Saturday, May 9, 2015

German vs. American fitness

One of my biggest problems with juggling my roles as employee/student/parent/person is that I never have enough time for exercise.  I tried really hard last semester but in the end I couldn't keep it up. I might be able to work a 5k or strength training session into my weekend if I don't have any papers to edit or any assignments for school.  During the week I'm too tired to commit to exercise and most days there just isn't time even if I had the energy.  This is frustrating because while exercise is important for physical health I really need it to reduce stress and for my mental well being.  I am way less irritable and pleasant to be around if I've been working out.

The answer to this problem has been right in front of me the whole time.  I just needed to exercise like my German husband.  H has the ability to eat whatever he wants and never become overweight.  Not only that, he takes and passes a fitness test every year even though he eats the same standard German diet on which I struggle not to gain weight.  Oh yeah, and he works 45 hours a week, does an MBA program in the evening and does his share of co-parenting.  What's the secret?  While we joke about his 'skinny genes' there are some very real lifestyle differences between my husband and I.

Since I love statistics I figured I'd do a little research into possible contributing factors to back up my anecdotal evidence.

It's possible after spending a little bit of time in Germany you might notice two things.  First, the standard German diet includes a lot of foods that have been demonized in American culture: bread, chocolate, mayo, potatoes, pork, fried foods, heavy cream sauces, cakes, processed meats and alcohol.  Second, Germany has less than half the obesity rate of the USA and about a third less than the UK and Australia.  What's up with that?

2014 OECD rates for obesity
France 14.5%
Germany 14.7%
Spain 16.7%
South Africa 16%
United Kingdom 24.7%
Canada 25.4%
Australia 28.3%
New Zealand 31.3%
Mexico 32.4%
USA 35.3%

Clearly Germany has a significantly lower rate of obesity.  I thought this might have something to do with the level of physical activity.  Looking at the data we see that more people are regularly active in Germany than in countries with higher rates of obesity.

Percentage of the adult population that are inactive
Germany 28%
Canada 33.3%
Mexico 37.7%
Australia 37.9%
USA 40.5%
New Zealand 47.7% 
Spain 50.2%
United Kingdom 63.3%

Now we're starting to get an interesting picture of some of the differences between the USA and Germany when it comes to fitness.  Another interesting cultural difference is the way that Americas exercise versus the way Germans exercise.  About 16% of Americans have a gym membership as opposed to only 6.2% of Germans (source, source).  But if Germans aren't going to the gym, how are they managing to be more active than Americans?  The answer is that Germans get more of their exercise by biking and walking. 

H likes to run and swim but the majority of the years we've been married he's also biked to school or work.  I admit when I first showed up in Germany with a bunch of stilettos in 2007 I didn't think much of walking places. Now I've totally reversed my attitude.  I haven't worn a pair of shoes I couldn't walk in for years.

My school is too far away for biking to be an option but Germany has a fabulous public transportation system.  It's almost always more efficient and cost effective to take the train than to drive places.  Public transportation causes people to walk a bit more than they would if they were driving.  Using a pedometer I discovered that when I take the train I end up walking two miles a day.  It doesn't seem like that much, walking from the train station to my classes but it adds up to an extra 36 miles a month.  Walking is a load bearing exercise, just as healthy for you as jogging.  

Now you could walk everywhere but the one problem with walking longer distances is that it isn't very time efficient.  This is perhaps why so many Germans ride bikes.  Especially during the warmer months Germans bike everywhere.  They bike their kids to Kita, to the store, to work. Biking three kilometers only takes about ten minutes.  It's almost as time efficient as driving for short distances.  If I bike to the train station in the morning and to run errands I can easily end up getting 100 of the 150 recommended minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week recommended by the Department of Health.  And that's the not so big secret about German fitness.  By making fitness a regular part of their day they get in a lot of physical activity without having to go to the gym.  

This semester  I finally, after eight years of being in Germany, have my own bike and helmet.  I've been doing my best not to fall off or crash into anything the last two weeks (harder than you'd think). Leaving a few minutes early and biking to the train station is something I can manage, no matter how busy I am.  I should know in a couple of months if my husband's fitness is really genetic or if it's a result of his German lifestyle.  I'll keep you posted.


Sunday, May 3, 2015

Value conflicts and Exceptionalism

One of the problems with writing about Germany is how to express value conflicts in a respectful manner.  How do I talk about another culture without delving into stereotypes or being offensive?  It's a lot harder than you would think.

I really started thinking about this one day when I talking about how I perceived a lot of people in Brandenburg to be hostile to foreigners with a couple of German friends.  Usually when I talk about this kind of thing with expats everybody has a couple of stories of terrible customer service or rudeness and it's not a big deal.  But my German friends surprised me by expressing embarrassment and condemnation.   At first I was puzzled but then I realized that in the same way I get embarrassed for particularly obnoxious American tourists so are why many Germans are embarrassed by xenophobia in their country. And then I started to worry if Germans ever did read my blog, would they find it to be offensive?  Have I fairly written about my experiences? 

Despite being a fairly homogeneous country Germany is still very regional when it comes to much of it's culture, language (darn you regional dialects!), attitudes and general friendliness.  Even within regions there is a high level of diversity.  When we lived in Malente I had some of my positive experiences with strangers going out of their way to offer help.  Still we also had to deal with neighbors who made it clear they weren't happy to be sharing an building with an American.  And herein lies the problem with stereotypes, they are too narrow to accurately define the parameters of reality.    

Making things even more complicated is the problem with cultural exceptionalism, i.e. the belief that one culture or nationality is somehow superior and singular, which is something that can complicate the way one sees a situation.  American expats could be divided into two categories: those who believe in European exceptionalism and those who believe in American exceptionalism with the lines probably becoming more blurred the longer one resides in Germany. Exceptionalism tends to exasperate me because I hate the ranking of places based on mostly arbitrary criteria as well as the European/American cultural hegemony that dominates media. 

Understanding perspective is key to understanding experience.  My interactions are filtered through a process of self-referencing the body of knowledge and experience I have accrued as a thirty-something, somewhat educated, white, middle class American.  If you changed my nationality, my gender, my age or my socioeconomic status then you'd change the way I experience a situation.  This is probably why expats sometimes like to hang out with other expats.  It's always nice to talk  to someone experiencing reality from a similar perspective.

So if you landed on this blog by searching for the answer 'Do American think they are better.' (hey Russia) the answer would be yes, some of them do but some of them don't but stereotypes are a super limited way of viewing the world.