Making it count

Sometimes the numbers don't add up to much of anything, Liz Breslin writes.

Mostly I love numbers and equations. They're well balanced, they transcend language and they form understandable (if sometimes complex) relationships.

But there are times when things just don't add up. And when numbers shouldn't be the base of what's at play. To pick an example that's constantly rammed down our media throats: exercise for 30 minutes a day.

Really? Like I can sit at my desk for the other 23.5 hours? Like moving isn't a mindset? I get it that the number 30 is a guideline, but still, on its own it is a meaningless half-hour tick.

What happens if I only jog for 29 minutes and 12 seconds? Is my lifestyle suddenly in jeopardy? Should I start the clock every time I pretend-sword-fight my son (a frequent and breath-tussling occurrence)? Does gardening count? What if I ski for five hours one day? Can I sit on the sofa for the rest of the week?

These are questions that I don't regularly ask myself - being too busy enjoying whatever I am doing to count. The problem with segmenting stuff like that is that it makes it something separate, alien or difficult.

It's the same with eating five a day, which we are led to believe will bring us health and goodness. Or should I say five-plus a day, which is the Kiwi campaign, presumably to remind us not to limit ourselves to five if we feel like eating extra. They could just say eight. Or whatever.

But the maths goes like this: three palm-sized vege servings plus two palm-sized fruit servings equals better health. And wouldn't it be good if that mathematics existed in a vacuum and could be easily applied? I couldn't begin to form the real-life equation of actual budget (perceived cost plus perceived time) over opportunity and cunning commercial placement of chippies. Phew.

Anyway, one of the suggestions on the 5+ website is to marinade beef with kiwifruit, which reminds me of what I've been told of the Scottish approach to five a day. Yes, coming from the same Scots who have taken their cuisine from porridge drawers to deep fried Mars Bars: this five-a-day approach is probably equally dietarily beneficial as the latter (and let it be known they are called the Scottish five-a-day rules just because one Scottish person I know says so. Not five. Not five plus. Certainly not a nation).

Those attending the epic Jaffa race in Dunedin will be stoked to know that, under the Scottish five-a-day rules, Jaffas are orange-flavoured and therefore count as one of your five. If you also consume pineapple lumps, that is portion two. Lemonade has lemons and if you mix it with vodka, there are potatoes involved as well. You can see how you'll need that plus-sign for five-a-day the Scottish way. Wine. It has grapes. Chocolate raisins, yoghurt raisins, all those compound-covered fruits in the supermarket bins. Fruit string things. They all count if you're only counting.

Yes, I know. It's a ludicrous way to go about health and happiness. And yes, I know it's a just another guideline and some of us need those as reminders. And yet the background data from the five-plus people shows that us in the South Island aren't doing that badly when it comes to the fruit and veg: most of us feel confident in preparing it and more than three quarters of us choose it as a snack.

And how many of us do that because we think that we ought? Do we need to tie ourselves to numerical reminders? Is it the stick or the carrot that spurs us to action? It's not like you can make attitude an equation.

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