Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gezondheid en Hardlopen (Health and Running) Nederlands-style

one pack of many early-morning cyclists along the kanaaldijk

a lone rider on the kanaaldijk

Today I ran sixteen miles from Amsterdam to Weesp and back, along the polder that keeps the river Ij and the sea from putting Amsterdam underwater ( The run was beautiful--it was 55 degrees (Fahrenheit), it had rained the night before, and so the air was  pleasantly cool, and the sun broke through the typische Nederland (typical Dutch) clouds that roll in off the North Sea. The two-hour-forty-minute run gave me plenty of time to think about this blog, and appropriately, I listened to a This American Life podcast on the American right-of-passage that is prom, followed by an episode of Savage Love. Correspondingly, today's blog is mostly musings on how the Dutch provide a model for healthy, daily exercise (bike everywhere!), as well as a model for healthcare and health education.

Before those musings however, I would like to share the best waffle I ever ate, courtesy of Ghent, Belgium. That beautiful, buttery, syrupy goodness in which I indulged Saturday--and the Dutch biertjes on Friday--provided good carb-heavy fuel for today's sixteen miles!
Lekkerste waffel. Groentenmarkt, Gent, Belgie

Maarten, Kate, me enjoying biertjes, Utrecht
I began my run at 8:15 a.m., and was constantly passed by packs of cyclists in spiffy lycra get-ups. Clearly the hard-core bikers get out early on the weekend, before the runners--who I saw on my way back, after 10 a.m. The Dutch bike everywhere on commuter bikes, which no doubt help keep most of them fairly lean, despite the preponderance of such delectables as stroopwafels, all kinds of lekker cheese (Gouda? Edam? Dutch cities), and my other favorite indulgence (besides wafels), kaassouffle.

In addition to a healthy--and environmentally friendly--national mode of transportation, the Netherlands provides a model for how we could better educate our prom-going and sexually-ignorant youths in the US, and thus help keep STI and unwanted pregnancy rates down. Wikipedia on sex ed demonstrates the stark contrasts between Dutch approaches to sex education and US approaches. The Netherlands has one of the lowest rates of teen pregnancies in the world, while the US has the HIGHEST rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world.

In the Netherlands, teenagers get sex ed not as an opt-in or out elective, but as part of their biology class (makes sense, right?), which of course is government subsidized. They learn about contraception, as well as all-important communication and negotiation skills. This open dialogic approach is reinforced by the Dutch  healthcare system, which guarantees confidentiality and a non-judgmental approach to care, in addition to subsidized birth control (did you know some US insurance policies provide for viagra prescriptions but NOT birth control?!). Even the Wall Street Journal article concedes the Dutch healthcare system is a viable model for government-subsidized healthcare. Yet apparently this data somehow hasn't convinced every American citizen, and attempts to repeal Obama's healthcare reform--itself not a panacea--has been, along with defunding Planned Parenthood, a major goal of many on the right. Sadly, it is outside of the public system, at places like Planned Parenthood where kids in the US learn how to be responsible about their health and bodies.

Hmmm, could this poor record in health education in the US also have some effect on the extreme rate of obesity in the US? On the sixteen-miler this morning, I saw so many people out enjoying the fietspad (bike path) along the dike on bikes, on foot, or on rollerblades. The Center for Disease Control shows nine states that have over 30% of its population obese--and the majority of states are over 25% obese populated. Balanced health needs to become an important part of US culture, not something that can be purchased from a pill, diet fad, or by copying celebrity disordered eating and extreme exercise. We need to make daily exercise and open communication about biology--including sex and evolution--a priority here for everyone, one that is reinforced by the institutions of media and government.

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