Physical inactivity is killing us, but how do we move more when our lifestyle is so sedentary?
Earlier this month I attended the ESSA (Exercise and Sports Science Australia) and SDA (Sports Dietitians Australia) conference in Adelaide and sat through three days of practical applications for the latest research in exercise and sports science. The first keynote speaker, Dr Mike Joyner, kicked off the conference with an overview of the inactivity epidemic. Ironically, we all sat motionless through his session.
Many of us may know that physical inactivity isn’t good for our waistline, yet few would realise it is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. When we talk about physical activity, it isn’t just about how much exercise we do. It’s about all movement – the incidental, transportation-related and occupational physical activity, as well as the exercise. According to Joyner, the inactivity epidemic has occurred as a result of the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, and then to industry. When you look at adults in Amish farming communities, on average Amish men take more than 18,000 steps a day and Amish women average more than 14,000 steps daily. This is almost twice as many as the average Australian who takes just 7400 steps each day.
In any given week, Amish men report partaking in 10 hours of vigorous intensity physical activity, almost 43 hours of moderate intensity physical activity, and 12 hours of walking. Amish women report just over 3 hours of vigorous physical activity, 39 hours of moderate intensity physical activity and just under 6 hours of walking each week. Today, 57 percent of Australians do less than 2.5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity each week and occupational physical activity has declined by 600kJ per day since 1960. According to Joyner, sitting all day long erases the healthy benefits of any exercise we do.
These scary stats mean we can no longer sit there and do nothing. We need to get more active and Joyner recommends incorporating these strategies:
1. Introduce adult playgrounds: Places like the Bronx in NY, LA in California and Leichhardt in Sydney have introduced outdoor adult playgrounds (or gyms) in a bid to get people off the couch. While most of us dread going to the gym, outdoor adult playgrounds make physical activity fun, easy and accessible. Adult playgrounds are relatively cheap to install, are free for the community and are great for social interaction.
2. Change your microenvironment: Change your environment at work and home to promote movement. Instead of sitting down at your desk all day swap to a stand-up desk or a treadmill desk. You could also walk or ride all or part of the way to and from work and replace sit down meetings for walking meetings. At home, stretch while watching the television or head out for a walk after dinner so you don’t waste the evening watching television.
3. Introduce financial incentives: Financial incentives to reward people who look after their health can be provided by workplaces and health funds. For instance, higher premiums could be introduced for people with chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart disease as well as for those who smoke. Following counselling and subsequent positive changes in risk factors such as a reduction in cholesterol levels, blood glucose levels or the cessation of smoking, rebates could then be paid to people who initially paid the higher premiums.
4. Apply sin taxes: A month after cigarettes were taxed, there was a 15-30 percent reduction in emergency admissions for acute cardiovascular events. With sugar and fat being linked to the obesity epidemic (as part of an excessive kilojoule intake), a question mark remains over whether a tax should apply to food rich in these sinful nutrients.
5. Reduce screen time: With so much of our time spent sedentary in front of either the computer, smartphone, tablet or television, it makes sense to reduce screen time. Logging current screen time versus active time can provide an insight into just how sedentary you are. Ideally, you should have no more than two hours of recreational screen time a day (outside of work or school). When you do spend time in front of a screen, do something active such as stretches or lifting weights. Turn off the television during meal times and make an effort to talk to other family members.
6. Education: An oldie but a goodie…we can start to education people about the benefits of physical activity. We’re talking more than just weight loss here too. The benefits of being more active are huge – everything from improved sleep and better heart health through to reduced risk of chronic disease and improvements strength and flexibility. By promoting all the amazing benefits of being physical active, hopefully we’ll all start to sit less and move more.
7. Social contagion: People who are already active need to start to use the science of nudging to get others active with them. We know from research that the physical activity levels of our friends influence our own physical activity level. To boost activity levels at a community level, active people need to convince their friends to get more active and then their friends need to convince their friends to move. Physical activity is contagious.
8. Consider medicalising things: With physical activity now rivalling smoking as a cause of premature death, Joyner believes physical inactivity should become an official medical diagnosis. He believes this would raise awareness of the problem, improve physician-training related to exercise and maybe stimulate organisations that pay for medical care to do more. “It might also lead to more widespread support of supervised progressive training or “reconditioning” programs and related public health measures”, says Joyner. However, Joyner also acknowledges that medicalising physical inactivity would be hard to do, as it raises questions about the health and fitness of physicians and whether appropriate referral sources really exist.
How do you think we can get people to be more physical active?