I must admit I've been wondering for years why I'm usually the only male, and almost always the only dude over 45, at my fitness classes.
I didn't get the full picture until the Heart and Stroke Foundation published a study last week pointing out that one in three folks born between 1945 and 1958 are in way worse physical shape than over-65s.
Before you tune out, thinking this is more wanking about boomers and their problems, think of how the trend affects people growing older after them. Mid-lifers today, the first to grow up in relative affluence and liberation, can be better understood as guinea pigs in a societal experiment now being visited on everyone.
The upshot is that, instead of enjoying their predicted healthy and active retirements, the boomer cohort may well be the first in 300 years to die younger than their parents.
And what has put them in that situation is a whole lot of other firsts: they were the first to experience wholesale automation in workplace and household technologies, first to grow old on a diet of pesticide-sprayed, processed and junk food, first to raise kids and parents while budgeting personal time in two-income households, first to enjoy the new normal of crackberry highs for multi-tasked 50-hour weeks, only 40 of which they're paid for.
Multi-tasker that I am, I was researching this during a break in cross-country skiing when my daughter's ski instructor yelled across the room, "Whatcha reading?" -- requiring me to announce to all the title of Nobel-winning economist Robert Fogel's The Escape From Hunger And Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America And The Third World. I slunk away as if I'd been caught reading porn.
Fogel's book is part of the post-second-world-war Modernist fanfare that led futurists to think technology would break all previous limits. That's the fanfare that got the planet, and now a lot of baby boomers, into a lot of trouble.
Fogel sees the prosperity of industrialism creating "technologically induced physiological change" in humans. We are so much taller, so much heavier, so much less ravaged by diseases of poverty, and live so much longer than our pre-1700 variants that we are almost a new genus of being.
Just as human longevity has doubled over the past 300 years, we can expect that continued automation, leisure and functional foods will lead to 90-plus hale and hearty years as the new human birthright, he predicts.
Fogel overlooks some ways in which the tall and stout bodies of modern humans could be stretched, such as six hours of nightly sleep instead of the nine commonplace a century ago, or eight hours a day stuck in front of a radiating screen at work and three hours in front of another radiating screen at night, instead of the zero hours put in by pre-moderns.
But he earned his Nobel with one flash of insight - one that made me understand how "the system" - to use an old and useful phrase of boomers - came to produce foods that undermine health during the very heyday of the affluent, free-spirited, values-driven Age of Automated Aquarius.
Dietary changes after 1700 freed humans to spend fewer calories on merely staying alive - keeping warm, feeding colds and fending off disease, for instance. Thus folks had more calories available for working for what used to be called The Man. This efficiency of the "human engine" increased by over 50 per cent from the 1790s to 1980s, Fogel writes, due to increases in the "thermodynamic efficiency" of foods featuring a shift to low-fibre, high-carb, high-meat diets.
Extrapolating from this, it seems the high-fat, empty-carb diet, perfect for making more energy from calories available in the short term -- think fast food-- was compatible with the historic transition to the two income- household. This literally doubled the labour power available for employers, but also left less energy and time for the person and the household.
What are called convenience foods, which hit the big time just as the boom generation was growing into its Wonder Years, were, in historical terms, a way to leverage the "thermodynamic efficiency" of foods so less energy than ever was spent on merely staying alive.
But the cost was high. Who would have thought the old slogan "Don't trust anyone over 30" would become a warning against aging boomers who eat so much and are so inactive that being over 30 now refers to 30 BMI - the body mass index indicating overweight heading to obesity. "Is 60 the new 70?" the Heart and Stroke Foundation asks, explaining that in this generation, 21 per cent still smoke, 30 per cent are obese and 52 per cent are physically inactive.
The org, long linked to companies that ply heart-smart drugs and manufactured foods, is pushing ways to help folks change their eating and exercise habits. But it ignores the circumstances in which boomers became the first generation denied enough hours in the day to do the simplest things right. To undo that requires policy changes that support holistic lifestyles, not lifestyles supported by exercise equipment, cholesterol-beaters and blood thinners.
Correcting that work-life imbalance is the heart of the healthy-lifestyles matter - a return to whole foods, not the modernist search for manufactured foods that have had their natural fats or sugars removed; a return to natural exercise and leisure, not machine-paced fitness that squeezes exercise into 20 minutes a day. This, I believe, is the warning and lesson of the revelations in this study.