A new regime to lose the fat

4th November 2005 at 00:00
In the United States last week Wal-Mart, parent company of Asda, was leaked as hatching a diabolically cunning scheme. It is, the reports said, trying to dissuade fat employees from applying to the chain by ensuring that every job contains some physical aspects. For example, "all cashiers to do some trolley stacking".

There was an implication that employers are fed up with handing out sick pay for the myriad ailments which we are always being told will fell the obese. The suggestion is that this is a mere commercial decision, and will prevent anyone large from applying to the store.

But the more I thought about the idea, the more strangely attractive it was. It may well backfire on the firm, with increasingly long (and wide) queues forming as those who feel the need for a bit more exercise in their life apply to work for Wal-Mart instead of any other supermarket.

Think about it. Rather than being stuck for eight hours on a till, sitting on your ever-spreading bum, swiping barcodes and pushing the conveyor-belt control, life would become varied. From time to time you would be made to stand up, walk around, put stuff on shelves or push trolleys into lines of other trolleys (which is not, if truth be told, all that strenuous. Indeed your impressive bulk might come in handy for the bit where you lean on the line of 40 trolleys and crash them into the parking pen. Ker-ching!) It could be tremendous fun. Get the body moving, blood circulating, see new views, avoid the damn customers for an hour, hone your trolley-manoeuvring skills with pride, escape the neon flicker and get a bit of fresh car-park air in your lungs. It would be a more-than-welcome respite from watching an endless procession of stressed shoppers, ready-meals and bagged salads rolling past your checkout.

I couldn't think what it reminded me of, and why the pleasure seemed so vivid and immediately imaginable. Then I remembered. School! It brought back those wonderful moments back at the dear old convent when a lesson got cut short and volunteers were hiked out of class because it was nearly Christmas, or Easter, or summer fete time, and therefore the muscle-power of the upper-fifth was temporarily required to put out chairs in the hall or carry trestle tables for the bazaar.

Sometimes it was even better because prize day or the school play or some such beanfeast was looming, and we had to build a massive, wobbly, probably lethal arena of wooden steps and benches to accommodate the whole school in an impossibly small hall.

I went back to Tunbridge Wells a while ago and was thrilled to see that the hollow wooden step things are still there, battered but unbowed, still from time to time accommodating rows of small brown-skirted backsides. No doubt the new generation of little girls is practising for pop-concert life by learning how to sit with other people's knees sticking into the back of your neck.

But it was the moving, the setting up that was the real fun. Oh, the crashing and the banging, the scraping and bustling, the heaving and giggling and grunting, the cacophony of metal chair-frames being stacked or unstacked!

Oh, the sheer physical relief of hauling and pushing and playing at removal-men, rather than preparing for O-level stress by flattening out a pleated skirt on a hard chair with your tired back bent over papers and ring-binders full of annoying stuff about the lower intestine and the cross-section of a volcano.

It was, in a curious way, better than games. Games involved losing, and being shouted at by hearty people and given mysterious rebukes such as "Sticks!", and having dangerously hard hockey balls flying past your ear.

Shoving furniture around was co-operative and larky, and no one got school-colours medals for it or picked you last for their team.

Sedentary workers, unless they are actually disabled rather than just stout, always love a bit of manual labour. Shifting filing cabinets and rolling chairs around is welcome relief from hunched brain-work. Why wait for gym-time or official sport to get your circulation going? Why not acknowledge your animal, hunter-gatherer, fight-and-flight instincts as well as your higher centres?

I reckon Wal-Mart is on the right track here. Perhaps all teachers should have a bit of gardening or DIY written into their contracts, and all children be expected to lend a hand with mortar and trowel for half an hour a day to build the new classroom block. Everyone would end up much more cheerful. What was that? Dignity? Health and safety regulations? Oh, come on! What's so healthy, or safe, or dignified, about sitting down for hours on end peering at paper?

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