets replaced with a job that involves planting your posterior into a chair for eight hours a day, the amount of movement declines noticeably. So that’s how globalization helped make us fat.
Now, this is not an excuse. Even someone who spends their entire workday chained to a desk can still find ways to squeeze a workout in. And even being trapped inside during COVID was not an excuse. But it surely is easier to stay fit when you have a job that requires a little exertion.
I learned this shortly before I went back to school for an MBA. I had about three months to kill before the school year started, so I took a temporary job working in a warehouse. This was eight hours a day of loading and unloading boxes of varying sizes, containing everything from toys to TVs to lawn furniture. Even an hour of this can burn a lot of calories. So if I do it for six to eight hours a day, I’m getting more gains than many athletes.
Now, this alone wasn’t enough to prevent obesity. There were some fat people working in that warehouse. But that’s mostly because they ate crap. I remember them eating monstrous portions of stuff like Hamburger Helper on their breaks. And I’m not saying that Hamburger Helper has to be bad (hamburgers alone can actually be healthy, when done right) but these guys wolfed down so much that they managed to completely eliminate whatever benefits they had from slinging boxes all day.
I didn’t eat like that and noticed that I lost a fair amount of weight, and also gained a certain amount of muscle. With no need to spend leisure time going to a gym. But I also saw why so many other Americans didn’t get exercise like this. Because literally everything I was unloading was coming in from places like Pakistan, India, and China. All of the old blue collar labor jobs were in Asia, which probably explains the rise in obesity in the western world.
And many manufacturing jobs may seem like light work, but it adds up over eight hours. A worker who stands on a line and assembles little gizmos, welds parts together, or even picks bad fruit from a conveyor is burning calories. These kinds of tasks, merely by virtue of being on your feet, burn 100 to 200 calories per hour. And heavier tasks are even better. It’s easy to see how this makes it easy to stay fit.
And what about those mining jobs that we’ve been losing? Well, it’s just like a guy who spends his days digging and shoveling. And that burns 200–400 calories per hour. Unless we’re talking about those lazy coal miners who just blow a mountain to bits and come pick up the pieces with bulldozers and backhoes and dump trucks. That doesn’t burn much at all. Even though it does make you less likely to get black lung.
Another manual labor job that’s in decline is forestry. Which is a problem for a variety of reasons. Chopping down trees can burn about 400 calories an hour. And turn you into a strapping, lady killing lumberjack with arms the size of logs. As long as a tree doesn’t fall on your head, that is.
And farming jobs, another job that can produce strapping lads (they even have their own dating site), is another job that can be on the decline. Even the most basic gardening tasks burn 100-200 per hour, and some of the more difficult farming tasks burn way more than that. But importing food from abroad, where labor is cheaper, results in fewer farmers and more fatties.
Of course, it’s not all bad. Not all of the jobs can be sent overseas. One job that’s difficult to send abroad is construction, which burns about 300 calories per hour. And repair work is hard to send overseas too, as is yard and landscaping work. I’ve noted before that doing your own house repairs and lawn work is a good way to keep the weight off. So if you do it for a living, it’s even better.
Another that’s always going to be here is that warehouse job I had. Because building a warehouse in another country would sort of defeat the purpose. It burned about 400 calories per hour. And did make me a bit more buff. So it’s about as good as the lumberjack job. Although telling the ladies you’re a warehouse worker isn’t quite so romantic as telling them you’re a lumberjack. I guess the plaid-shirt-and-epic-beard image of a lumberjack is just a tad sexier to the distaff side of the human race.
But sadly, there’s another way these jobs may disappear. As the world draws nearer to having deranged billionaires take control and replace us with artificial intelligence and cyborgs, odds are these manual labor tasks will continue to decline as the machines take them. So we’ll be stuck with non-physical jobs, until the machines launch the inevitable genocidal war to end human existence.
So the jobs that kept us thin are in decline, requiring that we somehow make up for that. So if you, like me, have a desk job, think about finding ways to squeeze in a little exercise. Walk up the steps instead of taking the elevator. Or maybe work something into your commute. Or just stand up while working. There are a variety of ways to make a sedentary job…not so sedentary.
Globalization (and automation) may have taken the jobs that helped us keep the weight off. The few remaining ones may disappear once we’re replaced by robots. But if you can find a good job that pays the bills and keeps the weight off, do it. Or at least work some activity into your white-collar job. Because we need to be in shape. We’re never going to survive the robot apocalypse if we’re a bunch of fatties.