December 13, 2013

Health can't be measured by a bathroom scale

About eight weeks ago I sprained my MCL, and I haven't been able to play soccer since. And ever since summer, I've skipped my early morning gym time, choosing instead to work on the third novel in my Semper - Forsada - To-be-titled series.

This means I haven't seriously exercised in a long, long time. But I know I'm still in great shape because the bathroom scale says I've only gained a pound or two in all those months. Right?

Actually, that's a pretty stupid conclusion. It would be like saying the economy is strong because the stock market is high.

Truth is, I am still reasonably fit, and if I only look at one indicator (the bathroom scale), then I think things are going great. But to judge my real health, I have to look at many other indicators and all the things that go into health--diet, activity, stress, etc. Same thing with the health of any complex system. I've blogged about this in my day job. You can't take one indicator, as important as it may be, and understand the full health of a complex system like a human body, a workforce, an educational system, a government, or an economy.

In the USA, we have a addiction to primary indicators. By that I mean we obsess over the one magical number we can use to grade everyone and everything. We see it in our obsession with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which leads every business news report but really doesn't tell us very much about the health of the economy overall. We see it in standardized test scores like the SAT, which determines so much about a student's college admission but really doesn't test education or ability; it only grades whether the child has the prepared to take the SAT. We see it in consumption, where price alone drives so many of our purchases.

Take, for example, the omnipresent fast food "meal deal." Most places offer options to upsize your meal, and the price delta is minuscule compared to the base price. Pay $6 for the regular, $6.70 for the medium, or $7.15 for the large. Or, "add chips and a drink" for just two bucks. Notice they call it a "meal," not "the healthy addition."

The American psyche looks at that and quickly calculates that the price per increase is negligible compared to the initial buy-in. Virtually no thought is given to how hungry the person is; the only indicator that matters is price. So naturally, most people size up. Best decision? Probably not, even though it might seem to make economic sense to get a lot more of something for just a little extra spent.

Because that makes it really hard to keep the bathroom scale steady.

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