Use Your Body and Your Brain Will Thank You

We talk a lot on this blog about abstractions — theories of urban development, economic hypotheses, planning paradigms. But in the end, it all has to play out in the real world. And the real world of transportation is about one simple thing: moving your body from one place to another place.

So today we’re going to look at some of the things people on the Streetsblog Network have been thinking about bodies — how we use them to get around, and the price we pay when we trade our own power for the power of an internal combustion engine in our own personal automobile.

First, from Carfree With Kids, a recent post entitled "On (Not) Using My Body." The blog’s author, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gets around by transit and by bike and has just had a baby. She wants to get back in shape, and it’s made her think about the usefulness of her body:

2120171275_2ae4d90329.jpgStress reduction in action. Photo by richardmasoner via Flickr.

Back when we were hunters, gatherers, or farmers, we didn’t have time to obsess over our bodies. We just used them. I’m guessing neither anorexia nor excessive weight were big problems. Other than having recently grown a pretty fabulous baby, my body isn’t doing anything for me right now. I’m not using it for work; I’m not using it for recreation; and I’m not using it much for transportation (though I do still walk some), and those cheap calories are not helping. I think the way for me to feel more satisfied with my post-pregnancy body isn’t to diet or to "exercise," but to start using my body in ways that feel productive.

Making good use of your body isn’t just about burning calories. A recent post on the blog Brain Rules talks about the role that exercise can play in reducing harmful levels of cortisol, a hormone the body produces when it’s under stress that can actually damage brain cells over time. As the piece explains, we’re simply not wired for the long-term threats we face in modern life, like economic uncertainty. We’re set up, hormonally, to face quick challenges from predators:

The brain is well-adapted for solving stress-related problems that are short-term in duration. The saber-toothed tiger either ate you or you ran away from it, but the whole thing was over in less than five minutes.

Great for a jungle. Lousy for Wall Street. A recession doesn’t last for five minutes. Neither does a bad marriage, or a bad job. When you try to push a system that was adapted only for solving short-term problems into solving long-term ones, the system first becomes over-extended, then it becomes overwhelmed.

The good news is that one of the best ways to fight this kind of stress, and the toll it takes, is to exercise. That might explain why I pretty much always feel more relaxed after riding my bike, even if I have to contend with nasty city traffic along the way. Exercise doesn’t have to mean going to the gym. Using your body as a tool — as a means of transportation — can be just as effective. And, as frequent Streetsblog commenter Larry Littlefield has discovered, a lot more fun. (H/T to @danlatorre for the brain research links.)

Streetsblog Network member blog Boston Biker has a post today that highlights another benefit of moving your body around without the aid of an automobile. In it, he addresses the driver of a car, explaining how being on a bike makes you more aware of your surroundings:

Did you know that if you are going down Cambridge Street towards the
Longfellow Bridge, that if you wait patiently at the first two red
lights, you can then make every other light if you simply go the
correct speed? Did you know that most of the lights in Cambridge turn
green exactly three seconds after the walk guy pops up? Did you know
that it takes almost as long to “lane hop” (walk out onto the dividing
median and then wait for traffic to clear on the other side) Com Ave in
Allston as it does to simply wait for the light to turn green?

I know
these things, because in a very real way knowing these things helps
keep me alive. If you drive a car, you probably don’t know these
things. Your world is totally different than mine. You are stuck in a
little metal box, your vision is obscured, you are low to the ground,
your vision is limited by the cars in front of you, behind you is
filled with blind spots, your ears can’t hear past the sound dampening,
your nose smells only what is inside your car…I simply have more senses
on the job, and more inputs for those sense. Trust me, I know what I am

You’ve got a body. Trust it. Get out there and make it work.