‘It’ could be a threat to your health


AUBURN, Ala. – “It” is being ballyhooed as the greatest invention since the Internet.

“It” has the potential to control congestion and pollution, increase productivity, make cities more livable, and get everyone from here to anywhere in half the time, and with no walking,

Health and fitness experts are afraid “It” could also be the worst threat to cardiovascular health since the greasy spoon.

“It” is the Segway Human Transporter, developed by famed inventor Dean Kamen at a cost of more than $100 million dollars, unveiled with much fanfare Dec. 3 on “Good Morning America.”

Short distances. “In the past,” Kamen said, “transportation technology has has involved going long distances faster. The human transporter addresses the problem of moving people and products relatively short distances more efficiently, from place to place rather than from town to town.”

Instead of driving to work in a 4,000-pound, air-polluting vehicle every morning, he said, suburban commuters will have the option of using the 65-pound scooter, which can travel as fast as 17 miles per hour.

In fact, he sees the battery-powered scooter as having the potential of making driving and walking obsolete. A distance that once took a good half hour to walk by foot can now be completed in a fraction of the time, less than 10 minutes, using the transporter.

That’s the problem. And that, said Bob Keith, nutritionist at Alabama Cooperative Extension, is precisely what concerns him.

Putting everyone on a scooter might have the advantage of making our lives less hectic and our air much cleaner, he said, but this new gadget may also exact a huge cost in terms of physical health.

“For the most part, Americans are more unfit than ever before,” Keith said. “And I’m afraid that if this new device catches on and more and more people use it as a substitute for walking, we’re going to be worse off than ever.”

He cited the research findings that have consistently shown that rising levels of heart disease and diabetes are directly linked to obesity, which, in turn, is associated with a sedentary lifestyle.

And that osteoporosis, a crippling disease associated with reduced bone mass and especially associated with older women, also is linked with reduced physical activity.

Too much inactivity. Within the last 20 years, Keith said, levels of inactivity among Americans have spiked – a factor he attributes to the explosion of cable television, video games and desktop computers.

“With all this entertainment at their fingertips, many people just don’t have a very big incentive to be physically active,” he says, “and I’m afraid this scooter will only make things worse.”

Inventor Kamen said the human transporter, which takes the same space as a pedestrian and emulates human balance, will allow people within a city to go farther, move more quickly, and increase the amount they can carry anywhere they currently walk.

Self-balancing. The breakthrough technology in the transporter is the “dynamic stabilization” which uses gyroscopes and tilt sensors to self-balance the scooter with the user’s center of gravity.

There is no engine, throttle, gearshift, or steering wheel. Just computers and a battery. And it’s quiet, designed to emit a barely audible hum.

The company will produce three models – an all-terrain transporter; a heavy duty business model designed to transport up to 75 pounds of cargo; and an urban transporter ideal for densely populated areas both indoors and outdoors.

Already selling. The U.S. Postal Service, General Electric and the National Park Service will be among the first customers, spending about $8,000 a piece on 80-pound heavy duty models.

The city of Atlanta also is purchasing several dozen scooters for city employees on an experimental basis to determine how much the devices help cut down on fuel emissions and traffic congestion.

Kamen hopes to turn out a 65-pound, $3,000 consumer model sometime in late 2002.

Some experts who gained sneak previews of the scooter before its debut on “Good Morning America” believe the device will have as big an impact as the personal computer and the Internet.

Kamen believes the machine’s convenience will be too good to resist.

“All I can say,” said nutritionist Keith, “is that if we all start using this new device routinely, we had better be finding some way to make up for the loss of physical exercise that will accompany it

“Otherwise, we’re going to be in really bad shape – worse than we are now.”

* * *

The lunch bunch factor

The effect the Segway Human Transporter could have on activity levels, said nutritionist Bob Keith, of Alabama Cooperative Extension, can be illustrated as an example by the lunch factor.

“In a large city,” he said, “it isn’t uncommon for someone in an office building to walk, say, five blocks to a local restaurant to eat a 1,000-calorie meal.

“With a scooter what took 15 or 20 minutes of fast-paced walking can be completed with virtually no physical exertion in only a fraction of the time, allowing the person more time to sit and possibly eat more.”

“Even worse, they will not be burning even a part of those calories on the way back to the office.”

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